Ancient Dead Buried In Their Homes In Çatalhöyük
In 2020, archaeologists researching in Turkey discovered ancient homes containing their owners’ bones. Inhabited between 7500 BC and 5700 BC, Çatalhöyük was an important Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement overlooking the Konya Plain, southeast of the present-day city of Konya (ancient Iconium) in Turkey. An archaeologist from Szczecin in Poland discovered that some of the residents may have been buried within the confines of their own homes in shallow graves covered with plaster. Interestingly, evidence suggests some of the graves had been reopened to remove body parts to make room for new corpses.
Studying Ancient Anatolian Burials
This discovery came after a major 2015 archaeological project photographed the ancient site with unmanned aerial vehicles, and Dr Hodder told Hurriyet Daily News his team had performed “low altitude aerial photographic surveys” and produced a 3D digital map of the landscape of Çatalhöyük and its environs, providing further understanding of the site’s relationship with other Neolithic settlements in the Konya Plain.
Looking down over the south excavation of Çatalhöyük, pre-2015 season. (Çatalhöyük Research Project / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Çatalhöyük was first excavated by archaeologist James Mellaart between 1958 and 1965, and 18 successive archaeological layers of buildings provided evidence of an advanced Anatolian Neolithic culture who had settled as early as 7100 BC.
The ancient city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 and since 2001 archaeologists from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, have been studying the ancient city revealing how it might have functioned, and this not only requires mapping its architecture but also discovering how its residents were treated after death.
Determining the Cause of Death
Researchers were aware that many ancient people had been buried in houses in the city but the mystery of whether the residents were buried in their own homes, or with larger numbers of people, has now been solved by Assistant professor Katarzyna Harabasz from the University of Szczecin.
Archaeologists unearth the skeletal remains from the Çatalhöyük excavation site. (Çatalhöyük Research Project / Jason Quinlan)
In one of the houses that had been lived in around 6700-6500 BC the archaeologist discovered the bones of a woman between 35 and 50 years old and organic soot found on her remains. According Dr. Harabasz, this suggests the woman had inhaled hearth fumes, which had caused chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that may have led to changes in her lung tissue, “resulting in respiratory failure.”
The archaeologists discovered bodies in shallow graves covered with plaster and some had been reopened to remove body parts to make room for new corpses and Dr. Harabasz linked this occurrence to the wider context in which the remains were discovered. She noted that the hearth was located in an area inside the home without good ventilation meaning the fumes were unable to escape, which would have depreciated the air quality.
Aerial shot from one of the Neolithic homes in the ancient city of Çatalhöyük. (Çatalhöyük Research Project / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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An Ancient Site With a Checkered Past
Dr. Harabasz represents a new breed of archaeologists at Çatalhöyük with international scientists having something of a shady past at the site after its discovery by British archaeologist, James Mellaart, in 1958, who was eventually banned from Turkey for his involvement in the Dorak affair. After publishing drawings of priceless Bronze Age artifacts, that latter went missing, Mellaart claimed he had been on a train in 1958 and noticed unique jewelry on the wrist of Anna Papastrati and that later, at her home, he saw the treasures himself.
The story was covered by The Illustrated London News, which sparked the attention of Turkish authorities who demanded to know why they had not been informed of the artifacts. When Turkish police searched for Papastrati’s home in Izmir, not only did the address Mellaart give them not exist, but her name was not found in any Turkish records.
And if all this wasn’t enough to cast doubt over the British archaeologist, according to a 2005 Scoop article, the letter that Papastrati supposedly wrote was discovered as having been penned by Arlette Mellaart, James’ wife, which caused Turkish officials to expel and eventually ban Mellaart from Turkey on suspected antiquities smuggling charges.
Top image: Main: Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart. Inset: Dr. Harabasz excavating some of bones. Source: Omar Hoftun / CC BY-SA 3.0 & Çatalhöyük Research Project / Jason Quinlan
By Ashley Cowie