Last year, working at Bir Madhkur with Dr. Andrew M. Smith II, one of the volunteers had brought a footlong trowel meant for heavy-duty gardening, or possibly harpooning whales. We were constantly inventing theories as to its possible intended purposes, until eventually we only had to pick up the thing (if we could lift it) or simply mention the “Mattie trowel” to inspire laughter.
This year, at Çatalhöyük, I had brought the Mattie trowel. My digging partner-along with everyone else working in the building, for that matter-had a trowel with a small, sharp, triangular head. I looked like I had brought a pie-slicer to site. But my Mattie trowel had been through four seasons of fieldwork, across continents, where I had perfected my excavation technique with her. I had learned to cut Rubiks cube corners with vertical walls and flat floors.
I soon found those skills nearly useless at Çatalhöyük. The Neolithic people living there had bowing, curving floors; their walls had niches and overhangs. The edges of their platforms often looked like gentle decrescendos, rather than prismatic precipices.
At some point it all made sense. Of course, here, standing on slanting surfaces and sloping structures, the tools must shrink in deference to the daunting delicacy of the thin layers recording human lives that so predate the line level. It’s disorienting to be peeling back layers, looking for a loam so clear toward the North, but knowing you are digging deeper now, and the position where you were crouching moments ago is now a zenith you have created. And you find yourself kneeling, kowtowing, to this preserved pinnacle within the Neolithic home-bowing at the base with a miniscule tool in hand. Deferentially, I relinquished my Mattie trowel and gave in to the gesticulating kind of archaeology required at Çatalhöyük.