On the hunt, some 12.000 years ago: An aurochs bone with hunting lesion from Göbekli Tepe.

All archaeological finds of a site add to its history, but some can capture us with the underlying story. This is the case for an aurochs bone with an embedded flint projectile point fragment discovered during excavations at Göbekli Tepe some years ago.

That the aurochs was an important animal to these early Neolithic hunters becomes evident not only through the impressive number of its bones present in the enclosures’ filling (remains hinting at the consumption of enormous amounts of meat, most likely during feasts in the course of large-scale meetings and communal activities), but also due to its prominent role in Göbekli Tepe’s iconography (where recently the impressing depiction of what seems to be a dying or dead aurochs was reported).

In 2009, a humerus of an aurochs was found in the southwestern part of Enclosure D, more precisely in the last 10 cm of sediment covering the bedrock floor directly in front of the segment of the perimeter bench that connects Pillars 32, 33, and 38. Bones are frequent finds at Göbekli Tepe, and many of them can tell stories if ‘interrogated’ by archaeozoologists and archaeologists. But under closer examination, it became clear that this bone was special. It had the tip of the hunter’s arrowhead still embedded in it.


Aurochs humerus with embedded flint projectile point from Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Hunting trauma in bones in general, and embedded projectile points in particular, are very rare finds. There are several reasons for this situation. The most important one probably is that hunters would aim for soft tissue to rapidly kill dangerous big game like cattle. The shot at the Göbekli Tepe aurochs thus has to be considered a miss from the Neolithic hunter’s point of view. But, as often, things that went wrong in prehistory hold the potential to be very informative for archaeologists (see Pompeii, for example). In this case, the bone offers the possibility to reconstruct a certain moment in time roughly 12,000 years ago.


Aurochs humerus with embedded flint projectile point from Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. Detail of the projectile point fragment. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

To do so, we have to examine the bone a little closer. First, there is some information to be gained about the unfortunate animal. The fused proximal epiphysis indicates an adult aurochs older than four years, while bone measurements illustrate that we are dealing with a cow. Put scientifically, the position of the point suggests that the projectile penetrated the Musculus cleidobrachialis and the M. infraspinatus, and probably also the M. deltoideus and M. triceps brachii covering the lateral side of the proximal humerus, and became lodged in the cranial part of the proximal epiphysis at the base of the Trochanter major, at an angle of about 90°. As such, the position of the tip indicates that the hunter must have stood to the right side or the right front of the animal and broadly at the same height. As shown by experiments and proven by ethnographical records, the maximum distance between hunters and big game prey is usually between 10 and 40 meters irrespective of using spears or bow and arrow. From distances larger than that, hit rates are low and all game within the reach would be on the run, if the first shot was a miss.

Hunters therefore try to get as near to the animals as possible. That the Göbekli hunters did not stand too far from his prey is also suggested by the fact that the impact was powerful enough to cut through the muscles overlying the humerus at this position and to get stuck in the bone. This shot was certainly not fatal but it at least impeded the animal. Since no traces of healing are visible on the damaged bone, it was hunted down soon after this hit. As mentioned, the shot can be considered a miss and was most likely aimed at the rib cage in order to hit the lungs and/or the heart – the most effective method when hunting middle-sized to large animals.

It is such finds that offer the rare opportunity to switch from sketching out the big lines of history to individual stories. Even if we do not have much more information on what happened exactly that day some 12,000 years ago, one can imagine how a group of hunters stalked the animal in the gallery woods surrounding smaller streams in the valleys around the Germus mountains. How they came face to face with the beast, maybe at a distance of no more than 10 m. How one of them aimed for the first shot, hit the large and dangerous animal, but not fatally. How others sprang to his aid to bring the angry opponent down. And finally, how the story of this particular hunt was retold for years at campfires.

More Information on this discovery can be found in the following article, available here (external link, text behind paywall):

Nadja Pöllath, Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Lee Clare, Laura Dietrich, Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Klaus Schmidt, Joris Peters, Almost a chest hit: An aurochs humerus with hunting lesion from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Tukey, and its implications. Quaternary International. DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.12.003


Holiday Greetings & a Happy New Year!

Putting down roots

They came to the Hill
Carved into stone,
Hunting with the group –
Or praying alone.

Whose Gods were they?
Sacrificing prey,
Feasting divine.
Sharing their sign.

Reaping those fruits,
Putting down roots.
Planting einkorn.
Our Age was born.


(Text: L. Dietrich, Illustration: J. Notroff)

Hungry Architecture – A guest contribution by Dr Anna Fagan

Earlier this year we organised a session at the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference which was held in Maastricht (Netherlands) this year. Already in this session’s title we asked contributors and audience the crucial question “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?” – and we had quite a broad spectrum of approaches to this topic and discussed many possible charactersitics (alas, as often in research we just could not find the one all-embracing answer – but to be honest, no-one really expected this).

Dr Anna Fagan from the University of Melbourne, who did her PhD on “Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East” in 2016, was one of the colleagues presenting in our session and contributing to this discussion. She kindly agreed to recapitulate and sum up her PhD research published earlier in World Archaeology for a guest blogpost and we are pleased to share her contribution here:

Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe

The excavations of Göbekli Tepe by the German Archaeological Institute over the last two decades have unearthed an unprecedented and as yet unparalleled level of monumental art and architecture, constructed by hunting-and-gathering human groups prior to the full adoption of agriculture. The astonishing and unexpected nature of the finds has driven home the need for more suitable interpretative frameworks that can make sense of the diversity and unfamiliarity of the prehistoric past. Indeed, preceding discussions of the site have served only to further the distance between now and the Neolithic through strict reliance on modern Western concepts that in prehistory would surely have been unimaginable. Hence, in order to come closer to understanding other societies and archaeologies, we must turn to ways of thinking that do not replicate the dominant and historically specific Western ontology.

Engagement with non-Western thinkers and ethnographies reveals the conceptual potential of different modes of thought, metaphysics, and ways of being. Taking other systems of knowledge on equal intellectual terms is not only a matter of political exigency, but also constitutes a more holistic, reflexive, and critical archaeology. For instance, innumerable human groups around the globe describe realities wherein personhood and social relations are not exclusive to humans. Instead, animals, plants and material life can potentially act as subjects, with consciousness, agency and intentionality.

