Losing your head at Göbekli Tepe

Just back from this year´s ICAANE in Vienna, where a very inspiring workshop on the “Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory” was organized by Jörg Becker, Claudia Beuger and Bernd Müller-Neuhof. As publication of the contributions will take some time, here is a small summary of our musings on anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is a special site in many respects: its location is hostile to settlement, no water sources are in vicinity; domestic building types missing; only selection of material culture is present (very few bone tools, clay figurines absent); and there is a considerable investment of resources and work. This investment was not only made in building Göbekli Tepe. At the end of their uselifes, all buildings of layer III (PPN A, 10th millennium) were intentionally and very rapidly backfilled. The filling consists of limestone rubble from the neolithic quarry areas on the adjacent plateaus, mixed with large quantities of animal bones, flint debitage, artefacts and tools. Before backfilling started, it seems that the buildings were cleaned. If roofs should have existed, they were dismantled at that time, because absolutely no traces of them were found.


The filling material of Enclosure D (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

The backfilling obviously is a limiting factor for our understanding of the function of the enclosures, as very few in situ deposits connected to the use-time of the buildings remain. However, it seems that the backfilling was a very structured process that included certain deliberate acts. Between them, the deposition of artefacts and sculptures inside the filling, often next to the pillars, is most striking.

Figure 8

Deposition of a boar sculpture an stone plates next to one of the central npillars of Enclosure C (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

So, at Göbekli Tepe we do not know very much about the actual usetime of the buildings. We have however the enclosures themselves, their layout, and the richly decorated pillars as starting points. And we know a lot of the things people did with these enclosures at the end of their uselife. It seems that they tried to highlight certain aspects of the enclosures´ meaning through their actions.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

Western central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

There are several different categories of human imagery at Göbekli Tepe. Most impressive are the T-shaped pillars. The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Whether we are dealing with depictions of ancestors of different importance, or even of gods, would be a topic for itself and an answer is hard to find at the moment.
What is clear however is that both central and surrounding pillars share the abstracted form. This abstraction is not due to the limited skills of Neolithic people in depicting the human body. It is a deliberate choice that has a meaning.

Abb. 3--GT14_1785-1786_5979

Anthropomorphic sculpture; torso and head, limestone. The only case in which fitting fragments of an anthropomorphic sculpture were found at Göbekli Tepe  (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The other important category of depictions are more naturalistic sculptures. A total of 143 sculptures was found so far at Göbekli Tepe. Of those, 84 depict animals, 43 humans, 3 phalli and 5 are human-animal composite sculptures. It is striking that most anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe is fragmented. Of the 43 human-shaped depictions, only 9 can be regarded as complete, if we do not take smaller damages into account. What is also striking is that – in spite of large-scale excavations – there is only one case in which fitting fragments were found. If we have a closer look at the fragments preserved, a pattern emerges. The fragments preserved in the highest numbers are heads, not the often bigger torsi. The large number of broken off heads, and the regulated fractures, speak in favor of intentional fragmentation.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 17

A selection of anthropomorphic heads from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: DAI).

Further, the heads were not discarded randomly. They were deposited carefully in the enclosure fillings, often next to pillars. Their treatment is similar to zoomorphic sculpture in this respect. However, zoomorphic depictions are most often complete, there is no indication of intentional damage. So while deposition patterns are similar, pre-deposition treatment is not. Human heads seem to have had a special role in the beliefs connected with the enclosures.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 21

Distribution of sculptures in the main excavation area of Göbekli Tepe (Map: Thomas Götzelt, Graphics N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The special role of separated human heads is also visible in Göbekli Tepe´s reliefs. Immediately behind the eastern central pillar of Enclosure D the fragment of a relief was found. It shows a human head among several animals – a vulture and a hyena can be clearly identified. Another example is Pillar 43, also in Enclosure D. There, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted among several birds, snakes and a large scorpion. The interaction of animals with human heads is even clearer from several composite sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. They show birds, but also quadrupeds sitting on top of human heads or carrying them away. A relation of this kind of iconography with early Neolithic death rite and cult is evident.

