Guarded by beasts: a porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe

During the 2009 and 2010 excavation seasons at Göbekli Tepe, several new trenches at the northwestern hilltop of the tell were opened. Below the plough horizon, as we already had expected, soon rectangular rooms appeared, the characteristic features of the younger Layer II at Göbekli Tepe. However, in the eastern part of the new trenches, the rooms ended quite abruptly. Instead of them, for some time, there was – more or less nothing. That is, of course we were not digging in sterile soil, the sediments were full of finds, just the architecture was missing.


Göbekli Tepe, the areas on the northwestern hilltop under excavation in 2010 (Photo O. Dietrich).

What do you do as an archaeologist in such a situation? Dig on, of course. And after some days of rather monotonous work, that simple strategy paid off. The colour of the sediment suddenly changed into a reddish tone. At Göbekli Tepe, this is a clear indication that you have reached the filling sediments of the older building layer III. And, just to confirm the rule, soon the head of a new monumental pillar appeared.

Unfortunately we were not able to resume work in those areas on the northwestern hilltop in the following years, as other excavation areas and preparation for the construction of permanent shelter structures over the site required the full attention of the excavation team. However, besides new information on the layer II architecture of the side, two important discoveries came from our work in the ‘north-west’.


Göbekli Tepe. A monumental porthole stone from the northwestern hilltop areas (Photo O. Dietrich).

First, a very important detail for the interpretation of the site in general: it seems, that the situation in the main excavation area in the southeastern depression of the tell is not unique. There, the layer II buildings largely exclude the area of the monumental enclosures. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, as a roughly semi-circular ‘terrace wall’ physically marked the position of the Enclosures A-D, giving the tell an amphitheare-like appearance.

Second, in one of the areas, a very important find was made. What seemed in the moment of discovery to be a larger worked stone, a usual thing at Göbekli Tepe, turned after several days of detailed excavation into a  monumental porthole stone. Several such stones with a central opening are known from the site, and they could have played a role as entrances to the enclosures or other buildings. One of them lies approximately in the centre of Enclosure B and gives some reason to think about an entrance through a possible roof for that bulding.

However, the new porthole stone from the northwestern areas was completely different, and that not only regarding its enormous measurements of c. 3x3m. First, unlike all examples found before, it has two openings. Second, it is richly decorated with three c. 0.5m long sculptures of quadrupeds (bull, ram and a wildcat) and a 1.5 m long snake in high relief, as well as a row of cupholes. Unfortunately, the stone was not in situ, that is, not in its original architectonic context. But the decorations clearly show that it must have been part of an important building whose entrance had to be guarded accordingly.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, in: Mehmet Özdoğan – Nezih Başgelen – Peter Kuniholm (Hrsg.), The Neolithic in Turkey. New Excavations & New Research. The Euphrates Basin, Archaeology and Art Publications (2011): 50-52.

A decorated bone spatula, what’s in that picture? – Iconology and Archaeology.

In 2011, a special object was discovered at Göbekli Tepe in one of the excavation trenches in the tell’s northwestern depression (Fig. 1). Excavation had just proceeded into layers undisturbed by modern ploughing, but there were still no traces of architecture, when a fragment of a bone object was found. The artefact was described preliminarily as a ‘spatula’ made from a rib bone. It measures 5.3 x 1.9 x 0.3 cm and bears a carved drawing that is only partly preserved. The image is rather unclear, however in the upper part, two hatched T-shaped forms are visible – one completely preserved, the other one only fragmentarily. These T-shapes rapidly led to associations with Göbekli Tepe’s most prominent architectural feature, and to a vivid discussion within the research team focusing on the probability of this interpretation and our possibilities of understanding Neolithic ‘art’ in general.


Fig. 1: Bone ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: N. Becker, DAI, ).

The problems of interpretation prevented a premature publication of the find. Meanwhile it went on display in the Şanlıurfa Museum. As the interaction of museum visitors with the small object evolved largely along the same lines as ours in 2011 and has also evolved in more speculative directions [external link], it seems important to get back in more detail to the question of the ‘readability’ of this Neolithic depiction.

