Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production

A few kilometres northeast of modern Şanlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey, the tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Rising 15 metres and with an area of about 9 hectares, the completely man-made mound covers the earliest known monumental cult architecture in the ancient Near East. Constructed by hunter-gatherers right after the end of the last Ice Age, they also intentionally buried it about 10,000 years ago.

Göbekli Tepe has been known to archaeologists since the 1960s, when a joint survey team from the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago under the direction of Halet Çambel and Robert Braidwood observed numerous flint artefacts littering the surface of the mound. However, the monumental architecture remained undetected, and was eventually discovered by Klaus Schmidt on a grand tour of important south-eastern Turkish Neolithic sites in 1994. In addition to the high density of flint tools and flakes, his eye was caught by large limestone blocks which reminded him of another nearby Neolithic site where he had worked several years before: Nevalı Çori – where, among others, a building with monolithic T- pillars was discovered for the first time. These peculiar T-shapes reminded Schmidt of the worked stone peeking out of the surface at Göbekli Tepe. Excavations at this site began the next year.

In about 22 years of ongoing fieldwork, the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanlıurfa Museum have revealed a totally unexpected monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe, dating to the earliest Neolithic period. No typical domestic structures have yet been found, leading to the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as a ritual centre for gathering and feasting. The people creating these megalithic monuments were still highly mobile hunter-foragers and the site’s material culture corroborates this: substantial amounts of bones exclusively from hunted wild animals, and a stone tool inventory comprising a wide range of projectile points. Osteological investigations and botanical studies show that animal husbandry was not practiced at Göbekli Tepe and domesticated plants were unknown.

It is currently possible to distinguish two different phases at Göbekli Tepe although this will undoubtedly change with continued research. The site is characterised by an older layer dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A period (ca. 9,600-8,800 calBC) which produced monumental circular huge T-shaped pillars arranged in circle-like enclosures around two even taller central pillars and a younger layer, early and middle PPN B (c. 8,800-7,000 calBC) in date. It consists of smaller rectangular buildings containing often only two small central pillars or even none at all. These may be reduced variations (or later adaptations) of the older and considerably larger monuments, of which four were excavated in the main excavation area in the mound’s southern depression. Notably these structures, labelled Enclosures A, B, C, and D, were apparently backfilled intentionally at the end of their use-lives. Enclosure D, the best preserved of the circular buildings, serves to give an impression of the general layout and set-up of these enclosures.

In the centre two colossal pillars, measuring about 5.5 m, are founded in shallow pedestals carved out of the carefully smoothed bedrock. This central pair of pillars is surrounded by a circle formed of similar, but slightly smaller pillars which are connected by stone walls and benches. While these surrounding pillars often are decorated with depictions of animals like foxes, aurochs, birds, snakes, and spiders, the central pair in particular illustrates the anthropomorphic character of the T-pillars. They clearly display arms depicted in relief on the pillars’ shafts, with hands brought together above the abdomen, pointing to the middle of the waist. Belts and loincloths underline this impression and emphasize the human-like appearance of these pillars. Their larger-than-life and highly abstracted representation is intentionally chosen and not owed to deficient craftsmanship, as other finds like the much more naturalistic animal and human sculptures clearly demonstrate. This suggests that whatever the larger-than-life T-pillars are meant to depict and embody is on a different level than the life-sized sculptures in the iconography of Göbekli Tepe and the Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia.

While naturalistic and abstract depictions find their most monumental manifestation on the T-shaped pillars, there are others. Similar and clearly related iconography also occurs on functional objects like so-called shaft straighteners, on stone bowls and cups, as well as on small stone tablets which apparently do not have any other function than to bear these signs. Furthermore, these objects are not restricted to Göbekli Tepe and the few other sites with T-shaped pillars in its closer vicinity, but are known from places up to 200 km around the site. A spiritual concept seems to have linked these sites to each other, suggesting a larger cultic community among PPN mobile groups in Upper Mesopotamia, tied in a network of communication and exchange.

Ethnologic and historic analogies emphasize the importance of regular gatherings and collective activities as means of maintaining social cohesion in hunter-gatherer communities. Gatherings also serve other purposes like the exchange of information, goods, and marriage partners. Such large-scale gatherings naturally need to be established in locations that are known and easily accessible for the participating groups.

The topographical situation of Göbekli Tepe as a landmark overlooking the surrounding plains, seem a perfectly suitable central space for these groups and people inhabiting the wider region. Large communal tasks executed as collective work events, reflected in the apparently continuous construction activity at Göbekli Tepe, provided a unifying reason for people to come together. Additionally ethnographic studies provide more examples demonstrating that work forces necessary for such collaborative projects can be gathered with the prospect of lavish feasts.

That this may have been the case at Göbekli Tepe is further corroborated by a closer look at the massive amount of filling material of the enclosures, which consists of limestone rubble, flint artefacts, fragments of stone vessels, other ground stone tools, and in particular an impressively large numbers of animal bones – above all gazelle and aurochs. These remains hint at the consumption of enormous amounts of meat, most likely during feasts framing these large-scale meetings and communal activities, including monument construction.

