Of animals and a headless man. Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43


The western broadside of Pillar 43 in Enclosure D ist decorated completely with a variety of motifs (Photo O. Dietrich).

Addressing an earlier question from the comments, here is some more information on one of the most impressive pillars from Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43 in Enclosure D.

Updated 05/03/17 with some more information on our views of the spherical object above the vultures wing for that reason.

Some images on Göbekli Tepe’s pillars indicate a  narrative meaning. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. The whole western broad side of this pillar is covered by a variety of motifs. Dominant is a big vulture. It lifts its left wing, while the right wing points to the front. It is possible that this gesture aims at the sphere or disc that can be seen above the tip of the right wing. But to the right of the vulture another bird, maybe an ibis or a young vulture is shown.  If we take this image as a depiction of a young bird, then the stretched-out wing of the vulture could be a gesture of protection, and the sphere could be the egg the young bird hatched from. Another possibility would be a depiction of the sun or the moon. However, the scenery could also mean something completely different, as we will see below.

To the right above this scene, a snake, two H-shaped symbols and wild fowl are depicted. On the pillar’s shaft, a huge scorpion as well as the head and neck of another bird are dominating the scene. While some more reliefs to the left of the scorpion and the bird are hidden by the perimeter wall, to the right of the bird’s neck an especially interesting motif is depicted. Due to damage to the pillar it is not preserved completely, but the representation of a headless human with an erect penis is quite clearly recognizable. The depiction seems to relate to aspects of Early Neolithic death cult known from several sites and offers another interpretation for the spherical object aboive the vultures wing: it could be the depiction of the person’s head. But even without giving too much weight to this aspect of the pillar’s reliefs, it is clear that the intention behind the imagery goes well beyond depicting nature.

On the uppermost part of Pillar 43, a row of three rectangular objects with cupola-like ‘arches’ on their tops can be seen. Every one of these objects is accompanied by an animal added on the ’arch’. The meaning of these images is hard to guess, but they might represent the enclosures during their time of use, seen from the side. The rectangular part would represent the perimeter walls, while the cupolas may indicate roofs. As usually depictions of one animal species seem to dominate in every enclosure, it is an intriguing thought that buildings of different groups are depicted here with the emblematic animals of these groups added for recognition. Following this line of argument, one would also have to assume that the enclosures were depicted here rather schematic in an almost technical sectional view – what would be highly unusual compared to the other naturalistic representations from Göbekli Tepe. A final decision on the meaning of these images is not possible at the moment.

Read more:

Klaus Schmidt, Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/2006, 38-40. [Neo-Lithics 2/06-external link]

On the interpretation of the disc-shaped object:

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. ex oriente e.V.: Berlin (2012): p. 244.


28 thoughts on “Of animals and a headless man. Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43

  1. Thank you. Wonder if there are connections to Sumerian or Assyrian “birdgods” who are depicted in similar posture? Also with a ball/head/sthing they are holding up. Also, the H appears on the “belt” of one of the pillars together with the sun/moon symbol known from a Sumerian stele. Very interesting.


    • This is an interesting point you are raising here. There is evidence that some of Göbekli Tepe´s imagery survives into later seal images (e.g. Atakuman Ç. 2015 From monuments to miniatures: emergence of stamps and related image-bearing objects during the Neolithic. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25, 4: 759-788.), and we have also some sculptures that regarding their gesture and composition remind of later objects. At the moment however there are far to many ‘missing links’ to be sure about the extent of the possible survival of Early Neolithic imagery and the changes in meaning it may have undergone in the process.


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  3. The three square shaped features look as though they might be superimposed upon sheaves of cereal. Could they possibly be handled baskets, used in the collection of crops? The small animals might even be vermin, particularly the centre one, with it’s rat-like appearance.


    • Interesting thoughts. I would agree that the background image could mean plants or a landscape. This is hypothetical however, and there are no other depictions of plants from GT so far. The animals are very small, but they follow types well represented at GT. From left to right there is a bird (stork/ crane?), a leaping predator and a reptile shown from above.


