The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’

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The ‘totem pole’ from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Every excavation season at Göbekli Tepe reveals new remarkable finds and although the overall spectrum of objects to be exspected is known quite well, there are also surprises. One of these was a large sculpture discovered in 2009 and excavated in 2010 superficially reminescent of the totem poles of North Americas` natives.

The sculpture had been set in the north-eastern wall of a rectangular room of Layer II and was not visible originally due to the wall completely covering it. It has the remarkable length of 1,92 metres. The pole features three main motives, one above another. The uppermost motive depicts a predator, probably a bear or a large felid. The frontal part of the head had been obliterated in antiquity; the surface of the break is covered with a thin limestone coating. Below the head, a short neck, arms and hands are visible. Their human like shape is remarkable. Although we might postulate that this depicts a “Mischwesen”, such as the “Löwenmensch” from the Aurignacian site of Hohlestein Stadel in Southwest Germany, we still cannot eliminate the possibility that these features were intended to depict animal arms and legs and not human limbs. The arms (or legs) are holding another head, which again lost its face in antiquity.

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Find situation of the ‘totem pole’ after removal of wall stones in front of it (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Significantly, the motive of a wild beast holding a human head is well known from several sculptures from Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. For this reason it is very probable that the lost face of the head being held by the “Löwenmensch” (or bear / lion / leopard) was that of a human. This suggestion is further strengthened by the fact that human arms are depicted below the head. The hands are placed opposite one another and on the stomach of the individual. This is a manner which is clearly reminiscent of the T-shaped pillars. Below the arms and hands a second person is visible. Fortunately, the face of this individual is completely preserved. Also depicted is the upper part of the body, including the arms and hands. Below the hands there is an unidentified object. It seems likely that the person is depicted giving birth, albeit that a very different explanation is also conceivable, e.g. the person could be presenting his phallus. Below the arms of the predator (or “Löwenmensch”) at both sides of the pole, large snakes are visible. Their large heads (one is partly damaged) are situated just above the head of the small individual. Below the heads of the snakes, structures are visible which might be interpreted as the legs of the uppermost human. It seems obvious that such a piece made of stone must also have had parallels in wood which have failed to survive the millennia. However, it should be noted that fragments of a quite similar totem pole-like object made of limestone were already discovered some 20 years ago in Nevalı Çori.

Read more

Köksal-Schmidt, Çiğdem, Klaus Schmidt, The Göbekli Tepe “Totem Pole“. A First Discussion of an Autumn 2010 Discovery (PPN, Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 1/10, 74-76.

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15 thoughts on “The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’

  1. It is possible that this “totem pole” is not a “totem pole” at all, i.e. a depiction of a social hierarchy. It may be a depiction of successive generations, i.e. a geneology. The prominent snakes may be symbolizing the penis.

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    • Yes, it´s perfectly possible and in fact very probable that it isn´t a “totem pole”. Names like that come about easily during an excavation and have nothing to do with the interpretation of the object.

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  2. Wow! I wonder what was the trouble of those men(and women) with all those heads and faces!
    Where is it now? In Urfa Museum?

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  3. What are totem poles?

    Totem poles are monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events. Totem poles are typically created out of red cedar, a malleable wood relatively abundant in the Pacific Northwest, and would be erected to be visible within a community.

    Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held. Totem poles would not necessarily tell a story so much as it would serve to document stories and histories familiar to community members or particular family or clan members.

    A totem pole typically features symbolic and stylized human, animal, and supernatural forms.1 Totem poles are primarily visual representations of kinship, depicting family crests and clan membership. For example, some Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island belonging to the Thunderbird Clan will feature a Thunderbird crest and familial legends on their poles. Other common crests among coastal First Nations include the wolf, eagle, grizzly bear, thunderbird, killer whale, frog, raven, and salmon.2 Wealthy and influential families may have more than one crest. Totem poles can also be created to honour a particular event or important person.

    University of Vancouver

    So I think they are a kind of Totempole

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  4. Do you have a date for these ‘totem poles’? Are they Neolithic proper in dating? That might suggest the appearance of domestic objects of ‘spiritual’ significance, rather than or as well as communal/group features like the huge circular features GT is so well known for?

    Bob Kerr

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    • Layer II, 8800-8000BC, PPN B, clearly Neolithic. The pole from Nevali Cori is from the so-called Cult Building, the only clear non-domestic structure of this settlement.

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      • Thanks Oliver. Do you interpret these ‘totem poles’ as having continuity with the carved uprights in Layer 1?

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      • The T-pillars are in Layer III. Layer II has smaller versions of them, there´s one visible in the in situ photo of the pole. So I wouldn´t see a continuity between pillars and the pole. But the older layer does feature some composite sculptures, mostly images of animals on human heads. They are clearly related to the pole.

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  5. Hi Oliver, Gobekli Tepe is for me realy mindblowing archaeological site – which still gives a much more questions than answers with every new findings like this one. For me its pretty clear that this monument represents some kind of local deity of this enigmatic neolithic people who built this megalithic site. My question Oliver is: what do you think after all this previous analysis and discoveries – are these stone carved animals represent a some kind of wild animals or domestic tame animals ? And I know that my next question will be for you maybe little strange but – what do you think is there any possibility for connection of Gobekli Tepe with some Bible Old Testament parts – in focus of Great flood and Noah’s Ark ? And last question: Did you found any evidence in frame of megalithic circular structures with T-shaped megaliths and around – of any sudden leaving of older individual groups of people who lived here and built lower layers of monuments, or possible rapid catastrophes ?

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    • Dear Gogy,
      yes, the site never stops to provide new questions. Regarding yours:
      – the animals depicted are all wild, there are also no bones of domesticated animals at the site
      – there is definitely no connection to any events depicted in the Bible
      – there is no evidence for a catastrophy causing the end of GT
      Best wishes,
      Oliver

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  6. it certainly has the feel of a genealogical story being told here. I wonder if the faces were disfigured intentionally? Were there fragments of the missing parts discovered around the floor area of the effigy? So to me a story of the origins of a great ancestor or the tribe as a race. Though each character could them selves be symbolic of something else, a location for example…though definitely a journey or a series of succession of linage.

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    • No, the missing pieces haven´t been found. Destruction looks intentional though, also given the fact that the pole was hidden by a wall set in front of it

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  7. Pingback: The Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’ - The Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine

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