There is an ongoing discussion about the possibilities and pitfalls of interpreting art in archaeology. One aspect of this debate is the potential use of iconological approaches. Between the most influential models is Erwin Panofsky’s concept that he presented in the 1930s (1934, reprinted in 1982). He described “three strata of subject matter or meaning” (Panofsky 1982: 28, 40-41), e.g. levels of inference on the intentions and messages encoded in images by the artist. The first level of meaning is the “primary or natural subject matter”, the perception of basic forms as representations of natural objects, e.g. humans, animals, plants or inanimate objects and their spatial setting or possible interactions. On this level, interpretation in Panofsky’s view does not reach beyond the natural meaning of things; it is a basic pre-iconographical description that can be reached without further cultural knowledge. On the second level, basic motifs are combined and identified with cultural-specific themes or concepts (Panofsky 1982: 29-30). Panofsky’s most often cited example for this stratum is to recognize a group of persons seated at a dinner table in a certain arrangement as a representation of the last supper. This iconographical interpretation or understanding needs additional information. If one lacks the acculturation in a society for which these topics are understandable, written sources or other means of information are needed for a correct interpretation. The third level of interpretation, the iconology, targets the “intrinsic meaning or content”, i.e. the intentions of the artist in displaying an image just in that way, the messages he wanted to send about his subject, or the historical and political context in which the work was made. The iconological analysis thus tries to elucidate the symbolic values of images. In Panofsky’s (1982: 41) words, what is needed to achieve this is “synthetic intuition, a familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind, conditioned by personal psychology and Weltanschauung“. And of course all the insights gained from interpretation levels 1 and 2.

That in mind, the difficulties in reading and interpreting prehistoric art become obvious. As soon as such depictions cross the line to abstraction and symbolism, familiarity with their proper cultural context and knowledge of their connotations is inevitably necessary to perceive and understand theses codes. In particular, this includes us today. Without the cultural intimacy with narratives and concepts linked to these depictions and symbols we could at best guess what is a) depicted and b) meant. Unfortunately this offers a large probability of misconception. Somehow like discovering the symbol of the cross in a Christian church, yet without any clue to the whole Passion narrative it stands for and which is perceived without further explanation by members of most occidental cultures and even beyond. To be useful for Prehistoric Archaeology, Panofsky’s thoughts have to be adapted to the specific sources of this discipline. The need for a broad understanding of the cultural setting of images for an iconographical analysis (level 2) is a requirement hard to fulfil completely, when only material remains are available without written sources. But to some extent, this lack can be compensated for by find contexts on a macro (site-) and micro (deposition-) level and analogical reasoning. Panofsky’s model has the potential to address the ‘readability’ of an image as a key factor for a successful analysis. It thus seems appropriate to analyse the possibilities of understanding an ambiguous prehistoric depiction like the one on the ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe.

(The impossibility of) Pre-Iconography

So, let’s just try to describe/understand what is represented on our spatula. Some colleagues from the moment of its discovery were convinced that the T-shaped objects on the spatula must be representations of the iconic find category of Göbekli Tepe’s archaeological record: the T-shaped pillars. In this line of thought, a roughly human shaped figure was standing in front of the pillars, while in the bottom left corner of the spatula the enclosure walls were represented.

There are some problems with this interpretation however. The perspective of the depiction is not easily understandable, as inside the real enclosures the central pillars stand side by side, not facing each other. This may find an explanation in the artist’s intention to display the T-shape of the pillars, which was obviously important to Göbekli Tepe’s builders. Furthermore, one of the visible ‘pillar shafts’ is depicted very slender, curved and narrowing in the lower part. An explanation for this could lie in the abilities of the artist to depict a perspective view, or it was not important to them to show these details in a realistic manner. It is rather difficult to explain however that the pillars, the presumed walls, and the potential human are interconnected by lines. At Göbekli Tepe, animals and humans are normally depicted individually, not interwoven. Yet there is another important point regarding the mode of depiction on this bone spatula. If we are really confronted with a depiction of the enclosure walls, they would very much look like the modern, excavated state. Today, the walls end considerably below the pillars. Whether this was the prehistoric appearance of the enclosures remains unclear for the moment; there is the possibility to reconstruct the buildings as semi-subterranean and roofed structures. In this case, the depictions of very small walls would not make much sense.

