The tell-tale sign of an oval depression in the platform of Building 52 was a clear indication that there was a burial beneath the floor. Osteoarchaeologist Scott Haddow, from the Cranfield Forensic Institute in the UK, was taking up where he had left off after the previous 2012 season at Çatalhöyük, near Konya in Turkey. However, before lifting a trowel, he generated a pre-excavation three-dimensional model of the northern platform of the building. This was because, this year, Scott was taking part in a pioneering programme that promises to revolutionise the way excavations are recorded in the future.
A new methodology, developed by Maurizio Forte of Duke University, USA, and Nicolò Dell’Unto of Lund University, Sweden, records 3D images on site, so that each stage of the excavation process is documented as the work progresses, and can be reviewed immediately using 3D models. At the end of each day, therefore, everyone from all disciplines involved in the excavation can visit the virtual dig, as if standing on site as the work took place. This allows the archaeologists to re-examine the evidence as it appeared, pooling their expertise.
Moreover, unlike 3D laser scanning, which requires expensive specialised equipment to produce high-quality models, the method the team is employing here requires no more than a point-and-shoot camera and a couple of pieces of software. This, therefore, is a system that falls within the budgets of most excavations, opening up exciting possibilities for other projects around the world.
The 3D-Digging Project began a few years earlier in 2010, co-ordinated by Maurizio (then professor at the University of California); now, the team wanted to apply this process of 3D modelling to burials, to work out the often complicated stratigraphic sequence of interments under the Neolithic house floors. This is where Scott came in: Scott was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the human remains lab during the excavation season, assisting the field team with excavation and recovery of human remains, as well as cleaning, processing, and creating an inventory of newly recovered skeletons.
In the past, once a burial was fully excavated and cleaned up for a photo, the archaeologists would draw the skeleton and grave-cut in plan-view at a 1:10 scale for adults, and 1:5 for infants. The plans are typically used along with photographs to show orientation of the body within the grave, as well as any grave goods that may be associated with the burial. A problem with planning burials by hand, however, is that the accuracy of the scale drawing depends on the skill of the archaeologist. While some are technically and artistically accurate, both in scale and detail, some are little better than stick figures, and not much use other than to show the orientation of the arms and legs.
The new procedure negates the need for such hand drawings. Instead, a series of digital images – between 15 and 80 photographs – were recorded, taken from as many angles as possible and at each stage of the excavation as the burials are uncovered. Then, using a software program called PhotoScan, the three-dimensional contours of the burial were generated from the photographs. These were overlain with a texture produced from the images themselves. The models created were then scaled and geo-referenced for placement in the Çatalhöyük Research Project Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
From this, the team was able to reconstruct the burial sequence under each platform, and to produce digitised plans of each skeleton, thereby doing away with the need for the time-consuming process of drawing them by hand.
After a few training sessions to familiarise himself with the method, and under Nicolò’s watchful eye, Scott was ready to go. So, what has been discovered, and how does this new technology affect the ongoing investigations at Çatalhöyük?
When the grave-cut in the north-west platform of Building 52 was opened, Scott and the team immediately realised this was an extraordinary multiple burial. They were confronted by what seemed like a jumble of disarticulated juvenile skulls and other loose bones. As the grave-fill was gradually removed, however, it became clear that most of the skulls were attached to fully articulated bodies.
The first intact remains recovered belonged to an infant, placed face down in the north-west part of the grave-cut. Carbonised soft tissue, evidence the body had been exposed to fire, and plant fibres were preserved near the legs and abdomen of the infant. But no one was prepared for what they uncovered next.
As they started to remove the bones, they found large quantities of extremely well-preserved textile lying just beneath. The fabric appeared to be strips of woven fibres that had been stitched together. This is one of the earliest examples of intact woven fabric to be discovered in the Near East. Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller, from the Institute of Archaeology in London, has now identified the plant material as flax – one of the oldest fibre crops in the world, used typically to make linen.
As the last of the fabric was removed, a second, older child was revealed lying directly beneath the infant. The textile had been placed between the two bodies, rather than wrapped around either of them. A wooden object, possibly a bowl, had been placed over the head of the second child. Though wooden household artefacts had been recorded during early excavations in the 1960s, this is the first to be found since work began again here in 1993.
As the excavation continued, the top of an adult cranium became visible at the far western edge of the grave-cut, and then an articulated adult foot at the eastern edge. It seems the grave was intended for the tightly flexed adult, and that the two juveniles along with a third child, had been carefully laid across his chest during a single burial event. Amazingly, carbonised brain tissue was recovered from inside the crania of all three youngsters, which suggests that their bodies were not fully decomposed when Building 52 was burned.
