A Short Note on a New Figurine Type from Göbekli Tepe

This text has been published originally (and in slightly different form) as a short contribution by Oliver Dietrich and Klaus Schmidt (†) in Neo-Lithics [external link] 1/17, 43-46.

The most striking aspects of Göbekli Tepe are without question the monumentality of the site and the rich imagery. Besides the reliefs on the pillars, there is a wide range of stone sculptures and figurines. Klaus Schmidt, who excavated the site for 20 years, has dedicated several papers to this find group (Hauptmann and Schmidt 2007; Schmidt 1998; 1999; 2008; 2009; 2010); a comprehensive synthesis is still missing (for the anthropomorphic sculpture Dietrich et al. forthcoming). A total of 149 sculptures has been found to date at Göbekli Tepe. Of these, 86 depict animals, 38 humans, four anthropomorphic masks, three phalli, nine are human-animal composite sculptures and a further nine are indeterminable. Many of the sculptures are in a fragmentary state, which may have its reason in social practises connected to the early Neolithic imagery – including intentional fragmentation and deposition of a selection of fragments, mostly heads in meaningful contexts next to the pillars (Becker et al. 2012; Dietrich et al. forthcoming). Many of the fragments may have been originally part of sculptures in the shape of the ‘Urfa Man’, the oldest life-sized human sculpture currently known, discovered during construction work at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle (Hauptmann 2003; Schmidt 2010. 247, 248-249). But there is also a range of other types, and the current contribution is dedicated to one of those.

The figurine

During the 2012 autumn excavation season at Göbekli Tepe, a small figurine (5,1×2,3×2,7 cm) was handed in as a surface find from the north-western hilltop of the tell (Fig. 2). The motif of the figurine is an ithyphallic person sitting with legs dragged toward his body on an unidentifiable object. He is looking up and grasping his legs. Between the legs, a large erect phallus is depicted (Fig. 3), and a quadruped animal is sitting on the person´s left shoulder (Fig. 4). As one half of the figurine has a thick layer of sinter, the question whether there originally was another animal on the other shoulder remains open. The animal species cannot be determined with security neither, but the general form is consistent with depictions of large wildcats or bears at Göbekli Tepe (e.g. Schmidt 1999. 9-10, nr. A8). The material of the sculpture is unusual for the site on the other hand. Nearly all sculptures and figurines so far known from Göbekli Tepe were made from local limestone. The new figurine is most likely made from nephrite[1]. The figurine is perforated crosswise in its lower part. A functional interpretation for this detail is hard to give as one perforation would have sufficed to wear it as a pendant for example. Maybe the figurine was meant to be fixed to a support.

The unclear find circumstances and the unusual material raise the question of the figurine´s provenance. The sinter layer is a characteristic for finds from Göbekli Tepe (and clearly indicates that the figurine was originally buried with the right side down), but could have formed of course also at another site with similar natural conditions. There is however an older find that could represent a fragment of the same figurine type. This fragment, comprising head and shoulder of a small figurine (3,9×4.0x2.8cm) made from brownish limestone, was discovered in 2002, also on the surface of the tell (Fig. 5). There are two more examples of larger seated sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. A first depiction of a seated person (h. 32.5cm; Fig. 6), badly preserved, was found on the surface of the tell, too (Schmidt 1999. 9, Plate. 1/1). Here, the hands are brought together under the belly, the gesture reminds of the ‘Urfa Man’ who most likely is presenting a phallus (Hauptmann 2003), but unfortunately the lower part of the sculpture is not preserved. A snake could be depicted crawling up the back and head of the sculpture, but this remains uncertain, too. Another example (h. 44cm) was found more recently in a deep sounding in the northwestern depression of the tell (Area K10-55, Locus 21.2; Fig. 7). The find context is still under evaluation, much speaks for a PPN B date so far. The preservation of this sculpture is also rather bad, the lower part is missing again. Both examples show some clear differences compared to the figurine: the arms are folded in front of the body, there is no animal on the shoulder, and the persons seem to sit on the ground, not on some object. As the lower part is missing we cannot be sure whether a phallus was depicted. Summing up, it seems nevertheless reasonably sure that the new figurine is from Göbekli Tepe – and represents a type, or variant, not known so far in the site´s sculptural inventory.