T_Karte_neu

Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).

Repetitive feasting at Göbekli Tepe may have played an essential role not only in creating and strengthening social bonds among the individuals and groups meeting there, but must also have stressed the economic potential of these hunter-gatherers to repeatedly feed such large crowds. In response to this pressure, new food resources and processing techniques may have been explored, subsequently paving the way for a complete change in subsistence strategy. In this scenario, the early appearance of monumental religious architecture motivating work feasts to draw as many hands as possible for the execution of complex, collective tasks is changing our understanding of one of the key moments in human history: the emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry – and the onset of food production and the Neolithic way of live.

This text was originally written by Jens Notroff & Oliver Dietrich for and published at the weblog of Boston University’s American School of Oriental Research: The Ancient Near East Today – Current News About The Ancient Past [external link], July 2017: Vol. V, No. 7 under the title “Göbekli Tepe: Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production” [external link].

ANETodayBanner-3-1

More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

We already expressed a couple of thoughts and remarks on a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in which Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis have suggested (original article accessible here: [external link]) that the early Neolithic monumental enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were space observatories and the site’s complex iconography the commemoration of a catastrophic astronomical event (‘Younger Dryas Comet Impact’).

Meanwhile we were putting together a more elaborate reply with further arguments and references which, in our opinion, challenge the interpretation and add more context to the paper’s discussion of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography in the light of the early Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. The editors of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry kindly agreed to publish our response in the same journal as the original article by Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

The paper (J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, L. Clare, L. Dietrich, J. Schlindwein, M. Kinzel, C. Lelek-Tvetmarken, D. Sönmez: More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(2), 2017, 57-63.) can be accessed online: [external link].

Fig. 1

Aerial view of the mound of Göbekli Tepe with excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)

Our reservations, which are not meant to silence any further archaeoastronomic discussion for Göbekli Tepe at all but rather comment on a number of discrepances we see in the interpretation, are summed up here:

1. The original layout of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round-oval buildings is still subject of ongoing research (none of these structures are completely excavated as of yet). One should be aware that many of the T-pillars incorporated into the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe are not standing in their original positions and the buildings underwent significant modification during their life-cycles. Building archaeology studies have revealed that in many cases pillars were ‘recycled’, i.e. pulled out and used elsewhere. The monuments as we see them today are the culmination of multi-phase building and rebuilding events. Additionally, there is the significant possibility that we are dealing with roofed structures; this fact alone would pose limitations to a function as sky observatories.

2. The chronological frame Sweatman and Tsikritsis suggest for Pillar 43 (10950 BC +/- 250 years) is still 700-1000 years older than the oldest radiocarbon date so far available for Enclosure D (which stems from organic material retrieved from a wall plaster matrix). While there is evidence for later re-use of pillars (see above), assuming such a long tradition of knowledge relating to an unconfirmed (ancient) cosmic event appears extremely far-fetched. So far, any available date for Göbekli Tepe rather marks the end than the beginning of the Younger Dryas.

3. The assumption that asterisms are stable across time and cultures is not convincing. It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.

4. Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ contribution appears incredibly arbitrary, considering images adorning just a few selected pillars. Meanwhile more than 60 monumental limestone T-pillars are known from Göbekli Tepe – among these many feature similar carved low reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (e.g. Pillar 56 in Enclosure H). Furthermore, the iconographic programme is not restricted to the limestone pillars; it is known from other find groups (including stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes) not only from Göbekli Tepe but also from numerous contemporary sites in the wider region.

Fig. 3

Pillar 56 from Enclosure H is another example for the rich and often complex iconography of Göbekli Tepe. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)

5. Göbekli Tepe’s iconography is actually even more complex than the paper suggests. The animals depicted on the pillars seem to follow an intentional pattern, whereby each building has a different emphasis, i.e. with one animal or more being especially prominent. If we interpret these differences as an expression of community and belonging, this could hint at different groups having been responsible for the construction of particular enclosures. In other words, specific enclosures may have served the needs of different social entities. For this reason, it is extremely problematic to pick out any one pillar and draw far-reaching but isolated interpretations while leaving out its context. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these subtler but significant details. Details like the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as a symbol of death, catastrophe and extinction by Sweatman and Tsikritsis, silently omits the clearly emphasised phallus which must contradict the lifeless notion; rather, this image implies a more versatile narrative behind these depictions. It should also be noted that there are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which apparently went unnoticed in the study at hand.

