The archaeological site of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, is known as the oldest city in the world, a Neolithic settlement where the skeletons were colored, a funerary practice on which a study provides new data.
The research, in which the University of Bern publish Scientific Reports indicates that the bones were partially painted, excavated several times, and reburied, findings that allow us to learn more about the funerary rituals of a society that lived 9,000 years ago.
In the 13-hectare Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, the adobe houses show the archaeological traces of ritual activities, including intramural burials with some skeletons that show remains of dyes and mural paintings.
The association between the use of dyes and symbolic activities is documented in many human societies, and in the Middle East, the use of pigments in architectural and funerary contexts becomes especially frequent from the second half of the 9th century and the 8th century BC.
“Association between the use of dyes and funerary rituals”
The new research provides the first analysis of the use of pigments in funerary and architectural contexts at this essential Neolithic site.
The results reveal “exciting insights into the association between the use of dyes, burial rituals, and living spaces in this fascinating society,” explained Marco Milella of the University of Bern and one of the text’s signatories.
Ocher was the most commonly used color at Çatalhöyük, present in some adults of both sexes and children, while cinnabar (vermilion) and blue/green were associated with men and women, respectively.
“When they buried someone, they painted on the walls of the house”
The research indicates that the number of burials in a building seems to be associated with the number of layers of paint it received, which suggests a contextual link between funerary deposition and the application of colorants in the domestic space.
“When they buried someone, they also painted on the walls of the house,” Milella explained, adding that in Çatalhöyük, some individuals “remained” in the community.
That is, its bone elements were recovered and circulated for some time, before being reburied. This second burial was also accompanied by wall paintings.
“The selection criteria are beyond our understanding”
Only a selection of individuals were buried with dyes, and only a portion remained in the community with their bones in circulation, but the selection criteria “are, for now, beyond our understanding, which makes these findings, according to Milella, even more interesting.”
This selection of people, according to the research, was not related to age or sex, although it is clear that visual expression, ritual performance, and symbolic associations were elements of long-term shared sociocultural practices in this Neolithic society.