Date and analogies

Without knowledge of the original find context, or analogies from clear contexts, there is no possibility to attribute the new figurine to one of Göbekli Tepe´s architectural horizons – Layer III with the PPN A and possibly early PPN B large stone circles formed of T-shaped pillars, or Layer II with early/middle PPNB rectangular or sub-rectangular buildings. Offsite analogies also seem to be scarce.

Göbekli Tepe

Fragment of a limestone figurine discovered in 2002 at Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo I. Wagner).

29 similarly seated limestone figurines are known from Mezraa-Teleilat´s phase IIIB, i.e. the Late PPN B / early Pottery Neolithic transition (Özdoğan 2003. 515-516, Figures 1a-c, 2b-c, 4, 5; Özdoğan 2011. 209, Figures 14-21; Hansen 2014: 271, Figure 9). One more find can be added to this group, a more recently published stone figurine from Çatalhöyük (Hodder 2012. Figure 14b; Hansen 2014. 271). Although the overall form is very similar, the figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat and Çatalhöyük are much more abstracted, the former are sitting on armchair-like seats, wear robe-like clothes and in some cases belts, and examples with animals on the shoulders seem to be missing. As the latest finds from Göbekli Tepe date to the middle PPN B, the figurine must be older than the finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük. Whether the naturalistic sculpture(s) from Göbekli Tepe can be regarded as the prototypes for this group and thus also a similar meaning could be proposed, cannot be answered with security for now.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 6

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo T. Goldschmidt).

Further analogies are hard to find. The much later standing female clay figurines holding leopard cubs from Hacılar (e.g. Mellaart 1970. Figure 196-197), and the so-called ‘Mistress of Animals’, a female figurine seated on a leopard and holding a leopard cub (Mellaart 1970. Figure 228), or, in another case, seated on two leopards and holding their tails (Mellaart 1970. Figure 229) are different in gesture and topic.


The meaning of the figurine from Göbekli Tepe remains enigmatic. The finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük seem to be the best analogies for now. But in contrast to this group, the find discussed here has the animal on the shoulder (or one on each shoulder originally?) as an important characteristic. There are several examples of animal-human composite sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. But they show animals – birds and quadrupeds – on the heads of people, grabbing them with their claws, maybe carrying the heads away (e.g. Beile-Bohn et al. 1998.66-68, Figure 30-31; Becker et al. 2012.35). This kind of iconography most likely relates to Neolithic death cult or beliefs (Schmidt 1999.7-8). The new sculpture, with one or two animals in the shoulder area, does not fit well into this group. The animal is clinging to the shoulder in a crouched position, there is no indication of aggression or attack (Fig. 4), or a reaction of the sitting person. The animal could thus have a completely different meaning. We could be dealing with a more metaphorical relationship between man and animal here.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 7

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo N. Becker).

At Göbekli Tepe, animal symbolism seems to have an emblematic/totemic connotation in some cases. In every one of the monumental enclosures of Layer III, one animal species is dominant by quantity of depictions (Notroff et al. 2014.97-98, Fig. 5.9). In Enclosure C for example boars have this role, in Enclosure A snakes, Enclosure B has many undecorated pillars, but foxes are more frequent, while Enclosure D is more diverse, with birds and insects playing an important role. Given this background, one hypothesis would be that the animal characterises the person depicted in the figurine as a member of a certain group.

The other important characteristic of the depiction is the prominent erect phallus. Göbekli Tepe´s iconography is generally nearly exclusively male (e.g. Dietrich and Notroff 2015.85), and the phallus features prominently in several depictions of animals and humans. For example, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted on Pillar 43 amongst birds, snakes and a large scorpion (Schmidt 2006). Although the central pillars of the large enclosures are clearly marked as human through the depiction of arms, hands, and in the case of Enclosure D also items of clothing, their sex is not indicated. An erect phallus however is a prominent feature of the foxes depicted on several of the central pillars. There are also a few phallus sculptures from the site (e.g. Schmidt 1999.9, Plate 2/3-4).

It is hard to say whether all these diverse depictions / contexts share a similar basic meaning, or a multitude of meanings is implied. There is a vast ethnographic and historic repertoire of phallic depictions in the context of power, dominance, aggression, marking of boundaries/ownership, and apotropaism (e.g. Sütterlin-Eibl-Eibesfeldt 2013 with bibliography). Phallic symbolism is also often integrated in rites of admission in social groups. The association of animal and phallic symbolism in the sitting (watching?) figurine could hypothetically hint at such rites of admission, it could be a mnemonic object illustrating an aspect/moment of the rituals involved. However, further finds from secure and informative contexts from Göbekli Tepe, or elsewhere, should be awaited to shed some more light on this new figurine type.