Fig. 4

Distribution of the appearance of figurative representations in the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe. Note: The different state of excavation as well as chronological depth of construction periods have to be considered; later added graffiti as well as symbolically reduced icons were not included. (Graphic: J. Notroff & N. Becker, DAI)

Fig. 2

Pillar 43 from Enclosure D and its particularly rich relief-decoration – actually extending not only on the pillar’s western broadside (left), but also the southern (middle) and northern (right) narrow sides. (Photos: K. Schmidt, N. Becker, DAI)

Pre-Pottery Neolithic iconography, by far exceeding the realms of Göbekli Tepe, is often especially concerned with articulation and disarticulation of the human body. Particularly the depiction of severed human heads or headless bodies in combination with necrophagous animals (preferably but not exclusively vultures) is a well-known theme and may be rooted in a complex multiphase Pre-Pottery Neolithic mortuary ritual. Similar depictions of a bird grasping a human head are known from Göbekli Tepe as well as life-sized human sculpture heads which were deposited within the buildings.

Fig. 5

Fragmented sculpture from Göbekli Tepe showing a bird of prey crouched on a human head. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

 

Meanwhile both authors of the orginal study replied to our response (same issue of MAA, see link above), stressing that “… given the statistical basis o[f] [their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.” (Sweatman and Tsikritsis, Comment, MAA 17(2), 66). Admittedly though, we still would like to express our doubt that human creativity really can be treated as a statistical case solely.

On Air: Smithsonian Channel’s “Secrets”

Episode 8 of the current 4th season of Smithsonian Channel‘s [external link] documentary series “Secrets” [external link] will center on the excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe  and its early Neolithic monuments.

blink

(Courtesy of blink films & MA Productions)

The upcoming episode, provocatively titled “Garden of Eden” [external link] (and yes, admittedly we were a bit uncomfortable about that title – for certain reasons) is exploring the question why hunter-gatherers started to engage in large-scale communal projects, and the peculiar role early monument-construction played for emerging Neolithic societies.

“On a hilltop in southeastern Turkey, archaeologists have unearthed a complex of standing stones that pre-dates Stonehenge by more than 6,000 years. This monument has rewritten prehistoric archaeology and fascinated some theologians, who have linked the site to the Garden of Eden. Take an up-close look at Gobekli Tepe and its intricate carvings, which feature a landscape with wildlife, birds, and serpents. Then see how this 11,000-year-old wonder has forced archaeologists to rethink their understanding of the beginnings of human civilization.”

The episode will be on cable TV (Smithsonian Channel) i.a. Monday, June 12 to Saturday, June 17. For more details see Smithsonian Channel‘s schedule [external link].

Introducing: Enclosure H – Welcoming a new member to the Göbekli Tepe-family.

The most notable feature of Göbekli Tepe are, of course, the monumental circular enclosures formed of T-shaped pillars dating back to the 10th millennium BC. The first of these structures were discovered early druring excavations from 1995 onwards in the mound’s southwestern depression which meanwhile became known as ‘main excavation area’. To clarify if this peculiar type of architecture was limited to this part of the site and discovered by pure chance, geophysical surveys were undertaken – indeed demonstrating that similar features could be found in other parts of the mound as well. Renewed excavations in particular in the northwestern depression (Fig. 1) started in 2011 produced a number of interesting related features of which one, Enclosure H, should be in the focus of this short report.

overview

Fig. 1: Aerial of Göbekli Tepe and the excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)

Georadar results already indicated a large, cloverleaf-shaped agglomeration of what seemed to be one or even more circular enclosures (Fig. 2). Excavations started in that area in 2011 soon revealed first T-pillars, confirming the existence of more monuments in this section of the tall as well. The structure which later would have been labelled ‘Enclosure H’ (in order of their discovery) could have been indeed located on the geophysical plan already as circular feature in the western part of the examined area (K10-24 and -25 as well as (partly) K10-35 and -35).

Enclosure H_geo

Fig. 2: Geomagnetic survey results in the NW depression, excavation areas superimposed. (Geomagnetics: GGH- Solutions in Geoscience, Plan: J. Notroff, DAI)

Enclosure H

Fig. 3: Aerial of Enclosure H at current state of excavations, including pillar numbers. (Photos: N. Becker, compilation: J. Notroff, DAI)

Although excavations are not completed yet, it can already be noted that it follows the general scheme and layout of the other known PPN A enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. In the course of following excavations eight pillars were discovered and excavated to this date (Fig. 3).

P51

Fig. 4: Pillar 51, the eastern (and so far only discovered) central pillar of Enclosure H. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

The eastern central pillar of Enclosure H, Pillar 51 (Fig. 4), was found close to the surface. While still in situ, the massive pillar was toppled over, its head heavily damaged (all fragments could be found and documented in immediate vicinity, however). The front side shows the characteristic stola-like depcition, the western broad side features the relief of a big cat which somehow resembles those animals known from the younger (Layer II) rectangular ‘lion pillars building’ in the main excavation area.