      • Yes, I recognise the animals from elsewhere. It was just a thought. In fact, unless the crop was harvested at ground level there would be no ‘sheaf’, as such and I remember reading somewhere that the stalk would probably be cut just below the ear.


      • A little late but sky, land , underground, images above representations signifying something similar to a horn of plenty? The “grains” are a puzzle though.


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  11. The headless man depicted on the pillar is a dead man (you can’t get much deader than headless) but his erection signifies fertility (for obvious reasons). So we see the fertility of dead people as culture – the passing on of important information or discoveries or knowledge between generations (the information in this case being that depicted on the pillars) – inter-generational communication in other words; the dead communicating with the living. What we call culture people once called gods.

    So the dead people who built Gobekli Tepe are trying to communicate with future generations (including ours). Is GT a time capsule? Perhaps it was buried to ensure its preservation.

    I know its early days at Gobekli Tepe but it looks to me like an animal taming complex. Hence the winged avian passing on an egg to some flightless birdies. Future generations have lost their power over a period of time and the whole process is all in someone’s handled basket (eg. under human control).

    Actually I think Herr Schmidt has only gone and unearthed Noah/Utnapishtim’s Ark. It isn’t a boat however (contrary to thousands of years of hearsay!), its a time machine built to preserve the ancient knowledge of animal husbandry and buried high on a hill to increase its chances of surviving (an impending?) catastrophe. Impending colossal quantities of glacial melt water perhaps.

    Which came first, by the way – animal farming or agriculture? Might not these hunter-gatherers have known how to breed animals long before their descendants discovered the best way to brew good beer? : )

    I’ve just found your website and am loving it. Thank you for making information on Gobekli Tepe available.


  12. Hello everybody, and thanks a lot for this page.
    Well, at first I want to tell that I’m not a scholar, arqueologist or something similar, i just like to read about the origins of civilization.
    I have some question about Gobekli Tepe to make sure my “possible interpretation” is just that: a possible interpretation.
    1º Could be each T stone an individual totem? A representation of one real person
    2º In that case… Could be any animal of each stone a depiction of a name? Example: the pillar 31 (the central one at enclosure D) could be representing Mr Fox
    3º Did you find more bones than skulls?
    4º Could be the carvings of skulls made to make easier to eat the meat for vultures (tibetan ritual).
    I’ve got a hundreds of questions, but i don’t want to monopolize the conversation.
    Well, i always thought that origin of gods were humans. Ancient leaders of tribes or big familys. The metamorfosis from humans to gods comes from the constant presence (inmortal) in the living ones behavior of those dead leaders. Every leader of a tribe make rules of living, they create a common conduct for the group. If Gobleki Tepe is a kind of totemic temple, where the ancestors are represented and where the living people have to bring the skulls of the offspring, we can think that here, pointedly or not, are working a mnemonics technic of leadership. The rules will be remembered with every skull ritual, even if its are not depicted. If the tribes have succes in comparison with anothers humans groups (talking about progress) those ancestors (gods) and rules will be perpetuated.
    What I think is… Gobekli Tepe was a chapter in this process. Each circle represent a tribe, clan or family, being the tepe a comunal ritual site, the depiction of animals means names (like Mr Fox) sometimes…. and this pillar 43 reminds me a collecting of saved animals.


    • Thank you very much for sharing your interesting ideas.
      Much at Göbekli Tepe hints at collective identities though, have a look here
      Your example, the fox, is an animal that can be found on many of the central npillars in different enclosures, so it may have rather a meaning common to several groups constructing buildings at GT than the name of an individual.


