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The Neolithic Skull Cults of the Near East - Part Two
Plastered Skulls, Çatalhöyük, Stone Masks, Statues and Conclusions
“In the later phase of this period, Miss Kenyon has described the remarkable 'Skull Cult' characterized by the modelling of a life-like head in plaster over an actual skull, sometimes with but usually without its lower jaw. Beneath the floor of the house from which these modelled heads were recovered, an assemblage of about thirty skeletons was excavated. 'From many of these bodies the skull had been removed, often leaving a displaced lower jaw. In some cases, where the bodies were very tightly packed, the bones seem literally to have been ransacked to remove the skulls, at a stage when the bodies were sufficiently decayed to allow of the separation of limbs from the trunk, but the ligaments were still sufficiently intact for the individual bones of the limbs to remain in articulation’”
- L. H. Wells, 1959
This is the second article looking at the ‘skull cults’ of the Neolithic across the Levant and Anatolia, a phenomenon which has intrigued and baffled researchers since Jericho was excavated in the 1950’s. Last time we covered an immense span of time, from the Pleistocene migrations of people into the region, the Natufian origins of agriculture, the earliest Neolithic settlements and cities, and finishing with an in-depth look at Göbekli Tepe and the cultic sites of the Anatolian highlands. This time we will slow the pace down and examine the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B in closer detail, casting some light on the spectral plastered skulls and the enigmatic settlement of Çatalhöyük. There can be no one answer to the riddle of why the earliest Neolithic farmers focused so much attention on the human head, but I will try to draw on a number of interpretations to sketch some interesting hypotheses. People in all times and places consider the head to be powerful - spiritually, romantically, artistically, for purposes of adornment, display, prestige, for healing, magic, the concentration of energy, consciousness and a thousand more reasons. But even with this in mind we today feel perhaps shock or revulsion at the thought of carving up and decorating a loved one’s skull, to be encased in plaster for eternity. The very alien world of the Neolithic Near East can only be glimpsed at, and what we do see is an unfathomable gulf of incomprehension. Hopefully these two articles go some way to making sense of this abyss.
Plastered Skulls, Ancestors & Intimacy
Plaster and skulls were two important materials in the Levant and Anatolia circa 8800-6500 BC. I’ve written before about the development of lime and gypsum plaster during this period, but the significance of plaster extends beyond the utilitarian and into the ethereal. We saw at Göbekli Tepe and other highland sites that ritual rooms or centres often possessed a special plaster based flooring, highly polished and routinely maintained. Given the almost magical quality of fizzing hot quicklime, perhaps this is understandable. But here we see the combination of plaster with human skulls. Around 80 have been recovered from the Levatine sites of Jericho, Tell Ramad, Beisamoun, Kfar Hahoresh, Tell-Aswad, 'Ain Ghazal, and Nahal Hemar, and from two Anatolian sites - Çatalhöyük and Köşk Höyük. Interestingly the Anatolian practice emerged later, when it had ceased in the Levant, a chronology we will return to.
But what is a plastered skull? The term refers to the end process of preserving a human head. In general it seems that a person was buried and then dug up again, something we saw dating back to hunter-gatherers just after the Ice Age ended. The head was retrieved and cleaned, the jaw removed and often the teeth extracted. Afterwards a plaster mixture was spread over the skull, in particular the face, and life-like features sculpted. Sometimes shells were used to imitate eyes. What makes this complex though is that each skull is slightly different - at ‘Ain Ghazal one skull was covered in pink plaster, another in white. Some have closed eyes, others open. Some use reeds to help keep the plaster from slipping, most do not. Some have bitumen added to the eyelids, others have red/black stripes or were painted red, One plastered skull of a child from Köşk Höyük showed a green stain on the forehead, which has been interpreted as some kind of copper ornament placed on the head at death. At Yiftahel several skulls appeared to have been coloured afterwards and then a kind of headdress placed on top.
What is striking is how much effort was expended to make the faces appear realistic, one of the earliest examples of artistic naturalism. Earlobes, nostrils, eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks and other features are often captured in great detail with the plaster. Alongside the plastered skulls are other forms of ‘ornamented skulls’, which we shouldn’t ignore when thinking about skull cults in general. At Nahal Hemar we have a skull with crisscrossed lines of a bitumen/collagen mixtures adorning the hairline. ‘Ain Ghazal has a number of cached skulls which were painted with some kind of ochre crayon and charcoal, producing a vivid red-and-black striped pattern. Given that we also see groups of skulls buried without any decoration or plaster, we can infer that plastering was just one of many treatments available to a skull after death.