By liberating thought from Western metaphysical foundationalism, we become aware of the inadequacy of modern Western theories of matter to explain the prehistoric world fully. Paying attention to the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the Göbekli architecture reveals limestone to be an agentive materiality from which powerful entities were released and brought into being through the practices of carving. It was likely that highly volatile gods, spirits and animals occupied the socio-cosmic universe of prehistoric south-east Anatolia. Through depicting these powerful or threatening agencies, people set up channels of engagement through which they could interact with dangerous entities on their own terms, affording participants a rare degree of controlled interaction in the existentially risky realm of the spirit world.

However, this does not mean that T-pillars and statuary remained static entities; rather, they may have been capable of movement, absence or transformation. As demonstrated by finds of offering bowls and channels for libations, these beings might have been animated – or tempered – by consumption. Indeed, Göbekli challenges conventional conceptual commitments to permanence, fixity and finality. Practices of image-creation and monument construction at the site seem more committed to processes of making than finished production. Stelae are installed in incomplete states or are reworked into new forms and enclosures were subject to considerable modifications in structure and layout throughout their use-lives. In Enclosure C, for instance, walls with embedded pillars were later engulfed by additional internal walls, stelae and installations, shrinking the circumference of the building through time. With each building phase, artefacts, offerings, skeletal remains, and sculptures were ‘fed back’ into the structural fabric. These labour-intensive changes along with the cumulative wrapping of the space seem to articulate efforts to entrap, engulf, and contain. We might even consider the Göbekli enclosures to be mouths of a sort: cavernous cavities with enormous T-pillar teeth, teeming with statuary of ravenous predators.

The notion that the limestone from which Göbekli is built constituted a vital and even ‘hungry’ materiality may be further explored through practices pertaining to stone extraction. For instance, the infill for the enclosures appears to have been stored on site to be used later, suggesting that these remains retained a special quality separate from other types of settlement waste (Dietrich, Notroff and Schmidt 2017, 119). The fact that the infill consists primarily of animal remains and limestone rubble might indicate where it was stored prior to burial, and with the quarries in close proximity, they present a viable option. If we consider limestone as alive – and thus the process of stone extraction to have been existentially risky – depositing feasting deposits in extraction hollows may have served as ritual offerings for relocated stones. Hollows in the quarry presented metaphysical voids that needed to be addressed and recompensed. Thus, through feasting and depositional practices, the rock was duly ‘fed’.

Indeed, predation and consumption seem to be the key ontological principles driving social engagements at the site. Images of decapitated human heads in the clutches of raptors or predators are common at Göbekli, suggesting that the site may have functioned, amongst other things, as a mortuary sphere where raptors potentially defleshed and disposed of the dead (as in Tibetan sky burials, Zoroastrian funerals, the mortuary practices of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia and of the Chukchi of northern Kamchatka). It was conceivably through predatory consumption of the deceased that the human soul was released, flesh transmuted into spirit matter, and vitality redistributed from the consumed to the consumer. The possibility that Göbekli served as a necropolis is supported by the considerable number of human bone fragments with evidence of partial burning, along with cut-marks denoting defleshing and other post-mortem ritual treatments uncovered from the enclosure fills (Becker et al. 2012; Notroff et al. 2016, 78). Moreover, necrophagous animals are common in the osteoarchaeological and iconographic corpus. Corvids, for instance, make up more than 50 per cent of the avifauna from the site, a number significantly higher than at other contemporaneous settlements (Peters et al. 2005, 231; Notroff, Dietrich and Schmidt 2016, 77–8). Furthermore, the common practice of decapitating anthropomorphic sculpture at the site may even have served as a proxy for the cessation and transformation of human life. Just as vultures assisted in humans’ ontological metamorphosis, so too might practices of decapitation have released the deceased from the confines of the human corpse (Fig. 1).

Abb. 3--GT14_1785-1786_5979

Göbekli Tepe: the only example of a decapitated limestone head where a matching torso was found (photo: N. Becker, German Archaeological Institute).

However, while humans are commonly found in decapitated and diminutive forms, predatory animals are portrayed as frighteningly alive, voracious and present. The human face, too, remains schematic and tokenistic, while the animal face is highly detailed. One striking example of a ravenous predator comes from Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Fig. 2), consisting of a three-dimensional high relief of a large, expertly crafted reptile, with unmistakably delineated ribs and bared teeth, descending the side of the stele.


Göbekli Tepe: Enclosure C. A snarling and hungry three-dimensional predator with clearly delineated ribs descends pillar 27 (photo: D. Johannes, German Archaeological Institute).

The images of predators holding dislocated human heads, in conjunction with the evidence of intensive feasting found at the site (Dietrich et al. 2012), the remains of human bone uncovered in the enclosures’ fill, along with the high number of corvids (crows and ravens) in the avifauna evince a co-productive relationship: of animals feeding on humans and vice versa. Finds of stone bowls and depressions, located next to the central pillars in the enclosures, demonstrate that the megalithic T-pillar beings, too, not only had demands, but were capable of consumption. However, themes of death and predation at Göbekli should not be perceived as destructive but rather, co-productive. Manifest is the network of relations upon which life itself depends: the cycle of death, consumption and reproduction.

Through feeding and bringing into being volatile agencies at Göbekli Tepe, people may have aided the transformation and metamorphosis of the dead and opened up channels of engagement through which the living could influence the spirit world. Convening with powerful beings in the confines of these spiritually fortified spaces afforded humans a degree of control and perhaps even the ability to harness their predatory perspectives (see: Fagan 2016, 2017). Similarly, it is new perspectives – ones that do not replicate the dominant Western ontology – that should travel to archaeological interpretation, so that we too, can engage a more sensitive relationship with the past.

For a longer and more detailed discussion of the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the art, architecture, and osteoarchaeological finds from Göbekli Tepe, see Anna’s original article (and references therein) in World Archaeology 49.3, 2017 [external link].

You can learn more about Anna’s work and research through her profile at academia.edu [external link] or find her on twitter [external link].



Becker, N., O. Dietrich, T. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2012. “Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums.” Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie 5: 14–43.

Dietrich, O., M. Heun, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, and M. Zarnkow. 2012. “The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities: New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-Eastern Turkey.” Antiquity 86: 674–695. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00047840.

Dietrich, O., J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2017.“Feasting, Social Complexity, and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe.” Feast, Famine, or Fighting?: Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity, edited by R. J. Chacon and R. G. Mendoza, 91–132. Cham: Springer International Publishing. (Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation 8).

