What you get is … what you want to see: For example Göbekli Tepe on a 4th millennium seal print from Susa.

Recently, I stumbled upon a blogpost by Graham Hancock [external link]. I was looking for something completely different, i.e. the “fallout” of the rather unfortunate meteor theory proposed by two researchers from Edinburgh in April. What I found however sent me off in a completely different direction. As it is a prime example how false interpretations of images arise, and how they could have been prevented right from the start, I thought I should write a few words about that blog post here.

In his short text, Hancock explains that an independent researcher, while browsing the images in the online database of the ‘Cuneiform Digital Library’ [external link], found a depiction of the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe with their iconic T-shaped pillars. On a seal impression from Susa, dating to the Uruk V period. The settlement phase Uruk V constitutes together with Uruk IV the Late Uruk Period. The details of the absolute chronology of this period, which sees the invention of writing (i.e. proto-cuneiform script starting from Uruk IVa) and the cylinder seal, is still under debate, but a general date between 3500-3100 BC seems to be safe. Göbekli Tepe is currently dated between c. 9500-8000 BC. So, there is some chronological and regional distance between the sites (Susa lies in nowadays Iran). “Nice mystery here”, to cite Hancock. But let’s have a critical look at the evidence, which is always a good idea when doing science.

falsch

Hancock´s post refers to a fragment of a cylinder seal impression, for which the ‘Cuneiform Digital Library’ database gives a scanned black and white photo and some background information, like the material (clay), the collection (Louvre, Paris) and the primary publication (MDP 43, 676). It is also clear that the image is rotated – most likely accidentally – by 180° compared to the original publication (the number is upside down). And there they are, the two T-shaped pillars encircled by an oval, shown two times. A perfect abstract depiction of a round building from Göbekli Tepe´s older layer, as it seems. Alright, the pillars inside the perimeter wall are missing. But who cares? It could be an abstracted depiction of something a few millennia older but apparently still very well known.

The seal impression is fragmentary and highly damaged. It is obvious that the original image was more complex. If we turn the image correctly and look a little closer, in front of the left Ts, which now do not resemble Ts anymore, there is an indication of some more depictions that are hard to identify on the b&w photograph. That is why finds were and mostly still are drawn in archaeology, and in any case described extensively. And where to find a drawing and description of the find? In MDP 43 of course.

Richtig_falsch

I perfectly understand that this is the point at which those with a general interest in archaeology and browsing through an online database might be lost. MDP refers to the series “Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique en Iran”. Why the “P”? Because the series was first called “Mémoires de la Délegation en Perse” and the abbreviation never changed. If we look the find up in volume 43 of this series, written by Pierre Amiet and  dealing with “Glyptique Susienne”, the scene is described as “two figures sitting on the left, on curved seats, in front of apparatuses made up of two supports with square bases and an elongated oval element”. And the drawing of the sealing shows just that. The persons are touching this “oval element” with their hands. The publication has some more depictions of this kind on sealings, and at least some, such as MDP 43, nr. 673 or 674 are less fragmentary. It becomes immediately clear that we are not dealing with a depiction of T-shaped pillars, but of two supports with square feet at the bottom and a knob at the top, connected by an oval.

The depictions of people interacting with this “apparatus” are part of a group of sealings that shows people at work, and some of the images with the supports strongly hint in the direction of weaving (esp. nr. 673), the “oval” most probably being the depiction of a thread.