So who were these people? This is a question that continues to puzzle archaeologists, since finding any kind of pattern would help with interpreting what the skulls were used for. It seems that men, women and children all underwent plastering after death, although since we only have 70 over a two thousand year period, it is likely they were ‘special’ in some way. Interpretations have ranged from war trophies to an ancestor cult, which is the general consensus today. Since these appear with the advent of the PPNB era, many have inferred that they represent a response to increasing populations and gathering social complexity. Researcher Ian Kuijt states:
Neolithic secondary mortuary practices are a form of bodily recirculation. There are at least two dimensions of the physical circulation of objects: reuse and modification. In the recirculation of objects in ritual practice, the power of the performance comes from the reenacting of events or stories. While plastered skulls may have served as stationary ritual relics, it is also possible that they were passed around during performances, displayed, and actively reused. There is strong evidence for the reuse of human skulls and plastered skulls in ritual events. Reflecting on the differential wear on the plastered skulls of Kfar HaHoresh cache L1304, Goring‐Morris says, “At least one was plastered, and it appeared to have symbolically ‘died’ when the outer plaster layer began to deteriorate, at which time it was ritually reburied a second time.” Although the specific use‐life remains elusive, it is reasonable to assume that ritual objects would have been displayed, used, and recirculated within various village social networks.
Some have suggested that the faces all trend towards a general archetype, rather than preserving individuality. With the exception of Jericho, the other Levantine sites favoured half-closed or closed eyes, with heavy eyelids and an almost dreamy expression, perhaps the sleep of death. This of course stands in stark contrast to the Anatolian highland cultic sites, where skulls were roughly decapitated, suspended on strings or haphazardly thrown into rooms. In the Levant we see intimacy and great care taken over their preservation, a marked distinction between two genetically different populations and culture-areas. The Anatolian zone was a place of hunting, with some domesticates, but full of stylised imagery of dangerous wild animals. The Levantine zone was almost totally agricultural by this point, where bones and skulls were passed around and intentionally cached.
In general the skulls are associated with domestic settings, being buried under the floors of houses, sometimes under a layer of plaster. This suggests familial and kinship ties with the dead, living on top of their ancestors. That said, some cultic sites are known - at Nahal Hemar, the plastered skulls were found in a cave, along with other ritual objects and no evidence of domestic life. Stone masks were also found in the cave and we’ll look at these terrifying visages when we turn to artwork. The typically domestic and household burial scenario, combined with the rise in population density has led some researchers to argue that plastered skulls were a ‘levelling mechanism’, designed to help reinforce and foster a general egalitarian outlook amongst the Levantine farmers. To quote from a 2017 thesis paper by Catherine Maier:
the lack of evidence of obvious material differentiation among individual burials in the PPNB suggests an overall egalitarian social organization, while still incorporating competitive differences between individuals and households. The lack of clear material differentiation could be associated with a deliberate homogenization of community members after they are deceased, and, by extension, the existence of social and ritual mechanisms designed to minimize real and perceived differences within and between households and communities.
Kuijt has argued elsewhere that the skulls form part of a series of social technologies which try to strengthen community, rather than kinship bonds. As the numbers of people increase, nepotistic webs of family and clan can easily destabilise an egalitarian society, unless some way is found to bind everyone together, rather than just blood ties. Creating cults of common community ancestors who represent everyone, rather than specific lineages, could be one such method.
Çatalhöyük: Kinship, Heads & Vultures
Çatalhöyük is one of those major world heritage sites which has attracted all manner of theories and speculations, owing to the confusing and sometimes contradictory nature of the evidence. A proto-city that flourished between 7500 - 5900 BC in southern Anatolia, built on two mounds with a now extinct river separating them, Çatalhöyük was a majority-agricultural, semi-hunting based society. Due to the fantastic preservation and excavation skills of James Melaart and Ian Hodder, we know more about Çatalhöyük than almost any other prehistoric site. We know that people lived in hive-like maze of mudbrick houses, with plastered interior walls. The settlement is noticeably clean and tidy, with rubbish and sewage dumps found outside the city limits. Almost no public or communal buildings have been found, the inhabitants mostly focused around family rooms and hearths. Storage units of peas, barley, wheat, almonds, pistachios and fruit have been found, sometime with female ‘goddess’ figurines placed into them. The dead were wrapped and bound and placed under floors, beds, hearths, small platforms and other domestic areas. Famously the city appears to have been far more egalitarian than previously anticipated, with little indication of either hierarchical organisations nor patriarchal institutions. That said, various lines of evidence point towards patrilocal family structures and an increase in violence towards women as Çatalhöyük came to an end.