And there is another way of understanding the depiction. The people who built Göbekli Tepe had a very distinct concept of depicting their world. On reliefs, animals were usually represented in the way humans see them during a real-life confrontation. Snakes, spiders, and centipedes were thus depicted in flat relief and from above; larger animals like wild cats, foxes, gazelle etc. are shown from the side. A very interesting exception from this rule is associated with depictions of cattle. The body of aurochs is depicted in side elevation, the head however is seen from above. The special way of depicting the aurochs’ head could have a distinct meaning. It is fairly possible that the animal is shown with its head lowered for an attack, the sight a hunter sees in the moment the animal speeds towards him (read more here). Notably, the cattle head is one of the few animal depictions also transformed into a possible ideogram at Göbekli Tepe. Bucrania can be found on several pillars and other elements of architecture (like so-called porthole stones). It is obvious that the mode of representing animals in Neolithic art is far from arbitrary. Starting from here, another interpretation of the spatula appears possible.


Fig. 2: Depictions of animals with stretched out limbs from Göbekli Tepe (Drawings: K. Schmidt, DAI).

Two larger stone slabs from Göbekli Tepe show high reliefs of animals in a crouched position, (Fig. 2) probably ready to jump; another depiction of that type can be found on the front-side of Pillar 6. The animals’ limbs lie stretched out besides head and body, a long tail is bent to one side. Schmidt (1999: 10-11, Nr. A12-13) suggested an interpretation as reptiles, while Helmer, Gourichon and Stordeur (2004: 156-157, Fig. 7) see them as felids, more exactly panthers, and compare them to depictions from Tell Abr’ 3 and Jerf el Ahmar. Meanwhile two more examples of squatted animals can be added from Göbekli Tepe, one on a fragmented stone slab, the other one on the shaft of Pillar 27 in Enclosure C [click here for images]. Irrespective of the depicted species, it is important that the special mode of showing certain types of animals is in any case not restricted to Göbekli Tepe, but a characteristic of Early Neolithic art in southwestern Asia in general.

While images of architecture are not well-attested, squatted animals are a standard-type in the repertoire of early Neolithic artists (e.g. Atakuman 2015: 769, Fig. 10 on the long history and the translation of this image type into stamp seal designs). The depiction on the bone spatula could thus represent a variant of this well-known type. This would also explain the hatching of the ‘body’, which could indicate the paws, as it is restricted exactly to these areas. One animal representation in high relief from Göbekli Tepe shares this feature, and its paws also take on a slightly trapezoid form.

Nevertheless, the image on the spatula does not fit exactly the intra- and offsite analogies presented here. Design and realization appear slightly awkward, which, as mentioned above, leads to the interpretational uncertainties. We could be dealing with an ad hoc engraving here that only superficially abides to the artistic conventions of displaying animals and at the same time overemphasizes certain aspects of the image. Maybe the artist wanted to emphazise the dangerous parts of the animal, its claws. However, a deeper understanding must fail in this case, as, to get back to the starting point and Panofsky, a clear pre-iconographical description is not possible.


The point of the above is not to show that Neolithic art in general is not understandable. But there must be a basic awareness of the fact that not every depiction is ‘readable’ beyond doubt, and that such depictions naturally should not be used as evidence for far-reaching interpretations. Panofsky’s thoughts can be a powerful instrument in determining the degree of interpretational potential of an image.


Ç. Atakuman  2015. From monuments to miniatures: emergence of stamps and related image-bearing objects during the Neolithic. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25, 4: 759-788.

D. Helmer, D. Gourichon, and D. Stordeur 2004. À l’aube de la domestication animale. Imaginaire et symbolisme animal dans les premières sociétés néolithiques du nord du Proche-Orient. Anthropozoologica 39, 1: 143-163.

E. Panofsky 1982. Meaning in the visual arts. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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

Read the full story here:

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff 2016. A decorated bone ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe. On the pitfalls of iconographical interpretations of early Neolithic art. Neo-Lithics 2/16: 22-31.

The death of an aurochs: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 66, Enclosure H

Next in our series about the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (here, and here) is P 66 in Enclosure H, located in the northwestern depression of the tell. The most prominent decoration of this pillar is a large horned beast engraved with rough lines on one broadside. The animal is depicted in side view, its legs are flexed and its tongue is hanging out of the mouth. All this taken together could mean that the animal is depicted dead. Below it a smaller animal is shown, possibly in similar condition.