Weben

So, absolutely no “nice mystery here”. Just a misinterpretation of a highly fragmentary depiction. While dealing with prehistoric imagery things like that can happen quickly. Because the human brain interprets things in relation to former experiences and knowledge. In the case at hand, I have seen images of Göbekli Tepe´s round to oval enclosures with their iconic pair of monumental T-shaped pillars. Then I see two T-shapes on a scan of a b&w image of a highly-weathered fragment of a clay seal impression. And immediately make a connection between the two. Science starts when I challenge that superficial connection in the way described above with some simple questions that work not only in the case at hand:

  1. General chronological and cultural-historic reasoning: What is the cultural background of the artefact I am looking at and how old is it? How likely might it be that the people making it depict an object or a site millennia older and not something well-known to them?
  1. Iconographical reasoning: How was the way of depicting things in that particular period, may the shape I am looking at fit the way of representing certain devices / objects / things? What else might be depicted that perfectly fits the cultural background / everyday activities of the people making the artefact?
  1. Challenging the evidence / its documentation: Is the depiction fragmentary or hard to evaluate for other reasons? What kind of documentation is available to me? Does it allow me to fully comprehend what is depicted? Or do I need further information before I can make up my mind?
  1. Go to the sources. Archaeological artefacts, or artefacts similar to the one at hand are usually published somewhere, and these publications may hold further information and better images. It may be tricky to identify the available sources.

So, finally: Why not ask an archaeologist, some of us are nice people willing to help!

 

References

Pierre Amiet, Glyptique Susienne. Des origins à l´ époque des Perses Achéménides. Cachets, sceaux-cylindres et empreintes antiques découverts à Suse de 1913 à 1967. Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique en Iran XLIII (Paris 1972).

Cooperative Action of Hunter-Gatherers in the Early Neolithic Near East. A View from Göbekli Tepe

Just back from this year´s Warfare, Environment, Social Inequality and Peace Studies (WESIPS) Conference in Seville, organized by Richard and Yamilette Chacon at the Center for Cross-Cultural Study (Spanish Studies Abroad). After a very inspirational conference and a stay in a very nice city, I thought I´d share a (very) short version of my talk. So here it comes.

Sevilla

The last post-Ice Age hunter-gatherer communities of the Near East have long been seen as loosely organized and low-hierarchical. The last decades of research have revealed a number of sites which considerably change this image. Nearly every site excavated at the appropriate scale shows a spatial division of residential and specialised workshop areas, and special buildings or open courtyards for communal and ritual purposes. Thus there is strong evidence for a degree of social complexity that was hitherto quite unsuspected.

While there is continued dispute over the question of organized warfare in the earliest Neolithic of the Near East, recent research has provided clear evidence of inter-personal and probably inter-group violence and beginning social inequality. But there are also signs of evolving strategies for conflict mitigation and cooperation. A key site to understand this aspect of early Neolithic social practises is Göbekli Tepe, a mountain sanctuary in southeastern Turkey.

Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range overlooking the Harran plain. The site lies on an otherwise barren limestone plateau. The tell has a diameter of around 300 m and is characterized by several mounds divided by depressions. At the highest point, Göbekli Tepe has about 15 m of stratigraphy. Work at the site started in 1995 under the direction of  Klaus Schmidt and concentrated in the first ten years in the southeastern depression. Starting from 2007 further excavation areas were opened on the soutwestern and nortwestern hilltop, and in the northwestern depression.

All areas excavated so far show a similar general stratigraphic sequence. The oldest layer III is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars, which were positioned in circle-like structures. The pillars were interconnected by limestone walls and benches leaning at the inner side of the walls. In the centre of these enclosures there are always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m. The circles measure 10-20m. This layer dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and maybe reaches the earliest PPN B, between 9600-8800 in absolute dates. The buildings of layer III were intentionally beckfilled at the end of their uselifes. Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the early and middle PPNB, the time between 8800-8000 cal BC. This layer is characterised by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced.

The most impressive element of Göbekli Tepe´s architecture are the T-shaped pillars. The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. The input of work in the constructions seems enormous.

At Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic quarry areas are well known. They lie on the limestone plateau immediately adjacent to the site. The maximum distances that had to be covered were 600-700m. However, the terrain is uneven and sloping upwards, and the megaliths are of impressive size. The input of manpower seems pretty high.