Much like Levantine burial practices, Çatalhöyük shows a similar intimacy and familiarity with skull retrieval, digging up and moving around older bones and curating skulls above ground until they essentially disintegrated. To give just one example, Room 129, located in the North Area of the settlement, has been nicknamed the ‘Skull Retrieval Pit’. Here at least ten individuals were found, five of whom were disturbed and had their skulls removed after decomposition. No evidence of decapitation was found, which matches the general pattern in Çatalhöyük and Levantine sites, contrasting with the earlier Anatolian highland sites. At least one plastered skull has been recovered so far, cradled in the arms of another buried person, and a number of ochre-stained or decorated skulls. Unlike in the Levant though, Çatalhöyük has no skull caches and retrieved skulls often retained the mandible. We have a strange pattern here: Çatalhöyük is an Anatolian site, but primarily based around agriculture. It carried on a tradition of intimate familial skull retrieval and decoration which was disappearing in the Levant around the same time. The artwork of the city shows many examples of bulls and leopards, depictions more common to the highland Anatolian cultic sites, and used plastering for both domestic and mortuary practices.
Population movements between the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Zagros region and the Aegean have been extensively studied in the last few years, ostensibly with the aim of understanding how Neolithic farmers migrated into Greece and the Balkans. Two points of note stand out for us: one is that kinship relationships within Çatalhöyük appear to be distinctly non-biological, the other is that Levantine ancestry in Anatolia during the PPNB period is very low, but increases at Çatalhöyük during the subsequent Pottery Neolithic era. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that Çatalhöyük was born of the mingling of two peoples, separated by a river but building kinship networks that overcame simple tribalism. Jacques Cauvin, in his book The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, outlines how the Levantine ‘skull cult’ was introduced into Anatolia through an emigration of people heading north. Hodder succinctly describes his argument:
Cauvin treated at some length the spread of the PPNB. He saw this as a movement of people from the middle Euphrates, sometimes integrating into local cultures, and introducing rectangular architecture, herding, and the 'skull cult' into, for example, Anatolia and the central and southern Levant between 8600 ВС and 7000 ВС. He then discussed a further spread of the Neolithic in the later PPNB and Pottery Neolithic between 7500 ВС and 6300 ВС. This was seen as a 'great exodus' of people who now moved into semi-arid landscapes and into Cyprus. He described the spread as a colonisation, even messianic in tone.
If the intimate ‘skull cult’ was introduced from the Levant, a different Anatolian tradition may have been combined with it. Depictions of vultures and other raptors eating and attacking humans are common at Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori and other sites. Bones of griffins indicate exploitation for feathers. During the earliest excavations at Çatalhöyük, James Mellaart proposed that bodies were eaten by vultures, based on murals depicting vultures hovering over headless corpses. While this hasn’t been a popular theory, other researchers have tentatively supported this argument, relying on distinctive V-shaped marks on skeletal remains. We know from modern Tibetan and Zoroastrian ‘sky burials’ that vultures can strip a body of flesh within hours, leaving a skeleton that can be more easily manipulated and buried. It is therefore entirely plausible that this form of ‘sky burial’ was combined with the ‘skull cult’ to create a co-ethnic mortuary practice at Çatalhöyük.