Fagan, A. 2016. Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East. PhD Diss. University of Melbourne.

Fagan, A. 2017. “Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe,” World Archaeology 3:318-37.

Notroff, J., O. Dietrich, and K. Schmidt. 2016. “Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic Sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey.” In Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – a Worldwide Perspective, edited by C. Renfrew, M. Boyd, and I. Morley, 65–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peters, J., A. Driesch, A. Von Den, and D. Helmer. 2005. “The Upper Euphrates: Tigris Basin, Cradle of Agropastoralism?” In The First Steps of Animal Domestication, edited by J. D. Vigne, J. Peters, and D. Helmer, 96–124. Oxford: Oxbow Books.


(Opinions and interpretations expressed in guest contributions on this blog do not necessarily need to reflect those of the research team or the German Archaeological Institute.)

Making headlines: Was Göbekli Tepe built by Aboriginal Australians?

Most astonishing news are spreading these days again. An article published November 14th in Epoch Times [external link] was claiming a truly amazing discovery already in it’s headline: “Australian Aboriginal symbols found on mysterious 12,000-year-old-pillar in Turkey”. Since then these news were repeatedly picked up and reproduced, and meanwhile we received many requests by interested readers here, asking if this was true.

This unusual hypothesis was based on superficial similarities between selected images and symbols occurring in both cultural contexts (Anatolian Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe and Aboriginal Australia). Aboriginal signs and symbols apparently painted onto a medicine man’s chest or carved into stones are paralleled with reliefs on Göbekli Tepe’s pillars or other objects known from this and contemporary sites of the region.

Before having a closer look into these assumed analogies, a few general remarks should be noted. According to latest research, the Australian continent most likely was settled about 65,000 years ago (cf. Clarkson et al. 2017), probably via the Malay archipelago. So, both cultures were contemporary at some point? Yes, but in different parts of the world – with an ocean between them. And with an incredibly long period of isolation in case of the Australians (Bergström 2016). This obvious chronological gap and the huge geographical distance of about 15,000 km would make a direct relation and interaction of both cultural phenomena rather difficult.

On the other hand the key evidence, the Aboriginal elder’s chest symbol, is of a much younger date. The referenced depiction seems to be the reproduction of a photograph from the late 19th / early 20th century Spencer and Gillen anthropological expeditions through the continent (further information and resources on the website of the “Reconstruction the Spencer and Gillen Collection Project”: [external link]). The original photograph was first published in 1904 (Spencer & Gillen 1904, 58 Fig. 33) – significantly later, about circa 12,000 years later to be precise, than the Göbekli Tepe pillar was carved. Again quite a distance.


Fig. 1: A shaman or medicine man with extensive body painting, Worgaia, Central Australia. Process print. (Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/eknpj5jr, CC BY 4.0)

Pillar 28

Fig. 2: Pillar 28 from Enclosure C with a symbol resembling the Aboriginal body painting only at first glance. However, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that there are significant differences. (Photo: K. Schmidt, emphasis: J. Notroff)

Yet the rather recent study of Aboriginal symbolism at least allows us to understand the icon in question here, describing two persons communicating. However, the supposed analogy at Göbekli Tepe is (at least in this combination) a much rarer exception in early Neolithic iconography – one of which we cannot say what it actually meant to the prehistoric people carving it, due to a lack of any related sources. Besides, and that might be the strongest point to highlight here: the Göbekli Tepe symbol does not at all look exactly the same. In fact, upon closer inspection it appears quite different (cf. Fig. 2): what appears to be a straight horizontal line in the Aboriginal sign is more of an “H”-shaped icon on the T-Pillar – with two vertical ‘arms’ at each side (which are obviously missing in the Australian example).


Fig. 3: Carved graffito of a woman. Most likely a later addition to a stone slab in the ‘Lion Pillars Building’, Göbekli Tepe (Layer II, PPNB). (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

The same has to be said about the other symbols mentioned and in particular the female figure from Göbekli Tepe’s so-called Lion’s Pillar Building which is linked to Aboriginal depictions of the Rainbow Serpent, going by the name of Yingarna – sometimes depicted as a women in some Aboriginal cultures. Again, we know context and meaning of one of these (the Australian example), but do not have any further sources for the other one at Göbekli Tepe – which, by the way, was not part of the original decoration, but is a later added (and again exceptional) graffito.

These already dubious analogies are further complicated by assumptions aiming to underline the argument, but lacking a clear factual basis. Substantiating that the Göbekli Tepe pillar symbols must be “similarly sacred” since the “pillar depicts a deity” is of course highly interesting, but not without problems as already discussed earlier. And the assertion that the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were “… created by a society that was wiped out by a cataclysmic event”, referring to a recently published study causing a similar  news output, did not go without criticism too.

In the end, an all too simple identification of similarly appearing symbols and equation of the complex individual cultural phenomena behind them, would be highly speculative – and is doing injustice to both cultures and their rich iconography. Furthermore, the focus on only a few selected images and symbols in an otherwise rich (and diverse) iconographic repertoire seems arbitrary. There are many more differences to be noted between these two cultures and places than actual similarities.

Additionally, Aboriginal Australians are not at all forming one single homogenous culture complex. More than 400 distinct Australian Aboriginal peoples could have been identified meanwhile, distinct groups with an own language (including a specific symbolic language) and peculiar culture (Horton 1994).

So, to answer the question posed in this headline: No. No, Göbekli Tepe was not built by Aboriginal Australians. The superficial similarities in iconography and art are exceptional coincidences in the best and misinterpretations in the most unfavourable case. With the same line of argument one could think, the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe were already inventing the letter “T” due to the characteristic shape of these omnipresent pillars …


Bergström, A., Nagle, N., Chen, Y., McCarthy, Sh., Pollard, M. O., Ayub, Q., Wilcox, St., Wilcox, L., van Oorschot, R. A. H., McAllister, P., Williams, L., Xue, Y., Mitchell, R. J., Tyler-Smith, Ch., Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes, Current Biology 26(6) (21 March 2016) 809–813. [external link]

Clarkson, Ch., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L., Smith, M., Roberts, R. G., Hayes, E., Lowe, K., Carah, X., Florin, S. A., McNeil, J., Cox, D., Arnold, L. J., Hua, Qu., Huntley, J., Brand, H. E. A., Manne, T., Fairbairn, A., Shulmeister, J., Lyle, L., Salinas, M., Page, M., Connel, K., Park, G., Norman, K., Murphy, T., Pardoe, C., Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago, Nature 547 (20 July 2017), 306–310. [external link]

Horton, D., The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society, and Culture, Canberra 1994.