Pillars 54 and 55 in the enclosure’s northern respectively southern wall are partly excavated, also showing the ‘stola’-relief. The latter’s head being damaged as well (most likely due to frost weathering).

beitrag-gobekli-tepe_abb-10

Fig. 5: The extensively decorated Pillar 56. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 56 (Fig. 5) is particularly notworthy due to its extensively decorated southwestern broadside – more than 55 animals are depicted so closely packed, that the outline of one merges with the contour of the next image. On the narrow front side a bucranium framed by two snaked can be seen. The northeastern broad side shows two very low lines which might indicate further reliefs here, but need to be clarified in the course of future excavations.

P57

Fig. 6: Pillar 57 in the southern wall of Enclosure H (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 57 (Fig. 6) is situated in the southern wall of Enclosure H. Its head is, probably due to frost weathering again, damaged. The front side shows the reliefs of two snakes (whose bodies seem to wind around the pillar) are facing each other and a round object. Underneath another carving can be seen; hardly identifiable it could be another snake’s head.

Of Pillar 64 there is only the basis left in situ, while another limestone fragment from its head was found nearby.

gt14_k1025_p66_7209

Fig. 7: Pillar 66 with the depcition of an apparently dying or dead horned animal. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 66 (Fig. 7) is situated to the west of P54 in the northern part of the enclosure wall, but deviates from the expected radial orientation since it stands almost parallel to the wall. This unusual position may have to do with a possible secondary use of the pillar here; something which was also already brought up for Enclosures B and C in the main excvation area. The pillar’s head depicts a large horned animal (maybe an aurochs or stag) with bent legs and hanging out tongue, maybe indicating the death of this animal.

P69

Fig. 8: Pillar 69 with the relief of a jumping cat of prey. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 69 (Fig. 8) in the northeastern enclosure wall shares the unusual orientation with P66, also standing parallel to the wall. Not completely excavated yet, it shows the relief of a jumping cat of prey on the shaft; the pillar’s head is smashed.

The enclosure wall, which was unearthed in the southern and eastern as well, to some degree, documented in the northern parts, already can give an idea of the dimension of Enclosure H which probably was more of elliptic rather than circular shape and probably had an inner diameter of about 10 m. After a not yet determined period of use, the enclosure was finally backfilled and buried much like this could have been observed with the main excavation area’s enclosures already. However, the excavated southern section of Enclosure H shows very clear that there must have been at least one additional later intervention after this backfilling took place. The alltogether rather ‘chaotic’ discovery situation of the southern enclosure wall, with broken stone benches and pillar fragments obviously not in their original position anymore, gives witness of this intrusion which can be also seen quite clearly in the northern profile of this excavation trench (Fig. 9).

Enclosure H_N-profile

Fig. 9: The northern profile of excavation area K10-24, the later pit dug into the already backfilled enclosure is clearly visible to the left. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Interestingly, this somehow mirrors a similar situation already met in Enclosure C, where also a later dug pit which only purpose seems to have been locating and breaking the enclosure’s central pillars (whose smashed pieces could be retrieved nearby), for reasons still remaining in the dark as of yet. Another noteworthy feature (which again reminds of the general situation of Enclosure C) is the discovery of some steps apparently forming a stairway in the intersection of two walls in Enclosure H’s southern boundaries. If this really could be interpreted as some kind of entrance situation into the enclosure has to remain topic of future investigations here.

Further reading:

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Ch. Hübner, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Anlage H. Ein Vorbericht beim Ausgrabungsstand von 2014, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.) Anatolian Metal VII – Anatolien und seine Nachbarn vor 10.000 Jahren / Anatolia and Neighbours 10.000 years ago. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 31, Bochum 2016, 53-69.

Re-opening of Göbekli Tepe announced for July this year.

Since last June the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe is closed to visitors due to the construction of two permanent shelters above the excavated areas at Göbekli Tepe’s south-eastern and north-western hollows (see here). Originally, completion of this work was scheduled for the end of last year, but construction work took longer than expected and the excavation still remains closed.

Meanwhile work made good progress and shelter construction is moving forward. In a recently published note, the Turkish General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums announced that the site will be closed until mid-July 2017 [external link].

roof

Shelter construction at Göbekli Tepe, work in progress. (Photo: H. Yildiz)

As reported in various Turkish media, Şanlıurfa Culture and Tourism Director Aydın Aslan stated that the site is meant be re-opened to public visitors this summer again (here quoted from arkeofili.com [external link], translated):

“As of July 15 2017, the shelter constructions will be completed and the site opened to visitors again. All work is carried out to balance preservation and further study of Göbekli Tepe. Our primary concern is its protection and Göbekli Tepe could be preserve best. The superstructure shelters cost about 600,000 Euros, funded by the Turkish State and the European Union. Concluding, we think it is important work for the preservation and accessibility of Göbekli Tepe minimising damage in the future.”

It is our pleasure having the chance to contribute to this work and help offering visitors the chance to return to Göbekli Tepe and experience the early Neolithic monuments again as soon as possible.

Update 02.08.2017: Unfortunately the shelters are still under construction as of yet and the site remains closed to public visitors for the moment. Hopefully all work will be finished and the site re-opened later that year in autumn.