Pillar 66 in Enclosure H (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Of course this depiction is immediately reminiscent of the two famous paintings from buildings F.V.1 and A.III.1 at Çatalhöyük, showing large cattle surrounded by considerably smaller human figures (e.g. Russell 2012: 79-80, Figure 2). Mellaart’s original interpretation of the depictions as hunting scenes has been widely discussed, and we agree with Russell (2012) who has collected the multitude of different opinions – from hunting or teasing over sacrifice to ritual bull leaping – that chances of arriving at a definite interpretation are low. However, we believe that Rice (1998: 81) has a point when he observes that the tongues hanging out of these animals´ mouths and the positions of their legs may indicate that the animals are depicted dying or dead. Most important, and that is agreed upon in nearly all interpretations, are the differences in size between humans and cattle in the images. The tiny human figures encircling the large (dead?) animals clearly indicate how awe-inspiring big cattle must have been for Neolithic people. The size of the animal is emphasized also in the new depiction from Göbekli Tepe – by the smaller animal depicted alongside the large bull.

The two animals however do not seem to be the original decoration of the pillar. They are scratched into the surface with rough lines, which is usually indicative of preparatory drawings for reliefs at Göbekli Tepe. Moreover, above the large animal´s head a rest of an older relief, maybe of a bird, and several unclear lines are visible. The placement of the pillar deviates from the usual arrangement, it is not ‘looking’ towards the central pillars, but stands parralel to them. Taken together, all clues hint towards a secondary use of an older pillar.

A large worked block was placed on the pillar´s head. This has been observed also for other pillars, especially those of Enclosure B in the main excavation area. A possible explanation could be height compensation, at least in the case that the pillars originally carried a roof.


Rice, M. 1998. The Power of the Bull. New York.

Russell, N. (2012): Hunting Sacrifice at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: Porter, A.M. & Schwartz, G.M. (eds.), Sacred Killing. The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the ancient Near East, Winona Lake, 79-95.


The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’


The ‘totem pole’ from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Every excavation season at Göbekli Tepe reveals new remarkable finds and although the overall spectrum of objects to be exspected is known quite well, there are also surprises. One of these was a large sculpture discovered in 2009 and excavated in 2010 superficially reminescent of the totem poles of North Americas` natives.

The sculpture had been set in the north-eastern wall of a rectangular room of Layer II and was not visible originally due to the wall completely covering it. It has the remarkable length of 1,92 metres. The pole features three main motives, one above another. The uppermost motive depicts a predator, probably a bear or a large felid. The frontal part of the head had been obliterated in antiquity; the surface of the break is covered with a thin limestone coating. Below the head, a short neck, arms and hands are visible. Their human like shape is remarkable. Although we might postulate that this depicts a “Mischwesen”, such as the “Löwenmensch” from the Aurignacian site of Hohlestein Stadel in Southwest Germany, we still cannot eliminate the possibility that these features were intended to depict animal arms and legs and not human limbs. The arms (or legs) are holding another head, which again lost its face in antiquity.


Find situation of the ‘totem pole’ after removal of wall stones in front of it (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Significantly, the motive of a wild beast holding a human head is well known from several sculptures from Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. For this reason it is very probable that the lost face of the head being held by the “Löwenmensch” (or bear / lion / leopard) was that of a human. This suggestion is further strengthened by the fact that human arms are depicted below the head. The hands are placed opposite one another and on the stomach of the individual. This is a manner which is clearly reminiscent of the T-shaped pillars. Below the arms and hands a second person is visible. Fortunately, the face of this individual is completely preserved. Also depicted is the upper part of the body, including the arms and hands. Below the hands there is an unidentified object. It seems likely that the person is depicted giving birth, albeit that a very different explanation is also conceivable, e.g. the person could be presenting his phallus. Below the arms of the predator (or “Löwenmensch”) at both sides of the pole, large snakes are visible. Their large heads (one is partly damaged) are situated just above the head of the small individual. Below the heads of the snakes, structures are visible which might be interpreted as the legs of the uppermost human. It seems obvious that such a piece made of stone must also have had parallels in wood which have failed to survive the millennia. However, it should be noted that fragments of a quite similar totem pole-like object made of limestone were already discovered some 20 years ago in Nevalı Çori.

Read more

Köksal-Schmidt, Çiğdem, Klaus Schmidt, The Göbekli Tepe “Totem Pole“. A First Discussion of an Autumn 2010 Discovery (PPN, Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 1/10, 74-76.

New publication: ‘Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe’

The new year brings new books, and here is one we would like to point out, because, well, we have a contribution on Göbekli Tepe in there.


Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer International Publishing: New York.


