A decorated bone spatula, what’s in that picture? – Iconology and Archaeology.

In 2011, a special object was discovered at Göbekli Tepe in one of the excavation trenches in the tell’s northwestern depression (Fig. 1). Excavation had just proceeded into layers undisturbed by modern ploughing, but there were still no traces of architecture, when a fragment of a bone object was found. The artefact was described preliminarily as a ‘spatula’ made from a rib bone. It measures 5.3 x 1.9 x 0.3 cm and bears a carved drawing that is only partly preserved. The image is rather unclear, however in the upper part, two hatched T-shaped forms are visible – one completely preserved, the other one only fragmentarily. These T-shapes rapidly led to associations with Göbekli Tepe’s most prominent architectural feature, and to a vivid discussion within the research team focusing on the probability of this interpretation and our possibilities of understanding Neolithic ‘art’ in general.


Fig. 1: Bone ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: N. Becker, DAI, ).

The problems of interpretation prevented a premature publication of the find. Meanwhile it went on display in the Şanlıurfa Museum. As the interaction of museum visitors with the small object evolved largely along the same lines as ours in 2011 and has also evolved in more speculative directions [external link], it seems important to get back in more detail to the question of the ‘readability’ of this Neolithic depiction.

There is an ongoing discussion about the possibilities and pitfalls of interpreting art in archaeology. One aspect of this debate is the potential use of iconological approaches. Between the most influential models is Erwin Panofsky’s concept that he presented in the 1930s (1934, reprinted in 1982). He described “three strata of subject matter or meaning” (Panofsky 1982: 28, 40-41), e.g. levels of inference on the intentions and messages encoded in images by the artist. The first level of meaning is the “primary or natural subject matter”, the perception of basic forms as representations of natural objects, e.g. humans, animals, plants or inanimate objects and their spatial setting or possible interactions. On this level, interpretation in Panofsky’s view does not reach beyond the natural meaning of things; it is a basic pre-iconographical description that can be reached without further cultural knowledge. On the second level, basic motifs are combined and identified with cultural-specific themes or concepts (Panofsky 1982: 29-30). Panofsky’s most often cited example for this stratum is to recognize a group of persons seated at a dinner table in a certain arrangement as a representation of the last supper. This iconographical interpretation or understanding needs additional information. If one lacks the acculturation in a society for which these topics are understandable, written sources or other means of information are needed for a correct interpretation. The third level of interpretation, the iconology, targets the “intrinsic meaning or content”, i.e. the intentions of the artist in displaying an image just in that way, the messages he wanted to send about his subject, or the historical and political context in which the work was made. The iconological analysis thus tries to elucidate the symbolic values of images. In Panofsky’s (1982: 41) words, what is needed to achieve this is “synthetic intuition, a familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind, conditioned by personal psychology and Weltanschauung“. And of course all the insights gained from interpretation levels 1 and 2.

That in mind, the difficulties in reading and interpreting prehistoric art become obvious. As soon as such depictions cross the line to abstraction and symbolism, familiarity with their proper cultural context and knowledge of their connotations is inevitably necessary to perceive and understand theses codes. In particular, this includes us today. Without the cultural intimacy with narratives and concepts linked to these depictions and symbols we could at best guess what is a) depicted and b) meant. Unfortunately this offers a large probability of misconception. Somehow like discovering the symbol of the cross in a Christian church, yet without any clue to the whole Passion narrative it stands for and which is perceived without further explanation by members of most occidental cultures and even beyond. To be useful for Prehistoric Archaeology, Panofsky’s thoughts have to be adapted to the specific sources of this discipline. The need for a broad understanding of the cultural setting of images for an iconographical analysis (level 2) is a requirement hard to fulfil completely, when only material remains are available without written sources. But to some extent, this lack can be compensated for by find contexts on a macro (site-) and micro (deposition-) level and analogical reasoning. Panofsky’s model has the potential to address the ‘readability’ of an image as a key factor for a successful analysis. It thus seems appropriate to analyse the possibilities of understanding an ambiguous prehistoric depiction like the one on the ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe.