Spencer, B. S. & Gillen, F. J., The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, London / New York 1904. [external link]

#FactCheck: It’s on the internet, so it must be true. Right?

Recently we got a couple of notes and comments regarding a number of finds supposedly attributed to the early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe. Finds we surprisingly never addressed or mentioned or published anyway. Of course this raised questions. Not only among our readers, but also in the research team. So, I picked three of these mysterious objects and tried to follow their path all the way back. A lesson in ‘alternative facts’, their easy creation – and quick multiplication on the world wide web.

The first of these items we’re having a look into is this detailed and rather ‘life-like’ sphinx-sculpture – linked to a caption saying “The oldest known sphinx was found in Göbekli Tepe …”.

C3g5gN8XUAMB9b7.jpg large

Stylistically, this sculpture already looks quite different from any other prehistoric piece of art we know of, yet those coming from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe in particular. The carefully sculpted face and body are more reminiscent of ‘classic’ ancient Greek or Roman sculptures – or those of the 18th and 19th century ‘romanticising’ sculptures. Also, the material does not really look like the yellowish-worn limestone so characteristic for Göbekli Tepe’s sculptures.

The statement connected to this depiction is even more surprising – since actually there is no single sphinx known from Göbekli Tepe (or any other related PPN-site of the region) reported. In fact, composite – hybrid – creatures are generelly very rare in prehistoric art. With a few excepetions, the concept of chimaeras seems to have become a more common (or at least more often depicted) mythological trope at a later time in human history.

Finally, with a little bit of research the sculpture in question here can be identified as being part of the garden decoration of the Royal Palace of La Granja [external link] in the Spanish town of San Ildefonso – dating to the 18th century. AD.

The second object on this list is a bit trickier. Indeed it seems to be a rather large stele showing the relief of some upright standing person. Stone and setting somehow look similar to what we would expect from Göbekli Tepe – although the style of depiction and the building visible to the right suspiciously do not really look unfamiliar from an Anatolian early Neolithic point of view.

DC16JMzXkAEExUbAgain, a closer look at the actual depiction makes it clear that we are dealing with something different here. The person shows characteristical features we would expect from an ape. In particular the head, face, and tail give it away: this is a depiction of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the shape of a monkey. With this information at hadn it is only a question of further reading to identify the stele as one of the monuments at the Virupakasha Temple in Hampi [external link], a World Heritage Site in southern India – dating back as much as the 7th century AD, but definitely not the Neolithic period.

Finally, the last find examined here is this standard-like object of which the caption claims it is a “G[ö]bekli Tepe god of the constellation of Orion.” Besides the challenges to project modern (or at least historical) star constellations into prehistory and even more prehsitoric art (as we already discussed here) and the terminological issues surrounding lables like ‘god’, ‘gods’, and even ‘temple’ (discussed here earlier), this piece, again, does look like nothing we know from the site of Göbekli Tepe or any other Neolithic find spot in the region.

DBubx1SXkAAeSld.jpg large

In fact, a stylistic comparison eventually offers a lead to modern Iran. A couple of elaborate objects dating to the Bronze Age period (i.e. the 3rd millennium BC) from this region show quite some parallels. They are linked to the so-called Jiroft culture which, unfortunately, still remians raher obscure since the majority of finds associated with Jiroft are coming from illegal excavations and we do not know much about them. But again, they’re neither related to the Anatolian Neolithic nor the site of Göbekli Tepe.

These three examples should be sufficient and representative for the point we would like to make with this blog post: it’s easy to come up with an idea, it’s easy to form hypotheses. Honestly, we as scientists do it too, all the time. But every hypothesis needs to be checked, material needs to be compared, sources reviewed. We’re living in times where facts can be made up as ‘alternatives’. Stay curious, but stay suspicious. Check the facts, check the sources. And when in doubt … ask an archaeologist (or any other expert).

How many scientists does it take to make a stone speak? Research into plant food at Göbekli Tepe

The reason I haven’t posted so much in the last months was because the start of the project „Plant Food Management at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe“ was requesting a lot of preparations, which left me with few time for blog contributions (I’m tweeting my research step by step, though, under: @laura_dtrich).

The main aims of my research project is to reconstruct the use of plants in the food spectrum at Göbekli Tepe, the plant management strategies and the interaction between man and environment on one side, and to contribute to an explanation for the special character of the site through new insights from this point of view on the other side. The study of plant resources and plant food at Göbekli Tepe is of great importance to understand Early Neolithic subsistence in the Levant and, linked to this, economic, social and biological processes that shaped our modern world. The site covers a long time span, in which the Neolithisation, i.e. the domestication of plants and animals, took place, until a point of no return to the world of hunters and gatherers was reached.

Göbekli Tepe is a special site, most probably a central site for meetings, and a cultic place with monumental architecture. It is not likely, at the current state of research, to interpret the site as a settlement (at least not as a “classic” settlement with populations living permanently at the site). But the more or less permanent presence of groups of people, erecting monumental architecture and/or maintaining it has to be assumed, and their subsistence was most likely an important issue. Also, social events like feasting could have played an important role at the site (Dietrich et al. 2012: O. Dietrich, M. Heun, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, M. Zarnkow, The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86, 2012, 674-695).

Plants seem to be a more stable food resource compared to the partly migratory hunted animals, and the presence of an impressive quantity of storage vessels is certainly a hint for the massive storage of plant food at Göbekli Tepe. Different approaches for a reconstruction environments and plant use exist, for example through pollen and phytolith analysis. These methods can be theoretically used, but still have some methodological problems to be solved. The reconstruction of plant food is largely based on the botanical analysis of the plants discovered at a site (in significant contexts). But objects like grinding stones can make a significant contribution to our knowledge on plant use. Macrobotanical analysis has shown the use of einkorn, emmer, barley, pistachio and almonds at Göbekli Tepe (Neef 2003: R. Neef, Overlooking the Steppe-Forest: A Preliminary Report on the Botanical Remains from Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neolithics 2, 2003, 13-16). However, there are only very few plant remains from Göbekli Tepe, and they are also badly preserved. The bad preservation conditions for such remains will inevitably lead to a very biased image regarding plant food at the site.

