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Re-bagging the skeletal material from Mellaart's original excavations at Çatalhöyük

Between 1961 and 1965 James Mellaart excavated the skeletal remains of nearly 500 Neolithic individuals at Çatalhöyük. The first physical anthropologists to examine the skeletal material were J. Lawrence Angel and Denise Ferembach in the late 1960s. Angel focused on the health and demographic structure of the assemblage1, while Ferembach carried out an osteometric analysis of the crania and long bones2. The remains have since been kept in storage at Ankara University.

In the summer of 2009, after several years of negotiation, the remains were finally returned to the site where they had rested for thousands of years. The primary reason for their return was to integrate the material with the human remains excavated at Çatalhöyük since the 1990s. A secondary objective was to sample the remains for radiocarbon dating purposes in order to tie in Mellaart’s stratigraphic sequence with data from the current excavations.

Mellaart's skeletal assemblage

Mellaart’s skeletal assemblage in their original bags and packaging.

Upon their return, the first goal was to reorganize and repack the remains, as the original bags were deteriorating and the bones were at risk of damage. Despite our fears, however, the majority of the bones remained in remarkably good condition. The repacking of the bones was completed by the end of the 2009 season, but the task of fully inventorying the assemblage continues. A major problem is the loss of bag labels over the years, and while some bones have been labelled with stratigraphic level and house number, many are without such information. In some cases it appears that bones which were originally in separately labeled bags have since been commingled, thus complicating the inventory process. In addition, a significant number of bags contain skeletal material which has no provenience information whatsoever.

The 1960s skeletal material in their old packaging

The 1960s skeletal material in their old packaging and with their original labels.

Once I began inventorying and repacking the assemblage it became immediately clear that the skeletal material now in our possession is a much smaller subset of the original collection. While preparing the material for radiocarbon sampling in 2009, an MNI (minimum number of individuals) of 160 was determined. Somewhere along the way, a large proportion of Mellaart’s skeletons has gone missing. Perhaps the remaining material is still at Ankara University, mislabeled and mislaid. At any rate, the inventory and analysis of Mellaart’s assemblage remains a work in progress. A major problem is reconstructing the demographic profile of the surviving assemblage, as skeletal elements from multiple individuals are often mixed together, and many of the bones required for sex assessment such as crania/mandibles and os coxae are missing or highly fragmented. The challenge of integrating the older collection with the current human remains database also lies ahead.

Repacked skeletal remains

Repacked skeletal remains containing new labels. The old labels have been retained (lower right).

Despite its rather mixed up and incomplete nature, Mellaart’s skeletal assemblage still represents a valuable addition to the collection of human remains recovered from Çatalhöyük since the 1990s. It provides us with an opportunity to compare and reassess earlier interpretations of Neolithic health and demography based on this material, while also allowing for the application of approaches and techniques developed since the 1960s. An exciting example of this is the use of X-Ray Florescence (XRF) to identify mercury sulfide (HgS), better known as cinnabar, in red pigments applied to several skulls in the Mellaart assemblage. XRF technology was also used to identify ferric oxides associated with red ochre, another pigment found on several skulls.

Testing one of the painted crania using a portable x-ray florescence analyser.

Dr. Tristan Carter tests one of the painted crania using a portable x-ray florescence analyser.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Mellaart skeletal collection is the historical nature of the assemblage itself and the traces left by the archaeologists and physical anthropologists who recovered and analysed the material over 40 years ago. One example is a set of three business cards belonging to James Mellaart used as bag labels during his last season of excavation at Çatalhöyük in 1965. At the time, Mellaart was the assistant director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. On the reverse of one of the cards Mellaart wrote the location of the skeletal material: “E VI 44” (Excavation Area E, Level VI, Building 44), “Skull fragments and teeth of Burial 2. 22nd of July 1965.” In the upper right corner of each card, J. Lawrence Angel (JLA) has written in pencil the number he assigned to each skeleton he analyzed: “229 CH”. Such discoveries in the course of my work repacking and inventorying the remains were quite thrilling.

Mellaart's business cards used as bag labels

James Mellaart’s business cards used as bag labels. During the 1960s excavations at Çatalhöyük Mellaart was assistant director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. J. Lawrence Angel’s initials (written in pencil) are also visible.

1Angel, JL. 1971. Early Neolithic skeletons from Catal Hüyük: Demography and pathology. Anatolian Studies 21:77-98.
2Ferembach, D. 1972. Les hommes du gisement néolithique de Çatal Hüyük. In: Turk Tarih Kongresi VII (Ankara). 15-21.