(The impossibility of) Pre-Iconography

So, let’s just try to describe/understand what is represented on our spatula. Some colleagues from the moment of its discovery were convinced that the T-shaped objects on the spatula must be representations of the iconic find category of Göbekli Tepe’s archaeological record: the T-shaped pillars. In this line of thought, a roughly human shaped figure was standing in front of the pillars, while in the bottom left corner of the spatula the enclosure walls were represented.

There are some problems with this interpretation however. The perspective of the depiction is not easily understandable, as inside the real enclosures the central pillars stand side by side, not facing each other. This may find an explanation in the artist’s intention to display the T-shape of the pillars, which was obviously important to Göbekli Tepe’s builders. Furthermore, one of the visible ‘pillar shafts’ is depicted very slender, curved and narrowing in the lower part. An explanation for this could lie in the abilities of the artist to depict a perspective view, or it was not important to them to show these details in a realistic manner. It is rather difficult to explain however that the pillars, the presumed walls, and the potential human are interconnected by lines. At Göbekli Tepe, animals and humans are normally depicted individually, not interwoven. Yet there is another important point regarding the mode of depiction on this bone spatula. If we are really confronted with a depiction of the enclosure walls, they would very much look like the modern, excavated state. Today, the walls end considerably below the pillars. Whether this was the prehistoric appearance of the enclosures remains unclear for the moment; there is the possibility to reconstruct the buildings as semi-subterranean and roofed structures. In this case, the depictions of very small walls would not make much sense.

And there is another way of understanding the depiction. The people who built Göbekli Tepe had a very distinct concept of depicting their world. On reliefs, animals were usually represented in the way humans see them during a real-life confrontation. Snakes, spiders, and centipedes were thus depicted in flat relief and from above; larger animals like wild cats, foxes, gazelle etc. are shown from the side. A very interesting exception from this rule is associated with depictions of cattle. The body of aurochs is depicted in side elevation, the head however is seen from above. The special way of depicting the aurochs’ head could have a distinct meaning. It is fairly possible that the animal is shown with its head lowered for an attack, the sight a hunter sees in the moment the animal speeds towards him (read more here). Notably, the cattle head is one of the few animal depictions also transformed into a possible ideogram at Göbekli Tepe. Bucrania can be found on several pillars and other elements of architecture (like so-called porthole stones). It is obvious that the mode of representing animals in Neolithic art is far from arbitrary. Starting from here, another interpretation of the spatula appears possible.


Fig. 2: Depictions of animals with stretched out limbs from Göbekli Tepe (Drawings: K. Schmidt, DAI).

Two larger stone slabs from Göbekli Tepe show high reliefs of animals in a crouched position, (Fig. 2) probably ready to jump; another depiction of that type can be found on the front-side of Pillar 6. The animals’ limbs lie stretched out besides head and body, a long tail is bent to one side. Schmidt (1999: 10-11, Nr. A12-13) suggested an interpretation as reptiles, while Helmer, Gourichon and Stordeur (2004: 156-157, Fig. 7) see them as felids, more exactly panthers, and compare them to depictions from Tell Abr’ 3 and Jerf el Ahmar. Meanwhile two more examples of squatted animals can be added from Göbekli Tepe, one on a fragmented stone slab, the other one on the shaft of Pillar 27 in Enclosure C [click here for images]. Irrespective of the depicted species, it is important that the special mode of showing certain types of animals is in any case not restricted to Göbekli Tepe, but a characteristic of Early Neolithic art in southwestern Asia in general.

While images of architecture are not well-attested, squatted animals are a standard-type in the repertoire of early Neolithic artists (e.g. Atakuman 2015: 769, Fig. 10 on the long history and the translation of this image type into stamp seal designs). The depiction on the bone spatula could thus represent a variant of this well-known type. This would also explain the hatching of the ‘body’, which could indicate the paws, as it is restricted exactly to these areas. One animal representation in high relief from Göbekli Tepe shares this feature, and its paws also take on a slightly trapezoid form.