And another aspect is of importance. It seems that the enclosures were never really finished. There is permanent construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction activity at Göbekli Tepe, and the intensity of work indicates something else than pure maintenance. Most likely the act of working at the site was central to the builders, and repeated periodically, whether or not a real need existed. For example, in the inner ring of Enclosure C there is barely one pillar standing in its original position.

As Göbekli Tepe has no traces of settlement, there is no possibility of a direct evaluation of the number of people present on-site. If we turn to ethnographic data, core group sizes of 25-50 persons for fully mobile hunter-gatherers, and a little higher numbers for semi-sedentary residential groups are suggested. The number of people one group could spare for construction work of the amplitude visible at Göbekli Tepe is definitely too small. It seems possible that several groups had to collaborate for a period of time to carry out building activities and to supply for the builders. And there actually is vast evidence for people congregating at Göbekli Tepe.

An answer to the question why these people congregated for work at Göbekli Tepe comes from the enclosure´s fillings. The material used as backfill consists of limestone rubble from the quarries nearby, flint artefacts and animal bones smashed to get to the marrow, clearly the remains of meals. Enclosure D alone, the largest of the four circles, comprised nearly 500 cubic meters of debris. As traces of permanent settlement are absent, this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized work feasts rooted in the belief systems of the people congregating there. This concept was explored in-depth by Dietler and Hayden and provides a good working hypothesis to explain the at least temporary supra-group cohesion generated for collective work.

Archaeozoological data further strengthens the image of large feasting events at certain times of the year. At Göbekli, Gazelle is the major meat animal [external link]. As this species is migratory, a large scale supply of meat was possible in late autumn, when there would also be rain water available after the long, dry summer. The second important species is aurochs, an animal all year round available in the meadows surrounding the Germus mountains. A single auerochs can provide enough meat for a smaller group of people. Of course both sources could have been used supplimentarily. But why hunt dangerous aurochs when there is an abundance of Gazelle? It seems more likely, that aurochs was targeted at occasions different from the work feasts, and maybe more related to the enclosures´ functions which seem to be related to distinct groups of people.

The enclosures excavated so far show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle. While in Enclosure A the snake prevails, in Enclosure B foxes are dominant, for example. In Enclosure C boars take over and in Enclosure D birds are playing an important role, while Enclosure H has lots of wildcats. Interpreting these differences as figurative expression of community patterns could probably hint at the different groups building the particular enclosures.  The character of these entities remains open to discussion at the moment. There are some clues however. Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing. For example, awls and points of bone are nearly completely absent. The tasks carried out with them probably were not practiced here, and it may well be that the part of the population carrying them out was absent, too. Further, clay figurines are absent completely from Göbekli. This observation gains importance in comparison to Nevalı Çori, where clay figurines are abundant, missing only in the ‘cult building’ with its stone sculptures and T-shaped pillars very similar to Göbekli Tepe. Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male.

The pillars are often richly decorated. But in some cases, the imagery obviously is going far beyond mere decoration. The narrative character of several depictions in flat relief is underlined by Pillar 43, whose whole western broad side is covered by a variety of motifs. This could be a hint to one aspect of the enclosure´s functions – as a repository for tales, maybe myths crucially important to the groups building them. It is also possible to identify the general theme these stories – and the enclosures – are related to. A recurring motif on reliefs is human heads between animals, or, as already seen on pillar 43, headless humans. The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN death ritual. A connection with death or ancestor cult of Neolithic groups seems to be the most probable function of Göbekli Tepe´s enclosures. With their rich decoration, they are monuments in stone of important aspects of these groups´ identities, which were reinforced during ritually repeated events that included feasting.

To conclude, it seems that at Göbekli Tepe we see several social phenomena interact. Religious belief generated a need for constant costly building activity, which could only be accomplished by cooperation, possibly of members of different groups. Cooperation was ensured by large work feasts, that produced social cohesion. These groups reinforced their identities through – most likely – unpleasant initiation rituals held within the circular buildings. The character of these groups, marked by emblematic animals and important aspects of mythology carved and preserved in stone, remains unclear at the moment. Clans or tribes would be a possibility, but also other organizational structures, that cross-cut those based on ancestry are a distinct possibility. As only male hunters become visible at Göbekli Tepe, and exclusion as well as initiation seem to have played a major role, secret societies are another possibility. Festing and ritual thus emerge as major incentives for cooperative action during the earliest Neolithic.