Given this situation, objects for the preparation and storage of food are a much more objective method to quantify the actual use of plant resources. There are over 10.000 grinding stones from the site. It is known from ethnographically sources that grinding stones were used for processing numerous foodstuffs (cereals, nuts, legumes, herbs, even meat, cheese or grasshoppers) but also minerals (salt, ochre), sugar and even animal skins. The processing of meat, ochre and animal skins was observed in several Epipalaeolithic sites in the Levant (Dubreuil et al 2015: L. Dubreuil, D. Savage, S. Delgado, H. Plisson, B. Stephenson, I de la Torre, Use-wear analysis of ground stone tools: discussing our current framework, in J. Marreiros, J. Bicho (Eds.) Use-wear handbook 105–158. Berlin, Springer 2015). One of the main aims of analyzing grinding stones is to deduce exactly their functions, and that can be done by analyzing their surface with the microscope for usewear; 3 D models are also useful tools for quantifications of use. Grinding different materials will produce different wear on the surface. The specific patterns of usewear traces can be compared with experimental objects (blog contribution coming up), used for grinding just one material. This is one of the best and most exact ways to deduce the function of grindings stones and, through statistically and stratigraphically secured observations, the amount of plant food in daily life.

According to (very) preliminary results, numerous grindings stones were used at Göbekli Tepe for the processing of cereals and nuts, and very few for ochre and animal skins. But a lot of work will follow to put these observations on a statistically firm basis, and – given the huge amount of information and different methods of analysis – it takes definitely more than one scientist to make (10000) stones speak!

So here is my hive mind, which made my research possible this year: Hajo Höhler-Brockmann (German Archaeological Institute), Julia Meister (Free University of Berlin), Julia Heeb (Village Museum Düppel) and Nils Schäkel (Free University of Berlin) and of course Oliver.

And here is a short history in images from the last months:


1: Sorting grinding stones in the excavation house… (photo: J. Meister)


2: Here is just a part of them! (photo L. Dietrich)


3: Analyzing the use wear with the microscope, making 3D-models and taking samples from the surface: me (left), Julia (right), Hajo (behind).


4b: …and Hajo taking photos (photo J. Meister).


5: Microscopical use-wear of a handstone used most probably for processing einkorn (photo L. Dietrich),


6: …and me analyzing it (photo J. Meister).


7a: Complementary to use wear: sediment samples (photo J. Meister),


7b: …and Julia taking them (photo L. Dietrich)


8: …but also resting in the sunset after a lot of work done! (photo L. Clare)


9a: Back in Berlin: producing experimental grinding stones (photo L. Dietrich),


9b: …of the type used at Göbekli Tepe (photo N. Schäkel),


9c: …grinding einkorn, grinding, and grinding (photo B. Kortmann),


10: …and starting to study use-wear again (photo B. Kortmann)!

And finally: preparing first papers…which is the most exciting part of research!

Recap: #AskGT – ‘Q&A’ about recent research at Göbekli Tepe

A couple of weeks ago, in June, we thanked you, the esteemed readers of this blog, for your ongoing interest in the German Archaeological Institute’s Göbekli Tepe research project as it is impressively visible by the visitor numbers of this blog. Thanks again once more! Yet we also used the opportunity to offer a kind of questionnaire via twitter, giving you the chance to adress your questions regarding the excavations at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.

Since we consider this little experiement in ‘science communication’ a success, we are not only discussing and planning to repeat something similar in the not too distant future, but also would like to share the outcome of this first Q&A here. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers and discussions which emerged from this question time of interest; some of the links provided are certainly worth a look. Thanks a lot to everyone participating.


First of all we started of with some more general remarks, intoducing ourselves as moderators of this Q&A and the site of Göbekli Tepe itsels as well as the state of research so far.

Site & Monuments

Many of the questions coming up early in the discussion were in particular directed at the nature of the archaeological site itself and the monuments unearthed there.






Excavations and field research

Also, excavation methods applied at Göbekli Tepe and aspects of field research took an interest in the course of the session.





Question for applied methods  of course also included analyses and research undertaken at desk and lab.



One of the most important features of the Göbekli Tepe monuments is their complex iconography – which naturally also generated much interest during among questioners.



Next to obtaining material sources by excavation, one of the most important parts of archaeological research is to interpret the finds and features unearthed and collected. So this was another topic of many questions.










To properly understand how prehistoric people interacted with the world around them, it is of course inevitable to also have a look at this world they are living in, at environment and climate. Another point which also was picked up by some of the questions.



These PPN hunters certainly were not acting in a social vacuum, so questions to the cultural background of the Göbekli Tepe monuments and their builders are only logical.


Links & connections to other sites

Comparisons with other monuments or thoughts about a possible connection to such are quite often put forward then discussing Göbekli Tepe (in fact, we had a whole blog post dedicated to this topic just recently).


Some questions were interested in future work at the site and pending research results.



Thanks, and goodbye

With some closing remarks we finally had to bring this most interesting hour to an end, definitely overhelmed by the number of participants and questions and really glad to see so much interest in the work of the Göbekli Tepe research project. Thanks a lot!

Since the great and very encouraging feedback this Q&A received and the interesting discussions it triggered, we can only thank everyone who participated again and repeat what’s already mirrored in this last tweet above: That we definitely repeat this in due time. So, have your questions ready – see you then.

“What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?” Session upcoming at EAA´s Annual Meeting in Maastricht

Anlage D

‘Special buildings‘ has become an often-used label in Near Eastern Archaeology for constructions deviating in architecture, elaborate inner fittings, finds and often also treatment after the end of use (intentional destruction, burial) from domestic spaces. This peculiar type of building seems to start existing during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region between the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. Well-known examples come inter alia from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el Ahmar, Nevalı Çori, or Çatalhöyük. As Kathleen Kenyon has once aptly put it  “… archaeologists tend to call buildings, which do not conform to the usual plan of domestic houses, shrines or temples. ” But is it that simple? Or do we summarize very different phenomena under one label just because they deviate from a ‘norm’ defined by archaeologists?

Working at Göbekli Tepe these are very important questions, and we are glad that we could gather some interesting approaches to this topic in the frame of a session at this year´s EAA Annual Meeting in Maastricht.

