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6 November 2013
Ancient mural may be first picture of volcanic blast

In 1963, archaeologist James Mellaart found a large mural on the wall of a house in Çatalhöyük, Turkey - the largest known Stone Age town. He interpreted it as depicting the town's dwellings with a twin-peaked volcano, Hasan Daa, in the process of erupting. But not everyone agreed with Mellaart, partly because there was no evidence that people of Çatalhöyük saw Hasan Daa erupt.
     Axel Schmitt, a volcanologist of the University of California in Los Angeles, has now climbed Hasan Daa with his colleagues and collected samples from layers of volcanic rock formed during an explosive eruption, confirming the rocks are about 9000 years old - roughly the same age as the mural. What's more, geological evidence suggests the mural was a relatively accurate depiction - a small eruption characterised by the ejection of bright cinder particles and chunks of molten rock, tens of metres above the crater.
     Stephanie Meece, who studied the Çatalhöyük mural while at the University of Cambridge, concludes that the 'volcano' is a depiction of a leopard skin, and the 'town' a collection of abstract shapes - which was Mellaart's original impression. Other art at Çatalhöyük shows the people who lived there were obsessed with wild animals, Meece says, and painted them often.
     Schmitt says the geological evidence is still important, and speculates on a possible compromise. "Zoomorphism could satisfy both interpretations," he says. "Hasan Daa could be seen as the 'leopard mountain'."

Edited from NewScientist (30 October 2013)

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