Becker N., Dietrich O., Götzelt Th., Köksal-Schmidt Ç., Notroff J., Schmidt, K. 2012. Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5: 14-43.

Beile-Bohn M., Gerber, C., Morsch, M. Schmidt K. 1998. Neolithische Forschungen in Ober-mesopotamien. Gürcütepe und Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 48: 5-78.

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

Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., Zarnkow, M. 2012. The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86: 674-695.

Dietrich, O., Köksal-Schmidt, Ç., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2013. Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data. Neo-Lithics 1/13: 36-41.

Dietrich, O., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2017. Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe. In R. J. Chacon, R. Mendoza (eds.). Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer. New York: 91-132.

Dietrich, O., Dietrich, L., Notroff, J. Forthcoming. Anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe. In J. Becker, C. Beuger, B. Müller-Neuhof (eds.), Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory. Workshop Proceedings 10th ICAANE in Vienna, Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden.

Hansen, S. 2014. Neolithic figurines in Anatolia. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 6. 10500-5200 BC: Environment, Settlement, Flora, Fauna, Dating, Symbols of Belief, with Views from North, South, East and West. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 265-292.

Hauptmann, H. 2003. Eine frühneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann, N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications: Istanbul: 623-636.

Hauptmann, H., Schmidt K. 2007. Die Skulpturen des Frühneolithikums. In Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Theiss Verlag. Stuttgart: 67-82.

Hodder, I. 2012. Renewed work at Çatalhöyük. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 3. Central Turkey. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 245-277.

Mellaart, J. 1970. Excavations at Hacılar (2). University Press. Edinburgh.

Notroff, N., Dietrich, O., Schmidt, K. 2014. Building Monuments – Creating Communities. Early monumental architecture at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In J. Osborne (ed.), Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. SUNY Press. Albany: 83-105.

Özdoğan, M. 2003.A group of Neolithic stone figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann and N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 511-523.

Özdoğan, M. 2011. Mezraa-Teleilat. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 203-260.

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

Schmidt, K. 1998. Beyond daily bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic ritual from Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics 2/98: 1-5.

Schmidt, K. 2006. Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe. Neo-Lithics 2/2006: 38-40.

Schmidt, K. 2008. Die zähnefletschenden Raubtiere des Göbekli Tepe. In: D. Bonatz, R. M. Czichon, F. Janoscha Kreppner (eds.), Fundstellen. Gesammelte Schriften zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altvorderasiens ad honorem Hartmut Kühne. Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden: 61-69.

Schmidt, K. 2009. Göbekli Tepe – eine apokalyptische Bilderwelt aus der Steinzeit. Antike Welt 4: 45-52.

Schmidt, K. 2010. Göbekli Tepe – The Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII: 239-256.

Schmidt K. 2012a. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. exOriente: Berlin.

Sütterlin, C., Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. 2013. Human cultural defense: means and monuments of ensuring collective territory. Neo-Lithics 2/13: 42-48.

[1] Optical classification by Klaus Schmidt.

Beginning social complexity during the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe

This is the English version of a text published by Oliver Dietrich and Jens Notroff in the latest issue of Aktüel Arkeoloji [external link]. 

Our knowledge of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia has undergone dramatic changes in the last three decades. The region long held a peripheral role in research on this period. Ever since the seminal work of K. Kenyon at Jericho, the roots of food producing were sought in the Southern Levant. Not only was the traditional differentiation of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in an earlier PPN A (c. 9600-8800 cal BC) and a later PPN B (c. 8800-7000 cal BC) devised at Jericho, but the existence of a wall and the famous tower seemed to be evidence for a strikingly early hierarchized society living in a ‘town’. The function of wall and tower have been heavily disputed later on, as has the attribution ‘town’, and the role of the Southern Levant as the core area of Neolithization.

With the influential research of L. and R. Braidwood at Jarmo, the focus of archaeological studies into the earliest Neolithic shifted to the northeast of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, or, as the Braidwoods put it, its ‘hilly flanks’. In recent years, it has become clear that the region encompassed between the middle and upper reaches of Euphrates and Tigris and the foothills of the Taurus Mountains has the potential to be a cradle of the new way of life that we call the Neolithic. The distribution areas of the wild forms of einkorn and emmer wheat, barley and the other ‘Neolithic founder crops’ overlap here, and the transition of the two wheat variants to domesticated crops has been pinpointed to this area. But it is especially one site in this region that has triggered paradigmatic changes in our views on early Neolithic society.

