Window on Çatalhöyük: Public Access to a Scientific Work-in-Progress

By Phyllis Mauch Messenger, Director

Center for Anthropology and Cultural Heritage Education (CACHE)

Hamline University, St. Paul, MN

Society for American Archaeology Annual Meeting

Thurs. April 6, 2000, Philadelphia

In Sponsored Symposium:

Public Archaeology: International Perspectives, Debate, and Critique

Symposium sponsored by the Public Education Committee: Organizers Carol McDavid (Cambridge U), J. McDavid,  Patrice Jeppson (Center for Arch/Baltimore County Public Schools and U of PA), J. Carman, Linda Derry (Alabama Historical Commission)



The ongoing research project at Çatalhöyük, a 9,000 year-old Neolithic site in Turkey, emphasizes the multi-vocal, self-reflexive approaches of an international team of researchers. This paper examines the development of  public programs for the Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Window on Çatalhöyük” as access for diverse public audiences to archaeology as a scientific work-in-progress, rather than as a completed investigation. This project focuses on providing museum visitors, web users, and school audiences with a view of archaeology as a dynamic and social process of constructing knowledge, and with an understanding of the tools and perspectives on which that process depends.

Background of site

Çatalhöyük, in Central Anatolia, is one of 100 World Heritage sites designated by the United Nations. It consists of two occupational debris mounds, with the older mound being primarily of the Early Neolithic age dating to as early as 9,000 years ago in excavated areas, and possibly older in unexplored areas at the base of the mound.

Çatalhöyük was first excavated in the early 1960s by British archaeologist James Mellaart, whose work revealed over 150 dwellings and rooms with intact structures of mud brick, plaster, and wood, many decorated with murals, plaster reliefs, and sculpture. The site quickly received international recognition as fundamental to our understanding of early farming, the formation of complex societies, and the role of women in early mythologies and societies. But because technology to conserve the fragile murals did not exist at the time, most of the exposed paintings were lost, and the site was closed in 1965 until adequate preservation methods could be developed. For two decades, our understanding of what Mellaart characterized as a large “neolithic city” was derived largely from the artistic renderings of his interpretations of murals and rooms.

In 1993, Ian Hodder of Cambridge University assembled an international team of scientists and conservators to reopen the site. The multiyear Çatalhöyük Research Project has three primary goals:


The Science Museum of Minnesota has been involved in the Çatalhöyük Research Project since 1993, focusing on the development of public programs. A paper by Orrin Shane and Mine Kücük of the Science Museum, “Melon Festivals, Goddess Tours, and the Global Village: Presenting Catal Hoyuk to the 21st Century,” scheduled for tomorrow at 11 a.m. in the session, “Archaeology in the Public Eye, will discuss the full range of public programs related to Çatalhöyük, including development of an on-site museum and exhibit.

This paper focuses on two phases of the Science Museum’s off-site interpretive programming for Çatalhöyük, which is being developed and tested at the Museum in St. Paul. The first phase was Çatalhöyük On-Line, an NEH funded web site development project, carried out in 1998-99. The second, and current phase is Window on Çatalhöyük, a five-year NSF funded  project begun in 1998. This phase includes major updates of the web site, development of a school residency program, and development and testing of an interactive exhibit with activity benches, which can serve as the basis for an international traveling exhibit. My role as archaeology education consultant to the project began with the 1996 NEH grant-writing phase.

Çatalhöyük On-Line

A primary goal of the initial web site development project was to “engage middle school and high school teachers and students in the most current thinking by some of the world’s leading scholars concerning the origins and early development of what has come to be called western civilization” (1996 SMM NEH proposal, p. 1)  by creating an interface between university level scholarship and precollegiate learning about early civilizations.

In addition to presenting the research approaches of the Çatalhöyük team, the SMM’s project built on principles of the innovative, inquiry-based resources for the Internet developed by the Museum’s Learning Technologies staff as part of the Science Learning Network and other on-line projects. The Science Museum’s approach to educational web site development is built on the following principles:

An interdisciplinary project team was assembled, including Science Museum of Minnesota archaeologists and exhibit and web site developers, consultants in archaeology education and media, and an advisory group of classroom teachers.


