There’s an eerie calm in the Human Remains lab this week. At this point last season we’d already lifted or were in the process of uncovering a number of burials from all three areas of the site (North, South and TPC). So far this year we’ve only excavated a Neolithic infant burial from the North Area and a post-Chalcolithic adult female burial from the TPC Area. This will change very soon, however, as the excavation team is preparing to open up house platforms in Building 52 in the North Area and Building 80 in the South Area. We can already see the tell-tale oval depressions in the platform surfaces that indicate the presence of burials underneath. I’ve generated a pre-excavation three-dimensional model of the northern platforms in Building 52 (above) and from here onwards we plan on documenting each stage of the excavation process as burials are uncovered. This will enable us to reconstruct the burial sequence under each platform and to produce digitized plans of each skeleton without resorting to the time-consuming process of drawing the skeletons by hand.
In the meantime, we’re nearly caught up with processing the backlog of human bone from last season. One of the last burials left from the 2012 season is that of an infant found in the north floor of Building 77. Infants at Çatalhöyük, especially newborns, are often buried in baskets or wrapped in mats made of reed. We know this because traces of white, powdery material called phytolith are often found clinging to the bones and the bottom of the grave cut. Phytoliths are the silica skeletons of plants that survive in the archaeological record after the organic component has decomposed. In many cases the phytoliths found in burials maintain the form of the original weave pattern, allowing us to know whether it was a basket, which has a circular pattern, or a mat, which has a square pattern. What makes this particular infant burial special is that fibrous organic material from the reed mat has been partially preserved as a result of the fire that consumed Building 77 after its abandonment. Because of this exceptional preservation, the conservation team decided it was better to block-lift the entire burial and excavate it in the lab. At the end of last season Philippa Ryan, our resident phytolith expert, sampled and recorded traces of the mat covering the skeleton and now we’ve begun to excavate the skeleton itself. It’s a slow, delicate task and Barbara has only uncovered roughly half of the skeleton so far. I’ll be posting more photos as her work progresses.