Researchers finishing the dig season at Turkey’s Çatalhöyük—a 9500-year-old site famed for its art and symbolism at the dawn of agriculture—got a big shock last week. Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who has directed excavations since 1993, told the heads of the dig’s specialty labs that they would be asked to step down beginning in 2012, when publication of current work will be completed. It’s “the night of the long knives,” says one long-time team member, who asked not to be identified.
Such a mass dismissal is highly unusual at long-running archaeological excavations. But in a 29 August e-mail to the team explaining his decision, Hodder stressed that he was not dissatisfied with anyone’s work. Rather, the e-mail said, the project “needs new energy—that is, new questions, new theoretical perspectives, ... new methods.”
Hodder, who began digging at Çatalhöyük to test his new ideas about how archaeology should be done, told ScienceInsider that “it was time for a shake-up” as the dig enters the last decade of his 25-year plan for excavations. “It has been a really remarkable team,” Hodder says. But, “I have felt over recent years that the project was getting comfortable with itself and so not challenging each other or me or the assumptions that we were all taking for granted.”
Many team members, some of whom have been working with the project since the mid-1990s, are stunned and confused. So far, however, they have declined to comment publicly as they must work with Hodder for at least another year. The decision affects the leaders of most of the big labs at the privately funded dig, such as ceramics, stone tools, archaeobotany, animal remains, and human remains. Field excavators, who actually dig up the artifacts for the specialists to study, are not affected.
Hodder says he plans to recruit new lab leaders for the next phase of excavations, planned for 2012–18, although he has not yet spelled out what new questions he intends to pursue.