Our session (#s322) will be held on Saturday, September 2, between
14:00-16.45 in room 1.08.

01. Oliver Dietrich, Laura Dietrich, Deniz Erdem, Jens Notroff, Krisztián Oross, An Archaeology of ‘Special buildings‘? Introductory remarks
02. Eszter Banffy, Introduction – Special buildings in the European Neolithic?
03. Tatiana Kornienko, On the Problem of Interpreting Reliefs and Images in public structures of Northern Mesopotamia during the transition to the Neolithic
04. Anna Fagan, Special Spaces, Special Relations: An Ontological Approach to Pre-Pottery Neolithic Communal Buildings
05. Deniz Erdem, Plastering Rituals: Connecting Buildings and Bodies through Plaster
06. Theodor Aurelian Ignat, Catalin Lazar, Thoughts about special dwellings from tell settlement proximity. Sultana-Malu Rosu, a case study.

Looking forward to see you there!




A Short Note on a New Figurine Type from Göbekli Tepe

This text has been published originally (and in slightly different form) as a short contribution by Oliver Dietrich and Klaus Schmidt (†) in Neo-Lithics [external link] 1/17, 43-46.

The most striking aspects of Göbekli Tepe are without question the monumentality of the site and the rich imagery. Besides the reliefs on the pillars, there is a wide range of stone sculptures and figurines. Klaus Schmidt, who excavated the site for 20 years, has dedicated several papers to this find group (Hauptmann and Schmidt 2007; Schmidt 1998; 1999; 2008; 2009; 2010); a comprehensive synthesis is still missing (for the anthropomorphic sculpture Dietrich et al. forthcoming). A total of 149 sculptures has been found to date at Göbekli Tepe. Of these, 86 depict animals, 38 humans, four anthropomorphic masks, three phalli, nine are human-animal composite sculptures and a further nine are indeterminable. Many of the sculptures are in a fragmentary state, which may have its reason in social practises connected to the early Neolithic imagery – including intentional fragmentation and deposition of a selection of fragments, mostly heads in meaningful contexts next to the pillars (Becker et al. 2012; Dietrich et al. forthcoming). Many of the fragments may have been originally part of sculptures in the shape of the ‘Urfa Man’, the oldest life-sized human sculpture currently known, discovered during construction work at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle (Hauptmann 2003; Schmidt 2010. 247, 248-249). But there is also a range of other types, and the current contribution is dedicated to one of those.

The figurine

During the 2012 autumn excavation season at Göbekli Tepe, a small figurine (5,1×2,3×2,7 cm) was handed in as a surface find from the north-western hilltop of the tell (Fig. 2). The motif of the figurine is an ithyphallic person sitting with legs dragged toward his body on an unidentifiable object. He is looking up and grasping his legs. Between the legs, a large erect phallus is depicted (Fig. 3), and a quadruped animal is sitting on the person´s left shoulder (Fig. 4). As one half of the figurine has a thick layer of sinter, the question whether there originally was another animal on the other shoulder remains open. The animal species cannot be determined with security neither, but the general form is consistent with depictions of large wildcats or bears at Göbekli Tepe (e.g. Schmidt 1999. 9-10, nr. A8). The material of the sculpture is unusual for the site on the other hand. Nearly all sculptures and figurines so far known from Göbekli Tepe were made from local limestone. The new figurine is most likely made from nephrite[1]. The figurine is perforated crosswise in its lower part. A functional interpretation for this detail is hard to give as one perforation would have sufficed to wear it as a pendant for example. Maybe the figurine was meant to be fixed to a support.

The unclear find circumstances and the unusual material raise the question of the figurine´s provenance. The sinter layer is a characteristic for finds from Göbekli Tepe (and clearly indicates that the figurine was originally buried with the right side down), but could have formed of course also at another site with similar natural conditions. There is however an older find that could represent a fragment of the same figurine type. This fragment, comprising head and shoulder of a small figurine (3,9×4.0x2.8cm) made from brownish limestone, was discovered in 2002, also on the surface of the tell (Fig. 5). There are two more examples of larger seated sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. A first depiction of a seated person (h. 32.5cm; Fig. 6), badly preserved, was found on the surface of the tell, too (Schmidt 1999. 9, Plate. 1/1). Here, the hands are brought together under the belly, the gesture reminds of the ‘Urfa Man’ who most likely is presenting a phallus (Hauptmann 2003), but unfortunately the lower part of the sculpture is not preserved. A snake could be depicted crawling up the back and head of the sculpture, but this remains uncertain, too. Another example (h. 44cm) was found more recently in a deep sounding in the northwestern depression of the tell (Area K10-55, Locus 21.2; Fig. 7). The find context is still under evaluation, much speaks for a PPN B date so far. The preservation of this sculpture is also rather bad, the lower part is missing again. Both examples show some clear differences compared to the figurine: the arms are folded in front of the body, there is no animal on the shoulder, and the persons seem to sit on the ground, not on some object. As the lower part is missing we cannot be sure whether a phallus was depicted. Summing up, it seems nevertheless reasonably sure that the new figurine is from Göbekli Tepe – and represents a type, or variant, not known so far in the site´s sculptural inventory.

Date and analogies

Without knowledge of the original find context, or analogies from clear contexts, there is no possibility to attribute the new figurine to one of Göbekli Tepe´s architectural horizons – Layer III with the PPN A and possibly early PPN B large stone circles formed of T-shaped pillars, or Layer II with early/middle PPNB rectangular or sub-rectangular buildings. Offsite analogies also seem to be scarce.

Göbekli Tepe

Fragment of a limestone figurine discovered in 2002 at Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo I. Wagner).

29 similarly seated limestone figurines are known from Mezraa-Teleilat´s phase IIIB, i.e. the Late PPN B / early Pottery Neolithic transition (Özdoğan 2003. 515-516, Figures 1a-c, 2b-c, 4, 5; Özdoğan 2011. 209, Figures 14-21; Hansen 2014: 271, Figure 9). One more find can be added to this group, a more recently published stone figurine from Çatalhöyük (Hodder 2012. Figure 14b; Hansen 2014. 271). Although the overall form is very similar, the figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat and Çatalhöyük are much more abstracted, the former are sitting on armchair-like seats, wear robe-like clothes and in some cases belts, and examples with animals on the shoulders seem to be missing. As the latest finds from Göbekli Tepe date to the middle PPN B, the figurine must be older than the finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük. Whether the naturalistic sculpture(s) from Göbekli Tepe can be regarded as the prototypes for this group and thus also a similar meaning could be proposed, cannot be answered with security for now.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 6

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo T. Goldschmidt).