A Stairway to the Circle of Boars

During the autumn excavation season in 2012 an interesting detail could be added to the PPN A monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe.

Among the enclosures in the so-called main excavation area, Enclosure C stands out in particular due to several concentric, interleaved walls forming the characteristic circles of T-shaped pillars.  The structure and layout of this peculiar enclosure changed signifanctly over time, hinting at a longer (re-)building history and life-cycle. For instance, an earlier entrance reminiscent of a dromos was blocked by an apparently later wall.

The supposed entrance is formed by two walls (made of noticeably large stones which are worked on all sides) running almost rectangularly towards the south and nearly parallel to each other. Almost like a barrier, a huge stone slab protrudes into this passage. Although the slab has not been completely preserved it is safe to say that once it had been provided with a central opening closed by asome stone-setting of which two layers still could have been observed in situ. At the slab’s southern side, looking away from Enclosure C and towards the visitor, there is the relief of a boar lying on its back right below the opening.

This relief-carved ‘porthole stone’ is accompanied by another building element. First, the sculpture of another animal was found right nin front of it, to the south: a beast of prey with a widely opened mouth, a lion or maybe a bear. In a distance of only 80 cm its counterpart was found, whose probably similarly sculpted head had been severed and is lost, unfortunately. As excavation went on it became clear that both actually belonged to just one large monolithic U-shaped workpiece. Apparently, together with the porthole slab it seems to have marked an entrance into this enclosure.

A new element of this situation was unearthed recently: a stairway with (at current stage of excavation) so far eight stone-steps was discovered during field work in autumn 2012. It seems possible that these stairs once were constructed to bridge a hollow in the bedrock, leading up to Enclosure C’s orginial entrance, but further excavation work will be needed to entirely understand this situation.

Archaeoastronomy, meteor showers, mass extinction: What does the fox say? (And what the crane? The aurochs?)

Recently a (peer-reviewed) paper published by M. Sweatman and D. Tsikritsis, two researchers of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, has made headlines, suggesting that the Göbekli Tepe enclosures actually were space observatories and that some of the reliefs depict a catastrophic cosmic event (the original publication in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(1), 2017 is accessible online here [external link]).

A selection of the carved reliefs found on many of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars is linked to and interpreted as depiction of actual stellar constellations. In particular Pillar 43, which is indeed an outstanding (but actually not exceptional) example of the site’s  rich and complex iconography, is interpreted as record of a meteor shower and collision – with quite serious consequences for life on earth 13,000 – 12,000 years ago (this whole ‘Younger Dryas Impact’ hypothesis [external link] actually is disputed itself [external link], so making Göbekli Tepe a ‘smoking gun’ in this argument should absolutely ask for a closer look).

GT06_P43_N09.32_ 600_A4.jpg

Pillar 43 in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

Debate regarding a possible astronomic link and interpretation of the architecture and the characteristic pillars in particular are as old as the history of research regarding Göbekli Tepe, but as of yet no convincing proof for an actual celestial orientation or observation of such phenomena could have been put forward. We always were and still are open to consider these discussions. So, of course we were looking into the new study with quite some interest, too. After all it is a new and fascinating interpretation. However, upon closer inspection we as excavators of this important site would like to raise a few points which may challenge this interpretation in our point of view:

1. There still is quite a significant probability that the older circular enclosures of Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III actually were subterranean buildings – possibly even covered by roof constructions. This then somehow would limit their usability as actual observatories a bit.

2. Even if we assume that the night sky 12,000 years ago looked exactly like today’s, the question at hand would be whether a prehistoric hunter really would have put together the very same asterisms and constellations we recognise today (most of them going back to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek scholars and descriptions)?

3. Contrary to the article’s premise the unearthed features at Göbekli Tepe are not  shrouded in mystery. Published over the last years and decades, there is ample scientific literature available which unfortunately did not find its way into the study. The  specific animals depicted in each enclosure’s iconography for instance seems to follow a certain intention, emphasizing different species in different enclosures. A purely  substitutional interpretation ignores these more subtle but significant details. This also can be demonstrated for instance with the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as symbol of death and mass extinction in the paper – however silently omitting the emphasised phallus in the same depiction which somehow contradicts the lifeless notion and implies a much more complex narrative behind these reliefs. There are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of P43 which went conpletely uncommented here.

4. It also seems a bit arbitrary to base this interpretation (and all its consequences as described in the paper) on what seems to be some randomly selected pillars and their iconography (the interpretation thus not covering “much of the symbolism of Göbekli Tepe” as stated in the paper, but merely the tip of that iceberg). In the meantime more than 60 monumental T-pillars could have been unearthed in the older Layer III – many of these showing similar reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (like Pillar 56 or Pillar 66 in enclosure H, for example). And it does not end there: the same iconography is prominently known also from other find groups like stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes – not only from Göbekli Tepe, but a variety of contemporary sites in the wider vicinity.

