The cemetery of painted corpses

It is in the “oldest city in the world” (Çatalhöyük, Turkey). There they worshipped their dead 9,000 years ago in a particular way. They exhumed the remains to paint their bones and rebury them. That is why it is the cemetery of painted corpses.

The cemetery of painted corpses is in the oldest city in the world.
The cemetery of painted corpses is in the oldest city in the world.

Talking skeletons

It is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Near East.It covers an area of 13 hectares and has densely aggregated adobe buildings. In the houses there are archaeological traces of funerary ritual activities. They include intramural burials, with skeletons with traces of dyes.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The lead author is Marco Milella (University of Bern). “There were interesting insights here. They associated the use of dyes, burial rituals and living spaces. It was a fascinating society.”

His work consists of trying to make ancient and modern skeletons “talk.” Establishing age and sex, investigating violent injuries or special treatment of the corpse. The study shows that red ochre was the most commonly used at Çatalhöyük, present in some adults of both sexes and children. Cinnabar and blue/green were associated with males and females, respectively. The number of burials in a building appears associated with the number of subsequent layers of architectural paints.

Detail of a painted skull.
Detail of a painted skull.

Rituals and paintings

“That means: when they buried someone, they also painted on the walls of the house.” This is what Milella says in a statement. Some remains were recovered and circulated for some time, before being reburied. This second burial of skeletal elements was also accompanied by mural paintings.

Only a selection of individuals was buried with dyes. “We ignore the criteria that guided the selection of these individuals. Our study shows that this selection was not related to age or sex.”

The graveyard of painted corpses still holds secrets. But one thing is clear. Visual expression, ritual performance and symbolic associations were a primordial part of their society.

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