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About the Project

This project proposes to expand the ways in which archaeological material is analyzed. Our approach goes beyond the documentation of the object per se and extends into the procedural, dynamic and contextualized character of archaeological objects. Archaeologists deal with artifacts from everyday life of the past, with objects that formed part of a multitude of interactions and transactions and may be subjected to transformation during their existence. We consider attention to the nature of both of these processes as integral part to archaeological research and documentation.

Using digital video-recording and a collaborative online environment we propose a methodology that takes into account (i) the dynamic nature of the object, (ii) the multiplicity of perspectives under which it can be investigated.


We will address these issues in the context of one of the most highly disputed category of archaeological objects – figurines. Figurines, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric objects made mostly of clay or stone, count among the most exciting but also most poorly understood prehistoric artifacts.

The research site for this pilot project is Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site in Central Turkey dating back some 9000 years. Çatalhöyük was first excavated between 1961 and 1965 (Mellaart 1967), and then again since 1993. There are over 1500 pieces comprising the figurine corpus. Excavations at Çatalhöyük have been exemplary in exploring alternative archaeological methods with a high emphasis on reflexivity, contextuality, and multivocality (Hodder 2000).


The representation and interpretation of figurines in archaeology have been dominated by western preoccupations and modes of thinking. From prior perspectives figurines are assumed to stand in for the real, and thus to be representative for the social life of the community. Social history is typically read off the figurines in a literal one-for-one reading. This "built-in" narrativity of figurines comes with the danger to exclude alternative interpretations. Typically, figurines are assumed to be religious, ritual objects – however, this interpretation is almost exclusively based on the study of museums pieces. This is also true for the case of Çatalhöyük, where Melllaart's interpretation of the figurines as Mother-Goddess - while not remaining unchallenged (Meskell 1998) - has heavily impacted archaeological research and constrained alternative viewpoints.

Paired with this is the problem of visual power. Figurines usually evoke strong responses in those who find them. The immediate reactions and comments upon discovery of the object (ie seeing it emerge from the ground) can strongly and subconsciously influence interpretations, that are devoid of any context. We have witnessed these processes in the field at Çatalhöyük. The excitement that comes with the discovery feeds directly into a rhetoric of essentialism: figurines just are important.

Restrictions in accessibility affect this situation in two ways. Firstly, only a few figurines, usually those among the best-preserved material and of most spectacular appearance, receive exaggerated attention. The majority of figurines, despite their interpretive relevance are largely ignored. That means our fuller understanding of figurines worlds is skewed. Secondly, the only chance to analyze and document objects is during the short field season. Typically, objects are moved to the museums after each season with little opportunity to record or handle them again, so access is severely constrained. A large number of the Çatalhöyük figurines are on restricted access in museums in Ankara and Konya and largely inaccessible.

In sum, traditional representations of figurines are (a) static and (b) involve underlying assumptions that convey notions that are not necessarily correct or appropriate. The traditional documentation techniques are either aesthetisized photographic images that have helped to form and convey this ‘special' image or detailed database records that follow classifications that are convenient but questionable and are based on the assumption that there is one correct interpretation. In addition, it is often difficult to trace the ways in which the interpretations stem from the evidentiary base. This problematic situation is augmented by severe limitations in accessing the objects in question, something we will attempt to remedy with the use of video documentation and by making the research process and material publicly available. Typical for many overseas initiatives objects cannot be brought back to Stanford and the recording work is done entirely and only during the fieldwork season. This presents real challenges to archaeological practitioners, which we attempt to explore and address in this pilot study.

We propose a different interpretive approach in which there are multiple narratives that can be constructed in order to understand and interpret figurines collections. These narratives take into account the different materials and locational contexts of the figurines. We conceptualize the figurines as traversing a life cycle in themselves. What is found in excavations does not necessarily represent the final product. Figurines are malleable; materials can be added, permanently or temporarily. We propose to shift the focus from figurines as timeless museum pieces, placed on a pedestal, to other, maybe very mundane contexts and uses across the site. Figurines are not a priori special or sacred, yet they are important in some contexts, although not for others.

This proposed re-conceptualization of figurines as contextualized and dynamic, and without the limitations of a static, stylistic topology requires us to explore alternative ways of documentation and analysis.

What is the intended output of this project? What will it achieve? The approach we propose applies digital video recordings of the processing and handling of the figurines. We document how researchers interact with the objects. We also document comments made during that process, capturing the totality of the experience of viewing.

We expect this technique to have implications for

(1) Representation:

Different from the predominantly static nature of what can be shown in photos, drawings or 3D visualizations, the dynamics of the moving video images will allow us to document the reenactment of the handling and its multiple possibilities, which includes the makers' and users' interaction with the object, size scale, positioning, and experimentation with the modeling of clay examples.

(2) Research:

This approach uses the video documentation as means for exploration of as well as reflection on the objects. Interpretation through video makes objects more accessible as they are portrayed as mobile, mundane, and subject to transformation. The multiplicity of views allows for a different experimentation and opens access to visual cues not revealed in traditional documentation techniques. Many of these have a gendered element and may have meanings that pertain to sexuality and identity.

We hope that the proposed method will also allow us to capture the processes by which certain figurines are transformed into highly charged objects and thus to provide insights into how interpretations may be influenced by subconsciously formed perceptions or opinions.

We plan to document figurines from the Ankara museum as well as those found during the field season. Researchers will be videotaped as they handle and interact with the figurines, rotate them in front of the camera and highlight specific viewpoints while being interviewed about the object.

The video will be used in several ways: It will serve as vehicle for conversations of the entire team involved in the excavation and documentation process. It will be used as evidence during presentations and for interpretations of the material. It will be combined with other modes and forms of representation (sketches, 3D models) to generate and stimulate new ways of thinking about the figurines.

Video recordings will be edited and made accessible through the Çatalhöyük public website (http://www.catalhoyuk.com/). They will become part of the research database as well part of a collaborative web based platform (Wiki) that will integrate data and meta-commentary and support continuous interaction with the material. The Çatalhöyük website has already received a lot of electronic comments concerning the figurines found in the 2005 season.

Since figurines were made by hand and ultimately circulated from hand to hand, this approach appears quite intuitive. However, we are not aware of any systematic exploration of this perspective. Digital representations of archaeological material are mostly online repositories that may include photography, searchable database material, or interactive multimedia representations. Technologically more sophisticated approaches extend to 3-dimensional models. An earlier project done by the PI includes scanning objects to generate a reproduction of the site in a virtual and immersive environment, the aim being to create a remote walk through of the site, which would allow for interaction with the objects (http://www.learn.columbia.edu/nsf). However, all these techniques are not interactive in the first instance. Objects still remain separate from human interaction and handling. They are presented as finished products, not themselves engaged in the manufacturing and interpretative process.

Outcomes from preliminary experiments are encouraging. The video helped engage into conversations with specialists from other areas (eg ceramics or lithics) and inspired the site illustrator to generate completely new illustrations. The act of the video making allowed for experimentation not possible in traditional documentation methods. It triggered thinking and discussion about how figurines are made and challenged prior thinking about the figurines. This in turn led to questions about function and maker. For example, because of their small size certain examples were considered only to be made by children and were thus classified by many researchers as ‘toys’. However, it was demonstrated that very small pieces could indeed be made by adults and were not necessarily ‘toys’.

Our approach suggests that on the interpretive level 3D viewing reveals different conceptions of the body, gender, and sexuality. By displaying the figurines from different vantage points they can assume different gender characteristics and offer multiple interpretations. This provides an enormous scope for rethinking archaeological documentation and research.