Looking beneath the surface: Geophysical surveys at Göbekli Tepe

Since recently there has been renewed interest in the results of geophysical survey undertaken at Göbekli Tepe in the years 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2012 we put together this short overview on these works and their results – which helped to understand the extension of the Neolithic site and its monuments even in those parts of the tell not yet excavated.

Without a doubt, the most widely known features of the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site are the monumental buildings, which, due to their ‘outstanding universal value’, were recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Notably, since the very early years of excavations, one of the most pressing questions has been whether these structures, with their characteristic T-pillars, were restricted to certain parts of the mound (where revealed through excavation and suggesting a unique agglomeration of this particular building type) or whether they existed all over the tell.

Archaeological survey methods have changed significantly over the last years. One innovation which has dramatically changed the way field archaeologists work are ground-based physical sensing techniques (for a short introduction into this technology and its application see, e.g. here [external link]). This technology provides us with images of possible archaeological features beneath the surface without even taking a shovel to hand. In 2003, a geophysical survey was undertaken at Göbekli Tepe with the help of GGH – Solutions in Geoscience GmbH. In a first step, large parts of the tell were subjected to extensive magnetic prospection, and later selected areas were studied using georadar and geoelectric tomography.

As already noted by Klaus Schmidt in his 2003 field report which was published the same year (Schmidt 2003, 5), first results already provided a better understanding of the site and served to confirm earlier observations:

“More than ten large enclosures could be located in the geomagnetic map, and some more can be expected. As four enclosures are under excavation (Anlage A-D), in total a minimum of 20 enclosures seem to exist inside the mound of Göbekli Tepe. At every enclosure a number of 12 megalithic pillars can be expected. So, in total more than 200 pillars can be calculated.”

Subsequent surveys which were undertaken in the years 2006, 2007, and 2012 also confirmed the earlier predictions based on archaeological surface investigations, i.e. that the monumental circular enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the tell (cf. Dietrich et al. 2012, 675).

Göbekli Tepe 2014_mit Geophysik

Göbekli Tepe excavations and surveys by ground-penetrating radar (Plan: Th. Götzelt, DAI).

Survey-work also provided a useful tool in the planning of field research strategies, with operations focused in areas of particular interest as indicated by survey results. From 2007, excavations were also conducted in other parts of the site where more monumental structures were suspected, e.g. in the Northwest-Hollow. Here, georadar results showed a large, cloverleaf-shaped accumulation comprising of what appeared to be several circular structures. It is in this part of the site that excavations led to the discovery of Enclosure HAlthough fieldwork is still not completed in this part of the site, the current state of excavation already confirms the geophysical-geoelectric results (Dietrich et al. 2016, 56).

Enclosure H_geo

Geomagnetic survey results in the NW depression, excavation areas superimposed. (Geomagnetics: GGH- Solutions in Geoscience, Plan: J. Notroff, DAI)

Enclosure H

Aerial of Enclosure H at current state of excavations, including pillar numbers. (Photos: N. Becker, compilation: J. Notroff, DAI)


References and further reading:

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. [external link]

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Chr. Hübner, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Anlage H. Ein Vorbericht beim Ausgrabungsstand von 2014, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.) Anatolian Metal VII – Anatolien und seine Nachbarn vor 10.000 Jahren / Anatolia and Neighbours 10.000 years ago. Der Anschnitt Beiheft 31 (Bochum 2016), 53-69.

K. Schmidt, The 2003 Campaign at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 2/2003, 3-8. [external link]


Göbekli Tepe Added to World Heritage List (Turkey)

(After the announcement of the forthcoming decision on the World Heritage status of the site, culturalheritage.news, the Archaeological Heritage Network’s (ArcHerNet) [external link] blog, has just published another article by Eva Götting [external link] on the final addition of the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. We are gladly sharing it here.)


View of Göbekli Tepe’s so-called main excavation area, Enclosure D in the front. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

On July 1 the World Heritage Committee in Bahrain added the Stone Age site of Göbekli Tepe to the World Heritage List.

On the hill of Göbekli Tepe, stone pillars stand tall against the Turkish summer sky. People first came here more than 11.000 years ago. These men and women, who lived as hunters and gatherers, achieved a great deal with very little. Without metal tools, the highly skilled artisans of Göbekli Tepe carved the T-shaped pillars from the local limestone. These pillars – some of which were up to 5.5 metres high and weighed several tons – then found their way from the nearby quarry to the site, where the communities incorporated them into round-oval, semi-subterranean stone buildings. Fox, crane, boar, snake and scorpion arise from the light-coloured stone, leaving a vivid testimony of Neolithic art. For thousands of years, the monumental structures were forgotten, covered by a mound of earth and rubble. However, in 1994 researcher Klaus Schmidt recognised the importance of the place. A Turkish-German collaboration of archaeologists undertook first excavations at Göbekli Tepe. Today, the stone buildings still stand where they were once erected – in the hilly landscape of south-eastern Turkey.


