New publication in Science Advances: Evidence for Skull Cult at Göbekli Tepe

Although burials are still not known at Göbekli Tepe, in recent years a total of 700 human bone fragments have been recovered from the fill of prehistoric buildings and adjacent areas. Anthropological analysis of this material by J. Gresky and J. Haelm from the Natural Science Department of the German Archaeological Institute is now beginning to reveal intimate details about the Early Neolithic populations at the site. Especially the fragments of three human skulls are shedding light on the treatment of the dead, which is suggestive of a previously unknown form of skull cult.

Fig 3

Macroscopic details of artificial skull modifications. A, C, D: carvings, B: drilled perforation. (Image: Gresky, DAI)

Deep grooves – made using flint tools – were carved into the surface of the skulls. In the best preserved cranium these carvings were accompanied by a carefully placed perforation (drilled hole). Modifications were essential for the purpose of decorating and displaying the human skulls. In this context, it can even be argued that the drilled perforation was used to suspend the cranium from a post or the beam of a building (perhaps even from a T-shaped pillar)!

Fig 4

Schematic drawings of Göbekli Tepe skulls. Gray: preserved elements; red: modifications. (Image: Gresky, Haelm, DAI)

  • The research article J. Gresky, J. Haelm, L. Clare, “Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult” is published in Science Advances: DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700564, published 28 June 2017, Sci. Adv. 3, e1700564 (2017): http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/6/e1700564

Further information

A Brief Report on Fieldwork at Göbekli Tepe in 2016

In 2016 construction work commenced on two permanent shelters at Göbekli Tepe. These structures will provide additional protection from the elements (wind, sun and rain) to archaeological features in excavation areas in the south-eastern and north-western parts of the site. Fieldwork in spring and autumn of this year concentrated on the documentation of prehistoric architecture in areas affected by building activities. Additional time was spent in the site find-depots, including sorting and inventory work of stored archaeological materials. These measures were essential in preparation for pending analyses and studies taking place in the frame of the recently initiated research phase.

In the course of our excavations at one of the positions assigned to shelter support constructions in the so-called main excavation area in the south-eastern hollow, work was concentrated on the previously unexcavated part of a rectangular stone structure (‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56) of the type commonly assigned to Layer 2 (attributed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period).

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Plan of the western parts of the ‘southeast hollow’ (main excavation area). The location of ‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56 is marked with a black frame.

In the northwest quarter of the room fill deposits were left untouched in order to provide additional support for the T-pillar (PXIII) located (still in-situ) at a central position at the western end of the room. The base of this T-pillar was found to be embedded in a raised platform at the western end of the building. In the northeast corner of the room a stone feature was revealed. This feature is comprised of three low (c. 50 cm high) walls (to the north, east and west). Two of the walls (to the north and east) are constructed of limestone blocks and were built up against the main walls of the room. The southern wall of the feature is made of a large worked limestone slab, perhaps a fragment of a T-pillar or similar object. The feature is open to the west. A lack of evidence for burning would speak against its function as an oven. Excavations within the building yielded numerous finds, including chipped stone and animal bone remains. A large stone vessel was found in-situ on the floor of the building.

Entering a new Project Phase

The coming weeks will herald in a new phase of research for the Göbekli Tepe project. Not only are we looking forward to the arrival of new staff members, proven experts in many different fields, we are also launching new sub-projects with internationally renowned scientists and institutions on important topics like stratigraphy and chronology, building research, and the detailed analysis of a broad range of find groups together with the site’s archaeozoology and geography.

This new multi-disciplinary team will turn its attention to the scientific evaluation and publication of earlier excavation results, combined with entirely new areas of study, certainly culminating in new insights of Göbekli Tepe in its cultural, economic, and environmental landscape. More information will follow in due course. Stay tuned!

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View upon the most recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe’s northwestern depression. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)