Through a series of discussions and review of materials, we determined that Çatalhöyük On-line would focus on the development of five big questions or mysteries to draw in students:

Each of these questions could be investigated by students, teachers, and others through a discovery process guided by the written and spoken words of Çatalhöyük researchers, punctuated by side trips to data bases, video site tours, and off-line activities designed for classes. The teacher advisory group reviewed several phases of web site design and engaged their classes in testing of on-line and off-line classroom activities.

In 1998-99 a graduate continuing studies class, “ Archaeology Online: From Our Town to the Oldest City,” was developed through Hamline University’s Graduate School of Education. This provided an additional perspective on the pilot phase of the “Mysteries of Çatalhöyük” web site. Overall all teachers who reviewed the site were excited by the possibilities of using it in their classrooms, and in future phases, of using it in conjunction with museum visits and school residencies or participation in local archaeological research. Teachers emphasized that they need access to basic background information on archaeology, either at this site or through links or classes. They especially seek clear pictures that can be printed at a readable size, and solid information that they can use in the classroom, including directions for off-line activities. They and their students seek authentic experiences, not busy work; they can tell the difference

Window on Çatalhöyük:

As web site development and testing proceeded, a second phase of the project received NSF funding to begin in late 1998. This phase would support development of a 3,500 square foot exhibit, Window on Çatalhöyük, an exhibit cookbook of sorts for archaeology interactives developed for the exhibit, several updates of the web site which would parallel the exhibit, and a suite of related classroom activities that make use of products developed for the exhibit and the web site. Development of this phase continues, with an exhibit scheduled to open in the Museum’s new St. Paul riverfront home in July 2001 and a web site update scheduled for this spring.

Window on Çatalhöyük project goals are to:

  1. Present the Çatalhöyük Research Project as a work in progress revealing science as a set of dynamic and social processes for constructing and reconstructing knowledge.
  2. Give audiences a deeper understanding of the tools and techniques of archaeology and how archaeologists work together.
  3. Interpret a complex and important site that promises to shed light on the beginnings of agriculture and the rise of urban complexity.
  4. Create and disseminate interactive exhibit components devoted to the formation processes of archaeological evidence and contemporary archaeological field and laboratory techniques.
  5. And prototype, evaluate and refine components for a future Science Museum of Minnesota international touring exhibit.

The Window on Çatalhöyük development team carried over from the on-line team, with the addition of exhibit designers, who effectively came on board after the new museum opened in December 1999. Each team member has an area of responsibility and carries out individual or collaborative projects, such as building a database of “video assets”–slides and video footage; or developing a draft lesson outline and activity or experiment on micromorphology for a middle school residency program. The team meets bi-weekly for brainstorm sessions, reports, and critiques of work in progress–for example, the database or the lesson plan. The team shares data, images, and drafts via an internal web site. Each field season, one or two teams go to Turkey to consult with the on-site research team, conduct interviews, and gather images and data that will be used to draw museum visitors into the research process.

To a degree, the Window on Çatalhöyük team tries to mirror the reflexive feedback loop of the Çatalhöyük research project itself, including the excavation, on-site lab analysis, and priority tours. We seek to reflect the interdependency of analysis and interpretation throughout the process, from research design and excavation through processing of all materials and presentation of findings. This is not a linear progression and we work diligently to create the experience of participation in a process, rather than the expectation that the “right answer”–or the “real interpretation” will be delivered at the end of the museum experience.

The museum visitor, whether physical or virtual, is entering the process in the fluid present, not at some fixed end-point. We are inviting them to be part of the process, to form a hypothesis, gather data, speculate, share evidence from experts with other specialties, analyze, interpret, gather more data, change perspectives, try out other interpretations, and so on. We hope they will go away from any single visit to the program with a greater understanding of Turkey and life in the Neolithic; of the small and great questions: “What did they have for dinner 9,000 years ago?” and “How did agriculture develop?”. But even more important, we hope they will have an understanding of the process of studying and interpreting the past, that our images of Çatalhöyük are constructed and fluid. We don’t and probably never will have the definitive answer. Because our reconstruction drawings, our complex answers to the straightforward questions, the patterns that emerge as our conclusions–all are based on many tiny decisions along the way and may change tomorrow based on the next set of decisions, data, and conversations.