The mound of Göbekli Tepe. View from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

In a climatised hall in Bahrain, archaeologist Dr Lee Clare of the German Archaeological Institute [external link] awaits the verdict of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee [external link]. Every year the Committee selects the sites to be included in the World Heritage List. In 2018 the representatives from 21 State Parties meet for the 42nd time. Dr Clare coordinates the international team of archaeologists that investigate Göbekli Tepe and has worked together with the State Party of Turkey on the application process. Over the past two decades, research at Göbekli Tepe has seen the successful collaboration of German archaeologists with the Turkish authorities, first and foremost the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey and the Şanlıurfa Museum. Current research at the site is undertaken in the frame of a DFG [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft] long-term funding project.

“We’re extremely pleased that we can make an active contribution to the Turkish UNESCO nomination of Göbekli Tepe. The significance of the site for our understanding of the Neolithic transition in this key area of the Fertile Crescent can’t be stressed enough,” says Lee Clare.

Göbekli Tepe – A site of Outstanding Universal Value

Dr Clare knows that it is a long process to build a good case that stands up to scrutiny. The ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of a cultural heritage site must be recognisable. A convincing management plan is also one of the criteria of the UNESCO [external link]. World Heritage Committee. During the last 20 years, the team of archaeologists has carefully uncovered just enough of Göbekli Tepe to gain an insight into the possible functions of the site and its significance for contemporaneous hunter-gatherer communities. Two permanent shelters now protect the Neolithic T-pillars, walls and terrazzo floors from wind and weather. The aim of the archaeologists is not only to gain a better understanding of the past but to preserve the site for future generations.

The efforts first paid out in 2011, when UNESCO included Göbekli Tepe in the World Heritage Tentative List. Now it will be decided if the application of the Turkish State Party is successful. A site benefits from the World Heritage status in various ways. The prestige often helps raise awareness for heritage preservation, resulting in a higher level of protection and conservation at the site. The State Party of Turkey might also receive financial and consulting assistance from UNESCO to support activities for the preservation of Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is a World Heritage Site

Finally, it is announced: Göbekli Tepe is added to the World Heritage List! The representatives of the Turkish State Party and Lee Clare are pleased. The UNESCO acknowledges that Göbekli Tepe “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius”. The site “exhibits an important interchange of human values” and “is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”

“When Klaus Schmidt initiated excavations at Göbekli Tepe in the mid-1990s, there was practically no indication of the significance that this site held for us and future generations. The OUV [outstanding universal value] of Göbekli Tepe is undisputed. But it’s not only an important site for us archaeologists. It’s a crucial site in World history, and its inscription on the World Heritage List will underline this fact”.

What has been evident to archaeologists and thousands of visitors to the site for a long time is now official: Göbekli Tepe is of outstanding universal value to the shared cultural heritage of all people.

(CulturalHeritage.news is connected to the Archaeological Heritage Network’s (ArcHerNet) which brings together German expertise in the field of cultural preservation and heritage protection. ArcHerNet is coordinated by the German Archaeological Institute and promoted by the Federal Foreign Office.)

Göbekli Tepe now a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

The Göbekli Tepe Research Team would like to congratulate the State Party of Turkey on the inscription of Göbekli Tepe on the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At the 42nd Session of the World Heritage Committee, currently underway in Bahrain (Manama), the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the site has been underlined. Accordingly, Göbekli Tepe fulfils three of the selection criteria:

i) represents a masterpiece of human creative genius,

ii) exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design, and

iv) is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

Our research continues at full pace, and the inscription of the site on the UNESCO World Heritage List is an additional incentive. Our work at Göbekli Tepe would not be possible without the continuous support of the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey and the Şanlıurfa Museum. Further, we most gratefully acknowledge funding of excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe in the frame of the German Research Foundation (DFG) long-term project, The Prehistoric Societies of Upper Mesopotamia and their Subsistence.

Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to remember Klaus Schmidt, whose tireless efforts from the mid-1990s until his untimely passing in 2014, led to the recognition and excavation of this truly spectacular site.