Nevertheless, the image on the spatula does not fit exactly the intra- and offsite analogies presented here. Design and realization appear slightly awkward, which, as mentioned above, leads to the interpretational uncertainties. We could be dealing with an ad hoc engraving here that only superficially abides to the artistic conventions of displaying animals and at the same time overemphasizes certain aspects of the image. Maybe the artist wanted to emphazise the dangerous parts of the animal, its claws. However, a deeper understanding must fail in this case, as, to get back to the starting point and Panofsky, a clear pre-iconographical description is not possible.


The point of the above is not to show that Neolithic art in general is not understandable. But there must be a basic awareness of the fact that not every depiction is ‘readable’ beyond doubt, and that such depictions naturally should not be used as evidence for far-reaching interpretations. Panofsky’s thoughts can be a powerful instrument in determining the degree of interpretational potential of an image.


Ç. Atakuman  2015. From monuments to miniatures: emergence of stamps and related image-bearing objects during the Neolithic. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25, 4: 759-788.

D. Helmer, D. Gourichon, and D. Stordeur 2004. À l’aube de la domestication animale. Imaginaire et symbolisme animal dans les premières sociétés néolithiques du nord du Proche-Orient. Anthropozoologica 39, 1: 143-163.

E. Panofsky 1982. Meaning in the visual arts. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

K. Schmidt 1999. Frühe Tier- und Menschenbilder vom Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 49: 5–21.

Read the full story here:

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff 2016. A decorated bone ‘spatula’ from Göbekli Tepe. On the pitfalls of iconographical interpretations of early Neolithic art. Neo-Lithics 2/16: 22-31.


9 thoughts on “A decorated bone spatula, what’s in that picture? – Iconology and Archaeology.

  1. I think it is beyond question that the spatula imagery is of the pillars. Being too reluctant to interpret Tepe Gobekli’s imagery is a cop-out, though micro-inspection of the imagery might result in over-interpretation of it. E.g. the pillars depicted face-to-face vs. side-to-side in the enclosures may merely reflect the artist wanting to show the pillars’ broad side (“twisted perspective”), which had most of the artwork, or, for some reason, wanting to show the broad side of two central pillars from two different enclosures. The use of “twisted” perspective occurs in the bucranium ideogram that depicted the bull’s head facing forwards, its body facing sideways.The artist may have done this simply because he wanted to emphasize the pair of horns (which may have had symbolic value), which he couldn’t do otherwise.

    The pillars’ T-form depicted on the spatula may have been significant. Panofsky apparently didn’t address the human’s pre-conscious apprehension of symmetry and geometric form that is realized before a thing is identified and its details are apprehended. I think this level of perception—that of geometric form— was paramount in the prehistoric mind. That said, the “H” ideogram on the pillars may be related to the pillars’ form, considering that each central pillar, including the base on which it sits, forms a rotated “H”.


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  4. Wouldn’t it be more logical, to draw conclusions from the depiction on the spatula for the site and its architectural specificas, than the other way around? After all, it would have been easier to carve something into a piece of bone, than to hammer out of stone. To assume, that the “T”-shape in general would be coincidental seems a bit far fetched, it wouldn’t be unplausible to consider it stylized heads, after all, leaving out specific facial features, as this may have been considered “forbidden”. So in my opinion it rather may have been probable, that the two central t-shaped pillars would have had the same connection as the T’s on the spatula, just that it wasn’t achievable regarding skills, technology, craftmanship. (it wouldn’t be doable out of this material for some time to come, to be honest.) but that doesn’t mean much – they could have used other, degradeable materials to depict that connection – as symbolized “reaching arms” – for ceremonies, such as ropes from animal-skins, or other primitive fabrics from plants, and so on.
    After all, there must have been SOME meaning of these “temples” – it may have been symbolizing a fusion of tribes or families, or an early form of marriage – the fact,u that both pillars appear to be male – due to loin-cloth and belt – must not be ultimately true: it cannot be excluded, that women and men, dressed very differently from each other, as primitive tribes often show. (still: very speculative from my side.) Of course it would be a wonderful thougth, that these temples were the ceremonial halls for “treaties” of cooperation between tribes, marking the beginning of neolithic revolution and thus manifesting the secret of success of human kind: social cooperation. (which could become even of greater importance if the “younger dryas”-theory regarding the sudden climate-change due to some meteoric-event somewhere on earth holds up.)
    Generally: it is a small line between speculation and fantasizing regarding our own “ancient self”. Still, they were human, as we are, and needs and worries mayo not differ so much. To “leave” a spatula with those depictions at this specific place, where no human remains – as of a cemetarial site – or signs of settlement, but sole ceremonial indications have been found, can not be coincidental, but should have a meaning to assume: e.g. that it was a “present” – symbolizing some ritual taking place (or just a depiction of the latter).
    But of course: These are just some interested thoughts.