Further reading

Some points of this talk have already been discussed more extensively here:

Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In: Nicola Laneri (eds.), Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow (2015), 75-89.

Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Feasting, Social Complexity and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe, in: R. J. Chacon and R. G. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation 8, New York: Springer (2017), 91-132.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Iain Morley (Hrsg.), Death shall have no Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – A Worldwide Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2016), 65-81.

On the possibility of secret societies in the Neolithic:

Brian Hayden, Corporate Groups and Secret Societies in the Early Neolithic. A Comment on Hodder and Meskell. Current Anthropology 53, 1, 2012, 126-127.

On gazelle at Göbekli Tepe:

Lang, C., Peters, J., Pöllath, N., Schmidt, K., Grupe, G. 2013: Gazelle behavior and human presence at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, SE Anatolia. Journal of World Archaeology 45, 3, 410-429.

And, on feasting in archaeological contexts:

Dietler, Michael and Brian Hayden (editors) (2001).  Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power.  Washington, DC: Smithsonian.

 

 

 

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.

Head

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.

Buried face-down. A statue from Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop

Starting from 2007 new excavation areas were opened at Göbekli Tepe´s southwestern hilltop. The aim was to get a better understanding of the architecture of the tell – would the stratigraphical situation from the southeastern excavation areas repeat here? And indeed, soon buildings characteristic for the younger Layer II appeared.

image description

The sculpture of a standing person and its find spot at Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop (copyright DAI, photos D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, drawings excavation team).

Many of the rectangular or subrectangular buildings discovered at Göbekli Tepe show evidence of rebuilding, repairing or other modifications. One very large room, discovered in area L9-17, for instance was at some point in its life-cycle subdivided by two walls into one large approximately square central room and two adjacent smaller chambers. No entries to these chambers could be identified. Maybe access was possible through the roof, but this remains speculation. In the eastern chamber soon a pillar fragment was discovered, and, when excavation continued, just to the north of it an anthropomorphic sculpture.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 18

Anthropomorphic sculpture found face-down in a room in the southwestern hilltop excavation areas at Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photo D. Johannes).

The sculpture was complete and lying face down. The deliberate deposition of sculptures next to pillars is a well-known phenomenon at Göbekli Tepe. The physical separation of the space the sculpture was found in from the rest of the room further strengthens the impression of an intentional placement.

The 66 cm high image shows a standing person, with bent arms and hands brought together at the belly, not unlike the posture of the T-shaped pillars. The person is looking upwards and wearing a cap. Further details of the face and the frontside of the statue will become visible only after restoration, as a thick layer of sinter is covering them. The legs are not shown, instead the sculpture has a conical tap that allowed it to be set into the ground.

Two foxes and a bucranium: the first in situ porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe

Vertikal

Deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B, the arrow marks the position of the porthole stone. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

Starting from 2011, work at Göbekli Tepe has focused on the excavation of several deep soundings, meant to contain the struts holding a membrane shelter structure to ensure a durable protection of the site. The soundings, some more than five meters deep, have offered us unparalleled insights into the stratigraphy of the site. The evaluation of this evidence is going on at the moment and will lead to a site formation model soon. But, besides that, many of the soundings, although limited in horizontal extension, have also produced remarkable finds. Among them is the porthole stone presented here.

grafik12

Schematic plan of Enclosure B with indicated position of the porthole stone in the northern wall. (Plan: K. Schmidt & J. Notroff, DAI)

porthole-stone

Porthole stone found in situ in a wall in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

It was discovered in 2011 in a deep sounding excavated to the north of Enclosure B. Apart from revealing a so far unknown part of this enclosure and two more of its pillars, immediately on the bedrock several walls outside of the enclosure were discovered. In one of them, a decorated porthole stone stood in situ. The subrectangular hole in the middle of the stone is flanked by two antithetic foxes, apparently portrayed in the moment of jumping (at each other, at the entrance, the visitor?). Above the hole, a bucranium was placed. Unfortunately, the sounding could not be enlarged to explore the room enclosed by the wall. It thus remains unclear, whether the porthole stone really marks the entrance to the building, or the animals were ‘guarding’ a niche with important contents within a room.