Göbekli Tepe

The tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated about 15 km northeast of the modern town of Şanlıurfa on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range. With a height of 15 m, the mound covers an area of about 9 ha, measuring 300 m in diameter. Neolithic artefacts were first recognized during a combined survey by the Universities of Chicago and Istanbul in the 1960s, but the architecture hidden by the mound remained unrecognized until its discovery in 1994 by Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute. Since then annual excavation work has been conducted.

Beitrag Göbekli Tepe_Abb. 1

Aerial view of Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, Photo M. Morsch).

During excavation work, a rough stratigraphical schema has been established. The older Layer III with monumental architecture consisting of 10-30 m wide circles formed by huge monolithic pillars in a distinct T-shape was dated tentatively to the PPN A /early PPN B. The pillars, reaching a height of up to 4 m, are interconnected by walls and benches which define the inner and outer spaces of the enclosures. They are always orientated towards a central pair of even larger pillars of the same shape. Depictions of arms and hands on some of them indicate their anthropomorphic character. The pillars are richly decorated with reliefs showing mainly animals, and there also is a large number of limestone sculptures depicting animals and humans from the enclosures. After the end of their use, the circular buildings of Layer III were backfilled intentionally.

A younger layer is superimposed on this monumental architecture in some parts of the mound. This Layer II was dated to the early and middle PPN B. Smaller rectangular buildings of about 3 x 4 m with terrazzo floors are characteristic for this phase. They may be understood as minimized versions of the older monumental enclosures, as they share a common element – the T-shaped pillars. However, number and height of the pillars are considerably reduced: now often only two small central pillars are present, the largest among them not exceeding a height of 2 m. There are even rooms without any pillars. As with the large enclosures, no traces of domestic activities, e.g. hearths or ovens, have been detected so far. Thereafter, building activity at Göbekli Tepe seems to have come to an end. The uppermost Layer I consists of the surface soil resulting from erosion processes as well as a plough horizon.


Göbekli Tepe, overview (copyright DAI, Photo E. Kücük).

The monumental enclosures are the most impressive part of Göbekli Tepe’s archaeology. A geophysical survey, including ground-penetrating radar confirmed that these enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the site. More than ten enclosures were located on the geophysical map in addition to the nine already under excavation – the latter designated A to I in order of their discovery. Five of these structures, A, B, C, D and G, were unearthed in the main excavation area at the mound’s southern depression; one, Enclosure F, at the southwestern hilltop; Enclosure H and I in the northwestern depression, and another one, Enclosure E, on the western plateau. Göbekli Tepe, at least in the older phase, is thus no domestic site with some special buildings, it is a site made up exclusively of special buildings and strongly connected to Neolithic (symbolic and most likely religious) beliefs.


View of Göbekli Tepe’s so-called main excavation area, Enclosure D in the front. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)

This symbolic world and Göbekli Tepe at its center clearly challenge conventional views on the organization, creative possibilities and potential of hunter-gatherers. This leads to the question how highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups were able to create a monumental site like Göbekli Tepe, and what repercussions this large-scale project may have had on their society.

Indicators for social differentiation

At Göbekli Tepe the enclosures of Layer III consist of several large megalithic elements cut from the surrounding limestone plateaus. The setting of the Neolithic quarries is demonstrated by numerous traces, between them an unfinished T pillar with a size of about 7 m and volume of 20 m³. The central pillars of Enclosure D weigh 10 metric tons each, and the pillars in the circle are only slightly smaller. Cutting, decorating, and transporting them is not a small task. There would of course also be the possibility that the enclosures were erected and constructed in the course of a longer period, but research into their building history does not seem to indicate this. On the other hand there is ample evidence for revisited work in already existing enclosures, for ongoing rearrangement, repair, depletion and re-use of some pillars in other enclosures. Consistent and intense work at thus seems very probable there.


Unfinished T-pillar in the quarries of Göbekli Tepe, tell in background. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)

There is some evidence for more than one group of people involved in construction activity. The image range of the different enclosures is far from random. In Enclosure A snakes are the dominating species, in Enclosure B foxes are frequent, in Enclosure C many boars are represented, while Enclosure D is more varied, with birds playing an important role. A possible connection of these animals to totems of different clans working at Göbekli Tepe is a possible line of interpretation which should be explored in future research.

