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.


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’.


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.


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

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

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

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

(The impossibility of) Pre-Iconography

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Read the full story here:

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

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.


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.


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’


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.


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.

A tale of snakes and birds: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 56.

Since we get lots of questions regarding Göbekli Tepe’s pillars and their depictions, we will try to post short descriptions here. This time it’s Pillar 56 in Enclosure H. 

Pillar 56 stands in the eastern circular wall of Enclosure H, located in the nortwestern depression of the tell. The pillar is excavated to a height of 2,15 m, its shaft is 0,94 m wide, the head measures 1,55 m. The southwestern broadside of this pillar is completely covered with reliefs. A total of 55 animals are depicted so closely packed, that the outline of one merges with the contour of the next image. Many depictions are reduced to silhouettes, it is hard to exactly determine which animal species is depicted for every example without fail.


Pillar 56 in Enclosure H. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)

In the upper part a group of ducks is portrayed, followed by snakes and number of quadruped animals, most likely felids. Between these, a large bird of prey can be spotted, clutching a snake in its claws. The bird and one of the snakes depicted below it deviate from the viewing axis of the other animals, not looking towards the enclosure’s centre, but into the opposite direction.

On the pillar’s shaft cranes and again duck-like water birds are depicted, followed below again by snakes. The narrower side of the shaft shows a bucranium accompanied by two snakes; the head’s narrow side has a snake curling down. The other broadside of the pillar shows faint lines which could suggest more duck-shaped depictions. Futher excavation will be needed to shed more light on this side of the pillar since it is currently largely concealed by the excavation trench’s baulk.

Pillar 56 is yet another example for the very rich decoration of single pillars within Göbekli Tepe’s enclosures. The large bird of prey grasping a snake and interrupting the symmetry of the depiction by looking in another direction seems to be the most important element and, as well attested on other pillars, too, could indicate a rather narrative character of the whole ensemble – maybe commemorating an important moment of a lore or myth. Important at least and in particular to the builders of Enclosure H.

Further reading:

K. Schmidt, “Adler und Schlange” – “Großbilder” des Göbekli Tepe und ihre Rezeption, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.), Anatolian Metall VI. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 25, Bochum 2013, 145-152. [external link]

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. [external link]

The ‘Urfa Man’


So, this short post is about the ‘Urfa Man’. Let’s start with an answer to a very common question: no, he is not from Göbekli Tepe. He was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle / Yeni Yol (Bucak & Schmidt 2003; Çelik 2011; Hauptmann 2003; Hauptmann & Schmidt 2007), broken in four nearly equal pieces.

The settlement was largely destroyed, but photos showing the construction work seem to reveal an interesting detail about the site: it featured a small T-shaped pillar (Çelik 2011, 142, Fig. 19), similar to those from Göbekli Tepe’s Layer II.  This speaks for a PPN B date, as does the archaeological material recovered (Çelik 2011).

The ‘Urfa man’ himself gives witness to the ability of early Neolithic people to sculpt the human body naturalistically. It is the oldest known statue of a man, slightly larger than life-size. In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-shaped pillars, the ‘Urfa man’ has a face, eyes originally emphasized by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes, and ears ; a mouth, however, is not depicted. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is only a conical plug, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. Both hands seem to grab his penis.

As no find context has been recorded for the sculpture, it is hard to evaluate its original function. But there are several fragments, especially heads, of similar sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. At this site, statues like the ‘Urfa Man’ seem to have been part of a complex hierarchical system of imagery directly related to the functions of the circular enclosures. You can find a longer text about this here.

The presence of a sculpture like the ‘Urfa Man’ and of T-shaped pillars are strong evidence for the presence of a special building inside the settlement at Urfa-Yeni Yol. It may have been comparable to the PPN B ‘cult buildings’ of Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1993), but this will remain pure speculation.


Bucak, E. & K. Schmidt, 2003. Dünyanın en eski heykeli. Atlas 127, 36-40.

Çelik, B., 2011, Şanlıurfa – Yeni Mahalle, in The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, eds. M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 139-164.

Hauptmann, H., 1993. Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Çori , in Between the rivers and over the mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, eds. M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthias & M. Mellink. Roma: Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche Archaeologiche e Anthropologiche dell’Antichità, Università di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, 37-69.

Hauptmann, H., 2003. Eine frühneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa, in Köyden Kente. From village to cities. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin, eds. M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann & N. Başgelen. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 623-36.

Hauptmann, H. & K. Schmidt, 2007. Anatolien vor 12 000 Jahren: die Skulpturen des Frühneolithikums, in Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-Württemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, ed. C. Lichter. Karlsruhe: Badisches Landesmuseum, 67-82.



Of animals and a headless man. Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43


The western broadside of Pillar 43 in Enclosure D ist decorated completely with a variety of motifs (Photo O. Dietrich).

Addressing an earlier question from the comments, here is some more information on one of the most impressive pillars from Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43 in Enclosure D.

