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Mellaart, Jameslocked

  • Ian Hodder

Mellaart, James (1925–2012), archaeologist, was born on 14 November 1925 at 466 Oxford Street, London, the son of Jacob Herman Jan Mellaart (1895–1972), then an art student, later a specialist in fine art, and his wife Apollonia Dingena (Linn), née van der Beek (b. 1899). As a result of economic difficulties caused by the depression, the family, including Mellaart's younger sister Helen, moved back from London to Amsterdam in 1932. His mother died there and his father remarried. Mellaart went to various schools throughout the Netherlands. During the German occupation from 1940 the family moved to Maastricht and he worked at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, where he also studied Egyptian languages.

Determined to be an archaeologist, Mellaart enrolled as an undergraduate at University College, London, in 1947, with a particular interest in the Sea Peoples (the groups of seafaring peoples who roamed the eastern Mediterranean towards the end of the Bronze Age). During his time as an undergraduate he also worked on excavations conducted by Kathleen Kenyon at the Iron Age site of Sutton Walls, near Hereford. On graduating in 1951, he began a two-year fellowship at the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara (BIAA) that focused on a survey of archaeological sites in south-western Turkey. He discovered many hundreds of pre-classical sites, mostly Chalcolithic and later. One of these was the important Chalcolithic and Bronze Age site of Beycesultan. While on an excavation in Turkey in 1952 he met Arlette Meryem Cenani (d. 2013) and they were married in 1954. After the birth of their son Alan in 1955, Arlette worked with Mellaart on his excavations as translator, photographer, and camp manager. She remained a loyal and loving support to him throughout his life.

As a scholar and fellow at the BIAA, Mellaart worked on a number of significant sites and started his own excavations. He conducted a survey in the Jordan valley and in 1952–4 joined Kenyon's excavations at Jericho, where he demonstrated the importance of exploring the deepest layers of the site. From 1954 to 1959 he worked with Seton Lloyd at Beycesultan. In 1956 he found yet another important early site, the Chalcolithic site of Hacilar that he then excavated from 1957 to 1960. He was made assistant director of the BIAA under Seton Lloyd in 1959 and held that position until 1961. He was then lecturer in prehistoric archaeology at Istanbul University until 1963. In 1964 he was appointed lecturer in Anatolian archaeology in the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, where he worked until his retirement in 1991.

In November 1958, together with David French and Alan Hall, Mellaart discovered the neolithic date of a large mound in central Anatolia called Çatalhöyük. In the Konya Plain, he had been seeking signs of Hittite expansion, but he was also looking for signs of neolithic settlement in Anatolia in order to overturn the accepted view that the main neolithic developments had occurred in the Levant and in the Fertile Crescent. He was thus keen to return to excavate at Çatalhöyük and was able to do this in 1961 after the completion of the Hacilar excavations. He continued to work at Çatalhöyük in 1962, 1963, and 1965. He found a large number of richly furnished buildings with reliefs, bull horn installations, and elaborate narrative wall paintings that shocked the archaeological world since such impressive art had not been found previously in the Near East. The story also had an important public impact, partly as a result of the accounts he provided in the Illustrated London News. His reconstructions of the buildings at the site enabled a wider engagement with the site, beyond the accounts in scholarly journals. He identified at least thirteen levels of occupation at Çatalhöyük and came very close to reaching the base of the mound. Over four seasons of work he exposed over 150 buildings and excavated 480 skeletons. His book Çatal Hüyük: a Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967) was an important achievement that became required reading for students of the neolithic and was referred to by scholars in a wide range of other disciplines including architecture, art, urban studies, and anthropology.

In 1964 Mellaart's request for a permit to excavate at Çatalhöyük was refused by the Turkish department of antiquities. This was partly a result of his publication in 1959 in the Illustrated London News of a report of Bronze Age treasures supposedly from Dorak in north-western Turkey including an Egyptian gold artefact with hieroglyphs that would prove Mellaart's claims of long-distance Bronze Age trade. He claimed to have been shown these treasures by a young woman he met on a train. However, on enquiry from the Turkish government and scholars, the treasure or any corroborated documentation of it could not be located. The British press nevertheless initially cast Mellaart in the role of a victim of Turkish government harassment. A book on the matter, The Dorak Affair, was published in 1967 by Sunday Times reporters Kenneth Pearson and Patricia Connor. A committee of inquiry set up in 1968 by the BIAA accepted Mellaart's account. But questions regarding the authenticity of the treasure continued throughout his life. Although he was able to return to excavate at Çatalhöyük in 1965, further work was stopped as a result of questions surrounding the Dorak material, because artefacts including figurines reputedly from Hacilar and Çatalhöyük had begun to appear on the antiquities market, and because of difficulties encountered in preserving the complex symbolic features at Çatalhöyük. The ‘Dorak affair’ remains unsolved, but it should be noted that Mellaart had a habit of imagining evidence, as in the case of tablets with symbols that, in an unpublished paper, he claimed to have found at the base of Çatalhöyük, and as in the cases of pebbles with painting on Turkish beaches, and ‘lost’ murals from Çatalhöyük (which he claimed had crumbled soon after he had sketched them).

Apart from his articles and his book on Çatalhöyük, his Excavations at Hacilar (1970), and his co-publication with Seton Lloyd of Beycesultan in the 1960s, Mellaart published important syntheses of the archaeology of Anatolia and the Near East, in particular Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (1965), The Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages in the Near East and Anatolia (1966), and The Neolithic of the Near East (1975). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1980.

In 1976 Mellaart's wife's family house (yali) on the Bosphorus burned down, destroying many of his excavation records. In 1987 a seminar took place in the Institute of Archaeology in London in which he showed previously unpublished drawings of paintings from Çatalhöyük. These were later published in a four-volume book, The Goddess from Anatolia (1989). Few specialists in the field accepted the authenticity of these drawings. In later years Mellaart and his wife, Arlette, lived at 13 Lichen Court, 79 Queen's Drive, Finsbury Park, London. He died on 29 July 2012 at Whittington Hospital, Islington, from pneumonia following a stroke, and his funeral took place on 13 August at the Islington crematorium. He was survived by his wife and son.

Mellaart's greatest achievement was to excavate Çatalhöyük and to show that Anatolia was not a cultural backwater during the neolithic, a view that was vindicated and reinforced by subsequent archaeological research throughout Turkey. His substantive work at the site has withstood the test of time. Çatalhöyük was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012.


  • K. Pearson and P. Connor, The Dorak affair (1967)
  • M. Balter, The goddess and the bull: Çatalhöyük: an archaeological journey to the dawn of civilization (2004)
  • Daily Telegraph (4 Aug 2012)