Lonely Planet Writer

Experience a Neolithic archaeological dig at new Istanbul exhibit

Visitors to a new Istanbul exhibit can step into the shoes of archaeologists working at a Neolithic site in central Turkey — and into the 9000-year-old homes they’re excavating, thanks to an immersive virtual reality re-creation of the ancient settlement.

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Discovered in 1958, the Çatalhöyük site has yielded a wealth of fascinating artefacts, from skeletons and their grave goods, to wall paintings and figurines believed to have ritual significance. But the focus of the Istanbul show isn’t on the finds themselves, but on the people who’ve been making them, as the team led by British archaeologist, Ian Hodder, wraps up its 25-year dig with a final excavation season this summer.

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‘We wanted to show the “behind the scenes” of an excavation; what archaeologists do, what their working methods are, what their lives are like on the dig site,’ says Şeyda Çetin, an exhibition co-ordinator at the Koç University Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations, where the exhibit ‘The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük’ is on view until 25 October. It’s an experience that can’t be duplicated even at the dig site itself, outside the Turkish city of Konya, where visitors can tour the excavation area, but not the dig house where the research labs are located.

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Highlights of the Istanbul show include an interactive re-imagining of the dig house’s ‘finds lab’, where all artefacts are catalogued and prepared to be distributed to specialist labs for further examination. Visitors to the exhibit can pluck one of 42 discs embedded with RFID chips — each representing an actual find from Çatalhöyük, including human bones, a stamp seal engraved with the image of a bear, and a bracelet found in a gravesite — from a wall and then scan them to reveal details about where and when the artefact was uncovered, what era it has been dated to, and other data, photos and maps.

Seated goddess on a throne flanked by two lionesses from Catalhoyuk, Turkey.
Seated goddess on a throne flanked by two lionesses from Catalhoyuk, Turkey. Image by De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Two virtual-reality headsets offer an even more immersive experience: putting one on transports the user into the small, dark interior of one of Çatalhöyük’s tightly clustered mud-brick homes. ‘You can “pick up” objects from the floor, walk around the house, even go up to the rooftop and see the Konya plain stretching out in all directions,’ says Çetin. ‘It’s a way of experiencing what Çatalhöyük was like nine millennia years ago.’

By Jennifer Hattam