Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Catalhoyuk and Beyond

By Russell, Nerissa; McGowan, Kevin J. | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Catalhoyuk and Beyond


Russell, Nerissa, McGowan, Kevin J., Antiquity


   "Chryse has seen an omen. Cranes are dancers too; everyone knows
   the crane-dance. We'll be the Cranes. "(Renault 1958:205)

Cranes at Catalhoyuk

Bird symbolism at Catalhoyuk, for those familiar with the results of the 1960s excavations, is most likely to mean vultures. The paintings of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) pecking at headless corpses, and the heads of this same vulture mounted on walls with beaks protruding from plaster mounds interpreted by the excavator as breasts, make for some memorable images (Mellaart 1967:101,126, 150, 166-168; Figures 14, 15, 47; Plates 28, 45-49). Our work on the bird bones from the renewed excavations at Catalhoyuk, along with finds from other sites of similar age, suggests that Common Cranes (Grus grus) were also a focus of symbolism and ritual.

Catalhoyuk is a tell site in the Konya Plain of central Anatolia composed of two mounds, the Chalcolithic West Mound and the Neolithic East Mound. Here we will discuss only the remains from the East Mound, which dates to approximately 7300-6200 cal BC (Cessford 2001). The site is famous for its large size (c. 13 ha); its closely packed mudbrick houses, and the paintings and reliefs of animal parts found within those houses. It was first excavated in the 1960s by James Mellaart (1967), who uncovered a large number of houses, some of which contained spectacular art. The new project, directed by Ian Hodder, has since 1995 excavated a much smaller area with finer-grained recovery methods (Hodder & Matthews 1998). All sediments from the new excavations are screened through 4 mm mesh, and substantial amounts are sampled for flotation. This procedure has permitted the recovery of a relatively large and varied assemblage of bird bones, with 387 specimens so far recorded from the Neolithic layers of the East Mound.

Common Crane bones account for about two per cent of the bird bones identified (Russell & McGowan in press). Only one of the Common Crane specimens from the East Mound can reasonably be interpreted as dietary remains: a coracoid fragment from a midden deposit. Two Common Crane tarso-metatarsi (lower leg bones) have been worked into bone points (i.e., awls, perforators); these are the only cases of the use of bird bone among the 310 points recorded from the new excavations. Since both are from the left leg, and are in any case from levels widely separated in time (c. 500 years), they must come from two separate birds. While the number is small, their presence suggests a minor tradition of making points from this bone, perhaps for some particular purpose.

The remaining Common Crane bones from the East Mound derive from a single left wing found in a metre-wide space between a building and another narrow space (probably corresponding to Level VI or VII in Mellaart's scheme). With the wing were several other items that might be considered 'special': it was placed on top of a complete cattle horn core; slightly to the south lay two morphologically wild goat horn cores (inside Building 1 to the west of this space, thirteen morphologically wild goat horn cores were arrayed over a bin-like structure full of lentils), a dog head complete with mandibles and the second vertebra, and a stone macehead. These seem to have been deposited rapidly, probably as a single event, and are associated with the construction of Building 1 (Cessford in press).

Although it was not recognised in situ and was damaged in excavation (indicated by modern breaks and missing pieces), it is clear that in the ground this wing was complete from the distal humerus to the tip (see Figure 1). This part of the wing has very little flesh, but the large flight feathers are attached to it. In fact, it conforms closely to the portion used in spread wing preparations in modern reference collections. With the skin and feathers on, it would thus resemble such a spread wing (see Figure 2).

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

Cut marks on the bones indicate that this was not simply butchery waste. …

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