Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Painted Skull

Human society is a rampaging beast, an infinitely dense tapestry. Arising from this, the immensity of the existent unknown, it forges discrete ideologies and mythologies. Each human at once works to imprint them into the minds of children, through stories and symbols. The internal thoughts and feelings of people make them thus both participants and witnesses to their own beliefs. This forged construct stays coherent only by the ever vigilant discharging of ion channels within neural networks. The substance of a belief: its stories, myths, traditions, are thoughts in someone's mind. Once that thinker has passed a boundary, and will never recall those thoughts, the belief fades away and dissolves. This leaves us in a strange predicament – can we, thousands of years later, possibly determine a belief once dissipated? That task might be too great, but do not give up hope for we are not lost at sea! We have been left with heaps of material and context, and compelled by our curiosity to attempt to piece it all back together.

There is one specific belief which I have in mind, one which calls out to be reconstructed. No one wrote about this belief, in fact it died out thousands of years before the invention of writing. This thought structure has left modernity with a very strange and unique historical record, absolutely specific to its time and place. This curious tradition blossomed between 7,000 and 6,000 BCE in the Middle East, and while the belief itself is not known the results of its practice are. In fact, the evidence of this belief is inscribed directly onto the human skull.

A plastered and painted skull from Tell Aswan, PPNB period, 7,000-6,000 BCE

By this time in human history, people lived in mud brick houses, and within those houses people built platforms on which to place their ancestors' skulls. Skulls were dug up, the lower jaw removed, and gaps were filled in with plaster. Then it was covered with plaster, with the outermost layers molded to resemble the person's discrete facial structure. After that, it was painted in red ocher or black bitumen. Details were included: the person's hair was painted, and their facial features were painted on, even mustaches were added. Some had cowrie shells placed as their eyes.

The amount of detail suggests each plaster skull is a representation of a specific person, a connection intended by the artists. This would make these skulls some of the earliest intentional portraiture. These ancestral representations were prominently placed in peoples' houses, in areas where people went about their daily lives. The skulls were seen and were present in the family's life, not relegated to a separate cemetery with a dedication stele, as is a current popular tradition.

Two plastered and painted skulls from Tell Aswan, PPNB period, 7,000-6,000 BCE

These skulls are a morbidly delightful mystery within anthropology and archeology. This practice occurred thousands of years before the current western tradition, and in an oblique way is a proceeding practice. While many cultures handle the bodies and bones of the deceased, none go so far as to create a living model, it is in this regard fascinatingly alien. Yet it is also intuitively relatable. We today cherish images and depictions of passed loved ones. Turning their skull into a “picture” is an extrapolation of the desire to depict someone who can no longer depict themselves.

The real mystery becomes unraveling the story behind this tradition. It was only extant for a few thousand years on a tiny patch of earth. At first, there is a stark and glaring question: why. The assumed answer is that it was a form of ancestor worship. This answer is only likely, it is at its core unprovable. There is an obstruction hanging over the culture of these people. We can only parse out the context behind such a belief, sadly the belief itself has dispersed. Neolithic people have left us a record of their existence, and through these objects we have pieced together the history of farming and agriculture. The larger story of these people is immense, and our ability to decipher a lost present from the far future is beautiful. Yet this glorious painting is without color, the infinite complexity of human detail. Each house was lived in by a family, each tool used by an individual. Each life was a fully formed human as any today: with a name, parents, a town, and a unique culture and language. At the present it is impossible to ask them why, but we can reconstruct the story surrounding this tradition.

Three plastered and painted skulls from Tell Aswan, PPNB period, 7,000-6,000 BCE

This unusual practice seems to leap out of the stream of time. Yet the illusion of its seemingly instant invention is only from the sparsity of finds. Earlier sites in Palestine and Anatolia point toward the local development of this cultural artifact. The site in Anatolia is called Gobekli Tepe, and a carving there may depict a related practice. If the mural truly is related, the birth of this tradition stretches over thousands of years. Gobekli Tepe is in southeastern Anatolia, now the Sanliurfa region of Turkey and near the border with Syria. This site is unique in that it is not a village, it is in fact the first site on earth which is not domestic. It was built around 9,500 BCE and used til around 7,500 BCE by the Natufian culture. Later it was near Gobekli Tepe that the hunter gatherer Natufians first began to collect wild grains with flint sickles.

