I’m heading to Turkey on Saturday for another two-month excavation season at Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement located in southeastern Anatolia near the city of Konya. The site is over 9,000 years old, marking it as one of the earliest permanent settlements in the world. While not the oldest, it is the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site in the Near East.
Çatalhöyük means “the forked mound” in Turkish and refers to the topography of the site, which consists of two mounds divided by a series of river channels. The site was discovered by British archaeologist James Mellaart in 1958 and he conducted four seasons of excavations there between 1961 and 1965. In 1993, Ian Hodder launched the Çatalhöyük Research Project, a new series of large-scale excavations at the site involving an international team of archaeologists and other specialists.
I’ve been part of the human remains team at Çatalhöyük since 2004. My job is to assist the archaeologists in the excavation of burials and to record and analyse the skeletal material in the lab. The Neolithic inhabitants of Çatalhöyük buried their dead under the floors of their houses rather than burying them in areas reserved strictly for interments (i.e. cemeteries). As such, human remains team members are frequently called upon to deal with burials found during the course of excavations.
While the site is best known for its Neolithic period settlement, there is also an early Chalcolithic settlement located on a smaller mound just west of the main site. The entire site was completely abandoned in the Chalcolithic and not re-used until the Roman and Byzantine periods when both mounds were used as a burial ground. The site continued to be used as a cemetery during the Islamic period and into the 20th century. The archaeologists often encounter these intrusive, post-Chalcolithic burials just below the surface of the mound. While less studied at the moment, these individuals are excavated and recorded with the same attention and care given to the Neolithic burials. The “Late burials”, as they are referred to on site, are easily distinguished from the Neolithic inhumations by the positioning of the body: “Late burials” are typically extended dorsally (on their back) with the head to the west (some of the Islamic burials are laid on their right side), while Neolithic burials are tightly flexed in a foetal position.
The human remains team at Çatalhöyük is the largest I’ve ever worked with on a single project. I’ve been fortunate to work with physical anthropologists such as Simon Hillson (my former PhD supervisor), Clark Spencer Larsen, Christopher Ruff and Sabrina Agarwal, as well as many young students and recent graduates. It’s been – and continues to be – a great learning experience and I’m very proud to be associated with one of the most cutting-edge archaeological projects in the world. Internet connection permitting, I plan to post weekly updates of the work we’ll be conducting over the next eight weeks. Please stay tuned!