The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN. One of the most remarkable examples is the skull building from Cayönü. At this site, the situation is very much opposed to Göbekli Tepe however. There are lots of burials, but only a few anthropomorphic depictions. At Nevali Cori, burials with separated skulls, in one case with a flint dagger still in place, were discovered, but also an imagery that is very similar to Göbekli Tepe. For example, the so-called totempole shows a bird sitting on a human head. There is also a larger number of limestone heads from Nevali Cori, mirroring the situation at Göbekli Tepe to some degree. Of course, one could also add the special treatment of human heads in many southern Levantine sites, but also at Köşk Höyük and Catalhöyük here. At Catalhöyük, we find many of the elements observable at Göbekli Tepe still in place in a much later context. This includes iconography of birds carrying away human heads, special treatment of heads in burials and figurines with intentionally broken off heads, or with heads designed from the start to be taken off.

To sum up, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence of a hierarchy of anthropomorphic depictions. The central pillars of the enclosures are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic by arms hands, and items of clothing. The surrounding pillars are also abstracted, but smaller, and show mainly zoomorphic decorations. They are looking towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering.
Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture is smaller and intentionally fragmented. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly heads, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. This practise is highly evocative of elements of neolithic death cult that also reflects in Göbekli´s iconography.
It seems that the abstracted pillar-beings represent another sphere than the naturalistic sculptures. Zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculpture is placed next to them. The connection to death rites could indicate that the pillars belong to that sphere. Whether we are dealing with depictions of important ancestors here, and whether the deposition practice of fragmented sculpture, and, during the use-time of the enclosures, possibly human heads- vizualizes that new members are added to this group, remains a question for further studies.

Further reading:
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.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Iain Morley (Hrsg.), Death shall have no Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – A Worldwide Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2016), 65-81.

On Çayönü:
Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1989. „Çayönü. A Conspectus of recent work.“ Paléorient 15: 65-74.

Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1998. „Buildings of cult and the cult of buildings.“ In Light on top of the Black Hill. Studies presented to Halet Çambel, edited by Güven Arsebük, Machteld J. Mellink and Wulf Schirmer, 581-601. Istanbul: Ege Yayınları.

Özdoğan, Aslı. 2011. “Çayönü.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 185-269. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1988. „Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi.“ Anatolica XV, 139-159.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1990. “Some aspects of buildings at the “aceramic-neolithic” settlement of Çayönü Tepesi.” World Archaeology 21, 3: 363-387.

On Nevalı Çori:
Hauptmann, Harald. 1988. “Nevalı Cori: Architektur.” Anatolica XV: 99-110.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1993. “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori.” In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink: 37-69. Rom: Gruppo Editoriale Internazionale-Roma.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1999. “The Urfa Region.” In Neolithic in Turkey, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan and Nezih Başgelen, 65-86. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları.

On Çatalhöyük:
Hodder, I. 2011. Çatalhöyük. The Leopard´s Tale. London: Thames and Hudson.

On Neolithic death and skull cult (just a few points to start from, there is vast literature on this):
Bienert, H.-D. 1991. Skull Cult in the Prehistoric Near East, Journal of Prehistoric Religion 5, 9-23.

Bonogofsky, M. 2005. A bioarchaeological study of plastered skulls from Anatolia: New discoveries and interpretations, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 15, 124-135.

Croucher, K. 2012. Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lichter, C. 2007. Geschnitten oder am Stück? Totenritual und Leichenbehandlung im jungsteinzeitlichen Anatolien, in: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (Hrsg.), Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-Württemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, 246-257.


23 thoughts on “Losing your head at Göbekli Tepe

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. Strange how deliberate ‘backfilling’ continued to appear as a Neolithic phenomenon thousands of years later in causewayed camps of the British Isles.
    I like the title! The head was clearly the most revered (if that’s the right assumption) part of the body. The rest was presumably left, literally, for the birds.


    • Yes, and it`s not only the backfilling. Breaking off the heads of figurines is another social practise that you can follow throughout the Neolithic and Europe. Of course these practises will likely have taken on different meanings in different cultural contexts – but they could be part of the original ‘Neolithic Package’.


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  3. So the megalithic tradition seen in western Europe from 4/5000 bc could well have descended from the much earlier Anatolian tradition, with modifications caused by cultural ‘drift’ and change through time? But how is the appearance of the jaw dropping skill and scale of Gubekli Tepe to be explained, particularly within such a relatively brief period since the Lower Dryas?


    • Thanks for your interesting comments, here are just a few quick thoughts from me.
      I wouldn´t say that the megalithic tradition of western Europe is directly interrelated with the Göbekli Tepe type monuments. Neolithic megaliths are absent from central Anatolia and southeastern Europe, so they were not part of the package distributed on that way to Europe. The examples of megalithic buildings from the Mediterranean – the temples of Malta, or the Taulas of Menorca – are much younger and very different. So neither that way works.

