In Neolithic Anatolian Çatalhöyük burials, in what is often called the world’s oldest city (modern-day Turkey), people sometimes decorated the skeletal remains and the burial chamber walls of the deceased with splashes and dashes of colorful paint. In most instances people’s homes were actually repurposed as unique Çatalhöyük burial chambers and surviving family members would continue to live in the houses with their loved ones buried beneath the floors below. An impressive team of archaeological experts from 10 countries has just published a new study in the journal Scientific Reports that illuminates the details of Çatalhöyük burials by people who lived in one of the world’s oldest cities in 7,000 BC.
The latest study has revealed that the Çatalhöyük burials also involved painting the skeleton like this cranium colored with red ochre. (Marco Milella / University of Bern )
Çatalhöyük Burials Involved Skeleton and Wall Painting
Previous excavations at various Neolithic sites in Anatolia had found traces of paint on skeletons and the walls of buildings where people had been buried. But the evidence collected at these sites was only fragmentary in most cases, with some elements found but other elements missing.
Only at Çatalhöyük were archaeologists able to discover burial sites that revealed the full scope and true nature of ancient burial practices in the region. Archaeologists have been exploring the ruins of Çatalhöyük for more than 25 years, and during that time they’ve uncovered enough evidence to facilitate a deep analysis of Neolithic funerary customs .
“For the first time, we show connections between burial rituals, living areas and the use of dyes in this fascinating society,” lead study author Dr. Marco Milella, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Bern, said in a news release issued by his employer.
Dr. Milella was assisted in this groundbreaking study by experts from Australia, the United States, Turkey, and several countries in Europe. This highlights the interest and excitement that the extensive Neolithic ruins at Çatalhöyük have generated in the archaeological community over the years.
Examples of funerary pigment use in Çatalhöyük burials. ( Scientific Reports )
Neolithic Spirituality and the Ritual Painting of the Dead
Marco Milella is on the faculty of the Bern Institute for Forensic Medicine, an affiliate of the University of Bern Anthropology Department. His job, as he describes it, is to solve “skeletal puzzles,” which involve finding out the age and gender of skeletal remains, figuring out how they died, and determining whether buried bones or bodies had been subject to any special treatment.
In putting together the pieces of the puzzle in Çatalhöyük, Dr. Milella and his colleagues discovered that selected skeletons had in fact been treated differently than others. These skeletons had been decorated to various degrees with paint, often in multiple layers or applications. This showed they had been dug up from their original graves multiple times, to be decorated and reburied again at some point in the future.
It isn’t known if paint was added to the flesh of these bodies at the time of their initial burials. But the walls of their homes would have been ritually painted as part of that first burial ceremonial, and again each time they were dug up and reburied after that.
The archaeological team discovered that the bones buried and reburied at Çatalhöyük were most frequently stained with paint made from red ochre, a substance that humans have used to make dye or paint for tens of thousands of years . Males were painted in a bright red color, while female bones were decorated with a blue-green version of the ochre preparation. The same colors were also used to coat the walls of their burial chambers (their homes) .
The researchers found a direct relationship between the number of burials in a particular building and the number of paint layers applied to their walls.
“This means when they buried someone, they also painted the walls of the house,” Dr. Milella explained.
This practice was apparently followed with both burials and reburials. In some instances, individuals would be dug up and kept above ground for a while, circulating through the family or neighborhood as they were passed from house to house. Eventually they would be returned to their place of origin for reburial, and at that time the bones and walls of the house would be given a fresh coat of paint to complete the funeral ceremony.
A geometric wall painting in Çatalhöyük. (Jason Quinlan / Catalhoyuk Research Project )
Exploring the Culture of One of the World’s Oldest Cities
Çatalhöyük was first occupied around 7,500 BC and remained the home of between 5,000 and 10,000 for the next 1,100 years. Its design was different than that of modern cities, in that its residences and other buildings were all densely packed into a 32-acre (13-hectare) plot of land.
Çatalhöyük’s mudbrick homes were built so close together that people could pass from one rooftop to another with ease, and they could travel the entire length and width of the residential compound without ever touching the ground. People lived in homes that were uniform in size and design, suggesting that the society in Neolithic Çatalhöyük was organized along egalitarian lines without great disparities in wealth or power.
Urban renewal projects were launched every 50-75 years. But instead of expanding onto new lands, the ancient Anatolians of Çatalhöyük built over the top of those that were already occupied. This practice created a large mound of buried rubble over time, making it appear as if the final version of Çatalhöyük had been built on top of a mesa or flattened hilltop. Archaeologists have uncovered 18 separate layers of buildings at the city site, which reveals how committed the people of Çatalhöyük were to honoring past architectural traditions and preserving their society’s cultural, economic, and spiritual practices and belief systems.
The people grew fruits and vegetables and grazed cattle on the land surrounding the city and hunted on the lands beyond. But all other economic and cultural activities took place within the confines of Çatalhöyük’s condensed square complex of residential buildings. Many daily activities, including the preparation of food for meals, were routinely performed communally or cooperatively. All the buildings in Çatalhöyük were residential or domestic, indicating that the city’s system of governance was rooted in the community and didn’t require separate administrative or bureaucratic facilities.
Given the closed nature of Neolithic Çatalhöyük society (closed in both the figurative and literal senses), it’s not surprising to learn that the people preferred to keep their deceased loved ones close by. With city land occupied exclusively by houses there was no space for cemeteries, and thus the only option was to bury the dead in the ground directly beneath people’s feet. Ancestor worship likely played a prominent role in this society’s religious beliefs, and that might explain why people chose to dig up the bones of the deceased from time to time.
On-site restoration of a typical interior in Çatalhöyük in 7,000 BC. (Elelicht / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Who Were the Painted People of Çatalhöyük?
Despite the egalitarian aspects of Çatalhöyük culture, only a select few individuals were given the honor of having their skeletons decorated with paint. And from among this group, it seems that only some were kept above ground for a while after reburial, to have their bones passed around the community. The limited application of such practices suggests the chosen few enjoyed some special status, although what that status might have been is not clear at the present time.
“The criteria for selecting these individuals are not yet known,” Dr. Milella confirmed. “Our study shows that this selection is not related to age or gender.”
Religious diversity would be one possible explanation.
While artifacts and painted religious iconography discovered in the city suggest the people of Çatalhöyük shared certain core spiritual beliefs and values, their specific religious affiliations may have been varied. Just as Christians today belong to many denominations, the ancient Anatolians may have joined different sects or groups that practiced different versions of the society’s fundamental religion. If only a small number of these sects adopted burial rituals that involved the adding of paint to homes and skeletal remains, that would explain why only selected individuals were honored in this way.
Because it was occupied for more than 1,000 years and includes 18 layers of occupation, Çatalhöyük will keep archaeologists busy for decades to come. As excavations continue, they may uncover new evidence that will help them further decode the intriguing and fascinating complexities of spiritual and societal practices in Neolithic-era Anatolia.
Top image: Neolithic Anatolian Çatalhöyük burials, a new study has revealed, involved painting skeletons with red ochre and other dyes or paints, and this was in 7,000 BC! Source: Jason Quinlan / Catalhoyuk Research Project
By Nathan Falde