Engaged Archaeology: Sonya Atalay’s Work at Çatalhöyük

In this post, I wanted to talk a bit about an archaeologist I admire, Sonya Atalay. I saw her speak two weeks ago here at Brown and her work will continue to inspire and problematize my research projects.

Overview and context

Sonya Atalay is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachussets, Amherst. Her research interests include community-based research and indigenous archaeology and heritage. Her book Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) is a pioneering work in the field of engaged archaeology. Atalay’s interest in community-based participatory research (CBPR) draws on her Anishinabe (Ojibwe) heritage. She has worked extensively with American Indian communities, especially in the Midwestern United States. Here I will focus not on this research but rather on Atalay’s work in Çatalhöyük, an archaeological site in southern Turkey.

Çatalhöyük is most famous for the remains of a large, densely packed settlement from around 9000 years ago. The ruins point to a community that was remarkably complicated for its time. The site is particularly important because it testifies to “the evolution of social organization and cultural practices as humans adapted to a sedentary life,” including early forms of religion (to quote from the site’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Çatalhöyük was first excavated in 1958, but the current project dates to 1993. This second phase of excavation is based on the principles of post-processual archaeology developed by Ian Hodder, the site’s director. In short, this theoretical movement emphasizes the subjectivity of archaeological interpretations, undermining positivist tendencies and universalist claims. In other words, Çatalhöyük is a natural environment for the implementation of Atalay’s engaged archaeology.

Questions and methodologies

The community-based archaeology project at Çatalhöyük seeks to answer three key questions:

How do we involve communities in archaeological research and the efforts to protect, manage, and care for archaeological sites? What value and importance does archaeology have for local communities where we conduct excavations? How can communities be directly involved in planning and executing cultural tourism and heritage management developments?1

These questions are very different than the kind of empirical inquiry archaeologists often engage in. In particular, Atalay is not interested in using scientific methods (say, carbon dating or stratigraphy) to discover “truths” about the past; instead, Atalay uses ethnographic methods to answer questions about how we interact with the past. To make sure her work was truly participatory, Atalay began by seeking a better understanding of community members’ views. She conducted home interviews and community meetings as part of a process to collaboratively develop ideas and action items to drive further research. Atalay spent nearly four years in this stage of the process, partly because local residents were uncertain about and uncomfortable with the project. I elaborate on these concerns later.

Atalay’s work at Çatalhöyük resulted in a number of concrete outcomes. For example, Atalay focused on community-based archaeological education. She developed comics about Çatalhöyük, community reports and newsletters, an annual festival for local villages and the project, and an archaeological community theater program. As part of the Çatalhöyük CBPR project, Atalay also implemented a local internship program, developed an iPhone app, and started building a village heritage committee. In short, Atalay began by listening to communities and then implemented (a remarkable number of) programs that responded to their expressed needs.

Outcomes and challenges

There are many complications with this project. Many of the issues Atalay encountered point to wider problems with engaged archaeology and CBPR. The primary issue Atalay reflects on is simple but crucial: Who and what constitutes “the community”? In other words, who do and should we work with (and who do we ally with) when we engage in community-based research? The local communities near Çatalhöyük, like those throughout the world, are riven by disagreements and conflicts. For example, in Turkey there is a lot of conflict over religion (with splits over class and ethnicity implicated as well). The modern state of Turkey was founded on the secular ideals promoted by its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; today, Islamism in various forms is popular and growing. Indeed, the attempted coup d’état by the Turkish military in 2016 was partly in response to the erosion of secularism, human rights, and democracy under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (more on this later). Political conflicts like this one have implications for any work in Turkey. Choosing who to work with often means deciding to weigh in on one side of this internal divide: archaeologists face “limitations on talking with local residents due to contemporary political concerns,” as Atalay puts it.

Atalay in particular encountered many difficulties as a woman working in a deeply patriarchal society. In general, she had to interact with women and men in the local community separately. Furthermore, many of the men expressed concerns about how their wives and daughters were involved with the CBPR project. Atalay describes this “desire to limit the input and participation of local women at Çatalhöyük” as particularly evident in the handicraft project she tried to start. Discussions among the community had demonstrated a desire for a merchandising program to bring revenue to local residents. In response, the CBPR project began investigating a micro-loan program; however, men refused permission for their female relatives to participate in this project.

These kinds of problems will in some form beset any type of community engagement. The seemingly intractable question is: How do we negotiate complex internal dynamics? To what point should we as outsiders allow local communities to perpetuate clearly oppressive dynamics? Atalay responds in a variety of ways. First, she emphasizes that we should not simply say “I’m going to work with those who agree with me!” We should also do our best to foster collaboration and reconcile opposing factions within a participatory paradigm. At the same time, we must recognize that who we choose to work with in many cases means lending our support to one side of an internal conflict. When Sonya Atalay chose to collaborate with local women, she infuriated the men who lead the local community. On the other hand, working only with the established leadership often means being complicit in problematic dynamics of oppression and marginalization. So what should we do? How should Sonya Atalay navigate the gender dynamics in her CBPR project at Çatalhöyük?


  1. This quotation, like most of the following material, is taken from Sonya Atalay, “Community-Based Archaeology at Çatalhöyük,” in Integrating Catalhöyük: Themes from the 2000–2008 Seasons, ed. Ian Hodder (London: British Institute, 2014), 23–36.

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