Back to 7000 BC - by laser

Satellites and fibre optics are guiding archaeologists through the world's first town, writes Hugh Pope
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Neolithic man will never be the same again. That, at least, is what a group of archaeologists hope as they bring equipment worthy of a police forensic department to bear on this hot, dusty mound in central Turkey. Scraping their way painstakingly down into the mud-brick rooms of the world's first town, the archaeologists hope to decipher 9,000- year-old secrets: what late Stone Age people ate, with whom they slept, and even what dirt they left on their floors.

DNA testing laboratories, high-powered microscopes and laser-range finders are all being deployed in a 25-year project to unearth the secrets of Catalhoyuk in Turkey which, archaeologists believe, was inhabited by up to 10,000 people from 7800 to 6400BC. Over the centuries, generations of mud-brick dwellings were built on top of each other to form mounds that looked much like those still inhabited by villagers in south-east Turkey.

The hillock, rising some 20 metres from surrounding farmland, was discovered by James Mellaart, a charismatic and controversial archaeologist who started excavations here in the Sixties. Mellaart's finds can be marvelled at in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Cultures. A reconstructed room shows moulded figures of mother goddesses that may be part of the world's first religion, wall paintings illustrate what may be its first myths, and showcases hold mirrors of volcanic glass whose polish is undimmed from the time humanity may have first reflected on its own image.

From Mellaart's discoveries, it is thought that the houses probably had their entrances from flat roofs on which the experts speculate that most communal life took place. The bodies of the dead were buried in the mud floor, and at intervals houses seem to have undergone a ritual burning.

Mellaart's enviable career in Catalhoyuk was sharply cut off, however, by an unrelated scandal that arose after he claimed in 1959 to have stumbled on a hoard that became known as the Dorak Treasure. He published drawings of the find - supposedly uncovered in the house of a mysterious Greek lady - but became unstuck when he was unable to prove that it actually existed or, if it did, that it had not been smuggled out of Turkey. Most experts now believe the treasure to have been a figment of Mellaart's brilliant imagination.

The suspicious Turkish government withdrew Mellaart's licence for Catalhoyuk. But the Dorak imbroglio has not detracted from his achievement there. The new excavation's director, Dr Ian Hodder of Darwin College, Cambridge, is one of his students. "We want to answer some of the questions raised by Mellaart's work," Dr Hodder says. "But we are doing it in a new way, using modern scientific techniques. The whole process is very detailed."

Up to 50 specialists will converge each season on the site from Britain, Germany, the United States and Turkey. DNA testing of bones will be used to determine if the same family inhabited the same house throughout the 1,200-year life of the town, while other bone tests could determine what was in a neolithic family's diet. Microscopic examination of dust- thin cross-sections of excavated floors will help to identify the residues of food preparations, seeds and other activities by which to assess the site's standards of farming.

But the process is painfully slow. "It would take us 100 years to dig as much as Mellaart," says Dr Hodder, looking ruefully over to the long hillock of spoil from his predecessor's excavations.

During preliminary seasons in 1993 and 1994, the team made a new survey of the site using a satellite positioning system accurate to two centimetres. Magnetic resonance surveys revealed the plan of houses beneath the thin crust of topsoil, their side walls mysteriously aligned like the spokes of a wheel, with the top of the mound at its centre.

This year, earth was cleared from Mellaart's excavations to allow a new start, deep into the mound, in 1996. A hundred metres away, an unusual- looking house foundation was selected for excavation. The difference in speed using the new techniques is striking: after their first season, field director Roger Mathews and his team have only gone down about 50 centimetres.

Archaeologists on hands and knees probe with small trowels, dustpans and brushes. They have already discovered deer and cattle bones with which the neolithic inhabitants decorated their walls and benches. Ash still lies in the bottom of a Middle East-style oven that went cold 9,000 years ago.

A set of scalpels, scissors and chemicals surround Constance Silver, a conservator attached to the University of Pennsylvania. She is slowly uncovering the first ochre tint of a wall painting, making sure it does not deteriorate after its sudden exposure to air.

"Sometimes the paintings are on layers of plaster - up to 100 layers that build up to three inches thick," Ms Silver says. "We may use medical fibre optics to bore in tiny holes and see which layers have paintings. Then, we think we can find a way to separate them. We are considering transforming the plaster synthetically into sandstone."

Behind the archaeologists stands a laser camera connected to a high- powered laptop, plotting the three-dimensional position of even the tiniest finds. Elsewhere a team from the Karlsruhe Academy of Design film not just the archaeologists at work but every meeting of the expedition.

The team already maintains a text and pictures site on the World Wide Web, and a compact disc is on the way. A computer graphics specialist, Burkhard Detzler, enthuses about new technology that will create a "virtual museum", allowing Internet surfers to enter the neolithic rooms, pick up newly discovered objects and turn them round with a few touches on the keyboard. Others have been working on live satellite link-ups with the excavation as it happens.

However dazzling the technology and slow the methods, there is still digging to be done. Turkish labourers tramp up ramps with rubber pods of earth, and old-fashioned archaeologists work intensely, with tanned faces, dirt-encrusted khaki clothes and a burning enthusiasm in their eyes.

"I love my mud-brick walls. As I brush or scrape, I am looking all the time for a change and what that change will mean," says Shahina Farid, a freelance archaeologist based in London. "When I joined the group on the plane, they all had their computers. All I took with me was my trowel."

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