Book Review: Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale

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August 8, 2012 by magpiemenina

I recently finished a leisurely reading of Ian Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006). In keeping with the “Renaissance man [or woman]” approach to life we try to cultivate, I thought I’d tell you about it! We can consider this the first of many book reviews to come.

Why I read this book:

I studied anthropology in undergrad, with a concentration in archaeology. I’ve always been interested in how people live past and present. Ian Hodder is a renowned archaeologist, and Çatalhöyük is a renowned archaeological site in modern-day Turkey. Çatalhöyük was, in a nutshell, a long-duration Neolithic town characterized by fairly early sedentism and domestication, under-floor burial, and elaborate ritual paintings, figurines, etc.

In fact, Çatalhöyük appeared in a great number of coffee-table books I perused as a child. (My parents have an impressive array of books, and my father is very interested in history and archaeology. In fact, this book is his. I got it for him for Christmas – more than a little so I could read it. You know how that goes with gifts…) This seemed like a great opportunity to learn more about the site.

Summary:

Hodder discusses the finds from his tenure as site director and presents his analysis of them. He also discusses the finds in conjunction with those of James Mellaart, who was the site director in the 1960s when the site was last excavated. Hodder draws on the work of other ethnologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists to make sensitive claims about the lives and society of those who lived at Çatalhöyük. (These would be considered third-level inferences about the lives of people in the past,* which many archaeologists are very cautious in making. Hodder provides a great deal of evidence for each of his conclusions.)

Hodder concludes that Çatalhöyük appeared as the entanglement of religious and social gatherings with domestication (the need to feed people at these gatherings) and increased sedentism (as tending domesticated plants began to demand more attention) snowballed to create a settled community in which social controls were reinforced through repetitive actions and rituals within households. From the archaeological evidence, Hodder suggests that age, not gender, was the key division in society, and that ancestral links to houses accounted for much of the ritual, including the burials of certain individuals under platforms in the houses. He also argues that social power came from controlled knowledge. Some people had more social power and influence than others because they knew of the locations of burials, wall-paintings that had been covered over, and other secreted materials, which they could then reveal, reinforcing their connection to the spiritual world.

One other key argument Hodder makes reflects the growing importance of materiality in the Neolithic world. Control over the material goods and their location signified control over the symbolism and spiritual power linked to those goods. Increased materiality, however, also provided a means of greater individual definition and a means of subtle reaction against social norms, as seen in the intentional dirtying of “clean” floors.

Hodder draws some highly intriguing conclusions with substantial evidence to support them. It was certainly an enjoyable read, especially because of his reconstructions of what life may have been like, and his in-depth discussion of the archaeological finds. It also provides a great overview of archaeological methodology for anyone interested in learning how fieldwork is conducted.

*Bradley J. Parker, “Setting the Stage for a More Productive Ethnoarchaeology.” In ICAANE: Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East.  Vol. 1. Edited by Paolo Matthiae and Licia Romano. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz GmbH & Co., 2010.

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