      The “why then and there”-question is one of the most discussed issues in the field of Neolithic Near Eastern archaeology right now. In his book “The birth of the gods and the origins of agriculture” Cauvin has given an interesting answer. He argued that the transition to the Neolithic was influenced or started by a change in thinking, by the use of symbols that preceded agriculture. Göbekli Tepe is evidence that he was right in that (and of course there is also the Natufian with its rich symbolism before GT). However, symbols and art have been around much longer (Palaeolithic cave art, figurines), so most likely several factors are involved here. I think that the climatic optimum following the younger Dryas was surely one of these factors. An environment that was suddenly rich in resources made the constant struggle for survival less central and allowed for human creativity to unfold.


  4. Thanks,Oliver. I had no doubt there had been a change, possibly even a revolution in late pleistocene thinking and symbolism. I have not read any Cauvin and will search for examples from my local bookshop; I must say I’m inclined to a more materialist,’down to earth’ perspective supporting the view that economic change alters social thinking. Not really Marxist but the argument that the Natufians ‘invented’ agriculture for survival reasons during the increasingly arid Younger Dryas environment does hold more water for me than saying their descendents would voluntarily opt for gritty cereal gruel rather than a juicy antelope steak even though herds must have increased once warmer climatic conditions returned.

    I’m still left with wondering where the quantum leap in the skills needed to construct GT came from!


    • Personally, if the both of you don’t mind me chimig in, I am convinced we’re actually not really talking about a ‘quantum leap’ here, but only see the (in stone) preserved result of a longer development of related sites. Regarding your steak over gruel argument (which certainly holds some valuable thought), I’d also like to point out our thoughts on the probable role of early alcoholic brewings and the economic pressure from large scale feasting in the context of Göbekli Tepe’s monuments: https://tepetelegrams.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/out-for-a-beer-at-the-dawn-of-agriculture


      • Jens, I was unaware of any discoveries that could described as architecturally seminal. Could you forward details? I’ll look up your article too Oliver.
        Re the brewing of alcohol, I know that carved stone ‘vats’ with traces of fermentation have been found at GT and when reading this and knowing the culture was pre-agricultural in Schmidt’s assessment, was hit by the beautiful thought that the neolithic revolution had in fact originated in the quest for plentiful supplies of beer. For purely medicinal/spiritual reasons, of course..


      • Well, I was referring to *possible* forerunners of organic material which are not preserved. The technique applied with the limestone pillars and sculptures may well have originated on woodwork for instance. The article Oliver linked to is a great start to get a general understanding of the era and the long-term perspective we have to consider when viewing into this so-called revolution.


      • Regarding possible forerunners, we have for example the Natufian semi-round or round building from Ain Mallaha/Einan inside a settlement that also has produced ‘symbolic’ objects. Another case of early ‘communal buildings’ is Hallan Cemi in southeastern Turkey. The concept of communal/special buildings with close connections to belief systems/symbolism (in Hallan Cemi aurochs seems to have been of special importance) seems indeed to start earlier than GT. What is special about Göbekli is (a) the monumentality and the richness of depictions, and (b) that the site seems to contain only special buildings. In another post I have shortly described that the T-shaped pillars are a specific of the Urfa region. To the east we have standing stones without T-heads, to the west special buildings with wooden supports. Yet the whole region shares the same symbolic objects. So, to some degree, the appearance of monumental stone buildings and T-shaped pillars seems to be a special cultural trait of the region between the upper Balikh and Chabur rivers.


  5. Well, we’ll never know how well developed Natufian woodworking skills were, I suppose. Stonehenge in England clearly shows how such skills were carried over into megalith construction but the mortice and tenon joints used were what would be seen in the construction of homes, not fine carving. Are the standing stones farther east that you mentioned, Oliver, a potential forerunner of the GT pillars? Are they carved at all?


  6. Thanks Oliver. I read your post referring to T-shaped pillars at Sefer Tepe, Karahan Tepe and Hamzan Tepe with interest and see they’ve not yet been excavated. Still early days in researching this part of Anatolia then..
    Very interesting also to read that the wild, undomesticated grains were not really suitable for bread making and better for beer (and gruel),suggesting the fermentation of alcohol for periodic feasting may well have been the main driving force behind the adoption of agriculture. Grain as a serious alternative to meat (except in very hard times) would presumably had to await domesticated grains of larger size?


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