Gobekli Tepe, from National Geographic

"Gobekli Tepe" by John G. Swogger

While their social groups were small (maybe 100-150), they managed to come together to build multiple megalithic stone structures. Each megalithic building had two giant central columns, each carved as an abstracted human wearing a loincloth. The interior of the buildings include impressive reliefs. One such relief includes a headless human and a vulture, and such symbolism is highly prevalent in later sites where heads were found. While no plaster skulls were found at Gobekli Tepe, nearby Natufians at Hayonim Cave, Nahal Oren, and Ain Mallaha in Israel/Palestine were removing the skulls from bodies and had begun to decorate them. Through the symbols at Gobekli Tepe and the skulls in the Levant, a new tradition had been born. While these early skulls were not plastered, they were covered in elaborate bead ornaments. Between 8,000 BCE and 7,000 BCE the final megalithic structure at Gobekli Tepe was filled in, laying forgotten and buried until the 1990s. Yet the symbolism and ideology expressed at Gobekli Tepe had spread.

The panther or lion relief from Gobekli Tepe

The vulture and headless person carving at Gobekli Tepe (the headless person is at the bottom right)

"The Urfa Man" statue from Gobekli Tepe, standing 6 feet tall it was made by Natufians between 9,000-7,000 BCE

In the 8th millennium BCE while Gobekli Tepe was declining, far west in the Konya region of Turkey neolithic peoples began to form the earliest large scale cities. Around mid millennium (7,500 BCE) Catalhoyuk was founded. It quickly flourished and was at its peak by around 7,000 BCE. It survived throughout the 7th millennium finally declining and abandoned around 5,700 BCE. At its population maximum it held 10,000 people, but on average had only 5-7,000 people. At its flourishing, it was the largest city on earth, a direct descendent of the megaliths at Gobekli Tepe and the skull decorators in the Levant.

Color reconstruction of Catalhoyuk

Overview of the city design of Catalhoyuk

A reconstruction of the outside of houses at Catalhoyuk

The city was built like none-other. The houses were all connected exhibiting a unique honeycomb structure, in fact the entire city was only made of houses. There were no large public buildings. There were no footpaths nor streets between buildings, no one even had doors. Houses were accessed from a hole in the roof, with ladders or stone stairs leading to it. Usually underneath the roof door was the oven, which was for ventilation since there were no windows. The interior of the houses were plastered white and kept remarkably clean, some walls were painted with murals. The larger houses even had smaller anterooms jutting off the main room for storage.

Interior of a house at Catalhoyuk

Another cross section of an interior at Catalhoyuk

The hearth and ladder entrance at a reconstructed house at the Catalhoyuk site

Most people would have done their daily activities on the rooftops, weather permitting. This was where people slept on hot summer nights. It was where people met and talked during the day. The connected rooftops of the houses formed a structure, as if each house was directly connected to their communal space. By the later stages of Catalhoyuk, all the rooftops were connected and at the center of their “rooftop plaza” people had built a large communal oven. It was this shared building which formed the first nucleus of the first city, and it would be the first step along the long road towards the glass and steel skyscraper.

A drawing of daily activities on the roof plaza

There are no royal buildings or graves in Catalhoyuk, if there were social classes they were not the ever-so-familiar landed aristocracy who flaunted their afterlife with the rich jewelry that they flaunted in life. The diets of men and women are also indicative of social class, yet the genders had the same general levels of nutrition, and were buried at the same rates. While some form of “the elite” may have existed, it was very different from what we know today. Catalhoyuk was a much more egalitarian society, even in comparison to some societies today. Such a large city required storing grain, and many grain storage areas have been found. Curiously, small female figurines are also found within grain storage bins. If these figures even represented an individual person (or deity) we do not know, but it is a strong indicator of the birth of the historical fertility goddess.

