The coloured skeletons of Çatalhöyük, Turkey

New insights into early mortuary practices at Çatalhöyük, with some skeletons buried, reburied, and partially painted.

Çatalhöyük in Turkey is one of the most thoroughly investigated archaeological sites in the world, thanks to decades of internationally organized research. The excavations and surveys, which use state-of-the-art research methods, have revealed life in an early farming community in remarkable detail. The first settlers arrived about 9,000 years ago, morphing into a settlement that covered 13 hectares, much of it densely packed mudbrick dwellings. This was a community where everyone lived in close association both with the harsh day-to-day realities of subsistence farming and herding, but also immersed in an intricate, ever-changing relationship with the supernatural realm. Ritual surrounded everyone, much of it concerned with revering ancestors in a community, perhaps even a small town, with a strong sense of tradition and place. Çatalhöyük had close associations with the mythic beings and powerful forces of the spiritual realm.


New research has focused on the earliest burials, which reveal numerous secondary funeral rituals. These included the removal and circulation of skulls and other skeletal remains, reburials, and the constant use of pigments both on bodies and in surrounding spaces. The pigments used included red ochre, used on both male and female adults and children, with cinnabar and blue/green being common.


Interestingly the number of burials in a building appears to coincide with the number of layers of later wall paintings. There may well have been a direct association between funerary activities and the application of colours in domestic spaces.


The skeletal remains of some individuals were recovered, then circulated for a while before being reburied. It is as if they remained part of the community in active way. A second phase of painting accompanied the reburial. Only a few individuals were buried with colourants and only parts of their bodies were circulated. What criteria were used to determine who received such treatment remain a mystery, but it is clear that ritual performance and symbolic associations played a major role in the intricate lives of Çatalhöyük people.


Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: Skeleton of man found at the site, aged 35-50, with cinnabar painting on cranium.

Credit: Marco Milella