The book [external link], edited by Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza, contains  contributions by  anthropologists, archaeologists and sociologists on the question how social complexity developed in different regions of the world. Our topic is the start of social hierarchization during the early Neolithic, a subject the findings from Göbekli Tepe can significantly contribute to.

So, as a teaser, here is our abstract:

Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt

Feasting, Social Complexity and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe

Early Neolithic social complexity is a topic much discussed but still under-researched. The present contribution explores the possible role of feasting in the emergence of social complexity, hierarchical societies and the shift to the Neolithic way of life in Upper Mesopotamia. This region has long been placed at the periphery of the area relevant for crucial steps in Neolithization. With the hill sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe however it has produced a site that challenges this traditional assumption. There, large circle-like enclosures made up of often richly decorated T-shaped pillars of up to 5.5 m height have been erected during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (10th millennium BC), followed by smaller rectangular pillar-buildings throughout the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (9th millennium BC). Vast evidence for feasting at the site seems to hint at work feasts to accomplish the common, religiously motivated task of constructing these enclosures.

Given the significant amount of time, labour and skilled craftsmanship invested, and as elements of Göbekli Tepe´s material culture can be found around it in a radius of roughly 200 km all over Upper Mesopotamia, it is likely that the site was the cultic centre of transegalitarian groups.

Access to and command of knowledge crucial to the society´s identity and well-being may have served as a social barrier hindering individuals to step outside of the given limits, while being the basis for power over the work-force of others for a restricted group of people. Social hierachization seems to emerge already in the PPN A of Upper Mesopotamia, earlier than hitherto thought, and maybe also earlier than in the Southern Levant, a region long thought to be the cradle of the new, Neolithic way of life.

Enclosure B, a short overview

Second in our series of short overviews of the architecture of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer comes Enclosure B – which also was the second structure discovered during excavations.

The ground plan of this enclosure is round, with an internal diameter of nearly 10 metres. Two central pillars and a total of eight pillars in the surrounding ring wall have been discovered so far. Most of these pillars are undecorated and none of them, as far as their front (i.e. ‘belly’) sides are visible, are adorned with the raised lateral parallel bands thought to depict a stola-like garment.


Pillar 6 in Enclosure B (Photo: I. Wagner, copyright DAI).

Pillar 6 in the southern part of Enclosure B shows the relief of a quadruped animal from above on the small side of the pillar’s head. It resembles a reptile, but there are also similar PPN depictions which may depict leopards. On the pillar-shaft a snake is depicted crawling down. It is worth noting that all reliefs are found on the backside of the pillar, i.e. not facing towards the central pillars, a clear indication that Pillar 6 likely represents a case of secondary use.

Pillar 7, also located in the south of Enclosure B, has a largely obliterated relief on the right side of its head. There is also an old damage visible at the same pillar’s shaft and its head seems to have been reshaped at some point, resembling actually more a “Γ” than the typical “T”. Pillar 8 is located in the southeastern ring wall and has not produced any reliefs so far. In the eastern ring wall Pillar 14 has been excavated only partially. It bears the relief of another quadruped animal, maybe a fox, on the right side of its head which, however, is largely covered by the ring wall. Pillar 15, also in the eastern wall, stands parallel to the central pillars. That is unusual compared to the other circular enclosures’ layout where the pillars of the ring are facing the central pillars – most likely this indicates another case of secondary use of older pillars. Pillar 15, too, has no reliefs so far. And while Pillar 16 is still largely hidden in a baulk, Pillars 34 and 58 have not been completely excavated as of yet.

Both central pillars of Enclosure B, Pillars 9 and 10, bear a fox depiction – which thus dominate the reliefs of this scarcely decorated building. The fox on the western broad side of Pillar 9 is large, it measures about 110 cm. The fox on Pillar 10 follows this relief in position and measurements. Below it the shallow engravings of a boar and three dogs are visible, probably a later added hunting scene. Between these two central pillars a terrazzo floor was exposed in an area covering several square metres. This is a significant difference to most of the other PPN A enclosures discovered at Göbekli Tepe so far where the floor was formed directly of the (carefully smoothed) natural bedrock. The terrazzo may somehow work as imitation or ‘replacement’ of the limestone floor here and we can not exclude yet that there is some older floor level underneath. Interestingly, in front of central Pillar 9 a stone bowl was discovered – embedded right into the terrazzo which forms the floor of Enclosure B. A small channel running to to this bowl underlines its possible role in rituals which seem to have taken place here between both central pillars.