In the name of the entire Göbekli Tepe Research Team.

Göbekli Tepe – Soon a new World Heritage site in Turkey?

Göbekli Tepe is one of the most impressive Stone Age sites in the world. On June 24 the World Heritage Committee will decide if the site is going to be included in the World Heritage List. Find out more about recent developements at Göbekli Tepe!

(This text by Eva Götting was first published June 22nd 2018 at Culturalheritage.news [external link], a platform to report about projects aiming at the protection, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage. CulturalHeritage.news is connected to the Archaeological Heritage Network (ArcHerNet) [external link] which brings together German expertise in the field of cultural preservation and heritage protection. ArcHerNet is coordinated by the German Archaeological Institute and promoted by the Federal Foreign Office.)

Göbekli Tepe is unique not only and in its monumental Stone Age architecture, but also its art. The site is located in the south-east of turkey is one of the greatest archaeological sensations of recent times. The famous monumental T-shaped pillars are probably the most characteristic features of Göbekli Tepe. The impressive architecture is interpreted as a temple complex and dates back to the 10th-9th mill. BCE to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. More than 200 such pillars were found at the site. Each one can be up to 6 m high and weights up to 20 tons. The pillars were cut with great precision from blocks of quarried stone without the use of metal tools, and decorated with relief carvings of animals. The monuments on Göbekli Tepe are a testimony on the history of the transition from hunting communities to agrarian societies


Aerial view of Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure C (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).

The hill was first surveyed in the 1960s. In 1994, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt was the first to recognize just how extraordinary the place was. Since then, archaeologists excavated at Göbekli Tepe. The research project is conducted by the German Archaeological Institute [external link] as part of a joint German-Turkish collaboration. The project is supported by the General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey and the Şanlıurfa Museum.

Göbekli Tepe – World Heritage

A convincing preservation plan is one of the criteria for a site’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List [external link] . Göbekli Tepe was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List in 2017. The 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee will take place between June 24 and July 4 in Bahrain. Then it will be decided, if Göbekli Tepe is going to be a World Heritage site.


T-shaped stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

Conserving the site and opening it up for sustainable tourism has been central to the work carried out by the German Archaeological institute at Göbekli Tepe. The activities range from cleaning and restoring the pillars and the stone-and-mud walls to the erection of protective shelters over the most important architectural features.

A Protective Roof for Göbekli Tepe

Since 2011, the Global Heritage Fund in cooperation with Brandenburg Technical University (BTU) [external link] in Cottbus and the DAI excavation team has been working on a comprehensive site management and conservation plan.  The experts aim to allow visitors to explore the unique site, while at the same protecting the archaeological remains. In 2013, a temporary protective shelter was erected over the principal excavation area. Since 2016 two protective roofs have been constructed, protecting the site against climatic conditions.  The building work was implemented within the framework of the EU funded project “Revitalisation of History in Şanlıurfa”.


Protective roof at Göbekli Tepe (Photo: DAI).

Preserving a Neolithic Site

The construction works of the past years have been accompanied by meticulous analysis and the repair of the walls and monoliths. The archaeological features were left as far as possible in their original condition upon exposure. During the excavation phase, pillar re-erection has only taken place in exceptional circumstances. Only when toppled or leaning monoliths obstructed further excavation work and hence prevented further discoveries about a unique phase in human history were they moved.

Reopening to the Public

After being closed for construction works the past 18 months, the official reopening of Göbekli Tepe is scheduled in summer 2018. The touristic development of the impressive Neolithic site was expedited during the past years, too.


Göbekli Tepe visitor center (Photo: Doğuş Group & MF Barranco).

Drawing inspiration from the circular layouts of the world’s first temples the Doğuş Visitor Centre [external link] was build. In a state-of-the-art animation centre the guests can find out more about the site using multi-media installations. The story of the possibly oldest cult structure of human history is projected on 200m-surfaces that allow visitors to circulate throughout the space and interact freely. Overall, we are looking forward to an exciting and eventful summer at Göbekli Tepe.

Plant food management as a prerequisite for monumental building at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe

Bild neu_Nizza

Plant food is a factor so far slightly neglected in research about Göbekli Tepe. We are now aiming to close this gap [read more here and here]. Preliminary results on grinding equipment from Göbekli Tepe and experimental approaches will be presented at this year´s Awrana (Association of Archaeological Wear and Residue Analysts, external link) conference at University of Nice Côte d’Azur on May 31, in a collaborative paper by Laura Dietrich, Oliver Dietrich, Julia Heeb  and Nils Schäkel.


