Re-opening of Göbekli Tepe announced for July this year.

Since last June the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe is closed to visitors due to the construction of two permanent shelters above the excavated areas at Göbekli Tepe’s south-eastern and north-western hollows (see here). Originally, completion of this work was scheduled for the end of last year, but construction work took longer than expected and the excavation still remains closed.

Meanwhile work made good progress and shelter construction is moving forward. In a recently published note, the Turkish General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums announced that the site will be closed until mid-July 2017 [external link].


Shelter construction at Göbekli Tepe, work in progress. (Photo: H. Yildiz)

As reported in various Turkish media, Şanlıurfa Culture and Tourism Director Aydın Aslan stated that the site is meant be re-opened to public visitors this summer again (here quoted from [external link], translated):

“As of July 15 2017, the shelter constructions will be completed and the site opened to visitors again. All work is carried out to balance preservation and further study of Göbekli Tepe. Our primary concern is its protection and Göbekli Tepe could be preserve best. The superstructure shelters cost about 600,000 Euros, funded by the Turkish State and the European Union. Concluding, we think it is important work for the preservation and accessibility of Göbekli Tepe minimising damage in the future.”

It is our pleasure having the chance to contribute to this work and help offering visitors the chance to return to Göbekli Tepe and experience the early Neolithic monuments again as soon as possible.

A separated head between animals on a stone slab from Göbekli Tepe

In 2009, the last meter of filling was removed from Enclosure D, the best preserved building of Göbekli Tepe’s older Layer III. We already knew that during the refilling of the enclosures special objects, like heads of anthropomorphic sculptures, were deliberately deposited next to the pillars. Thus, special attention was payed when work progressed in these areas.

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Fragment of a relief showing a separated human head among animals. Found next to one of the central pillars of Enclosure D (Photos: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

Immediately to the north of Pillar 18, one of the central pillars of the enclosure, soon a very large stone slab appeared. Its lower side showed several reliefs. When the slab was finally turned around after documentation of the find situation, a very detailed scenery became visible.


Stone slab from Enclosure D, the depiction of a human head is marked in red (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

The slab is fragmentary. The preserved imagery is dominated by a large predator, which can tentatively be identified as a hyena. Behind it, a vulture with a very pronounced beak spreads its wings. Above the vulture, the legs of a third animal are visible, while legs and body of a fourth animal are depicted above the hyena. Right at the breaking edge of the slab one further image can be spotted: an apparently separated human head. Whether the head was part of a narrative scene with the animal depictions, remains unclear. In any case, from Göbekli Tepe – and other PPN sites – a number of images showing human heads in the claws of birds or quadrupeds are known. A similar depiction thus wouldn’t be a surprise.

Further reading

Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Klaus Schmidt, Yeni buluntular ve bulgularla. Göbekli Tepe. Neue Funde und Befunde, Arkeoloji ve Sanat – Journal of Archaeology and Art 137, 2011, 53-60.

Nico Becker, Oliver Dietrich, Thomas Götzelt, Cigdem Köksal-Schmidt, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.

A Stairway to the Circle of Boars

During the autumn excavation season in 2012 an interesting detail could be added to the PPN A monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe.

Among the enclosures in the so-called main excavation area, Enclosure C stands out in particular due to several concentric, interleaved walls forming the characteristic circles of T-shaped pillars.  The structure and layout of this peculiar enclosure changed signifanctly over time, hinting at a longer (re-)building history and life-cycle. For instance, an earlier entrance reminiscent of a dromos was blocked by an apparently later wall.

The supposed entrance is formed by two walls (made of noticeably large stones which are worked on all sides) running almost rectangularly towards the south and nearly parallel to each other. Almost like a barrier, a huge stone slab protrudes into this passage. Although the slab has not been completely preserved it is safe to say that once it had been provided with a central opening closed by asome stone-setting of which two layers still could have been observed in situ. At the slab’s southern side, looking away from Enclosure C and towards the visitor, there is the relief of a boar lying on its back right below the opening.