Porthole stone found in situ in a wall in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B (Photo: N. Becker, copyright DAI).

To the south of the central pillars, a  bit off the Enclosure’s center, a so-called porthole stone was found lying on the terrazzo floor. ‘Porthole stones’, i.e. roughly quadrangular megalithic workpieces with one or two central openings are known in larger numbers from Göbekli Tepe. There are good arguments to interpret them as possible entrances, as another example found in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B demonstrates. This richly decorated porthole stone was found in situ, embedded into a wall. Whether the other example, found in the enclosure’s center, was installed orginally in a wall, too, or maybe in a possible roof, must remain unclear so far and may be answered by further research.

National Geographic Magazine: On the History and Social Role of Alcohol

The cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s [external link] February issue is an interesting culture-historical excursus on the social and ritual role of alcohol from early cultures to modern drinking habits, the technical processes of producing alcoholic beverages, and the challenges to actually track down and verify these in the archaeological record.

Titled “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze” [external link], the text by author Andrew Curry (with photos by Brian Finke) follows the work of Martin Zarnkow for instance, a scientist at TUZ Munich’s Weihenstephan research center for brewing and food-grade. We also had the pleasure to work together with him when he was analysing a couple of samples coming from large stationary stone vessels at Göbekli Tepe. While still preliminary and inconclusive, these analyses initially hinted at the likely brewing – and consumption – of beer-like beverages in the context of large gatherings which seem to have taken place at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe (read more about this observation here). National Geographic’s article also features a short insight into this part of our research and puts it into a quite fascinating (pre-)historical context.

Figure 1

Large limestone vessels at Göbekli Tepe which might have been used for the production of early alcoholic beverages based on cereals. (Photos: N. Becker, DAI)

A Sanctuary … or so fair a House?

Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range in southeastern Turkey. The spot is hostile to settlement; the next accessible springs are located in a distance of about 5 km northeast (Edene) and to the southeast (Germuş). A number of pits at Göbekli Tepe’s western slope could represent cisterns to collect rain water; although their exact date could not have been determined yet. With a total capacity of 153,12 cubic metres (cf. Herrmann-Schmidt 2012) they may have accumulated enough water for people to stay there for a longer periods of time, but probably not during the whole rainless summer. The next Neolithic settlements so far known were found in the plain in immediate vicinity of nearby springs, like for example Urfa-Yeni Yol.

From its discovery onwards, the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe’s suprising architecture has centered around the terms ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude), ‘sanctuaries’, or even ‘temples’. Naturally, this line of interpretation has been called into question. As already discussed here, it is indeed quite challenging to use a rather strictly defined historical terminology and complex spiritual concepts to describe the material remains of prehistoric phenomena. Even more while cult, ritual and ultimately religion are concepts often cited but rarely clearly defined by archaeologists.

Just recently a colleague challenged the existence of pure domestic or ritual structures for the Neolithic, arguing that archaeologists tend to impose modern western distinctions of sacred vs. profane on prehistory, while anthropology in most cases shows these two spheres to be inseparably interwoven (Banning 2011, 624-627). In his eyes, Göbekli Tepe rather was a settlement with buildings rich in symbolism, but nevertheless domestic in nature. Undisputedly, this boundary is perceived much stricter today after centuries of secularization in the western hemisphere, although it should be noted that this differentiation indeed also is known from non-western societies, too. Banning’s arguments that in-house inhumations, caches and wall paintings are demonstrating that ‘the sacred’ clearly is leaking into everyday live in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Banning 2011, 627-629) and that therefore a clear distinction is impossible to define, is valid, too, of course. In fact the idea of manifestations of the sacred in houses or parts of houses is neither new, nor surprising as already M. Eliade pointed out in his seminal work on the entanglement of the sacred and profane. Yet Eliade also emphasized that belief and faith of course could focus within special places and structures particularly dedicated to give ‘the sacred’ a room: “… the sanctuary – the center par excellence was there, close to [man], in the city, and he could be sure of communicating with the world of the gods by entering the temple.” (Eliade 1959, 43). All this is essentially theoretical thinking, based on historical sources and ethnologic observation. But going back to prehistoric periods which are denying such direct access, we are thrown back again at a selection of what is left physically and intentionally – exclusively. In case of the enclosures unearthed at Göbekli Tepe this means to focus on the material culture found in this context and the structures themselves.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