    • This actually is one of the pitfalls we wanted to highlight with our contribution here (and the much longer published discussion referenced at the bottom): arguing the bone spatula has to depict T-pillars because there is a similar element in the architecture of the site without considering the well-known stylistic and iconographic repertoire of the period and region somehow means to get trapped in circular reasoning. The bone object is not complete, large parts are missing and the depiction obviously incomplete. Therefore we do not even know if we really are confronting two “T”-shapes here. In that article we rather did not intend to force another interpretation into the foreground, but emphasize the challenges and complexity in interpreting prehistoric art and iconology in particular.


      • Hello Jens,
        thank you for your answer!
        I do understand what you mean. I just want to clarify on what I meant: Iconology could (to avoid “should”;) just focus on the iconography at hand – meaning in this case (even though the bone-fragment is not 100% complete, it appears to be at least 75% complete – of course noting, that an absolute complete depiction is very rare in archeology in general, be it 10.000yrs or 2000yrs old):
        the shapes on the spatula do NOT show the pillars, but there undoubtedly is a similarity in shape between the pillars, and the forms depicted on the spatula, THUS the pillars and the spatula refer to something similar and show some sort of similar iconic/symbolized depiction.
        This doesn’t actually promote the temple in its meaning, it promotes the shape as meaningful. (after all the T-shape of the pillars could simply be of practical reasons for a possible roof.) So, my take on this is: Iconology is supposed to look at the iconography at hand.

        By discussing, if the spatula depicts the pillars, we are rushing already into “Interpretationism” and are bypassing the most important question: what does the T-shape represent or better: why the T-Shape at all? Alright: there are hands, a belt, the loincloth – Since other “statues” show much more – or any – facial detail, is it a god in this case, or the other way around? Is it art, decoration? Is it supposed to be a symbol/whitespace? And if we agree on “god” or on “symbol” – the spatula most likely also depicts that – as the shapes are the same; and so on.

        Of course there always would be one catch: do we assume a system of symbols and icons (not language and signs!) being present at all? History of mankind suggests that we should (or, does it?), but if we don’t, of course any kind of Iconology would be at question – even concerning contemporary discussions.

        Just a short post scriptum: this blog is fantastic! thank you and the whole team for letting interested people around the world have some insight in your work at the site. Good luck, thanks and all the best, for all the work on this fascinating part of human history! MfG


  5. From my point of view the “T” shapes represent a body. This is true of a great many ancient depictions as a generalized body was used as a template for positioning of the signs. Such a body could be human, animal, plant, or even a rock with a recognizable form. Thus Arms and Hands could be positioned on the body where such would normally be expected. Because the “T” is gender neutral one can only infer that it is female because the underworld was part of the Female-earth.

    The “T” shape is found world wide in ancient times because it seems to have been a specific gesture sign used in sign language. It was the sign for “below.” The below referred to in the context of the overall message of the “T” is the”underworld.” Relative size was depicted to indicate a degree of importance. Thus a single, very large, “T” would indicate, “a great one.” while the “T” sign would mean, below, or the underworld. “A great one, in the underworld.” The signs placed on the “T” Form have a sub-form of their own and do not, directly, refer back to the the “T” form or other groupings of signs. Thus the overall form could be considered the main subject of the message and the secondary forms as sentences. This distinction can be viewed in ancient Imagery where the overall depiction is female but what would be her face is depicted as male. Thus in reading the signs one starts with the largest Form and works one’s way down through the smaller forms and the signs that compose the forms. Not following this rule will result in nonsensical messages.

    From my analysis, to date, of the signs found at Gobekli Tepe it was considered both a cosmological center and a council circle for the lineages that made up the tribe or culture.


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