So, with all due respect for the work and effort the Edinburgh colleagues obviously put into their research and this publication, there still are – at least from our perspective as excavators of this important site – some points worth a detailed discussion. A more thorough exchange with the excavation team could have clarified many of these concerns.

Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden …

Sensations are making stories. And archaeology-stories apparently are no exception to this rule. That’s why even the most interesting sites and finds often are further dramatised and spiced up in public discourse. Somehow ‘interesting’ isn’t satisfying enough to everybody.

The early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe has it all: far reaching implications about prehistoric hunter-gatherer social group structures, the beginning of our very own modern sedentary lifestyle, and (some of the) oldest yet known monumental architecture ever built. However, this still doesn’t seem to be enough. People love a good mystery and apparently social structures of early hunters are (noted without any complaint here) not exactly enigmatic enough to be entertaining.

01-klaus-schmidt-gt09_8252

The mound of Göbekli Tepe. view from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

In 2006 German magazine DER SPIEGEL came up with a cover story on the Göbekli Tepe excavations (“Die Suche nach dem Garten Eden. Archäologen auf den Spuren des biblischen Paradieses” [external link]), suggesting it was the (pre-)historical basis for the Biblical narrative about the ‘Garden of Eden’. Ever since this story multiplied and was picked up then and again, actually emphasising the great interest in our research on one hand, but also the pitfalls of all too simplifying analogies on the other. Only recently Discovery’s Science Channel (which features, among others, a segment about our research at Göbekli Tepe) was digging up the story up again (excuse the pun) for an episode of “What on Earth” called “Gateway to Eden” [external link].

To be honest, it’s not even hard to actually see where this fascination is coming from. A mythical garden, ‘paradise’ par excellence, is quite an archetypical narrative and a metaphor deeply rooted in our collective memory. The story of that ‘Garden of Eden’ seems to have great potential to fuel our imagination. Yet actually looking beyond that metaphor for a real place and location would mean to somehow misconceive the whole narrative’s elucidating intention.

Since there are a number of peculiar elements brought up repeatedly in support of an assumed link between the Göbekli Tepe findings and the Eden myth, it seems worth the time having a closer look into and a short evaluation of these arguments in the course of this blog post.

cropped-gt10_anld_nicobecker_8448.jpg

The landscape around Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

The topographical situation of this idyllic garden delivered in the Old Testament (which, as probably most people would agree, is not exactly and specifically a proper historical source) tells of a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four streams: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14). While the latter two are well-known toponyms to this day in the region, the other two however don’t really fit into the picture, somehow raising the suspicion they might be as figuratively as the mythical gold-land of Havilah through which the Pishon is said to wind. Besides, there are no water sources at Göbekli Tepe at all (actually one of the arguments against an ideal settlement situation, cf. this discussion). Göbekli Tepe hardly ever was a flourishing garden in the literal sense.

Göpekli Tepe 2002

Snakes on a pillar. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

“But what about the snakes?” is an argument often put forward in favour of the Eden narrative. Yes, there are depictions of snakes at Göbekli Tepe. A lot, actually. Quite a lot. It almost is a snake pit rather than the single seducer trying to sell forbidden fruits. And what about all those other animal reliefs? There are spiders and scorpions, foxes and vultures, cranes, ducks, and boars. And more. In numbers certainly equalling those of  snake reliefs. So, this sole focus on the serpent seems a bit unfair towards the other animals. Are we going to ignore all these many additional animals (and few human depictions)  – or how do these fit into the story?

Göbekli Tepe 2002

Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird. (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, DAI)

Another small find produced by the Göbekli Tepe excavations, a so-called plaquette, is also often referred to as a clue in the ‘Garden of Eden’ line of argument. The small stone tablet is showing three carved symbols among which some recognise a snake and a tree (and we all can see where this would be heading). However, with a view to the recent discussion of the ambiguity of prehistoric art and the challenge to properly ‘read’ (let alone understand) it here, this particular find seems a weak advocate. Upon closer inspection of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography and its analogies from other sites, it becomes much more likely that the ‘tree’ actually might depict a person and the third object to its right may be understood as a bird – somehow changing the whole narrative of this object quite a bit.

Returning to that recent “What on Earth” episode, one could find the idea attractive that the remarkable pair of central pillars in each enclosure somehow could be interpreted as a mythical couple (even without the all too obvious ‘Adam and Eve’ analogy), some male and female ancestor. The show seems to suggest this, prominently quoting myself in this context. But – and this is the important point here, I  would like to make (and actually made in “What on Earth”, which somehow may have got lost on the cutting floor) – there are convincing leads showing that this is not the most favourable interpretation. The fact that both central pillars of Enclosure D are shown wearing belts and loincloths, for instance, seems to hint at two male individuals here – in analogy to contemporary clay figurines.

