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Meet Çatalhöyük’s Most Famous Resident (And A Big Fat Dose Of Academic Sexism)

The prehistoric settlement of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey has sent me down a historical rabbit-hole. It was occupied around 9000 years ago and had somewhere in the region of 10,000 residents.


Today, I’d like you to meet Çatalhöyük’s most famous find: a statue that archaeologists have nicknamed the Seated Woman:



Image shows the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük.
The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük

There is so much mystery surrounding the Seated Woman. But we do know a few things about her:

  • She was found in a grain bin. Her head and one of the hand rests were missing. The ones you can see are modern replacements.

  • She was made of clay in probably the year 6000 BC.

  • Her hands rest on two feline-looking creatures, probably panthers or leopards.

  • Other, similar statues have been excavated at Çatalhöyük.


Some things that archaeologists are less certain of:

  • She may be seated on a throne.

  • She may be in the process of giving birth.

  • She may represent a Mother Goddess.


It’s impossible to prove any one of these speculations since we will never know what cultural significance people attached to this statue. We don’t know their religious beliefs, why she was made, who made her, or how she ended up in a grain bin. (There is a theory that she was deliberately placed in there to encourage a plentiful harvest. Again, we’ll never know).


Last time, I referred to the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük as a “Venus” because she is part of a much larger tradition of nude female statues that have been excavated in prehistoric settlements. These are collectively known as Venuses.


Here are a few other examples of Venus Figurines:



Image shows a naked Venus figurine, found in the Czech Republic
This Venus was made sometime between 29000 and 25000 BC. She was found in the Czech Republic.


Image shows a Venus figurine carved from an ivory tusk.
The Venus of Moravany. Found in Slovakia and made from an ivory tusk in 22,800 BC.

Now, I hate to do this to you.


Really, I do 😩


But I’d be a pretty crappy herstorian if I didn’t give you the full story, so here goes.


You can imagine how much interest there is in the Venus figurines. I mean, hello 👋, these are naked women. It wouldn’t be cricket if we didn’t scrutinise every aspect of their physical appearance.


At this stage in the (historical) game, there are 6 main schools of thought around the purpose of Venus figurines:

  1. They might represent actual women in their respective communities.

  2. They may represent ideals of female beauty.

  3. They might be fertility symbols.

  4. They might be religious, representing prehistoric goddesses.

  5. They may represent ancestors and, thus, a way of commemorating deceased relatives or significant people from the community.

  6. They may been created by women as a way of documenting their own bodies.


Accompanying these 6 schools of thought are a lot of judgements made on the bodies themselves. Clearly, these women – whoever they were or were not – weren’t size 8s. Most of them weren’t young, either. The head archaeologist at Çatalhöyük actually called the Seated Woman “saggy.” Harsh.


“Heavily built” and “greatly exaggerated” are some other choice terms that I’ve come across. Numerous studies have also measured the waist-to-hip ratios of the Venus figurines. (No, I don’t know why, either, because I’m not buying what they're selling. Literally. Not paying to read that 💩).


In 2011, 2 male anthropologists conducted a study (not the first of its kind) in which they asked 196 heterosexual men and women to make a judgement about 14 Venus figurines. Specifically, they asked them to provide a “rating” on the age, pregnancy status and attractiveness” of each one.


Yes.


Rate my Venus.


This actually happened.


Twice.


And someone paid them to do it.


Twice.


And then it got published in an academic journal.


You see what we’re up against?


😭😭😭😭😭


Now, I’m gonna take a punt here and say that researchers have never:


❌ Measured Churchill’s waist-to-hip ratio.


❌ Asked anyone to Rate-My-Edward Colston.


❌ Flat out body-shamed either of the above (or any other male statue).


Could you imagine …


“In the news today, Black Lives Matter protestors have sent Edward Colston’s statue into a watery grave. First, though, one of the protestors whipped out his tape measure and measured Colston’s hip-to-waist ratio, compared it to other enslavers and then published their findings on social media. Spectators looked on joyfully as the protestors tipped his saggy arse into the harbour.”


As much as we’d all like to have heard that, it didn’t (and sadly will never) happen.


In all seriousness, though, there is one question we have to ask:


Do these studies help us to ascertain the cultural meanings that prehistoric communities attached to these statues?


And the answer has to be a big, fat no, doesn’t it?

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