"The Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk", made around 6,000 BCE and found in a grain storage vat. It has strikingly similar iconography to the Greco-Roman Goddess of Cybele

A picture of modern houses built in a similar style to Catalhoyuk (although without the roof doorways)

The "map" of Catalhoyuk, painted around 6,000 BCE. It may also be a non-geographic geometric design

The artistic traditions of Gobekli Tepe were passed down from generation to generation. Handed such skill from their Natufian forebears, the artists of Catalhoyuk elaborated on all aspects of painted Natufian culture. Symbolically laden images such as a decorated skull, headless people, and vultures, were all continued and inscribed on into Catalhoyuk's culture. Skulls were no longer decorated with beads, but filled and covered with plaster and painted. Painted skulls were then put on a raised plaster platform in one area of the house, usually beneath a mural or a mounted bull's head (made of clay). Two painted skulls were found together beneath a mural showing vultures attacking headless people. The buildings continued their domestic function after becoming part-shrine. The portraits of the dead were infused into daily life, reminiscent of how we today fill our house with pictures of lost loved ones. Although in truth, our actions are reminiscent of theirs.

Early phase of the "Vulture Shrine" at Catalhoyuk
An "auroch head shrine" at Catalhoyuk, and a cup shaped like a head from Hacilar, Anatolia

A platform over an area of a house dedicated to burials, delineated with two bull heads, at Catalhoyuk
Flint dagger with decorated bone handle from Catalhoyuk

While the heads had become elaborately decorated, the bodies of these people were buried underneath the floors of their houses. Aggrandized with a complex assortment of grave goods such as shell beads, tools, and jewelry. Although only some were buried this way, at Ain Ghazal people were sometimes buried in the town's trash heap. Not everyone could afford such distinction in their afterlife.

Reconstruction of grave goods from burial 17457 at Catalhoyuk, by Kathryn Killackey

Burial of a woman with a plastered skull at Catalhoyuk, by Kathryn Killackey

Red plastered skull found with the burial of a woman at Catalhoyuk, by Kathryn Killackey

The murals found at Catalhoyuk are fantastical and deeply mysterious: one shows vultures with human legs and feet, another shows a person holding a head (possibly their own?), and another shows 24 headless people hunting animals. While the beauty, color, and abstraction of the murals leaps out at the modern viewer; the meanings of these murals are unknown. While there must be some connection between the juxtaposition of skulls with the murals, it is permanently obstructed by time.

Various auroch heads mounted on a wall in Catalhoyuk

A decorated "shrine" room in Catalhoyuk

Wall mural 6 at Catalhoyuk

Wall painting in building 80 at Catalhoyuk

The depiction of vultures associates this unique tradition with a modern practice: sky burial. During the flourishing of Catalhoyuk around 7,000 BCE the practice was popular. The bodies of the deceased were left outside the town. During this period they were eaten by wild animals, most notably vultures. Then the family would gather the bones and bury their ancestor underneath the floors of their house, especially beside hearths and even under beds. The bodies were wrapped tightly in baskets or reed mats. The skull would be buried in a shallow grave beside the body. Eventually the skull would be uncovered, then plastered, painted, and displayed.

A reconstructed room and bed, with a clay auroch head and the "map" mural, at Catalhoyuk

Catalhoyuk was the largest town in the region and many skulls have been found there, but the tradition is in no way isolated to Catalhoyuk. Skulls were only found in Anatolia more recently. The initial finds in the 1930s-1950s were in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. The tradition was spread across the ancestral Natufian landscape, with Catalhoyuk playing the role of one local expression. The first skulls were actually found at Jericho, a town settled by the earliest Natufians around 10,000 BCE. After two thousand years of Natufian occupation and culture (by 8,000 BCE), the “village” now had 1,500 people and a 12 foot wall, dominated by a 28 foot stone tower. The wall and tower were massive, the wall was at its thickest, 6 feet wide. Yet by the glory of Catalhoyuk, the town was all but abandoned; and by 6,800 BCE new waves of people settled in the town bringing with them the plaster skull tradition.