09_Zentralpfeiler (7)

Belt and loincloth at one of the central pillars of Enclosure D underline the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

Projecting a much younger and much later written down mythology onto archaeological material predating it for millennia leaves any secure grounds for substantial conclusions. Linking the early Neolithic, 10th millennium BC structures of Göbekli Tepe with a narrative written down not earlier then the 11th or 10th century BC (thus about 9,000 years later – after these enclosures were long abandoned and backfilled) would seem more than just a bit far-fetched.

As we already noted in our FAQ here:

“We disagree wholeheartedly with any parallels drawn between Göbekli Tepe and the ‘Garden of Eden’, for which there is absolutely no archaeological evidence. Certainly, Göbekli Tepe lies in a chain of hills north of the Harran plain, the scene of numerous biblical narratives, though this is where any associations with the Bible end. Anything more is pure conjecture.”

Or, as Klaus Schmidt once put it in an interview [external link]:
“Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden.”

National Geographic Magazine: On the History and Social Role of Alcohol

The cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s [external link] February issue is an interesting culture-historical excursus on the social and ritual role of alcohol from early cultures to modern drinking habits, the technical processes of producing alcoholic beverages, and the challenges to actually track down and verify these in the archaeological record.

Titled “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze” [external link], the text by author Andrew Curry (with photos by Brian Finke) follows the work of Martin Zarnkow for instance, a scientist at TUZ Munich’s Weihenstephan research center for brewing and food-grade. We also had the pleasure to work together with him when he was analysing a couple of samples coming from large stationary stone vessels at Göbekli Tepe. While still preliminary and inconclusive, these analyses initially hinted at the likely brewing – and consumption – of beer-like beverages in the context of large gatherings which seem to have taken place at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe (read more about this observation here). National Geographic’s article also features a short insight into this part of our research and puts it into a quite fascinating (pre-)historical context.

Figure 1

Large limestone vessels at Göbekli Tepe which might have been used for the production of early alcoholic beverages based on cereals. (Photos: N. Becker, DAI)

A Sanctuary … or so fair a House?

Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range in southeastern Turkey. The spot is hostile to settlement; the next accessible springs are located in a distance of about 5 km northeast (Edene) and to the southeast (Germuş). A number of pits at Göbekli Tepe’s western slope could represent cisterns to collect rain water; although their exact date could not have been determined yet. With a total capacity of 153,12 cubic metres (cf. Herrmann-Schmidt 2012) they may have accumulated enough water for people to stay there for a longer periods of time, but probably not during the whole rainless summer. The next Neolithic settlements so far known were found in the plain in immediate vicinity of nearby springs, like for example Urfa-Yeni Yol.

From its discovery onwards, the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe’s suprising architecture has centered around the terms ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude), ‘sanctuaries’, or even ‘temples’. Naturally, this line of interpretation has been called into question. As already discussed here, it is indeed quite challenging to use a rather strictly defined historical terminology and complex spiritual concepts to describe the material remains of prehistoric phenomena. Even more while cult, ritual and ultimately religion are concepts often cited but rarely clearly defined by archaeologists.

Just recently a colleague challenged the existence of pure domestic or ritual structures for the Neolithic, arguing that archaeologists tend to impose modern western distinctions of sacred vs. profane on prehistory, while anthropology in most cases shows these two spheres to be inseparably interwoven (Banning 2011, 624-627). In his eyes, Göbekli Tepe rather was a settlement with buildings rich in symbolism, but nevertheless domestic in nature. Undisputedly, this boundary is perceived much stricter today after centuries of secularization in the western hemisphere, although it should be noted that this differentiation indeed also is known from non-western societies, too. Banning’s arguments that in-house inhumations, caches and wall paintings are demonstrating that ‘the sacred’ clearly is leaking into everyday live in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Banning 2011, 627-629) and that therefore a clear distinction is impossible to define, is valid, too, of course. In fact the idea of manifestations of the sacred in houses or parts of houses is neither new, nor surprising as already M. Eliade pointed out in his seminal work on the entanglement of the sacred and profane. Yet Eliade also emphasized that belief and faith of course could focus within special places and structures particularly dedicated to give ‘the sacred’ a room: “… the sanctuary – the center par excellence was there, close to [man], in the city, and he could be sure of communicating with the world of the gods by entering the temple.” (Eliade 1959, 43). All this is essentially theoretical thinking, based on historical sources and ethnologic observation. But going back to prehistoric periods which are denying such direct access, we are thrown back again at a selection of what is left physically and intentionally – exclusively. In case of the enclosures unearthed at Göbekli Tepe this means to focus on the material culture found in this context and the structures themselves.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

Pillar 31, one of the central pillars of Enclosure D, illustrates the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars due to the depiction of arms, hands, and a loincloth. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Among these, still the monumental T-shaped pillars can be regarded as the site’s most prominent and most defining moment. While they remain faceless, the depiction of arms, hands, and clothing clearly identifies these up to 5.5 m high pillars as anthropomorphic, but distinctively also larger than life at the same time. Their highly abstracted character must be considered intentional, in particular since we know of the existence of more naturalistic and life-sized sculptures like for example the contemporaneous ‘Urfa man’ and numerous heads of similar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. So, even though we cannot know if these buildings actually were really meant to house gods or deities, the peculiar role of these larger-than-life anthropomorphic images forming the centre and main element of the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe remain conspiciously disctinctive to the life-sized sculpture heads which were apparently carefully deposited in the backfill.