Further analogies are hard to find. The much later standing female clay figurines holding leopard cubs from Hacılar (e.g. Mellaart 1970. Figure 196-197), and the so-called ‘Mistress of Animals’, a female figurine seated on a leopard and holding a leopard cub (Mellaart 1970. Figure 228), or, in another case, seated on two leopards and holding their tails (Mellaart 1970. Figure 229) are different in gesture and topic.


The meaning of the figurine from Göbekli Tepe remains enigmatic. The finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük seem to be the best analogies for now. But in contrast to this group, the find discussed here has the animal on the shoulder (or one on each shoulder originally?) as an important characteristic. There are several examples of animal-human composite sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. But they show animals – birds and quadrupeds – on the heads of people, grabbing them with their claws, maybe carrying the heads away (e.g. Beile-Bohn et al. 1998.66-68, Figure 30-31; Becker et al. 2012.35). This kind of iconography most likely relates to Neolithic death cult or beliefs (Schmidt 1999.7-8). The new sculpture, with one or two animals in the shoulder area, does not fit well into this group. The animal is clinging to the shoulder in a crouched position, there is no indication of aggression or attack (Fig. 4), or a reaction of the sitting person. The animal could thus have a completely different meaning. We could be dealing with a more metaphorical relationship between man and animal here.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 7

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo N. Becker).

At Göbekli Tepe, animal symbolism seems to have an emblematic/totemic connotation in some cases. In every one of the monumental enclosures of Layer III, one animal species is dominant by quantity of depictions (Notroff et al. 2014.97-98, Fig. 5.9). In Enclosure C for example boars have this role, in Enclosure A snakes, Enclosure B has many undecorated pillars, but foxes are more frequent, while Enclosure D is more diverse, with birds and insects playing an important role. Given this background, one hypothesis would be that the animal characterises the person depicted in the figurine as a member of a certain group.

The other important characteristic of the depiction is the prominent erect phallus. Göbekli Tepe´s iconography is generally nearly exclusively male (e.g. Dietrich and Notroff 2015.85), and the phallus features prominently in several depictions of animals and humans. For example, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted on Pillar 43 amongst birds, snakes and a large scorpion (Schmidt 2006). Although the central pillars of the large enclosures are clearly marked as human through the depiction of arms, hands, and in the case of Enclosure D also items of clothing, their sex is not indicated. An erect phallus however is a prominent feature of the foxes depicted on several of the central pillars. There are also a few phallus sculptures from the site (e.g. Schmidt 1999.9, Plate 2/3-4).

It is hard to say whether all these diverse depictions / contexts share a similar basic meaning, or a multitude of meanings is implied. There is a vast ethnographic and historic repertoire of phallic depictions in the context of power, dominance, aggression, marking of boundaries/ownership, and apotropaism (e.g. Sütterlin-Eibl-Eibesfeldt 2013 with bibliography). Phallic symbolism is also often integrated in rites of admission in social groups. The association of animal and phallic symbolism in the sitting (watching?) figurine could hypothetically hint at such rites of admission, it could be a mnemonic object illustrating an aspect/moment of the rituals involved. However, further finds from secure and informative contexts from Göbekli Tepe, or elsewhere, should be awaited to shed some more light on this new figurine type.


Becker N., Dietrich O., Götzelt Th., Köksal-Schmidt Ç., Notroff J., Schmidt, K. 2012. Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5: 14-43.

Beile-Bohn M., Gerber, C., Morsch, M. Schmidt K. 1998. Neolithische Forschungen in Ober-mesopotamien. Gürcütepe und Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 48: 5-78.

Dietrich O., Notroff, J. 2015. A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In N. Laneri (ed.), Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxbow. Oxford: 75-89.

Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., Zarnkow, M. 2012. The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86: 674-695.

Dietrich, O., Köksal-Schmidt, Ç., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2013. Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data. Neo-Lithics 1/13: 36-41.

Dietrich, O., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2017. Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe. In R. J. Chacon, R. Mendoza (eds.). Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer. New York: 91-132.

Dietrich, O., Dietrich, L., Notroff, J. Forthcoming. Anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe. In J. Becker, C. Beuger, B. Müller-Neuhof (eds.), Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory. Workshop Proceedings 10th ICAANE in Vienna, Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden.

Hansen, S. 2014. Neolithic figurines in Anatolia. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 6. 10500-5200 BC: Environment, Settlement, Flora, Fauna, Dating, Symbols of Belief, with Views from North, South, East and West. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 265-292.

Hauptmann, H. 2003. Eine frühneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann, N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications: Istanbul: 623-636.

Hauptmann, H., Schmidt K. 2007. Die Skulpturen des Frühneolithikums. In Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Theiss Verlag. Stuttgart: 67-82.

Hodder, I. 2012. Renewed work at Çatalhöyük. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 3. Central Turkey. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 245-277.

Mellaart, J. 1970. Excavations at Hacılar (2). University Press. Edinburgh.

Notroff, N., Dietrich, O., Schmidt, K. 2014. Building Monuments – Creating Communities. Early monumental architecture at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In J. Osborne (ed.), Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. SUNY Press. Albany: 83-105.

Özdoğan, M. 2003.A group of Neolithic stone figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann and N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 511-523.

Özdoğan, M. 2011. Mezraa-Teleilat. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 203-260.

Schmidt, K. 1999. Frühe Tier- und Menschenbilder vom Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 49: 5-21.

Schmidt, K. 1998. Beyond daily bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic ritual from Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics 2/98: 1-5.

Schmidt, K. 2006. Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe. Neo-Lithics 2/2006: 38-40.

Schmidt, K. 2008. Die zähnefletschenden Raubtiere des Göbekli Tepe. In: D. Bonatz, R. M. Czichon, F. Janoscha Kreppner (eds.), Fundstellen. Gesammelte Schriften zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altvorderasiens ad honorem Hartmut Kühne. Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden: 61-69.

Schmidt, K. 2009. Göbekli Tepe – eine apokalyptische Bilderwelt aus der Steinzeit. Antike Welt 4: 45-52.