In all, the burial contained the remains of a mature adult male, one infant, and five children aged between three and five years old when they died. Some of the children’s remains comprised loose cranial fragments and partially disarticulated bones, which initially suggested they may have belonged to an earlier burial that had been disturbed by this one, and that they had inadvertently been re-deposited in the fill. However, the remains, including a child’s cranium and mandible deliberately positioned next to the adult’s head, had been carefully placed in the grave. And there is no evidence of any earlier burials in this floor. Whether a deliberate act or not, it does show that some of the children’s bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition by the time they were placed in the grave.
A few grave goods were found in the north-west platform burial: two small green stone beads, found near the infant, and several large freshwater Unio shells – some painted with red pigment. A beautiful, complete polished marble bracelet was found at the bottom of the grave-cut, though probably not directly associated with any of the individuals.
This strange burial was the last before the building was burned, and the roof and walls taken down. Is there a connection between such elaborate burials and the closure and abandonment of a house? To answer the question, it is essential to glean as much information as possible about the people who lived here, the artefacts associated with them, and the stratigraphic sequence of events. And this is where 3D modelling techniques come into their own.
Reviewing the evidence
It is often difficult to determine the order in which burials were interred under house platforms, especially when the skeletal remains are disarticulated and commingled as a result of disturbances to earlier burials. While 3D technology has increasingly been used in bioarchaeology and archaeology to produce models of individual bones and even whole skeletons in the lab, the application of 3D modelling employed at Çatalhöyük is unique. In one of the first applications of 3D burial modelling in 2012, the team was able to make sense of a very complicated sequence of burials in the North Area of the site, and to identify a possible skull retrieval pit. So, in the 2013 season, Scott used the new technology to produce a virtual reconstruction of the whole burial sequence for Building 52.
Moreover, for the first time, all archaeological recording on the long-running excavation at Çatalhöyük is paperless, and all the data has been recorded both in 3D and in real time.
The 3D recording of the multiple burial of Building 52 is part of a much wider project ‘3D Digging at Çatalhöyük’, documenting the geographical, social, environmental, economical, and ritual elements of the site from its earliest levels. The aim is to reproduce, virtually, the whole archaeological excavation process using laser scanners and 3D photogrammetry on site, and 3D Virtual Reality collaborative systems during the post-excavation interpretation and analysis in the lab, to work out how the settlement operated from its earliest origins.
To that end, Maurizio has also produced a 3D model (see above), using data taken from the earliest excavations, directed by James Mellaart, right up to the latest excavations, that illustrates the complexity of the urban context and the evolution of the site over two millennia. ‘We cannot reconstruct the past,’ explains Maurizio, ‘but we can simulate it because the past itself is fluid. Our job is to be open to multiple interpretations and perspectives.’
The dilemma with archaeological excavation is that to study human remains, the bones are necessarily exposed, and thus susceptible to accelerated decay. The new technology introduced by the 3D Digging Project is being used to replace hand-drawn plans, thereby reducing the amount of time the remains are exposed to the environment. Once they have been uncovered, they are photographed in plan view, and then traced digitally (see below).
In this way, the remains can be lifted and taken to the lab for processing as soon as they have been photographed, and the archaeologist can produce the digitised plan at a later date. Unlike a single photo taken from above the burial – usually with a wide-angle lens – these orthoplan photos are less likely to show distortion.
Work began again in 1993 at what was dubbed ‘The Oldest Town in the World’, after a hiatus of nearly 30 years – and exactly a decade before the launch of CWA. The new director, Ian Hodder, set up a pioneering system of information-sharing: all the site diaries were computerised, and regular meetings three times a week were held with the entire team present. This egalitarian approach to sharing information between all the disciplines concerned with the excavation continues today, and under the same leadership.
In many ways Çatalhöyük is an enigma: the densely populated community of about 8,000 or so inhabitants lived in mud-brick houses, packed together with no roads or footways, and with few open spaces or communal areas. Their homes were reached by crossing the roofs of other houses, and they were entered by dropping down through an opening in the top. After a few generations, with the dead buried beneath the floor, the roof and walls of each building were collapsed, and a new one constructed on the remains of the old – thus rapidly building up the underlying tell.
Çatalhöyük was discovered in the 1950s by James Mellaart, who died in 2012. In 1965, he was forced to abandon the excavation, and the site remained untouched until the current 25-year project was set up under British archaeologist Ian Hodder, now professor at Stanford University, USA.
For more on the early days at Çatalhöyük, see CWA 8. For more on the current Çatalhöyük Research Project, visit www.catalhoyuk.com
Prof. Maurizio Forte, Duke University, USA; Dr Nicolò Dell’Unto, Lund University, Sweden; Dr Scott Haddow, Cranfield Forensic Institute, UK.
All images: Scott D Haddow, unless otherwise stated