Guarded by beasts: a porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe

During the 2009 and 2010 excavation seasons at Göbekli Tepe, several new trenches at the northwestern hilltop of the tell were opened. Below the plough horizon, as we already had expected, soon rectangular rooms appeared, the characteristic features of the younger Layer II at Göbekli Tepe. However, in the eastern part of the new trenches, the rooms ended quite abruptly. Instead of them, for some time, there was – more or less nothing. That is, of course we were not digging in sterile soil, the sediments were full of finds, just the architecture was missing.

Northwest

Göbekli Tepe, the areas on the northwestern hilltop under excavation in 2010 (Photo O. Dietrich).

What do you do as an archaeologist in such a situation? Dig on, of course. And after some days of rather monotonous work, that simple strategy paid off. The colour of the sediment suddenly changed into a reddish tone. At Göbekli Tepe, this is a clear indication that you have reached the filling sediments of the older building layer III. And, just to confirm the rule, soon the head of a new monumental pillar appeared.

Unfortunately we were not able to resume work in those areas on the northwestern hilltop in the following years, as other excavation areas and preparation for the construction of permanent shelter structures over the site required the full attention of the excavation team. However, besides new information on the layer II architecture of the side, two important discoveries came from our work in the ‘north-west’.

IMG_1194

Göbekli Tepe. A monumental porthole stone from the northwestern hilltop areas (Photo O. Dietrich).

First, a very important detail for the interpretation of the site in general: it seems, that the situation in the main excavation area in the southeastern depression of the tell is not unique. There, the layer II buildings largely exclude the area of the monumental enclosures. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, as a roughly semi-circular ‘terrace wall’ physically marked the position of the Enclosures A-D, giving the tell an amphitheare-like appearance.

Second, in one of the areas, a very important find was made. What seemed in the moment of discovery to be a larger worked stone, a usual thing at Göbekli Tepe, turned after several days of detailed excavation into a  monumental porthole stone. Several such stones with a central opening are known from the site, and they could have played a role as entrances to the enclosures or other buildings. One of them lies approximately in the centre of Enclosure B and gives some reason to think about an entrance through a possible roof for that bulding.

However, the new porthole stone from the northwestern areas was completely different, and that not only regarding its enormous measurements of c. 3x3m. First, unlike all examples found before, it has two openings. Second, it is richly decorated with three c. 0.5m long sculptures of quadrupeds (bull, ram and a wildcat) and a 1.5 m long snake in high relief, as well as a row of cupholes. Unfortunately, the stone was not in situ, that is, not in its original architectonic context. But the decorations clearly show that it must have been part of an important building whose entrance had to be guarded accordingly.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, in: Mehmet Özdoğan – Nezih Başgelen – Peter Kuniholm (Hrsg.), The Neolithic in Turkey. New Excavations & New Research. The Euphrates Basin, Archaeology and Art Publications (2011): 50-52.

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.

dietrich-et-al-_figure-4

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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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.

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.

 

The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’

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The ‘totem pole’ from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Every excavation season at Göbekli Tepe reveals new remarkable finds and although the overall spectrum of objects to be exspected is known quite well, there are also surprises. One of these was a large sculpture discovered in 2009 and excavated in 2010 superficially reminescent of the totem poles of North Americas` natives.