      • I read they move the pillars, even central. Its sems that something changes in their lives linked to the temple. Any clue?
        About fox example, it could be name or surname, dynasty icon… etc
        I’m searching for a more complet gallery of pillars and diferent objects found at the tepe linked to a plan, to know where is each stone placed, because i only can get a dropping of pictures and sometimes is very difficult to locate it at the rigth place. Is there a virtual visit, 3d viewer or something similar?
        By last, any book recomended to understan better what happened there and the sourronded areas (neva cori, catalhoyuk, etc).
        Thanks for your time and answers


    • The possibility that the monoliths represent real ancestors, which form the basis for deification sounds really interesting. The bringing of their descendents’ skulls to be ‘presented’ and the likliehood the most successful lineage would win out on the immortality stakes also seems attractive.


      • Maybe my first answer was a little too short. Real ancestors? Yes, a possibility, we have written that before especially for the central pillars. The animals as name tags? I would rather say maybe a sort of characterization. The animals and also their composition are repetitive. Some arrangements seem to depict stories. Characterizations and stories of course could be related to individuals. But at GT, as I wrote, much hints at group activities, people working together. A representation of imagery related to group identities is thus another strong possibility.


      • Yes, I thought the ‘name tags’ idea too vague an idea as well. The pillars as people idea seemed more likely in that famous figures from the past do seem to take on a mythic, ‘god-like’ quality, as in Christ, Buddha, Mahomet..or Mao!


  13. The Book, “Castes and Tribes of Southern India”, Talks about the castes which in broad terms could be related to clans and lineages. The “Bhutas”, or spirits could be either familial or larger social units. The Bhutasthanam (possibly, spirit houses) is generally a small structure without windows. In front of it are usually three or four “T” shaped pillars. The temples of the more popular Spirits are often more substantial buildings of considerable size. Inside, there are usually a number of images, roughly made of brass, in human shape, or resembling animals, such as pigs, tigers, fowls, etc. These are brought out and worshiped as symbols of the Spirits on various ceremonial occasions. A peculiar small goglet or vase into which from time to time water is poured, is kept before the Spirits.

    I think most readers can see the parallels between this culture and the Gobekli Tepe. The people involved in the above were immigrants from outside of India. They appear to have been animists and ancestor revering people.

    Also I have found a photo of a large stone “T” shaped pillar similar to those at Gobkli except for the addition of Breasts on the cross bar. It is from the same area of India as the above culture but I could find not further information about it. The Breasts would support the depicted sign language translation that describes the “T” as, “the great underworld of the Female-earth.”


      • I do not think there was a direct connection between India and GT. There is a great distance in time and geography between the two areas. The connection is more one of mental processes that were probably widespread in ancient times. I am an advocate for the ancient use of sign language as a means of spreading and maintaining a particular cosmology. The South India example may provide us with some insight into the meaning of the animal imagery found in both places. The idea that such imagery represents spirits on both familial and community levels is valuable. That coupled with the the “T” Pillars in front of the building provides us with a probable cosmological connection between the animal imagery and the pillars.


  14. The Basket was in a general sense considered “a container” and as will be seen below, the Stomach or bowels of the earth.
    The cosmology underlying the Gobekli Tepe structures is at least 5-6 times older than Gobekli Tepe itself. It is primarily an animistic and ancestry revering belief system. One significant aspect of the cosmology related to the afterlife of warriors and chieftains. The culture viewed the Sun as a primary great spirit and the major clans would have been perceived as offspring of the Sun. The warriors were viewed as “soldiers” of the Sun and the chieftains as “stewards of the Sun.” The idea was that just as these warriors served the Sun in their lifetimes they continued to be of service to the Sun in their afterlives after their ascension to The Eye of the Sun –Venus. Venus was thought of as a “scout” for the Sun, arising before the Sun, ostensibly, seeking out moisture to satiate the Sun’s thirst for water.