Schmidt, K. 2010. Göbekli Tepe – The Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII: 239-256.

Schmidt K. 2012a. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. exOriente: Berlin.

Sütterlin, C., Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. 2013. Human cultural defense: means and monuments of ensuring collective territory. Neo-Lithics 2/13: 42-48.

[1] Optical classification by Klaus Schmidt.

Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production

A few kilometres northeast of modern Şanlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey, the tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Rising 15 metres and with an area of about 9 hectares, the completely man-made mound covers the earliest known monumental cult architecture in the ancient Near East. Constructed by hunter-gatherers right after the end of the last Ice Age, they also intentionally buried it about 10,000 years ago.

Göbekli Tepe has been known to archaeologists since the 1960s, when a joint survey team from the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago under the direction of Halet Çambel and Robert Braidwood observed numerous flint artefacts littering the surface of the mound. However, the monumental architecture remained undetected, and was eventually discovered by Klaus Schmidt on a grand tour of important south-eastern Turkish Neolithic sites in 1994. In addition to the high density of flint tools and flakes, his eye was caught by large limestone blocks which reminded him of another nearby Neolithic site where he had worked several years before: Nevalı Çori – where, among others, a building with monolithic T- pillars was discovered for the first time. These peculiar T-shapes reminded Schmidt of the worked stone peeking out of the surface at Göbekli Tepe. Excavations at this site began the next year.

In about 22 years of ongoing fieldwork, the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanlıurfa Museum have revealed a totally unexpected monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe, dating to the earliest Neolithic period. No typical domestic structures have yet been found, leading to the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as a ritual centre for gathering and feasting. The people creating these megalithic monuments were still highly mobile hunter-foragers and the site’s material culture corroborates this: substantial amounts of bones exclusively from hunted wild animals, and a stone tool inventory comprising a wide range of projectile points. Osteological investigations and botanical studies show that animal husbandry was not practiced at Göbekli Tepe and domesticated plants were unknown.

It is currently possible to distinguish two different phases at Göbekli Tepe although this will undoubtedly change with continued research. The site is characterised by an older layer dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A period (ca. 9,600-8,800 calBC) which produced monumental circular huge T-shaped pillars arranged in circle-like enclosures around two even taller central pillars and a younger layer, early and middle PPN B (c. 8,800-7,000 calBC) in date. It consists of smaller rectangular buildings containing often only two small central pillars or even none at all. These may be reduced variations (or later adaptations) of the older and considerably larger monuments, of which four were excavated in the main excavation area in the mound’s southern depression. Notably these structures, labelled Enclosures A, B, C, and D, were apparently backfilled intentionally at the end of their use-lives. Enclosure D, the best preserved of the circular buildings, serves to give an impression of the general layout and set-up of these enclosures.

In the centre two colossal pillars, measuring about 5.5 m, are founded in shallow pedestals carved out of the carefully smoothed bedrock. This central pair of pillars is surrounded by a circle formed of similar, but slightly smaller pillars which are connected by stone walls and benches. While these surrounding pillars often are decorated with depictions of animals like foxes, aurochs, birds, snakes, and spiders, the central pair in particular illustrates the anthropomorphic character of the T-pillars. They clearly display arms depicted in relief on the pillars’ shafts, with hands brought together above the abdomen, pointing to the middle of the waist. Belts and loincloths underline this impression and emphasize the human-like appearance of these pillars. Their larger-than-life and highly abstracted representation is intentionally chosen and not owed to deficient craftsmanship, as other finds like the much more naturalistic animal and human sculptures clearly demonstrate. This suggests that whatever the larger-than-life T-pillars are meant to depict and embody is on a different level than the life-sized sculptures in the iconography of Göbekli Tepe and the Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia.

While naturalistic and abstract depictions find their most monumental manifestation on the T-shaped pillars, there are others. Similar and clearly related iconography also occurs on functional objects like so-called shaft straighteners, on stone bowls and cups, as well as on small stone tablets which apparently do not have any other function than to bear these signs. Furthermore, these objects are not restricted to Göbekli Tepe and the few other sites with T-shaped pillars in its closer vicinity, but are known from places up to 200 km around the site. A spiritual concept seems to have linked these sites to each other, suggesting a larger cultic community among PPN mobile groups in Upper Mesopotamia, tied in a network of communication and exchange.

Ethnologic and historic analogies emphasize the importance of regular gatherings and collective activities as means of maintaining social cohesion in hunter-gatherer communities. Gatherings also serve other purposes like the exchange of information, goods, and marriage partners. Such large-scale gatherings naturally need to be established in locations that are known and easily accessible for the participating groups.

The topographical situation of Göbekli Tepe as a landmark overlooking the surrounding plains, seem a perfectly suitable central space for these groups and people inhabiting the wider region. Large communal tasks executed as collective work events, reflected in the apparently continuous construction activity at Göbekli Tepe, provided a unifying reason for people to come together. Additionally ethnographic studies provide more examples demonstrating that work forces necessary for such collaborative projects can be gathered with the prospect of lavish feasts.

That this may have been the case at Göbekli Tepe is further corroborated by a closer look at the massive amount of filling material of the enclosures, which consists of limestone rubble, flint artefacts, fragments of stone vessels, other ground stone tools, and in particular an impressively large numbers of animal bones – above all gazelle and aurochs. These remains hint at the consumption of enormous amounts of meat, most likely during feasts framing these large-scale meetings and communal activities, including monument construction.


Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).

Repetitive feasting at Göbekli Tepe may have played an essential role not only in creating and strengthening social bonds among the individuals and groups meeting there, but must also have stressed the economic potential of these hunter-gatherers to repeatedly feed such large crowds. In response to this pressure, new food resources and processing techniques may have been explored, subsequently paving the way for a complete change in subsistence strategy. In this scenario, the early appearance of monumental religious architecture motivating work feasts to draw as many hands as possible for the execution of complex, collective tasks is changing our understanding of one of the key moments in human history: the emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry – and the onset of food production and the Neolithic way of live.

This text was originally written by Jens Notroff & Oliver Dietrich for and published at the weblog of Boston University’s American School of Oriental Research: The Ancient Near East Today – Current News About The Ancient Past [external link], July 2017: Vol. V, No. 7 under the title “Göbekli Tepe: Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production” [external link].