A PPNB (7,000-6,000 BCE) plastered Natufian skull from Jericho

A stone mask from Jericho, made around 7,000 BCE and probably the oldest mask in the world

At Cayonu, a nearby site in Anatolia, the tradition had begun to deviate. This place was inhabited for about 500 years from around 7,200 BCE til 6,600 BCE. Within this comparatively short time frame, the complexity of human variability reared its infinite head. Here, they created a large “skull building” in the center of their town. It was rebuilt and redesigned several times throughout the city's lifespan. The skull building contained just what you would expect...burial crypts, but also eventually compartments of skulls and broken bones. The current estimates for the number of people buried within the crypt is around 400. That's close to one burial a year, where was the rest of the town being buried? The crypt may be associated with status, yet mysteries of usage abound. Deep within the structure there is a large stone slab. Analysis of this stone revealed that it had been covered in a mixture of human, cow, and goat blood. Plaster skulls had been replaced with blood rituals, and the ever-changing beliefs of humans marched onward.

The range of skull removal in Anatolia around 7,000 BCE

A map of Natufian sites and culture in the Middle East, generally between 10,000-8,000 BCE

A map of Natufian and later cultural sites in the Middle East between 10,000-5,000 BCE, by the author

Ain Ghazal near Amman, Jordan, was inhabited between 7,250-5,000 BCE, and peaked directly during the flourishing of Catalhoyuk. Ain Ghazal at its maximum used 25-37 hectares of land and was populated by 3,000 people. By 6,500 BCE the population had declined significantly and eventually the site was abandoned. During its flourishing, the people of Ain Ghazal created large statues of humans about half life-size. These were buried in pits near possible ritual buildings. These figures were constructed out of bundles of twigs which were then covered in plaster. These plaster figures were then painted, being given clothing, hair, even ornamental tattoos. Cowrie shells became their eyes and at the center, a black bitumen pupil. 32 figures have been found in total.

A human statue from Ain Ghazal near Amman, Jordan, made between 7,250-5,000 BCE

A double headed statue from Ain Ghazal near Amman Jordan, made around 6,500 BCE

A town west of Catalhoyuk, called Hacilar, is also fascinating. While Catalhoyuk had some of the region's earliest pottery, the craftsmanship blossomed at Hacilar. As artistic skills spread their complexity intensified. Hacilar was settled around the peak of Catalhoyuk at 7,000 BCE and survived past its predecessor's decline, finally being abandoned around 5,000 BCE. In addition to pottery, excavators have found many small figurines which when they were found were unusually headless. Eventually excavators found wooden heads at the site which were associated with the figurines. The heads and the bodies fit together, creating an early puppet. The wooden heads were also given emotive faces, and could have been easily switched out if the people who used them so desired. Their purpose is unknown, yet their construction is a sign of the ever advancing progress of technology during this period.

Figurines from Neolithic Hacilar

The Middle East's earliest pottery from Catalhoyuk, made between 7,500-5,700 BCE (pottery at Catalhoyuk is from the later periods of the city's existence)

A large jug from Hacilar, made between 7,000-5,000 BCE

Six cups from Hacilar, made between 7,000-5,000 BCE

By 6,000 BCE times had changed. Catalhoyuk was in decline and would be abandoned around 300 years later. The practice of house burial eventually was superseded by crypt and graveyard burial. The plaster painting of skulls also was transformed, into the painting of statues such as at Ain Ghazal. People were building houses with windows and doors, with streets for moving the ever larger amounts of people and animals. The unique honeycomb structure of Catalhoyuk was abandoned, oddities such as the lack of doors and the communal roof seem alien to modern sensibilities. Cities began to tend towards large central buildings, exemplified by Eridu in southern Iraq. By 5,000 BCE it had a small central shrine building, this was the birth pangs of a unique Mesopotamian society based around a temple hierarchy. It would bring a power and gender structure standing in radical contrast to their neolithic ancestors. As Catalhoyuk declined so did the plaster skull practice, and from 6,000-5,000 BCE the practice fell out of favor throughout the neolithic Middle East.