    The Sun played an important role in the ascension of the deceased warriors. After death the warrior’s spirits descended into the great underworld (the sign made by the Large “T” shaped pillars) and were carried by currents or “the crisscrossing streams of water” (the Net of crisscrossing Serpents depicted by one pillar). Ultimately the spirits arrived back at the earth’s surface at a spring site or a pool of water (perhaps the cistern at Gobekli Tepe that is surround by the Triangular three cupules that indicate, female-spirits. especially when the cupules, female-water-spirits, are filled with rain water or water taken from the cistern) where the spirits wait for the Sun to take the water (evaporation) and the spirit up to the sky and Venus. The evaporation of the water from the cupules demonstrated the validity of the cosmology.

    There are two Figures, (Pillar 43) that tell us parts of this cosmology. First is the largest Bird, “the great flier.” The Bird is in a, pictorially, Sitting position that indicates “awaiting” an event… thus, “awaiting flight.” Note that the Bird appears to be pregnant. The Bulge of the Stomach is the Half Circle sign that indicates, “on the side.” The Wing on the Left (in signing the Left indicates, the east) is composed of a lag Finger (the great one) and point a direction, “above and at the edge of” the Pillar, “the underworld.” The other Wing is also a Large Finger, the great one”, with its tip cut off in a leftward slanting angle, that is the sign for “stopped.” Arsing in the east and stopped in the west. Above this Wing is what might be the Form of an Egg, “the one who will emerge”, (hatch out).

    At the Throat (viewed as “a connecting tunnel” between the Stomach, “the container “, and the Mouth, “a water source.” This was sometimes described as the Mouth of the Earth. The Triangular Form at the Throat is the sign for. “the female-earth” and was based on the shape of the human female genital area. Above the earth sign are Two fingers point a direction, “the one, on the side, in the west and “the one , on the side, in the east.” The Head/Face of the Bird,’the one who flies” has Two Eyes, “the Eye of the Sun in the east and west” with their combined Form having the Stance of Rightward leaning that indicates, “waiting.” at the Beak, the Mouth, “the water source.” The Lower Tip of the Beak is the Triangular, “Female-earth” sign. The Mouth of the “Female-earth” with the Lower part of the Beak resting upon, the “surface” of the earth.

    In the second Large Sitting Bird, the great flier, awaiting, flight” we can see that the Body is composed of the Half Circle that indicates, “on the, great, side.” The Long Legs of the Bird, perhaps a Crane, whose spirit-essence would be something like, “the one who flies, and walks in the water.” This would be in reference to the spirit of the deceased walking in the waters of the underworld and flying upwards to the sky. The Long Legs are in the Form of the gesture sign for, “the two together, united as one.” The Form of the Twin Pillars in the center of the Circles were representative of “the twins” a metaphor made in recognition that Venus despite it appearances in the east and west were actually the one and same “star.” The Form of the Bird’s Head/Face, and Throat is the “Shepherd’s crook shaped sign that indicates, “taken-down, (the Half Circle and position-ally) the side. The Head alludes to the Face as.’his appearance.” This also tells us why the Body of the Figure at the base of the Pillar doesn’t have a Head, “his non-appearance.” The Arms indicating, “above and below.” The Body is composed of a “vertical-place sign” with The Genitals indicating. “the male” (in Erection, indicating, “arising”) position ally, “on the side”, its Stance indicating, “stopped.” while the Scrotum is the Half Circle, “underworld” sign with the Phallus resting upon its “surface.” The arising of the male stopped, his face, unseen, above and below, the sides, of the vertical-place. The vertical-place is, of course, the Stem of the “T” shape pillar that represents “the great one, below.” The Cross Bar of the “T” represents, “a horizontal-place.” that is the surface of the earth. There is, of course much more to the story but this translation of the depicted signs gives us a pretty good idea of the intent behind the Imagery.

    When viewing the Pillar Imagery one should keep in mind that the references to male and female entities also tell us their position in relation to the female-underworld, the middle-world, and the male-sky. We have over 300 historically documented gesture signs that have been found to be in use throughout the ancient world. The Warrior-Venus part of the cosmology has also been found among numerous ancient cultures.


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