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.


15 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.


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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.


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