Emblematic signs? On the iconography of animals at Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe was once called „a Stone Age zoo“ by its late discoverer Klaus Schmidt. This judgement is certainly appropriate, as the range of animals depicted is impressive. Bears, boars, snakes, foxes, wildcats, aurochs, gazelle, quadruped reptiles, birds, spiders, insects, quadrupeds, scorpions and many more are inhabiting the enclosures. But there is also some underlying structure to this zoo-like ensemble.


The enclosures in the main excavation area with their prevalent animal species (several photographers, copyright DAI).

The enclosures of Göbekli Tepe show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle. While in Enclosure A the snake prevails, in Enclosure B foxes are dominant, for example. In Enclosure C boars take over and in Enclosure D birds are playing an important role. Interpreting these differences as figurative expression of community patterns could probably hint at the different groups building the particular enclosures. Distinct enclosures may have served different social entities.


The character of these entities remains open to discussion at the moment. There are some clues however. Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing (Schmidt 2010, 70). For example, awls and points of bone are nearly completely absent. The tasks carried out with them probably were not practiced here, and it may well be that the part of the population carrying them out was absent, too. Further, clay figurines are absent completely from Göbekli. This observation gains importance in comparison to Nevalı Çori, where clay figurines are abundant, missing only in the ‘cult building’ with its stone sculptures and T-shaped pillars (Hauptmann 1993, 67; Morsch 2002, 148). Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male, and while evidence for some domestic tasks is missing, there is evidence for flint knapping on a much larger scale than in any contemporary settlement, and shaft straighteners are very frequent, too. Göbekli Tepe could have been a place for just a part of society, for male hunters. At least their ideology is exclusively represented at the site.

Anlage D

The pillars of Enclosure D (several photographers, copyright DAI).

But does that mean that all male hunters had access to the site? An answer is again hard to find, but another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures themselves. They are not of a size to accommodate very large groups of people at a time. If we imagine them open to the sky, then a certain public aspect would have to be taken into account, but another possibility is a reconstruction along the lines of largely subterranean buildings accessible through openings in the roof, similar to the kivas of the North-American Southwest, rather unimpressive and hidden from the outside. It is a distinct possibility that only a small group of people or ritual specialists had access to the enclosures. Taking into account the fierce and deadly iconography of Göbekli Tepe´s enclosures, male initiation rites including the hunt of fierce animals and the symbolic decent into an otherworld (especially if the enclosures really were roofed), symbolic death and rebirth as an initiate could have been one purpose of rituals at Göbekli Tepe.

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.

Hauptmann, Harald, 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 (Rome 2003) 37-69.

Morsch, Michael, Magic Figurines? Some Remarks about the Clay Objects of Nevalı Çori. In Magic Practices and Ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic. Proceedings of a Workshop held at the 2nd International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE) in Copenhagen 2000, edited by Hans Georg K. Gebel, Bo Dahl Hermansen and Charlott Hoffmann Jensen (Berlin 2002) 145–162.

Klaus Schmidt, “Ritual Centres” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/05, 13-21.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoning excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica (Ljubliana) 37, 2010, 239-256.


11 thoughts on “Emblematic signs? On the iconography of animals at Göbekli Tepe

    • Confronting and overcoming fear could be an important aspect of Göbekli Tepe, but maybe in a more individual level. Both play an important role in initiation rituals-and are basic to the survival of hunters. I would say that GT has something to do with becoming part of society, with social identities, especially that of the hunter. We shouldn’t forget that when GT was built, mankind already was very efficient in confronting nature, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived the Ice Age with it’s megafauna.


      • As a psychologist, I sometimes think it may be rather optimistic or even naive in equating modern man’s psyche with that of Neolithic man. I would surmise that the latter’s internal organisation (ego) was not as rational, structured or persevering, but rather more impetuous, unstable and I would say tending towards the psychotic/paranoid. I do believe there is some value in seeing ontogenesis as a repetition of phylogenesis and archeologists generally seem to take it for granted that prïmitive man was just as integrated and socialised as we are today. I think we need to try and see the Neolithic mind in other ways without in any way denigrating it. I see the repetition of these rituals over time and generations as a way of working through these fears and social tensions, whilst at the same time GT is itself a monument to the triumph of some level of social cohesion and co-operation over time as well. But settling down in a man-made built community demanded that many of these prejudices and anxieties needed to be overcome first for it to function in a stable way and that is my main point.


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