The sculpture had been set in the north-eastern wall of a rectangular room of Layer II and was not visible originally due to the wall completely covering it. It has the remarkable length of 1,92 metres. The pole features three main motives, one above another. The uppermost motive depicts a predator, probably a bear or a large felid. The frontal part of the head had been obliterated in antiquity; the surface of the break is covered with a thin limestone coating. Below the head, a short neck, arms and hands are visible. Their human like shape is remarkable. Although we might postulate that this depicts a “Mischwesen”, such as the “Löwenmensch” from the Aurignacian site of Hohlestein Stadel in Southwest Germany, we still cannot eliminate the possibility that these features were intended to depict animal arms and legs and not human limbs. The arms (or legs) are holding another head, which again lost its face in antiquity.

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Find situation of the ‘totem pole’ after removal of wall stones in front of it (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Significantly, the motive of a wild beast holding a human head is well known from several sculptures from Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. For this reason it is very probable that the lost face of the head being held by the “Löwenmensch” (or bear / lion / leopard) was that of a human. This suggestion is further strengthened by the fact that human arms are depicted below the head. The hands are placed opposite one another and on the stomach of the individual. This is a manner which is clearly reminiscent of the T-shaped pillars. Below the arms and hands a second person is visible. Fortunately, the face of this individual is completely preserved. Also depicted is the upper part of the body, including the arms and hands. Below the hands there is an unidentified object. It seems likely that the person is depicted giving birth, albeit that a very different explanation is also conceivable, e.g. the person could be presenting his phallus. Below the arms of the predator (or “Löwenmensch”) at both sides of the pole, large snakes are visible. Their large heads (one is partly damaged) are situated just above the head of the small individual. Below the heads of the snakes, structures are visible which might be interpreted as the legs of the uppermost human. It seems obvious that such a piece made of stone must also have had parallels in wood which have failed to survive the millennia. However, it should be noted that fragments of a quite similar totem pole-like object made of limestone were already discovered some 20 years ago in Nevalı Çori.

Read more

Köksal-Schmidt, Çiğdem, Klaus Schmidt, The Göbekli Tepe “Totem Pole“. A First Discussion of an Autumn 2010 Discovery (PPN, Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 1/10, 74-76.

New publication: ‘Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe’

The new year brings new books, and here is one we would like to point out, because, well, we have a contribution on Göbekli Tepe in there.

9783319484013

Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer International Publishing: New York.

 

The book [external link], edited by Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza, contains  contributions by  anthropologists, archaeologists and sociologists on the question how social complexity developed in different regions of the world. Our topic is the start of social hierarchization during the early Neolithic, a subject the findings from Göbekli Tepe can significantly contribute to.

So, as a teaser, here is our abstract:

Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt

Feasting, Social Complexity and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe

Early Neolithic social complexity is a topic much discussed but still under-researched. The present contribution explores the possible role of feasting in the emergence of social complexity, hierarchical societies and the shift to the Neolithic way of life in Upper Mesopotamia. This region has long been placed at the periphery of the area relevant for crucial steps in Neolithization. With the hill sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe however it has produced a site that challenges this traditional assumption. There, large circle-like enclosures made up of often richly decorated T-shaped pillars of up to 5.5 m height have been erected during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (10th millennium BC), followed by smaller rectangular pillar-buildings throughout the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (9th millennium BC). Vast evidence for feasting at the site seems to hint at work feasts to accomplish the common, religiously motivated task of constructing these enclosures.

Given the significant amount of time, labour and skilled craftsmanship invested, and as elements of Göbekli Tepe´s material culture can be found around it in a radius of roughly 200 km all over Upper Mesopotamia, it is likely that the site was the cultic centre of transegalitarian groups.

Access to and command of knowledge crucial to the society´s identity and well-being may have served as a social barrier hindering individuals to step outside of the given limits, while being the basis for power over the work-force of others for a restricted group of people. Social hierachization seems to emerge already in the PPN A of Upper Mesopotamia, earlier than hitherto thought, and maybe also earlier than in the Southern Levant, a region long thought to be the cradle of the new, Neolithic way of life.