I usually don't publish obituaries but Mellaart influenced me about the Near East and his famous site Catal Huyuk is still making news.
James Mellaart, who has died aged 86, ranked among the most controversial archaeologists of the 20th century after claiming to have uncovered priceless royal artifacts plundered from Dorak, near the ancient city of Troy, which he said had been missing since the site was first excavated in the 1920s.
He later played a prominent part in the discovery and excavation of the world’s oldest known cities at Hacilar and Çatal Hüyük in Turkey. These Neolithic settlements contained not only the earliest textiles and pottery known to man but also the earliest paintings found on walls (as distinct from caves).
While there was no doubt about the importance of these finds, some 20 years later, in the 1980s, Mellaart attracted further controversy by attempting to pass off watercolors he had made as representations of other, poorly preserved frescoes supposedly found at Çatal Hüyük. Mellaart explained that the original murals had proved impossible to remove or preserve. They were damaged, he said, and been impossible to photograph before they crumbled to plaster dust. Indeed, the only evidence of their existence were hurried sketches made by Mellaart and not released to public examination until 1989, when they only added to the debate.
If his work at Hacilar and Çatal Hüyük proved contentious, however, it was as nothing to the mysterious, faintly sinister, Dorak affair, which dogged Mellaart’s career. In 1959 he had astounded historians of the ancient world by claiming that he had been shown a hoard of treasure — gold and silver bracelets, jewellery and a fabulous collection of bronze and silver figurines — that had been illegally dug up at Dorak during the Turko-Greek war (1919-1922) from two royal tombs of the Yortans, neighbours of the Trojans.
The circumstances of Mellaart’s disputed discovery of these treasures were, in their way, no less remarkable. In 1958 he had been traveling by train to Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna) when, as recounted by the British traveler and journalist Lord Kinross, “he picked up, or was picked up by, an attractive girl wearing a gold bracelet of a type that had been found only at Troy”.
Responding with “a nose for a site that amounts to genius,” Mellaart told the young woman he was an archaeologist, and was invited to her home. There he found a trove of similar objects taken from ancient tombs at Dorak. Although having no camera, and forbidden by his new acquaintance from hiring a photographer, Mellaart spent four days sketching the objects and taking rubbings.
But when his findings were published by the Illustrated London News, a Turkish newspaper accused Mellaart of having robbed the tombs himself and smuggled the treasure out. Despite Mellaart’s protestations of innocence, a search for the young woman proved fruitless. The name she had given – Anna Papastrati – turned out to be unknown and her address did not exist. A letter he produced that contained her name appeared on examination to have been typed by Mellaart’s Turkish-born wife Arlette.
British journalists believed Mellaart’s story, however, and cast him as the victim of unfounded Turkish suspicions that Mellaart had been involved in the antiquities black market.
The Turkish secret police compiled a dossier on him, and after three years of clamor in the Turkish press about the smuggling of artifacts abroad — some objects apparently from Mellaart’s sites had turned up outside Turkey — the authorities in Ankara announced that Mellaart was part of a plot to smuggle £48 million-worth of Dorak “national treasures” out of Turkey.
Although a criminal case against him was dropped in a general amnesty in 1965, Turkey’s Department of Antiquities cancelled Mellaart’s permit to dig.
Some experts have suggested that the mysterious girl was a honeytrap working for a gang of dealers seeking authentication for their treasure from a respected archaeologist before selling it to a wealthy collector. Mellaart, who stoutly maintained the truth of his story, was inclined to agree. Another theory held that while the Dorak treasure did exist in whole or in part, Anna Papastrati did not.
In 2005 the Scottish archaeologist Professor David Stronach, who conducted excavations with Mellaart at Hacilar, was quoted by an American journalist, Suzan Mazur, as saying that Mellaart had invented the whole story, calling it a “dreamlike episode”. But as another American, the author Michael Balter, noted after investigating the Dorak affair: “Unless the treasure shows up one day, the mystery is likely to remain unsolved.”
James Mellaart was born on November 14 1925 in London. His Dutch immigrant father, descended from Scottish migrants called Maclarty (a division of the Clan Macdonald), was an expert in Dutch Old Master paintings and drawings.
When Jimmy was six, the family moved to Holland following a downturn in the art market. When he was 11 an uncle gave him a book on ancient Egypt. He was spellbound; as a teenager he taught himself Ancient Egyptian, followed by Ancient Greek and Latin.
At the outbreak of war he was drafted to serve in the slave labor force of the occupying Nazis. But his father managed to secure him a job in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden which, as James recalled, “kept me out of German hands”. Surrounded by archaeological finds from around the world Mellaart sealed his fascination with antiquities. In 1947 he became a student of Ancient History and Egyptology at University College, London, graduating in 1951.
Even as a boy he seemed to have had an sixth-sense for ancient remains: he found an Iron Age brooch on a seemingly barren hill fort in Herefordshire, and, on a trip to Cyprus, a hoard of Mycenaean bronze. In what was then Palestine, he was sent out one morning into the Biblical city of Jericho to look for tombs by the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, a pupil of the celebrated Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Mellaart returned at lunchtime to say he had found one, intact.
When Kenyon left for the weekend, having dug down to what she believed was the extremity of the bedrock outside the city’s famous walls, Mellaart rashly seized the opportunity to dig down further still. On her return, Mellaart explained that he knew they could dig no further because instead of pottery fragments he had found fish fossils.
Appointed assistant director of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara, Mellaart helped to direct excavations on Turkish archaeological sites , leading his first dig at Hacilar (1957–60) before turning his attention to Çatal Hüyük (1961-63). There, with almost the first slice of the spade, he discovered the ruins of a Neolithic city. Under a huge mound 20 metres high, 13 layers of habitation were revealed that dated back 9,000 years and housed up to 10,000 people.
Inside the mud brick houses and shrines – so densely packed that they had no front doors but were entered through the roof – Mellaart and his team found bull’s heads, skeletons, mirrors of black obsidian and plaster reliefs, as well as the wall paintings that would prove so contentious.
Mellaart’s triumph at Çatal Hüyük earned him both academic and popular acclaim, and his book Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967) became an classic. He was for two years a lecturer at Istanbul University, but as pressure against him mounted in Turkey he left, in 1964, to take an appointment to lecture in Anatolian archaeology at the University of London, where he remained until 1991.
Considered charming but naive — “an innocent duped” was one authoritative verdict — Mellaart remained sanguine about his notoriety, which he ascribed to the rivalry and jealousies besetting the archaeological world. “As for all the unpleasantness, I’ll just say this: honi soit qui mal y pense.”
Mellaart was the author of several books, as well as chapters in Cambridge Ancient History (1964) and numerous scholarly articles in Anatolian Studies and other learned and specialist journals.
He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1980.
He married, in 1954, Arlette Meryem Cenani, with whom he had a son.