A separated head between animals on a stone slab from Göbekli Tepe

In 2009, the last meter of filling was removed from Enclosure D, the best preserved building of Göbekli Tepe’s older Layer III. We already knew that during the refilling of the enclosures special objects, like heads of anthropomorphic sculptures, were deliberately deposited next to the pillars. Thus, special attention was payed when work progressed in these areas.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 20

Fragment of a relief showing a separated human head among animals. Found next to one of the central pillars of Enclosure D (Photos: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

Immediately to the north of Pillar 18, one of the central pillars of the enclosure, soon a very large stone slab appeared. Its lower side showed several reliefs. When the slab was finally turned around after documentation of the find situation, a very detailed scenery became visible.


Stone slab from Enclosure D, the depiction of a human head is marked in red (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

The slab is fragmentary. The preserved imagery is dominated by a large predator, which can tentatively be identified as a hyena. Behind it, a vulture with a very pronounced beak spreads its wings. Above the vulture, the legs of a third animal are visible, while legs and body of a fourth animal are depicted above the hyena. Right at the breaking edge of the slab one further image can be spotted: an apparently separated human head. Whether the head was part of a narrative scene with the animal depictions, remains unclear. In any case, from Göbekli Tepe – and other PPN sites – a number of images showing human heads in the claws of birds or quadrupeds are known. A similar depiction thus wouldn’t be a surprise.

Further reading

Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Klaus Schmidt, Yeni buluntular ve bulgularla. Göbekli Tepe. Neue Funde und Befunde, Arkeoloji ve Sanat – Journal of Archaeology and Art 137, 2011, 53-60.

Nico Becker, Oliver Dietrich, Thomas Götzelt, Cigdem Köksal-Schmidt, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.


14 thoughts on “A separated head between animals on a stone slab from Göbekli Tepe

  1. Tentatively, would this lend credence to excarnation as part of post-death rituals? Separating the head (the most significant part?) from the body would be part of , or the main part of the ritual..


    • Yes, definitely. There is also evidence for this in human bones from several sites, e.g. cut marks, skulls buried separately etc.


      • Does the head continue to be archaeologically significant in fully developed Neolithic sites within Anatolia? I know there’s a famous skull farther afield from Jericho,’fleshed out’ in clay, but that’s at least a thousand years later.


      • Plastered skulls are known from several PPN B sites of the southern Levant (e.g. ‘Ain Ghazal, Beisamoun, Jericho, Tell Aswad to name a few) and from to later sites in Central Anatolia, Kösk Höyük and Catalhöyük. So yes, the importance of skulls definitely continues into the fully developed Neolithic.


  2. I note that the animal at the top left of the picture, above the head of the hyena, has formidable claws. It is certainly not a hoofed animal, but another predator, like the hyena. Since many of the “fierce” animals that appear on the monoliths are very definitely shown as male, it is interesting that the hyena does not follow this pattern.
    May I ask if there are other examples of flat slabs with sculptured surfaces? I know of the sculpted porthole stones, but this piece looks rather different. Do you have other examples of (fragmentary) flat slabs with relief sculpture? Do you have any thoughts on where this slab might originally have been located?


    • We have a few more fragments of reliefed stones, but they are rather small compared to this one. There is one more fragment with a vulture relief from a layer II context next to Enclosure A-that would in fact be a good topic for another blogpost.
      When the slab in Enclosure D was discovered, our first thought was that it may be a fragment of the one pillar presumably missing in the ringwall, next to P43. The measurements speak definitely in favour of a pillar fragment. But on closer inspection it turned out that the breaking surfaces of the fragment had been smoothed. So right now our best guess is that it is a re-worked pillar fragment, which was used secondarily in Enclosure D. It is rather big for a wallstone, but we have some good examples for reliefed spolia incorporated into the walls of buildings. The so-called lionspillar building of layer II has quite a few, for example. The (rests of) reliefs were always visible in the secondary positions, so it seems the images were the reason to keep these stones within the buildings.


  3. If the head was venerated, perhaps captured heads were too!? A bit of an imaginative leap but are there any indications of head-hunting in the region?


    • Actually this has been discussed, but interpretations along the line of burial rites, ancestor cult, hiistory making seem to be prevailing.


  4. On a sidenote (and before someone else points it out): we’re actually constantly discussing the interpretation of this complex iconography – and the more you look, the more you see. Just the other day we we talking about the main characteristic for the original interpretation of the large animal in the centre as ‘hyena’ – namely the mane. The depiction of a hyena wouldn’t surprise since they were common in that area (some say, they even can be witnessed there today sometimes). But it seems also possible that this striking mark on the animal’s back actually might originally have been part of the vulture’s wings next to it – adding an interesting detail and much more depth to the depiction.


    • There are 8, possibly 9, marks on the hyena’s back but only 7 feathers to the wings.. And of course there’s a clear break between them. The ears are very hyena-like.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As I wrote, Oliver and I were just discussing these different interpretations the other day and I thought it might have been a nice little ‘extra’ to share here. The gap between both animals of course is very obvious, but could for instance hint at two different work steps – the quadruped predator could have been added at a later point, this new relief overlapping and ‘cutting’ the older vulture depiction. Yes, this is the stuff we do in the office: staring at pictures and trying to make sense of them. We’re going to report more results here soon, for sure. Watch this space.


    • Oliver and Jens – thanks for the post, as well as the extra commentary (thanks also to Robert Kerr for his comments).

      Some people have suggested that the hyena figure could be a bear – referring the more bulky body and legs (the paleolithic cave hyena and the contemporary spotted hyena both have relatively thin legs in comparison). What are your thoughts about the bear suggestion?

      Also, is that a tail behind the hyena/bear, or is it some other animal or part of some other animal? If a tail, it would appear too large to be a bears? I also thought that the markings on the animal’s back was a mane (thus in favour of being a hyena), but your suggestion about a re-carving of the vulture wing could also be correct.


      • The area behind the large animal is unfortunately rather unclear, but indeed there seems to have been a tail. Also, whether connected to the vulture wing or not, the markings on the back seem to have been made (or left there from an earlier carving) intentionally. So I would opt for a hyena at the moment.


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