Artwork: Statues, Masks and Figurines
To round out this long series we turn to skull and head based artwork across the Near East during the Neolithic. A number of different forms and materials present themselves - clay figurines, plaster and clay statues, stone masks and sculptures. In a similar way to the plastered skulls, these are often naturalistic and represent no specific person in particular. They are simple enough to have been made by anyone and there doesn’t seem to be a specialist craft working tradition during the PPNB for these forms of art. At ‘Ain Gazhal we have one of the earliest statue making cultures. These almost alien looking figures are around 1m in height at the tallest, almost sexless, with the occasional breast or enlarged belly, made from limestone plaster over a reed frame. 15 statues and 15 busts were uncovered in two caches during excavations at ‘Ain Gazhal in 1983/5 and they remain some of the strangest objects from the period. Some of the feet possess six toes, a curious feature which appears in numerous sacred art forms throughout the Middle East. The Biblical reference to a man of great stature, Gath, in 2 Samuel 21:20, describes the man as having six fingers and six toes. But it is the head which received the most attention. Unlike the plastered skulls, the eyes of the statues are wide open, with a bitumen iris which even today stares blankly out at the observer. An impassive and frankly unsettling face completes the look. Given that they were deliberately buried it seems likely that they were of spiritual or religious importance to the community.
The stone masks of this period are probably the most disturbing artefacts of them all. Only a handful have been recovered, the majority now in private hands. Finds from the cultic Nahal Hemar cave and from around Hebron in the modern West Bank point to perhaps one major production site, and they were taken to other places for ritualistic purposes. Made from smooth stone, with symmetrical features, cut-out eye sockets and grinning toothed mouths, these look distinct from the calm faces of other Levantine ‘head-art’. Menacing, snarling, threatening, predatory. They show traces of having been painted and perhaps decorated with headdresses or other headgear. It’s unclear if they were meant to be worn or mounted in some way. Unlike the more communal, ancestral skulls and statues that we’ve seen, these look more like masks of a ritual specialist or secret society, indicating some kind of hierarchy. This might not be true of course, but they don’t fit into the general Levantine pattern and their use remains subject to current research.
Many examples of plaster figurines exist from all over the sites we’ve covered - sadly this isn’t the place to look at the ‘bull cult’ which is another feature of the PPNB and later, nor do we have space to look at the so-called ‘goddess’ figurines from Çatalhöyük and elsewhere. Instead we finish with the Anatolian tradition of miniature stone masks and human heads, found at Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. These fit into the more violent schema we’ve come to expect from PPNB Anatolia - screaming expressions or absent mouths, many having been decapitated by forceful blows, breaking them off the ‘body’ of stone, leaving behind jagged necks. The contrast between these and the relaxed plastered skulls and statues could not be greater.
Are There Any Conclusions?
Over two articles I’ve attempted to show how the different ‘skull cults’ of the Near East Neolithic developed through time and space. We can broadly point to two great ‘culture-zones’ - the Levant and Anatolia. Both the Levantine Natufians and Pleistocene Anatolians shared a common ritual of skull retrieval, possibly from the same source, or from two convergent origins. Whatever the case may be, as agriculture developed in the Levant in the wake of the Younger Dryas, two modes or approaches to the human head came to flourish. The first was more egalitarian and ancestral, with the people of the PPNA living with and amongst their dead in domestic settings, eventually finding its greatest expression in ornamented and plastered skulls, statues and artworks, collectively interested in communal ancestors. These objects were produced without specialisation and eventually buried, often around their descendant’s houses. The second was something else entirely. The highland Anatolians rejected the logic of domesticity, structuring their societies around hunting, herding and foraging, with some supplemental agriculture. They built cultic centres which glorified violent death, decapitation, the danger of wild animals and masculine predatory behaviour. They roughly severed heads on ceremonial altars, dangled skulls from huge pillars and smashed off the faces and crania of statues. These two distinct cultures produced something new when they collided at Çatalhöyük, pouring both of their traditional practices into one mould, casting a mixed product which simultaneously revered the wild and worshipped their forebears. Perhaps something of this violent Anatolian culture was passed on to the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians, who conceived of decapitation and skeletal disarticulation as the worst of punishments? The images of skull mountains being eaten by vultures would certainly resonate with someone from Göbekli Tepe.
Is this an oversimplified narrative? Of course. Entire books have been written on this subject and many more will undoubtedly follow. My aim, as always, is to unearth the evidence which is often hidden in academic papers and textbooks, and to bring it to a general readership with a story. Academics shy away from grand narratives, partly since they are often wrong, but narratives help us orient ourselves when we encounter new facts. Maybe what I’ve crafted here will help you anchor yourself into the world of the Near East Neolithic, a framework on which to hang new information. How people treat their dead can tell you a great deal about their culture, and the cultures of the earliest farmers will never stop being interesting.