On the southeast slope of the main mound at Çatalhöyük, away from the bustle and dust of the excavation shelters, a solitary grave marker stands among the tall grass. It marks the final resting place of Güllü Ayşa, a woman from the nearby village of Küçükköy who died in 1933 and was refused a place in the town cemetery. Her grave represents the last known burial at Çatalhöyük after 9,500 years of interments beginning in the Neolithic period and ending in the 20th century. It is a remarkable testament to the power and longevity of social memory operating amid an ancient landscape.
The East Mound at Çatalhöyük is famous for the well-preserved Neolithic settlement that lies beneath its grassy surface. Over a period of roughly 1,400 years, the inhabitants of the site buried their dead under the floors of their houses, blurring the distinction between spaces for the living and spaces for the dead. Çatalhöyük is considerably less well-known, however, for the vast number of post-Neolithic burials that overlie the prehistoric layers of the site.
After the abandonment of the East Mound c. 6000 BCE, a Chalcolithic settlement was established on what is now known as the West Mound of Çatalhöyük, located a short distance from the larger East Mound and separated by a channel of the Çarşamba River. The West Mound appears to have been occupied throughout the first half of the 6th millennium BCE and subsequently abandoned. It is not until the Roman Period that evidence occurs for renewed human activity on the East and West Mounds. By this time, some 6,000 years later, most cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East had developed clear spatial distinctions for the living and the dead, typically in the form of burial grounds located outside of the settlement. From this period onward, both mounds at Çatalhöyük were used as a cemetery that served an as yet unidentified settlement or settlements.
These “Late” burials are found just below the modern surface of both mounds, often truncating Neolithic and Chalcolithic walls, middens and other features. Disturbed Neolithic artifacts are often found in the grave fill of these burials as a result of the grave cut intruding into the prehistoric layers. The post-Chalcolithic populations burying their dead here would have been well aware of the site’s occupation in the distant past and they would also have encountered the graves of the earlier inhabitants. What would they have thought of these ancient ruins and the bones of these earlier people? They may have chosen the mound as a burial ground precisely because of its ancient past, perhaps to declare a link between themselves and their much earlier predecessors. The practice of building on the ruins of previous cultures is one way in which social memory is constructed and transmitted – sometimes to connect with the past, but just as often to break with it. For example, Muslim cemeteries frequently sprout up next to Pharaonic mortuary sites in Egypt, while early Christian churches are often built on the foundations of pagan religious sites throughout Europe.
Prior to 2007, the post-Chalcolithic burials at Çatalhöyük were believed to date to the Roman and Byzantine periods based on the standard east-west extended orientation of the bodies (with the head to the west), grave construction and burial goods (or lack of them). Traces of wood and iron nails found within grave cuts indicate coffins were sometimes used. Some burials contain grave goods – usually glass or ceramic vessels, bronze toiletry items, carved bone hair pins and weaving tools, etc. These graves have been dated to the early Roman period based on artifact typologies. Other graves, however, do not contain burial goods or elaborate grave architecture. These have been interpreted as belonging to a Christian mortuary practice and assigned to the Late Roman/Byzantine period. These interpretations changed, however, after radiocarbon dates obtained for a series of burials from the East Mound showed that some of the graves date from the Late Seljuk period to the Ottoman period (13th-17th century AD) 1. During this time, the people of the region underwent a gradual process of conversion from Christianity to Islam.
The reason we had not identified these burials as Islamic beforehand is because Christian and Muslim burial practices at Çatalhöyük are nearly identical; these similarities are due in large part to geography: in the Islamic burial tradition the shrouded body is placed directly in the ground (no coffin) on its right side so that it faces Mecca. Due to these spatial considerations, the orientation of the body will vary depending on its geographical relationship to the Arabian Peninsula. For example, a body buried in Egypt will be aligned north-south with the head to the south (facing east). A body buried in Iran will be oriented north-south with the head to the north (facing west). In Turkey, the body is oriented east-west with the head to the west (facing south) – an alignment that mirrors Christian burial practices. As such, the only feature of the Islamic tradition that distinguishes Muslim from Christian burials at Çatalhöyük is the placement of the body (or sometimes only the head) on its side so that it faces south towards Mecca. In addition, grave goods are not typically included in Christian or Muslim interments, making it difficult to date burials based on artifact typologies.
At some point in time the local population stopped using the mound at Çatalhöyük as a place of burial. Perhaps it was no longer considered appropriate for Muslims to be buried among the ancient graves of non-believers. A walled cemetery within the village of Küçükköy now serves as the last resting place for the townspeople – except for Güllü Ayşa. Her story, recounted by the local staff who work at the site, is a sad one. Accused of adultery, she had earned a reputation among the villagers as a “kötü yola düşmüş kadın” – a fallen woman. For the remainder of her life she was considered an outcast; when she died the townspeople would not allow her a proper burial in the village cemetery. Instead, her family buried her on the high mound that looms above the village. They must have remembered, however dimly, the long history of burials that once took place there. If she could not be buried with her family in the town itself, at least she would join the much older community of the dead at Çatalhöyük. Today she lies peacefully among the graves of the ancients: pagan, Christian and Muslim. The inscription on her grave marker reads:
“The late Güllü Ayşa,
Daughter of Huseyin,
A prayer for her soul”
1Kwiatkowska, M. (2009) Byzantine and Muslim cemeteries at Çatalhöyük – an outline. In Vorderstrasse, T. and Roodenberg, J. (eds.), Archaeology of the Countryside in Medieval Anatolia (PIHANS 113). Leiden: Netherlands Institute for the Near East.