Some images on Göbekli Tepe´s pillars indicate a  narrative meaning. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. The whole western broad side of this pillar is covered by a variety of motifs. Dominant is a big vulture. It lifts its left wing, while the right wing points to the front. It is possible that this gesture aims at the sphere or disc that can be seen above the tip of the right wing. To the right of the vulture another bird, maybe a bald (?) ibis, a snake, two H-shaped symbols and wild fowl are depicted. On the pillar´s shaft, a huge scorpion as well as the head and neck of another bird are dominating the scene. While some more reliefs to the left of the scorpion and the bird are hidden by the perimeter wall, to the right of the bird’s neck an especially interesting motif is depicted. Due to damage to the pillar it is not preserved completely, but the representation of a headless human with an erect penis is quite clearly recognizable. The depiction seems to relate to aspects of Early Neolithic death cult known from several sites. But even without giving too much weight to this aspect of the pillar´s reliefs, the vulture with the spheric object on the tip of its wing shows clearly that the intention behind the imagery goes well beyond depicting nature.

On the uppermost part of Pillar 43, a row of three rectangular objects with cupola-like ‘arches’ on their tops can be seen. Every one of these objects is accompanied by an animal added on the ’arch’. The meaning of these images is hard to guess, but they might represent the enclosures during their time of use, seen from the side. The rectangular part would represent the perimeter walls, while the cupolas may indicate roofs. As usually depictions of one animal species seem to dominate in every enclosure, it is an intriguing thought that buildings of different groups are depicted here with the emblematic animals of these groups added for recognition. Following this line of argument, one would also have to assume that the enclosures were depicted here rather schematic in an almost technical sectional view – what would be highly unusual compared to the other naturalistic representations from Göbekli Tepe. A final decision on the meaning of these images is not possible at the moment.

Read more:

Klaus Schmidt, Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/2006, 38-40. [Neo-Lithics 2/06-external link]

Why did it have to be snakes?

Snakes are omnipresent at Göbekli Tepe. Even today you may have the luck to encounter a Levantine Viper when visiting the site (yes, they are poisonous, but just let them be, they are also protected by the Washington Convention). In most cases you will only see their image in stone. Snakes are among the most often depicted animals at Göbekli Tepe. They appear on pillars, on porthole stones, on small stone plaquettes and shaft straightheners. Especially Enclosure A is full of them. Pillar 1, one of the central pillars of this building, shows what seems to be a net of snakes.

P01 - Schlangen vgl.jpg

Pillar 1 in Enclosure A and fragment of a stone plaquette discovered in 2013 (Photos: DAI).

A recent (2013) find of a small fragment of a stone plaquette from a deep sounding in trench K10-13 shows a very similar motif. Two snake heads and below them a net-like depiction of interwoven snake bodies are clearly visible. The motif seems to have been of such importance that it was reproduced in handy size to be carried around. Why this preoccupation with snakes?
A first explanation is that they fit very well in the range of animals depicted at Göbeklki Tepe. The site crawls with dangerous insects, scorpions, scolopenders; and the mammals depict are not any more friendly. This has something to do with the overall meaning of the site. Much of Göbekli´s iconography is related to early Neolithic death rites.
But there is another aspect to the apparent popularity of snakes at Göbekli Tepe.


Pillar 20 in Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

On the front side of Pillar 20 in Enclosure D we see a snake moving towards an aurochs. The aurochs´ body is seen from the side, the head from above. The position of the head, lowered for attack, could be in futile defence to the snake. The aurochs´ legs are depicted oddly flexed, which could indicate his defeat and near death. As could the size of the snake which is depicted considerable larger than the aurochs. If this depiction really shows a battle between snake and aurochs, in which the snake prevails, there would be room for some interesting, but of course hypothetical, connections to other aspects of Göbekli´s material culture.

As mentioned, centipedes/millipedes and snakes are animals often depicted on PPN shaft straighteners. Morenz & Schmidt (2009) have taken this observation as a starting point to propose a metaphorical relation between the depiction and the object worked with the shaft straighteners. Form and deadliness of snake and arrow were maybe perceived as similar or at least wished to be. A further analogy could be seen between the fast flying arrow and the fast attack of the snake. There is vast ethnographical evidence for big game hunting with poisoned projectiles. If we start from the not completely unlikely hypothesis that this could have been the case also in the Neolithic, the image on Pillar 20 could possibly refer to this complex of analogies and metaphors, and could be ’read‘ as a depiction of a hunt in the widest sense, without the representation of an actual human actor.

Further Reading:
Morenz, L.D. & Schmidt, K.  2009. Große Reliefpfeiler und kleine Zeichentäfelchen. Ein frühneolithisches Zeichensystem in Obermesopotamien, in: Petra Andrássy – Julia Budka – Frank Kammerzell (Hrsg.), Non-Textual Marking Systems, Writing and Pseudo Script from Prehistory to Modern Times, Lingua Aegyptia – Studia monographica 8, Göttingen, 2009, 13-31.

Schmidt, K. 2014. „Adler und Schlange“ – „Großbilder“ des Göbekli Tepe und ihre Rezeption , in: Yalcin, Ünsal (Hrsg.), Anatolian Metall VI. Der Anschnitt Beiheft 25. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Deutschen Bergbau-Museum Nr. 195, Bochum 2013, 145-152. [read online – external link]