Skull Retrieval and Secondary Burial Practices in the Neolithic Near East: Recent Insights from Çatalhöyük, Turkey

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The retrieval and re-deposition of elements of the human skeleton, especially the skull (i.e., cranium and mandible), is a common feature of Neolithic Near Eastern funerary practices. A complicated sequence of subfloor inhumations involving both primary and secondary burial treatments at Çatalhöyük demonstrates the range of funerary practices encountered at the site and elsewhere in the Neolithic Near East. This particular sequence of burials culminated in a stratigraphically verified case of post-inhumation skull removal from a primary intramural inhumation. However, the retrieval of crania and skulls from primary burials cannot account for the total number of re-deposited crania and skulls found in a variety of depositional contexts at the site. Based on increasing evidence for an extended interval between death and burial at Çatalhöyük, the removal and circulation of skulls from unburied bodies as part of a multi-stage funerary rite is proposed as another method for obtaining them, operating in parallel with their retrieval from primary intramural burials. These divergent practices, and the range of contexts from which secondarily deposited skeletal elements are recovered, reflect multiple funerary treatments and intentions likely tied to social distinctions that remain poorly understood. In order to begin to fully understand the social and cosmological meaning(s) of the Neolithic “skull cult,” however, we must first distinguish between what are essentially equifinal processes in the archaeological record. This work will involve careful attention to the spatiotemporal contexts in which isolated skeletal elements are found, in addition to meticulous osteological and taphonomic analyses of the bones themselves.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBioarchaeology International
Issue number1–2
Pages (from-to)52-71
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2017

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