This relief-carved ‘porthole stone’ is accompanied by another building element. First, the sculpture of another animal was found right nin front of it, to the south: a beast of prey with a widely opened mouth, a lion or maybe a bear. In a distance of only 80 cm its counterpart was found, whose probably similarly sculpted head had been severed and is lost, unfortunately. As excavation went on it became clear that both actually belonged to just one large monolithic U-shaped workpiece. Apparently, together with the porthole slab it seems to have marked an entrance into this enclosure.

A new element of this situation was unearthed recently: a stairway with (at current stage of excavation) so far eight stone-steps was discovered during field work in autumn 2012. It seems possible that these stairs once were constructed to bridge a hollow in the bedrock, leading up to Enclosure C’s orginial entrance, but further excavation work will be needed to entirely understand this situation.

Buried face-down. A statue from Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop

Starting from 2007 new excavation areas were opened at Göbekli Tepe´s southwestern hilltop. The aim was to get a better understanding of the architecture of the tell – would the stratigraphical situation from the southeastern excavation areas repeat here? And indeed, soon buildings characteristic for the younger Layer II appeared.

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The sculpture of a standing person and its find spot at Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop (copyright DAI, photos D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, drawings excavation team).

Many of the rectangular or subrectangular buildings discovered at Göbekli Tepe show evidence of rebuilding, repairing or other modifications. One very large room, discovered in area L9-17, for instance was at some point in its life-cycle subdivided by two walls into one large approximately square central room and two adjacent smaller chambers. No entries to these chambers could be identified. Maybe access was possible through the roof, but this remains speculation. In the eastern chamber soon a pillar fragment was discovered, and, when excavation continued, just to the north of it an anthropomorphic sculpture.

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Anthropomorphic sculpture found face-down in a room in the southwestern hilltop excavation areas at Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photo D. Johannes).

The sculpture was complete and lying face down. The deliberate deposition of sculptures next to pillars is a well-known phenomenon at Göbekli Tepe. The physical separation of the space the sculpture was found in from the rest of the room further strengthens the impression of an intentional placement.

The 66 cm high image shows a standing person, with bent arms and hands brought together at the belly, not unlike the posture of the T-shaped pillars. The person is looking upwards and wearing a cap. Further details of the face and the frontside of the statue will become visible only after restoration, as a thick layer of sinter is covering them. The legs are not shown, instead the sculpture has a conical tap that allowed it to be set into the ground.

Archaeoastronomy, meteor showers, mass extinction: What does the fox say? (And what the crane? The aurochs?)

Recently a (peer-reviewed) paper published by M. Sweatman and D. Tsikritsis, two researchers of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, has made headlines, suggesting that the Göbekli Tepe enclosures actually were space observatories and that some of the reliefs depict a catastrophic cosmic event (the original publication in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(1), 2017 is accessible online here [external link]).

A selection of the carved reliefs found on many of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars is linked to and interpreted as depiction of actual stellar constellations. In particular Pillar 43, which is indeed an outstanding (but actually not exceptional) example of the site’s  rich and complex iconography, is interpreted as record of a meteor shower and collision – with quite serious consequences for life on earth 13,000 – 12,000 years ago (this whole ‘Younger Dryas Impact’ hypothesis [external link] actually is disputed itself [external link], so making Göbekli Tepe a ‘smoking gun’ in this argument should absolutely ask for a closer look).

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Pillar 43 in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

Debate regarding a possible astronomic link and interpretation of the architecture and the characteristic pillars in particular are as old as the history of research regarding Göbekli Tepe, but as of yet no convincing proof for an actual celestial orientation or observation of such phenomena could have been put forward. We always were and still are open to consider these discussions. So, of course we were looking into the new study with quite some interest, too. After all it is a new and fascinating interpretation. However, upon closer inspection we as excavators of this important site would like to raise a few points which may challenge this interpretation in our point of view:

1. There still is quite a significant probability that the older circular enclosures of Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III actually were subterranean buildings – possibly even covered by roof constructions. This then somehow would limit their usability as actual observatories a bit.

2. Even if we assume that the night sky 12,000 years ago looked exactly like today’s, the question at hand would be whether a prehistoric hunter really would have put together the very same asterisms and constellations we recognise today (most of them going back to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek scholars and descriptions)?

