Çatalhöyük: The Pros and Cons of Public Archaeology on a Massive Scale

By Ben Armstrong and Taylor Noble

Exacavation of the site.

Çatalhöyük has been discovered as one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. With its massive scale, and sizeable collection of intact artifacts, lots can be researched about the site and its relevance to early human settlements. Currently, the site has been given a 50 year contract for excavation, and has employed hundreds of archaeologists around the world and from various different fields in order to gain a better perspective on the massive amount of data that is being found there. In order to compliment the academic research going on at the site, the coordinators have created a large public outreach program in order to show off their findings, and incorporate the general public. Such a large scale of public outreach has brought enormous benefits to the site and the archaeology being practiced there, but has also brought along several unrealistic expectations of archaeology that have the potential to become framed in the public mindset. While we agree that the scale of public outreach being practiced at Çatalhöyük does bring several benefits to the site, it also brings with it many potential risks, particularly around how archaeology is assumed to be practiced by the public. Using this example we would like to highlight some of what we have agreed to be the pros and cons of public archaeology both at this individual scale, and as a wider concept.

The benefits of public archaeology at Çatalhöyük rely primarily on two things: the massive scale at which it is being practiced, and the large amount of funding which the site has obtained over the years. In its 50 year project lifecycle, the teams which have worked there have uncovered an enormous number of findings which have interested more than just the public eye. While funding came from academic sources, corporate sponsorship has also benefited the project. With this financial backing, it was possible to turn Çatalhöyük into one of the biggest examples of publicly viewable archaeological projects. Over the decades, this site has become a living exhibition, with replicas and guided tours showing visitors both the discoveries currently made at the site, and the ongoing excavation. This sparks renewed interest in archaeology from a public perspective, and there is also the benefit of giving more money to the site. The Visitor’s Centre in particular has done a wonderful job in presenting an honest view of the archaeology, and keeping the sight preserved for excavation. It presents a very idealistic picture of a well-run and well-funded public archaeological site.

While this has worked in Çatalhöyük’s advantage, there are a lot of downsides to the the large scale of public archaeology which they have created. The commercialization and exhibition of sites is highly irregular, or difficult to come by in traditional archaeology. The funding required for this scale of public inclusion is only possible with corporate sponsors or massive academic funding, which most sites around the world lack. We want the public to be aware of the fact that this is a unique case where both the funding and unique coordination has made this situation work successfully, and is not the norm in archaeology. Even with the potential of financing public archaeology, many sites could also not sustain tourist involvement, due to the delicate nature of some sites. Herein lies the major issue with Çatalhöyük is the potential to cast an unrealistic image of how archaeology is practiced and publicly accessed.

Gudied tour of the site. 

Public Archaeology should always be included when possible, but funding and accessibility also provide the biggest potential challenges to incorporating it. We want archaeology to continue to maintain realistic portrayals of its practice to the public, while also trying to appeal to public sponsorship for more funding. The future of archaeology may very well rely on corporate sponsorship in order to even practice archaeology, but the issue lies in trying to strike a balance between both the corporate and academic interests. Çatalhöyük has shown us that it is possible to find this balance under the right circumstances, but we should not lead the public to assume that this is possible in all contexts. Thus, Çatalhöyük can perhaps serve as a case study for future archaeological projects that seek to incorporate more public involvement while staying true to the goals of the discipline.


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