In a recent article in Scientific American (January 2004), "Women and Men at Çatalhöyük," archaeologist Ian Hodder presents "fresh evidence of the relative power of the sexes" in Anatolia 9000 years ago. Although his research team examined every shred of evidence looking for differences in power or status between the sexes, they found a peaceful, non-hierarchical society in which sex was relatively unimportant in assigning social roles for 1200 years. This is big news within a discipline that too often assumes sexual asymmetry and warfare to be a fact of life in human societies.
In Hodder's view, this new discovery presents a more complicated picture than the "simplistic" scenario presented by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas who "forcefully argued for an early phase of matriarchal society" as well as belief in a "mother goddess." Hodder defines matriarchy as "women were the leaders, descent was through the female line, and inheritance passed from mother to daughters."
Although he states that cultural anthropology provides no substantial claims for true matriarchies, matrilineal cultures are actually well known in anthropology. The rub comes with questions of female power and divinity.
Gimbutas repeatedly rejected the term matriarchy because it usually implies rule by women as the mirror image of patriarchy. Decades ago she described the earliest farming cultures of Europe, as well as Çatalhöyük, as balanced, egalitarian cultures in which the sexes were "more or less on equal footing."
Hodder's team is actually confirming Gimbutas' statement instead of proving her wrong. People who have seen row after row of female sculptures from Çatalhöyük at the archaeological museum in Ankara may be amazed by Hodder's statement that "much of the art is very masculine." Hodder uses as evidence the few painted scenes of tiny males with enormous bulls, evidence of feasting, and bull heads mounted within shrines.
When searching for the symbolic significance of the plentiful bucrania, it's important to keep in mind that bulls are always more expendable than cows and would have been butchered and consumed more frequently. Hodder ignores the dozen or so sculptures mounted on walls with outspread legs and upraised arms found by James Mellaart in similar excavation levels.
Some of these figures have clearly marked breasts, are seemingly pregnant or poised above bucrania as though giving birth to animal life. In Gimbutas' view, such female images functioned as visual metaphors expressing sacred concepts. Both she and James Mellaart did not hesitate to use the term "goddess."
I commend Ian Hodder for recognizing a link between the large clay statuette of a seated, pregnant woman flanked by female leopards found in a grain bin (p. 78) and the figurine with the seed in her body (p. 82).
These sculptures illustrate an enduring association between grain and the life-giving powers of women reflected in Neolithic art for thousands of years. Hodder apparently rejects a sacred association, implied by Mellaart's and Gimbutas' references to "goddess," in favor of a more secular representation of "the symbolic importance of women" and "sympathetic magic."
It is interesting to note that clay tablets from Sumer, c. 2000 BC, describe the goddess Inanna pouring forth grain from her womb. Perhaps, as the excavations continue into the upper levels of Çatalhöyük, the sacred dimension rendered in female forms will be recognized as an obvious feature of this balanced, egalitarian society.