Çatalhöyük is a 13ha Neolithic proto-city in Turkey (300km from modern day Ankara), settled more than 9,000 years ago, where two 8,000-year-old female figurines have also been uncovered, amongst a host of other artefacts. Described as one of the world’s oldest cities, in its heyday it was a vast settlement, after it was first settled in 7100BC. At that time, is was one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Anatolia in Turkey, home to around 8,000 people.
Archaeological excavations at Çatalhöyük took place between 1961 and 1965 and then from 1993 to 2017. These showed that the inhabitants accessed their homes through the roof, which acted as the city’s streets. Many burials have also been uncovered from the site, and another interesting fact is that they buried their dead inside their houses.
A new study analyses the burial practices of Çatalhöyük, according to which, ” Burials mostly occurred within domestic structures during the occupation phase of houses and for a minority in construction and abandonment phases of the buildings. Adults were most often placed in a flexed position, located beneath the northern and eastern platforms of the central room. Perinate, neonate and infants were buried in more variable locations within the house.”
It also seems that people ritualistically painted some of their dead before burial. The team studied the remains of individuals and also analyzed the pigments used on them or on associated burial items. The found that only a small number of individuals were painted, and that the pigments used were influenced by sex and age of the deceased.
According to the study, “The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük practiced funerary differentiation which is clear when considering that only a small number of individuals were treated with pigments. Whereas the choice to use pigments or not, as part of funerary treatment, seems not to have been influenced by the sex and age of the deceased, the choice of specific pigments such as cinnabar, azurite and malachite, appears to be associated with aspects of the social identity of the deceased.”
Approximately 6 percent of the individuals studied had direct application of pigments on their bodies, and 11 percent of grave goods such as shells, baskets, bowls and bones ornaments featured pigment.
A pigment known as cinnabar (which has been of special importance in many cultures for its bright red colour), was applied to the heads (on the frontal and temporal bones only of males only) in Çatalhöyük, which could suggest their important status.
Cinnabar is also present on a few wall paintings. On the other hand, blue and green burial associations were solely present in burials of females and children.
“These colours have sometimes been associated with concepts of growth, fertility and ripeness, which are abstractions that could be related to the transition to agriculture”, write the researchers. The study also shows that red ochre was most commonly used, as it is present on some adults of both sexes and children.
There are also indications that the number of burials in a building appears to be associated with the number of subsequent layers of architectural paintings. This could imply that, “when they buried someone, they also painted on the walls of the house”, says senior author Marco Milella. The skeletal remains of some of the individuals were retrieved and circulated for some time before being buried again and the second burial was also accompanied by wall paintings. “Other individuals, either as complete bodies or loose skeletal elements, remained in the community,” the researchers write.
Although the purpose of this practice is not clear at the moment, the researchers think it might have been a way of keeping the memory of the departed alive.
“According to socio-cultural anthropologists, collective memory is handed down from generation to generation through repetition of past actions and by direct object-to-memory association,” they explain. “Intramural burials may have been a part of processes of memory retention with each interment contributing to communal memory by keeping the deceased close to the daily rhythm of repeated household activities.”
In any case, as Marco Milella says, “These results reveal exciting insights about the association between the use of colorants, funerary rituals and living spaces in this fascinating society”.
The full study.