3. Contrary to the article’s premise the unearthed features at Göbekli Tepe are not  shrouded in mystery. Published over the last years and decades, there is ample scientific literature available which unfortunately did not find its way into the study. The  specific animals depicted in each enclosure’s iconography for instance seems to follow a certain intention, emphasizing different species in different enclosures. A purely  substitutional interpretation ignores these more subtle but significant details. This also can be demonstrated for instance with the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as symbol of death and mass extinction in the paper – however silently omitting the emphasised phallus in the same depiction which somehow contradicts the lifeless notion and implies a much more complex narrative behind these reliefs. There are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of P43 which went conpletely uncommented here.

4. It also seems a bit arbitrary to base this interpretation (and all its consequences as described in the paper) on what seems to be some randomly selected pillars and their iconography (the interpretation thus not covering “much of the symbolism of Göbekli Tepe” as stated in the paper, but merely the tip of that iceberg). In the meantime more than 60 monumental T-pillars could have been unearthed in the older Layer III – many of these showing similar reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (like Pillar 56 or Pillar 66 in enclosure H, for example). And it does not end there: the same iconography is prominently known also from other find groups like stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes – not only from Göbekli Tepe, but a variety of contemporary sites in the wider vicinity.

So, with all due respect for the work and effort the Edinburgh colleagues obviously put into their research and this publication, there still are – at least from our perspective as excavators of this important site – some points worth a detailed discussion. A more thorough exchange with the excavation team could have clarified many of these concerns.

Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden …

Sensations are making stories. And archaeology-stories apparently are no exception to this rule. That’s why even the most interesting sites and finds often are further dramatised and spiced up in public discourse. Somehow ‘interesting’ isn’t satisfying enough to everybody.

The early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe has it all: far reaching implications about prehistoric hunter-gatherer social group structures, the beginning of our very own modern sedentary lifestyle, and (some of the) oldest yet known monumental architecture ever built. However, this still doesn’t seem to be enough. People love a good mystery and apparently social structures of early hunters are (noted without any complaint here) not exactly enigmatic enough to be entertaining.


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

In 2006 German magazine DER SPIEGEL came up with a cover story on the Göbekli Tepe excavations (“Die Suche nach dem Garten Eden. Archäologen auf den Spuren des biblischen Paradieses” [external link]), suggesting it was the (pre-)historical basis for the Biblical narrative about the ‘Garden of Eden’. Ever since this story multiplied and was picked up then and again, actually emphasising the great interest in our research on one hand, but also the pitfalls of all too simplifying analogies on the other. Only recently Discovery’s Science Channel (which features, among others, a segment about our research at Göbekli Tepe) was digging up the story up again (excuse the pun) for an episode of “What on Earth” called “Gateway to Eden” [external link].

To be honest, it’s not even hard to actually see where this fascination is coming from. A mythical garden, ‘paradise’ par excellence, is quite an archetypical narrative and a metaphor deeply rooted in our collective memory. The story of that ‘Garden of Eden’ seems to have great potential to fuel our imagination. Yet actually looking beyond that metaphor for a real place and location would mean to somehow misconceive the whole narrative’s elucidating intention.

Since there are a number of peculiar elements brought up repeatedly in support of an assumed link between the Göbekli Tepe findings and the Eden myth, it seems worth the time having a closer look into and a short evaluation of these arguments in the course of this blog post.


The landscape around Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

The topographical situation of this idyllic garden delivered in the Old Testament (which, as probably most people would agree, is not exactly and specifically a proper historical source) tells of a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four streams: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14). While the latter two are well-known toponyms to this day in the region, the other two however don’t really fit into the picture, somehow raising the suspicion they might be as figuratively as the mythical gold-land of Havilah through which the Pishon is said to wind. Besides, there are no water sources at Göbekli Tepe at all (actually one of the arguments against an ideal settlement situation, cf. this discussion). Göbekli Tepe hardly ever was a flourishing garden in the literal sense.

