The death of an aurochs: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 66, Enclosure H

Next in our series about the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (here, and here) is P 66 in Enclosure H, located in the northwestern depression of the tell. The most prominent decoration of this pillar is a large horned beast engraved with rough lines on one broadside. The animal is depicted in side view, its legs are flexed and its tongue is hanging out of the mouth. All this taken together could mean that the animal is depicted dead. Below it a smaller animal is shown, possibly in similar condition.

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Pillar 66 in Enclosure H (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Of course this depiction is immediately reminiscent of the two famous paintings from buildings F.V.1 and A.III.1 at Çatalhöyük, showing large cattle surrounded by considerably smaller human figures (e.g. Russell 2012: 79-80, Figure 2). Mellaart’s original interpretation of the depictions as hunting scenes has been widely discussed, and we agree with Russell (2012) who has collected the multitude of different opinions – from hunting or teasing over sacrifice to ritual bull leaping – that chances of arriving at a definite interpretation are low. However, we believe that Rice (1998: 81) has a point when he observes that the tongues hanging out of these animals´ mouths and the positions of their legs may indicate that the animals are depicted dying or dead. Most important, and that is agreed upon in nearly all interpretations, are the differences in size between humans and cattle in the images. The tiny human figures encircling the large (dead?) animals clearly indicate how awe-inspiring big cattle must have been for Neolithic people. The size of the animal is emphasized also in the new depiction from Göbekli Tepe – by the smaller animal depicted alongside the large bull.

The two animals however do not seem to be the original decoration of the pillar. They are scratched into the surface with rough lines, which is usually indicative of preparatory drawings for reliefs at Göbekli Tepe. Moreover, above the large animal´s head a rest of an older relief, maybe of a bird, and several unclear lines are visible. The placement of the pillar deviates from the usual arrangement, it is not ‘looking’ towards the central pillars, but stands parralel to them. Taken together, all clues hint towards a secondary use of an older pillar.

A large worked block was placed on the pillar´s head. This has been observed also for other pillars, especially those of Enclosure B in the main excavation area. A possible explanation could be height compensation, at least in the case that the pillars originally carried a roof.

References

Rice, M. 1998. The Power of the Bull. New York.

Russell, N. (2012): Hunting Sacrifice at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: Porter, A.M. & Schwartz, G.M. (eds.), Sacred Killing. The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the ancient Near East, Winona Lake, 79-95.

 

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6 thoughts on “The death of an aurochs: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 66, Enclosure H

  1. You refer to “height compensation”, with possible purpose of supporting a roof in this circle. Any other evidence of possible roof supports?

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  2. Rice’s (1998:81) suggestion re: the Catal Hoyuk mural, that the flexed legs of the beast and its protruding tongue may have been intended to represent the animal’s death is a stretch. The flexed legs may merely mean that the beast is running. The artist of the mural is mediocre, and this may be his best rendition of a running auroch, which bend their legs when running. Google “galloping bull” and you will see pictures of bulls’ legs bent sometimes forward, sometimes backward when running, and the bull’s hanging tongue may mean the animal is scared.The following is a description of a stampede of 1,500 head of cattle from The Friend, vol. LXXI, no.27,Jan.7, 1898, Pp.212—213: “The cowboys…kept out of the way of the charging mass and galloped on the flanks, moving toward the head of the column, hoping to “point them off” as they call it, and start them moving in a circle. The boys who formed the guard, in galloping along the front of the stampede, saw the eyes of the terrified beeves emitting fire and their tongues protruding. They uttered those low notes of terror so familiar on the plains, and galloped madly along, suffering from a panic for which no real cause existed on earth”.
    These pictures at Tepe Gobekli and Catal Hoyuk may have intended to portray a terrified running auroch. Instead of wanting to convey how frightening the animal is to men, the artists may have wanted to convey the contrary—how frightening man is to the animal. I argued elsewhere ( “The Sky’s the Topic”, Current Anthropology 2012, 53(1):125), that “dangerousness” could not be the prevailing theme of Tepe Gobekli’s iconography. The exaggerated difference in size between man and auroch at Catal Hoyuk may have been to represent the divine nature of the bull and/or to indicate the artist’s boast than puny men could conquer such a powerful beast.
    There is an alternative interpretation of the protruding tongues: bulls will lick the female’s urinary apparatus as a prelude to sex, and a female will lick her calves. The difference in size between the two beasts at Tepe Gobekli may therefore mean: 1) both animals are running and frightened; 2) both animals are male and lowering themselves by bending their legs to lick a female (these interpretations imply that perspective is used to signify distance between the two male animals, quite a feat for prehistoric artists); 3). The larger animal is male, licking the smaller animal, which is female, which may be licking a calf.

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    • Thank you for pointing out these alternative possibilities of interpretation. Given the overall impression conveyed by GT’s imagery, I personally would stick with the ‘death-hypothesis’ though.

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  3. regarding the size. My understanding is that Auroch were pretty big. Modern cattle in Australia I have worked around at various times for decades. 4-5 years ago we had really heavy rainfall and good conditions and I was at a place that had some cattle that had been shipped down from further north. They were huge. Weighed 600-700 Kg so I was told. But the size was really impressive. An ordinary bull or cow I would be happy to get into the pen with but these. I’d think twice about it… just so big and powerful looking. Anyway, the larger Aurochs may have made an even larger impression on our remote ancestors and even fairly recent artists exagerate prespective by making some things bigger. Just saying. Please keep up the good work. It is fascinating to read about it. OB

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  4. Pingback: Archaeoastronomy, meteor showers, mass extinction: What does the fox say? (And what the crane? The aurochs?) | The Tepe Telegrams

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