During the 10th and 9th millennia BC, at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia, hunter-gatherers constructed the first monumental architecture of mankind. In an older phase, circular enclosures made up of up to 5.5m high pillars decorated richly, mainly with animal motifs, were erected, while in a younger phase rectangular buildings with smaller pillars were in use. Important questions regarding this site concern the way in which small-scale groups joined their forces for the massive construction work, creating a place strongly connected to their worldview, and how they secured their subsistence during the prolonged work at the site.

Until now, the focus was on the numerous finds of animal bones and hunting as subsistence strategy. This image may be biased by bad preservation conditions for plant remains, as more than 10.000 grinding stone were discovered at the site, reaching from flat slabs over deep bowls to mortars, pestles and handstones. At least in the younger phase of the site, a number of the square rooms could be interpreted as storage facilities, as they also contain large limestone vessels with capacities of up to 200 liters. Macroscopic and microscopic use wear hint at the use of the grinding stones for massive plant food processing. This interpretation is based on a comparison with experimentally manufactured objects. During the experiments, use-wear was related to shapes and to the grinding motions as important analytical parameters.

The paper aims to reveal the role of plant food at Göbekli Tepe, and linked with this, economic and social factors related to the construction and maintenance of this important site.

Behind the Mask: Early Neolithic miniature masks (and one larger-than-life example) from Göbekli Tepe (and beyond).

(A longer and more extensive version of this text was originally published recently: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Dietrich, Masks and Masquerade in the Early Neolithic: A view from Upper Mesopotamia, Time and Mind 11:1, 2018, 3-21 [external link].)

Among early prehistoric masks, those from the Judean Hills and Desert [external link] can be considered the most prominent examples. These masks, made of stone and weighing up to approximately 2 kg, strike the modern observer with their almost expressionistic facial features – each is individual, as if depicting specific individuals or beings. Some have holes around the rim, probably to allow attaching them to something, or to actually wear them (although they are fairly heavy). Chronologically, the oldest of these Southern Levantine masks belong to the Pre-Pottery-Neolithic B, i.e. the mid 9th and 8th millennia BC. Since specimens excavated in the Nahal Hemar cave (Israel) in the early 1980s were found within an assemblage interpreted as ‘cultic’ a ritual use of these masks was assumed (Bar Yosef & Alon 1988). The Southern Levantine examples are special and important, but not unique in their period. Within the rich repertoire of sculpture from several contemporary sites in this region, a few artefacts with concave or flat rear backs stand out that could be interpreted as depitions of masks.

Figure 2

Figure 1: Miniature mask from Nevalı Çori (Drawing: K. Schmidt, courtesy of H. Hauptmann).

From Jerf el Ahmar, a PPNA A/transition to PPN B site in northern Syria (characterised by round and rectangular buildings with limestone foundations) two little stone heads are reported which show a conspicuous concave cavity on their backside (Jammous & Stordeur 1999; Stordeur & Abbès 2002). They are made from pebbles, only about 4 cm high and show eyes, a nose, and mouth. The backside of one of these objetcs is grooved, the other one concave. Another miniature stone mask of similar size is known from Nevalı Çori (Figure 1) in southeastern Turkey (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007, 292, nr. 110, Fig. 110; Hauptmann 2011, Fig. 17). Again eyes, nose, and mouth are depicted, the back is concave. From its find context, a middle-PPN B date can be assumed for this mask. Nevalı Çori furthermore has become well known as the first place there a characteristic element of PPN architecture of the region was discovered: T-shaped, apparently anthropomorphic, pillars which link it to another site nearby which also has produced a number of comparable masks: Göbekli Tepe.

Figure 4_A01

Figure 2: Larger than life-sized mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).

A first, larger than life-sized (height: 42 cm) and complete human mask (Figure 2) made from limestone was found during clearance work before beginning of excavations in 1995 (Schmidt 1996: 2-3, Fig. 1). The depiction of the face is minimalistic, almost abstract. They eyes are very faint and the mouth is absent. Forehead and nose are carved in a geometrical manner, almost resembling a ‘T’. This manner of portraying the human face is characteristic also for three-dimensional anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe and thus a clear indicator that a human face is depicted here. Due to its height it seems too large to be actually worn, but could have been intended to be fixed to a wall or another kind of support.

Figure 5_D12

Figure 3: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, Drawing: Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, DAI).