Early Neolithic domestic architecture is well known in the upper Euphrates region due to the long and secure stratigraphy of rectangular buildings at Çayönü Tepesi (Schirmer 1988; 1990; Özdoğan 1999) and extensive excavations at Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1988) for instance, both stiuated in Turkey. Contemporaneous with Göbekli Tepe in this sequence would be Çayönü’s so-called grillplan-phase (PPNA), the ‘channeled’ ground plans (early PPNB; attested also in Nevalı Çori), and the ‘cobble paved buildings’ (middle PPNB). Research of the last 20 years in the region has revealed that almost every settlement site of the 10th and 9th millennium BC, which was excavated more extensively, shows a spatial distinction into living quarters and workshop areas and furthermore produced special buildings or free spaces for apparently communal or ritual activity. Characteristic traits of these so-called special purpose buildings are benches at the inner walls, rich and elaborate inner fittings as well as outstanding installations and finds like (stone) sculptures and sometimes human burials – as the examples of Nevalı Çori’s ‘Terrazzo Building’, Çayönü’s ‘Skull’, ‘Terrazzo’ and ‘Flagstone Buildings’ or the communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet (northern Syria) demonstrate, to just name some.

special-buildings

‘Special purpose buildings’ of the PPN: 1. Çayönü, ‘Flagstone Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11c), 2. Çayönü, ‘Skull Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11b), 3. Çayönü, ‘Terrazzo Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11a), 4. Nevalı Çori (after Hauptmann 1993, fig. 9), 5. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 9), 6. Mureybet (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 2), 7. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 5).

nc_sondergeb_ver2

Reconstruction of the ‘Terrazzo Building’ at Nevalı Çori where T-Pillars were found for the first time. (Photo: H. Hauptmann, reconstruction: N. Becker, DAI.)

At Göbekli Tepe no traces of this well-documented typical domestic PPN architecture could have been proven as of yet. But the existing structures at the site clearly mirror features and layout of those outstanding communal ‘special purpose’ buildings which usually are the exception within settlements. At Göbekli Tepe, however, this building type is not an exception, but the general rule – almost overrepresented compared to other settlement sites, while whole object classes (like clay figurines for instance) known from these settlements are almost completely absent.

Summing up, from our point of view there seems to be ample evidence to interpret Göbekli Tepe as a peculiar place formed of special purpose structures related to cult and ritual with distinct and fixed life-cycles of building, use, deconstruction and burial. All of these stages seem to be marked by specific ritual acts, of which the last, i.e. those related to burial and deposition of symbolic objects are naturally best visible in the archaeological record. What remains is largely a problem of adequate terminology to address these buildings and the site as a whole. If ‘temple’ is understood as a technical term for specialized cult architecture, one could indeed consider this lable for Göbekli Tepe. If the term is defined in our western perception as a place where a god is present, maybe ‘sanctuary’’ would be a more neutral description; alternatively the auxiliary construction of ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude) may be used to escape any trap of culturally bound denominations. But in any case one thing is sure: the idea that Göbekli Tepe’s buildings are “so fair a house” seems not the most convincing interpretation of the available evidence so far.

A more detailed discussion of this question can be found in:

O. Dietrich and J. Notroff, A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In: N. Lanerie (ed.), Defining the Sacred. Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow 2015, 75-89.

References:

E. E. Banning, So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East, Current Anthropology 52/5, 2011, 619-660.

M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Brace & World 1959.

H. Hauptmann, Nevalı Cori: Architektur, Anatolica XV, 1988, 99-110.

H. Hauptmann, Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Cori. In: M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae and M. Mellink (eds.), Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata. Rome: Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, 37-69.

R. A. Herrmann and K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – Untersuchungen zur Gewinnung und Nutzung von Wasser im Bereich des steinzeitlichen Bergheiligtums. In: F. Klimscha, R. Eichmann, C. Schuler and H. Fahlbusch (eds.), Wasserwirtschaftliche Innovationen im archäologischen Kontext. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH, 2012, 57-67.

A. Özdoğan,  Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan and N. Başgelen (eds.), Neolithic in Turkey. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1999, 35-63.

W. Schirmer, Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi, Anatolica XV, 1988, 139-159.

W. Schirmer, Some Aspects of Building at the ‘Aceramic Neolithic’ Settlement of Çayönü Tepesi, Wolrd Archeology 21/3, 1990, 363-378.

D. Stordeur, M. Brenet, G. der Aprahamian and J. C. Roux, Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPN A (Syrie), Paleórient 26/1, 2000, 29-44.