Our job is to draw the visitor into the process and provide enough information and guidance along the way to make the experience meaningful for an ever changing group of “researchers” who come with wildly varied levels of interest and expertise. How do we grab their attention, convey the message that this exhibit is about process and multivocal interpretation, and engage them in that process and interpretation? That is the challenge in which we are currently engaged.

When we began the project, we had definite ideas about what we felt visitors should know about archaeology and Çatalhöyük. But we also knew there were hurdles that required a better understanding of our audiences’ interests and needs. After all, we were dealing with a site with an unpronouncable name half way around the world, consisting of mud-brick houses (no Maya pyramids here). And we were envisioning an exhibit with few artifacts, that would provide no answers or definitive site interpretation, and would likely call into question Mellaart’s mural and shrine reconstructions through which several generations of readers knew the site. Thus, an early stage of the Window project was the contracting for a concept planning study to gauge visitors’ interests and perceptions of Çatalhöyük. A series of focus groups including children, youth and adults, was convened for facilitated discussions which were videotaped and analyzed. A research report prepared by Jeff Hayward of People, Places and Design Research corroborated many of our assumptions, but also uncovered some surprises. Some of the findings were:

Regarding initial interest:

Regarding knowledge about archaeology and archaeologists:

Regarding exhibition planning issues:

Some challenges identified for creating public appeal:

The qualitative research method of the survey provided data about the kind of “peak experience” that museum visitors might expect. He concluded that there is an adult audience “who could be quite interested and impressed by the project’s open dialogue and characterization of science as social process,” and that their interests could be served with a type of experience different from the experience that families are likely to have.

Comments of an adult group included:

In viewing the Museum’s pilot web site, most groups expressed surprise at seeing evidence that scientists had differing interpretations (which some called “disagreeing”) on such issues as the use of the ubiquitous clay balls. One said, That’s interesting, that “they each had different thoughts, and they are still in the process of trying to figure out what it is. It might be interesting to find out how they came to their conclusions.”

So given the nature of the site, the research, and the public interpretation program, how do we envision Window on Çatalhöyük today? Like the web site, the exhibit will focus on mysteries, and the people and processes that are addressing the research questions that derive from the mysteries. Through photographs, videos, and other media, researchers at the site will serve as guides on the exhibit’s version of priority tours, asking intriguing questions, large and small, for which we do not necessarily have the answer. For example, what are there so many clay balls at the site?

Like visitors to the actual site, our museum and web visitors seek or expect varying degrees of immersion into the research process. Those arriving with the tourist visa mentality will skim the surface; others will come with a participatory mindset, a sort of virtual research visa, seeking to be integrated into the process. All will be drawn into understanding the site, its location, and some major components through maps and images that take us from space to the site and into Building 17, selected as the representative built environment to show scale and context, and to give a sense of physically being there. All visitors will have the opportunity to be a part of the process, posing questions and being exposed to different perspectives and strategies. Guided by researchers dialogue and observation of lab areas not unlike those on site, they will be prepared to leave without having been handed the “right answer” at the end?

Those with research visas (the willingness to engage in hands-on learning and experimentation), activity stations or benches, which are a hallmark of Science Museum of Minnesota exhibits and school programs, will introduce current research strategies and technologies as they are being applied to the archaeological questions at Çatalhöyük. For example, “Slices of Ancient Life,” a micromorphology activity will model how excavation and in situ data gathering and analysis of a thin section contributes to the larger question, “What is the life history of a house?” An orientation to the research strategy will explain the process, what evidence researchers gather in this way, when and why. A series of activities will show what a thin section is, how a researcher looks at it, and what can be identified, such as lentils or grasses. Participants learn to identify objects that match a sample thin section, then experiment through a data gathering activity of their own. This experience is then linked back into the larger research strategy, comparing how a micromorphologist’s findings might address the same questions that other researchers are looking at from a different angle and with a different data set.

A current challenge for us is presenting both individual research strategies and how their findings fit within the whole picture. We are developing ways of providing appropriate levels of guidance so that connections can be made, without setting up expectations that there will be answers given–a new “definitive interpretation.” Instead, the point is that every one of us has the potential to contribute to an ever-evolving complex picture. As we move from two-dimensional and virtual models to three-dimensional ones, we will seek to recreate that sense of excitement that the power of place evokes, that nudges us to engage in conversation and speculation with our fellow travelers, and that frees us to ask questions and apply new insights to them.