The neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, in what was Anatolia or Asia Minor and now Turkey, is considered to be the oldest known city in the world, making it one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. While ancient, the civilization living there 9000 years ago showed a remarkable talent for acquiring and using colorful pigments for ceremonial, decorative and funeral activities. A new study published in Scientific Reports focused on one strange practice – the painting of skeletons. Since the skeletons appear to have been painted a number of times with different colors, the reasons were a puzzling and somewhat macabre mystery to researchers.
The strangeness starts with the burials themselves – the graves are typically underneath buildings, which were tightly packed in this densely populated city. The skeletons uncovered by earlier archeologists were partially painted with bright colors and the signs indicated they had been removed one or more times to paint. Researchers from the University of Bern on the new study noticed something unusual – the number of burial layers under a building matched layers of paintings found on its wall. As senior study author Marco Milella explains in the press release:
"This means when they buried someone, they also painted on the walls of the house."
After making that connection between burial and building, they found another. The colors used on the skeletons were unique to the sex of the person, and the colors matched those used on the wall when they were buried. Red ochre was most popular – used on children and adults – while cinnabar (a brownish red) was found on males and blue/green on females. Then it gets stranger – some of the remains appear to have been dug up a second time and painted again … but not reburied right away.
“Some individuals "stayed" in the community: their skeletal elements were retrieved and circulated for some time, before they were buried again. This second burial of skeletal elements was also accompanied by wall paintings.”
Bones, but not complete skeletons, were repainted and passed around the community for a while – possibly as a sign of reverence of the dead. When they were buried again, their colors were added to a new painting on the building’s walls. The researchers have not yet identified the reason why only some of the skeletons were painted – there seems to be no correlation between selecting which bones to paint and age or sex. But they definitely “provide new insights into pigment use by this community, by showing the internal dynamics of this particular society and contributing to the interpretation of mortuary practices in Neolithic Anatolia.”
The usage of pigments to paint skeletons and corresponding wall designs lasted until around 6500 BCE, as the resident of Çatalhöyük increased productivity, increased the social autonomy of single households, and moved to a more dispersed settlement pattern, thus reducing ritual ties such as the painting and sharing of ancestral bones. The study recommends future analysis of other Neolithic Anatolia sites for the use of mortuary pigment.
While less macabre, it’s still sad to see cultures lose these rituals that bind people together to remember their ancestors and loved ones.