The second example is another miniature (height: 5.7 cm), also made from limestone (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007: 275, No. 29, Fig. 29). It was found in the upper layers of the filling of Enclosure D in 2001 (Figure 3). With a concave rear like the specimen reported from Nevalı Çori, it follows the same minimalistic principle as the large mask from Göbekli Tepe. Again, it is clear that a human face is depicted, but individual characteristics are not given. The eyes are not even suggested here, a mouth is absent again.

Figure 6_Abb. D32

Figure 4: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, made from a flint cortex (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

The third mask, a miniature again (height: 4.7 cm) is of a different type (Figure 4). Not only was it made from a flint cortex, it also is much more expressive, due to curved chevrons engraved into its forehead, not unlike the mask from Jerf el Ahmar discussed above. This may indicate a headdress, but the fairly low setting of the lines could also hint at tattooing or scarification. The back was not finished. This mask was found in 2010, high in the stratigraphy, during excavations in Enclosure H, next to (central) Pillar 51.

image description

Figure 5: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, engraved in a flint cortex (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).

A fourth miniature (height: 4.5 cm high) of a mask was also engraved into a flint cortex (Figure 5). Its form follows the reduced depiction of the face of the first two examples again, with more pronounced eyes. It was found in 2008 next to the eastern central pillar of Enclosure C.

While the first mask can only broadly be dated to the PPN as a surface find, the second mask from the filling of Enclosure D could indicate a PPN A date, as could the miniature mask from Enclosure C, with its position nearby one of the central pillars. Enclosure C has been damaged and disturbed in prehistory by a large pit directed at the central pillars, but the mask seems to come from an untouched floor layer. The third mask was found next to a central pillar of Enclosure H. The stone circle was also damaged and disturbed in prehistory already.

Three of the masks found at Göbekli Tepe have undoubtedly a similar style to the example from Nevalı Çori. They show non-individualized faces. However, at Göbekli Tepe the mouth is not depicted, while the Nevalı Çori mask almost gives the impression of a screaming face. Together with the finds from other sites, a large repertoire of masks in different styles is suggested. All types, with and without mouth, more individualized or abstract, are also well attested for in the large repertoire of limestone sculpture found at Göbekli Tepe (Figure 6). Their treatment during the refilling events can shed some light on aspects of the use of masks during the PPN at this site.

Figure 8

Figure 6: Selection of limestone heads from Göbekli Tepe, not to scale (Photos: N. Becker, D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, DAI).

Burial rites at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been applied to a part of a hierarchical system of anthropomorphic depictions. The enclosures’ central pillars are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic. The surrounding pillars are also stylized, but smaller and contain zoomorphic decoration. They are orientated towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering. Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture, which may partly depict masked people, is smaller and intentionally fragmented. The stone masks are strongly related to this category through form and deposition treatment. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly (masked?) heads, and complete masks, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. If we assume that the stone masks are miniature or supra-sized representations of real organic masks actually worn, they could well attest that ritual activity at Göbekli Tepe and other sites included masquerade to the point where people became an active part within this complex mythology.

During the early Neolithic in the Near East, masks and masking possessed a significant role in rituals re-enacting mythological narratives closely related to death, taking place at sites with special purpose buildings and a noticeably rich iconography. This importance apparently justified the time-consuming and complicated manufacture of these praraphernalia as well as miniature and larger-than-life-sized representations of these items. A small amount of possible mask depictions in stone are all what remains of a presumably manifold Early Neolithic tradition of ritual masquerade.



Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit, Stuttgart 2007.

Bar Yosef, O. and Alon, D., Nahal Hemar Cave, ‘Atiqot 18, 1988, 1-81.

Hauptmann, H., The Urfa Region, in: Özdoğan, M., Başgelen, N., Kuniholm, P. (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, Istanbul 2011, 85-138.

Jammous, B. and Stordeur, D., Jerf el-Ahmar: un site Mureybetien du moyen Euphrate Syrien, horizon PPNA – Xe millénaire avant JC, in: del Olmo-Lete, G. and Montero Fenollós, J.-L. (eds.), Archaeology of the Upper Syrian Euphrates, the Tishrin Dam Areas, Barcelona 1999, 57-69.

Schmidt, K., The Urfa Project 1996, Neo-Lithics 2, 1996, 2-3.

Schmidt, K., Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in south-eastern Anatolia, Berlin 2012.

Stordeur, D. and  Abbès, F., Du PPNA au PPNB: mise en lumière d´une phase transition à Jerf el Ahmar (Syrie), Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 99 (3), 2002, 563-595.

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.)