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The Goddess and the Bull    by Michael Balter order for
Goddess and the Bull
by Michael Balter
Order:  USA  Can
Free Press, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

The title of The Goddess and the Bull may attract the attention of all kinds of audiences, including feminists, New Age goddess worshippers and possibly those seeking a kinky thriller. But while the sub-title 'Catal Hoyuk: An Archaeological Journey into the Dawn of Civilization' should quickly clarify the true subject matter, this book turns out to be just as fascinating as anyone could want.

Science writer and long-time Science magazine correspondent Balter has written an eloquent and extremely interesting account of the excavations at the early Neolithic site of Catal Hoyuk in central Turkey. Dated to as early as 9500 years ago, Catal Hoyuk is one of the oldest and largest of known early Stone Age settlements in the world. It has been the focus of two major archaeological investigations, the first in the late 1950's/early 1960's. A new dig started in the early 1990's and is still ongoing. The earlier dig was led by British archaeologist James Mellaart, who caught the world's attention with fabulous finds including vivid wall paintings, 'goddess' figurines and bull horns mounted on the walls. Since then, the location has been a popular destination for New Age goddess tours. Compounding interest in the site was Mellaart's subsequent expulsion from Catal Hoyuk due to his mysterious involvement in the Dorak affair which supposedly involved looted antiquities.

Catal Hoyuk then lay dormant until British anthropologist Ian Hodder became interested in it thirty years later. Hodder had attended some of Mellaart's earlier lectures as a young student and was fascinated by slides of the finds. Later, he excitedly took the opportunity to re-open the site and use it as a test case for his new ideas on how to conduct archaeological digs. Michael Balter first visited Catal Hoyuk in 1998 to report on the progress of the dig, and established an excellent rapport with the archaeologists. Since then, he has visited every year and been allowed complete access to all records, including the personal dig journals kept by individual workers.

Balter has used this opportunity to craft a masterful and totally involving book. He does not just describe the one site, important as it is. Instead, he paints a much wider picture of what was happening in the cradle of Western civilization and raises questions as to when people first domesticated plants and animals, why they settled in closely packed communities like Catal Hoyuk and what were the roles of men and women in this early society. Archaeology has changed greatly over the last sixty years from the early mostly descriptive recordings of archaeological remains at a site, through the heavily science-based 'New Archaeology' of the 1960's and 1970's to the newest 'post-processual' archaeology pioneered by Hodder. This includes an awareness of the archaeologist's modern biases and how they may affect his or her interpretations.

While all this may be quite esoteric for the general reader, those interested in anthropology and archaeology will enjoy Balter's very lucid explanations, the clearest I've ever read. The many and varied applications of scientific tools in the dig will also surprise readers. Even more intriguing is the armchair insider's view of what goes on in a big dig. Hodder includes biographical sketches of many key players in the Catal Hoyuk dig, so the reader can learn what motivates their work. I have visited the windswept Catal Hoyuk mound where the Hodder dig has opened access to one portion of the site for visitors. It is hard to describe the feeling one gets, viewing rooms where people lived almost 10,000 years ago and imagining their activities. However, Balter does an excellent job of capturing the excitement one experiences in looking through this unique window onto our early history.

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