Pillar 31, one of the central pillars of Enclosure D, illustrates the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars due to the depiction of arms, hands, and a loincloth. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Among these, still the monumental T-shaped pillars can be regarded as the site’s most prominent and most defining moment. While they remain faceless, the depiction of arms, hands, and clothing clearly identifies these up to 5.5 m high pillars as anthropomorphic, but distinctively also larger than life at the same time. Their highly abstracted character must be considered intentional, in particular since we know of the existence of more naturalistic and life-sized sculptures like for example the contemporaneous ‘Urfa man’ and numerous heads of similar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. So, even though we cannot know if these buildings actually were really meant to house gods or deities, the peculiar role of these larger-than-life anthropomorphic images forming the centre and main element of the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe remain conspiciously disctinctive to the life-sized sculpture heads which were apparently carefully deposited in the backfill.

Early Neolithic domestic architecture is well known in the upper Euphrates region due to the long and secure stratigraphy of rectangular buildings at Çayönü Tepesi (Schirmer 1988; 1990; Özdoğan 1999) and extensive excavations at Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1988) for instance, both stiuated in Turkey. Contemporaneous with Göbekli Tepe in this sequence would be Çayönü’s so-called grillplan-phase (PPNA), the ‘channeled’ ground plans (early PPNB; attested also in Nevalı Çori), and the ‘cobble paved buildings’ (middle PPNB). Research of the last 20 years in the region has revealed that almost every settlement site of the 10th and 9th millennium BC, which was excavated more extensively, shows a spatial distinction into living quarters and workshop areas and furthermore produced special buildings or free spaces for apparently communal or ritual activity. Characteristic traits of these so-called special purpose buildings are benches at the inner walls, rich and elaborate inner fittings as well as outstanding installations and finds like (stone) sculptures and sometimes human burials – as the examples of Nevalı Çori’s ‘Terrazzo Building’, Çayönü’s ‘Skull’, ‘Terrazzo’ and ‘Flagstone Buildings’ or the communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet (northern Syria) demonstrate, to just name some.


‘Special purpose buildings’ of the PPN: 1. Çayönü, ‘Flagstone Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11c), 2. Çayönü, ‘Skull Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11b), 3. Çayönü, ‘Terrazzo Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11a), 4. Nevalı Çori (after Hauptmann 1993, fig. 9), 5. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 9), 6. Mureybet (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 2), 7. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 5).


Reconstruction of the ‘Terrazzo Building’ at Nevalı Çori where T-Pillars were found for the first time. (Photo: H. Hauptmann, reconstruction: N. Becker, DAI.)

At Göbekli Tepe no traces of this well-documented typical domestic PPN architecture could have been proven as of yet. But the existing structures at the site clearly mirror features and layout of those outstanding communal ‘special purpose’ buildings which usually are the exception within settlements. At Göbekli Tepe, however, this building type is not an exception, but the general rule – almost overrepresented compared to other settlement sites, while whole object classes (like clay figurines for instance) known from these settlements are almost completely absent.

Summing up, from our point of view there seems to be ample evidence to interpret Göbekli Tepe as a peculiar place formed of special purpose structures related to cult and ritual with distinct and fixed life-cycles of building, use, deconstruction and burial. All of these stages seem to be marked by specific ritual acts, of which the last, i.e. those related to burial and deposition of symbolic objects are naturally best visible in the archaeological record. What remains is largely a problem of adequate terminology to address these buildings and the site as a whole. If ‘temple’ is understood as a technical term for specialized cult architecture, one could indeed consider this lable for Göbekli Tepe. If the term is defined in our western perception as a place where a god is present, maybe ‘sanctuary’’ would be a more neutral description; alternatively the auxiliary construction of ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude) may be used to escape any trap of culturally bound denominations. But in any case one thing is sure: the idea that Göbekli Tepe’s buildings are “so fair a house” seems not the most convincing interpretation of the available evidence so far.

A more detailed discussion of this question can be found in:

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


E. E. Banning, So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East, Current Anthropology 52/5, 2011, 619-660.

M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Brace & World 1959.

H. Hauptmann, Nevalı Cori: Architektur, Anatolica XV, 1988, 99-110.

H. Hauptmann, Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Cori. In: M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae and M. Mellink (eds.), Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata. Rome: Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, 37-69.