A stone vessel in the shape of a hedgehog, from Bouqras Syria around 6,000 BCE

Clay model of a house with windows, from Sesklo, Thessaly, Greece. Made around 5,000 BCE

Between 6,000-5,000 BCE other changes around the Mediterranean region sparked the development of local advanced neolithic cultures. By mid-millennium the complex Vinca culture had emerged around the southern Balkan region of Europe, and the increasing desertification of the Saharra led people to converge around the banks of the river Nile in Egypt. Pottery proliferates across the region, with highly decorated pieces being traded among the rich. Seals used to “sign” contracts are found, people were buying and selling at a profit. Wealth had begun circulating in an organized fashion. As larger settlements spread outwards from the homeland of the Natufians, the brilliant and unique tradition of plastering skulls was eventually stopped, and faded from memory, and with it died a unique heritage stretching back to the 10th century BCE.

Left: A stamp seal with an animal and a bird, made between 5,300-4,000 BCE from the Ubaid period in southern Mesopotamia.
Right: A stamp seal made between 6,000-5,000 BCE from Tell Halaf in Syria

A red patterned clay cup from Sophades, Thessaly, Greece. Made bewteen 5,000-4,000 BCE

On the other hand, it never really went away. The cultural practice of reconstructing the face of the deceased using their skull re-appeared with a vengeance in the late 19th century. This time the tradition was reborn as the science of forensic facial reconstruction. Through the 21st century this novel tradition has become a solidified institution within schools and is well known in popular culture. It is a strange happenstance that so soon after its scientific rebirth in the 1880s, only about 50 years, the first plaster skulls were rediscovered by John Garstang at Jericho in the 1930s. The progress of reconstructive science and the lost tradition of neolithic ancestor worship unintentionally co-emerge into the light of present day knowledge.

Artist Oscar Nilsson with a reconstruction of a Neolithic man buried around 3,500 BCE in a long barrow near Stonehenge, England

John Garstang and a team excavating Dor in the 1920s

It is impossible to know for sure whether this was ancestor worship. Presumably the faces are painted to resemble the deceased individual, but we have no idea what such an image meant to the inhabitants of Catalhoyuk and Jericho. Thousands of years after the fact, modern humans have no parallel object in our culture. While the details of such a practice are lost on us, humans in all societies have strange relationships with skulls. It has been depicted in art for thousands of years, and has taken on many symbolic and ideological roles. Skulls can represent a memento mori (a reminder to enjoy what life we have), and at other times the great equalizer of Death Incarnate. A picture in a book becomes a boring anatomy lesson, yet on a black and white screen it becomes a bearer of medical information. When made of plastic it can become a spooky decoration, or a chassis at a robotics laboratory.

A skull balancing on top of Fortuna's (Fate's) wheel, and sitting below a plumb bob symbolizing divine justice and mortality, from a mosaic in Pompeii and made prior to the eruption in 79 CE

"A Landscape with the Grim Reaper", by Filippo Napoletano, made between 1600-1629 CE

There is a fundamental connection between ourselves and the creators of plaster skulls. Humans still cry out at loss, and deeply desire to bring back the irretrievable. The ideological rejection of non-existence wraps itself into many aspects of our culture. Yet we are the lucky ones, living with invented machines to capture the reflected light at a given time. At our desire we capture the image of a living human and keep it, removing the previous connection between someone's death and our inability to view them. While hundreds of years ago only the rich could afford realistic portraits of their family, nowadays anyone can buy a camera and store thousands of realistic images within other machines.

A mask representing the Aztec God Tezcatlipoca, made of turquoise and lignite on a human skull, made sometime during the 15th-16th centuries CE

The earliest full picture of a human, the self portrait of Robert Cornelius in 1839

The domed protective building over the current excavations at Catalhoyuk, led by Ian Hodder

This fundamental drive to fight the unending succession of time and aging has never ceased. If anything, humans today have developed many new ways of dealing with such events. 9,000 years ago people also had to deal with such loss, and invent a way to grieve. Their unique and artistic coping method shines a light onto the inner struggle of the artists themselves. The devout focus of a family member in making such an object testifies to their commitment to loved ones. Their skills in painting and plastering were re-purposed, and their living spaces were transformed. In some way, their ancestors never really stopped living at their house. They stayed for eternity watching over the younger generations with their cowrie shell eyes.

Two plastered skulls from Jericho, made around 7,000 BCE