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Snakes on a pillar. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

“But what about the snakes?” is an argument often put forward in favour of the Eden narrative. Yes, there are depictions of snakes at Göbekli Tepe. A lot, actually. Quite a lot. It almost is a snake pit rather than the single seducer trying to sell forbidden fruits. And what about all those other animal reliefs? There are spiders and scorpions, foxes and vultures, cranes, ducks, and boars. And more. In numbers certainly equalling those of  snake reliefs. So, this sole focus on the serpent seems a bit unfair towards the other animals. Are we going to ignore all these many additional animals (and few human depictions)  – or how do these fit into the story?

Göbekli Tepe 2002

Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird. (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, DAI)

Another small find produced by the Göbekli Tepe excavations, a so-called plaquette, is also often referred to as a clue in the ‘Garden of Eden’ line of argument. The small stone tablet is showing three carved symbols among which some recognise a snake and a tree (and we all can see where this would be heading). However, with a view to the recent discussion of the ambiguity of prehistoric art and the challenge to properly ‘read’ (let alone understand) it here, this particular find seems a weak advocate. Upon closer inspection of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography and its analogies from other sites, it becomes much more likely that the ‘tree’ actually might depict a person and the third object to its right may be understood as a bird – somehow changing the whole narrative of this object quite a bit.

Returning to that recent “What on Earth” episode, one could find the idea attractive that the remarkable pair of central pillars in each enclosure somehow could be interpreted as a mythical couple (even without the all too obvious ‘Adam and Eve’ analogy), some male and female ancestor. The show seems to suggest this, prominently quoting myself in this context. But – and this is the important point here, I  would like to make (and actually made in “What on Earth”, which somehow may have got lost on the cutting floor) – there are convincing leads showing that this is not the most favourable interpretation. The fact that both central pillars of Enclosure D are shown wearing belts and loincloths, for instance, seems to hint at two male individuals here – in analogy to contemporary clay figurines.

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Belt and loincloth at one of the central pillars of Enclosure D underline the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

Projecting a much younger and much later written down mythology onto archaeological material predating it for millennia leaves any secure grounds for substantial conclusions. Linking the early Neolithic, 10th millennium BC structures of Göbekli Tepe with a narrative written down not earlier then the 11th or 10th century BC (thus about 9,000 years later – after these enclosures were long abandoned and backfilled) would seem more than just a bit far-fetched.

As we already noted in our FAQ here:

“We disagree wholeheartedly with any parallels drawn between Göbekli Tepe and the ‘Garden of Eden’, for which there is absolutely no archaeological evidence. Certainly, Göbekli Tepe lies in a chain of hills north of the Harran plain, the scene of numerous biblical narratives, though this is where any associations with the Bible end. Anything more is pure conjecture.”

Or, as Klaus Schmidt once put it in an interview [external link]:
“Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden.”

Two foxes and a bucranium: the first in situ porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe


Deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B, the arrow marks the position of the porthole stone. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

Starting from 2011, work at Göbekli Tepe has focused on the excavation of several deep soundings, meant to contain the struts holding a membrane shelter structure to ensure a durable protection of the site. The soundings, some more than five meters deep, have offered us unparalleled insights into the stratigraphy of the site. The evaluation of this evidence is going on at the moment and will lead to a site formation model soon. But, besides that, many of the soundings, although limited in horizontal extension, have also produced remarkable finds. Among them is the porthole stone presented here.


Schematic plan of Enclosure B with indicated position of the porthole stone in the northern wall. (Plan: K. Schmidt & J. Notroff, DAI)


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

It was discovered in 2011 in a deep sounding excavated to the north of Enclosure B. Apart from revealing a so far unknown part of this enclosure and two more of its pillars, immediately on the bedrock several walls outside of the enclosure were discovered. In one of them, a decorated porthole stone stood in situ. The subrectangular hole in the middle of the stone is flanked by two antithetic foxes, apparently portrayed in the moment of jumping (at each other, at the entrance, the visitor?). Above the hole, a bucranium was placed. Unfortunately, the sounding could not be enlarged to explore the room enclosed by the wall. It thus remains unclear, whether the porthole stone really marks the entrance to the building, or the animals were ‘guarding’ a niche with important contents within a room.

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.