R. A. Herrmann and K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – Untersuchungen zur Gewinnung und Nutzung von Wasser im Bereich des steinzeitlichen Bergheiligtums. In: F. Klimscha, R. Eichmann, C. Schuler and H. Fahlbusch (eds.), Wasserwirtschaftliche Innovationen im archäologischen Kontext. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH, 2012, 57-67.

A. Özdoğan,  Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan and N. Başgelen (eds.), Neolithic in Turkey. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1999, 35-63.

W. Schirmer, Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi, Anatolica XV, 1988, 139-159.

W. Schirmer, Some Aspects of Building at the ‘Aceramic Neolithic’ Settlement of Çayönü Tepesi, Wolrd Archeology 21/3, 1990, 363-378.

D. Stordeur, M. Brenet, G. der Aprahamian and J. C. Roux, Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPN A (Syrie), Paleórient 26/1, 2000, 29-44.

Call for Papers: “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?”

We frequently get questions regarding the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe, and much of our work really centers around that issue. Is it a temple, a sanctuary, something else? How does Göbekli Tepe relate to similar phenomena in contemporaneous and later sites? We want to throw some more light on this by asking the following question in a session organised in the frame of the EAA Annual Meeting 2017 in Maastricht. 


What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?

Organizers: Oliver Dietrich1, Laura Dietrich1; Deniz Erdem 2; Jens Notroff 1; Krisztián Oross3

(1. German Archaeological Institute, Orient Department; 2. Centre of Research and Assessment of Cultural Environment (TACDAM), Middle East Technical University; 3. Institute of Archaeology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Extraordinary features which challenge conventional interpretations are readily denoted as ‘special’ by archaeologists. ‘Special buildings‘ is 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. ‘Special buildings’ start to exist 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.

The term ‘special building’ is not unknown in the European Neolithic, although with a considerably different meaning. In Europe, constructions such as megaliths, earthworks and ditches have been approached in ways similar to the ‘special buildings’ of the Near East, without labelling them as one group however.

A general approach to this issue is still missing. The essential question is whether by ‘special buildings’ we are facing a phenomenon common to Neolithic societies which has to be considered another component of the so-called Neolithic Package.

The session follows two main questions:

  1. Are there really commonalities between the buildings categorized as special, i.e. is ‘special buildings’ more than an ill-defined label for the uncommon? Could we converge the information to a common definition?
  1. Is there a tradition of ‘special buildings’ throughout the Neolithic, are they part of the ‘Neolithic package’ transferred from the Near East to Europe? If so, what elements travel, what meanings change?


Submission for Papers and Posters is open from  3 Febrauary 2017, session number is 322:

Enclosure A, a short overview

During the first field season at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 one of the landowners had started to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar with a sledgehammer. Fortunately he could be persuaded to stop, and in the 1996 work started in this area. What came to light here was the first of the monumental buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer (Layer III), later called Enclosure A.

Anlage A

Enclosure A in 1997 (Photo: M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

The ground plan of Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. First radiocarbon data suggest that it may be a little younger than other Enclosures, C and D, and maybe the rectangular shape already could indicate the transition to the later, rectangular, Layer II building type. The existence of different outer walls may as well hint at a longer building history and possible alteration over toime. However, Enclosure A is still not entirely excavated, so any description must remain preliminary as of yet.

Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench leaning against the inner walls of the building. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the south-western side of Pillar 1. The front side of this pillar carries a central groove running vertically from below the head to its base, covering about one third of its width. This groove and the raised bands to either side are decorated with five snakes in bas-relief. Maybe this is a depiction of a stola-like garment which is similarly known from other pillars as well. Pillar 2 carries on its right side a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox, and crane. Its narrower back side is adorned with a bucranium between the vertical bands of another stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 was not found in its original position, but was at some time moved to this, secondary, location. In the course of this action, the original back side of the pillar became its front and vice versa.


Göbekli Tepe, detail of the main excavation area with Enclosure A (Plan: K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).

Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four, though it is expected that this number will rise once excavations are continued in this area. Pillar 5 shows a snake again, Pillars 3 and 4 are without reliefs. Pillar 17 was heavily destroyed already in prehistory, and is without reliefs so far, too. As with all the buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer, one animal species seems to dominate the imagery of Enclosure A. In this case, it is the snake which appears noteworthy often.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, The Urfa-Project 1996, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/96,2–3.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/1, 2001, 45-54.