To sum up, there is reason to believe that larger groups of people were active at Göbekli Tepe. Planning, organization and coordination of construction work were obviously necessary, as well as a mode to gather the needed workforce which most probably outnumbers the members of a single band or even a local group of hunter-gatherers. Some clues to the reasons people gathered at Göbekli Tepe come from the filing material of the enclosures. The fill material consists of limestone rubble, bones, fragments of stone artifacts and flint debitage (tools are rarer); its quite homogenous character makes the whole process of backfilling almost resembling a burial. Enclosure D alone comprised nearly 500 cubic meters of debris. With traces of permanent settlement absent, this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized ‘work feasts’ rooted in the belief systems of the people congregating there. Large amounts of wild game were hunted and consumed. Feasting, respectively the organization of large feasts, is known ethnographically as a method to accumulate influence, to create hierarchies, and ultimately to exercise power over others. Yet there are even further indicators for social inequality in the early Neolithic archaeological record.

36_Steinköpfe GT (2)

Limestone head from Göbekli Tepe, supposedly part of a sculpture similar to ‘Urfa Man’ (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

A general impression of the existence of hierarchical concepts within the groups constructing the Göbekli Tepe enclosures is conferred by the layout of these structures already. The smaller pillars in the circle walls are looking towards the larger central pair of pillars. Whatever gathering is depicted here, it does not seem to be one of equals. Another differentiation seems to exist between the clearly anthropomorphic, but abstract pillars and more natural human depictions in the style of the PPN sculpture of a man from Urfa-Yeni Mahalle. The ‘Urfa statue’, regarded as the oldest naturalistic life-sized sculpture of a human, has a face, and its eyes are depicted by deep holes with inset blade segments of black obsidian, but it lacks a mouth. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace or collar. It is not entirely clear, but it seems that its hands are holding a phallus. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is a conical tap, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. From Göbekli Tepe there are several life-sized human heads made of limestone, which probably have been part of similar sculptures originally. The heads seem to have been intentionally broken off the statues and were in many cases deposited next to the T-shaped pillars in the course of refilling the enclosures. While their exact relation to the pillars remains unclear, it seems quite possible to assume that they represent another hierarchical level or another sphere compared to these abstracted pillar-beings. This would be a strong lead to assume a concept of hierarchy in the spiritual realm. The question at hand is, if real life was structured accordingly.

One symptom, and maybe a prerequisite for the evolution of social hierarchy is specialization and division of labor. Göbekli Tepe stands witness to the existence of both. It is hard to imagine that the reliefs on these pillars and the elaborated sculptures were made by inexperienced people. The uniformity of types, the coherent style, the exactness of realization all speak in favor of a fixed canon of motifs and techniques that had to be learned. While transport and erection of the monoliths may have been accomplished in a short time span by a large work force, the artistry seems to hint at highly specialized craft(s). It seems possible that a part of the population had to be set free from subsistence activities and were cared for at least for some time of the year by the others while learning and executing work at Göbekli Tepe. Of course, the intensity and duration of such work periods is hard to apprehend, and their effect may not have been decisive in restructuring a complete society in the short term.


Greenstone buttons from Göbekli  Tepe (Copyright DAI, Photos I. Wagner, K. Schmidt).

When trying to infer social hierarchization, archaeologists frequently turn to special treatment of individuals in funerary ritual or to ‚prestige’ items of material culture. At Göbekli Tepe, burials are missing so far, but it is not hard to find ‘special’ items. Looking at the portable material culture, there are spacer beads and buttons, often made of greenstone, zoomorphic pestles or ‚scepters’ of the so-called Nemrik type, elaborately decorated thin walled stone bowls, and, of course, decorated shaft straighteners and small stone tablets. The decorated tablets and shaft straighteners also pose an argument for specialization. In can be assumed that the signs on them were readable, because they repeat images and, more importantly, combinations of images known as well from the pillars, as from objects discovered at other sites in vicinity. They most likely represent a way to fix memories and knowledge of the society creating them in a form intelligible at least to initiated specialists. The challenge addressing these items as individual signs of social distinction at Göbekli Tepe lies in the fact that they come from the enclosures’ filling. They are not found in the contexts of their primary use, and there thus is no possibility to determine whether e.g. the stone bowls, the ‚scepters’ (if this determination is right), or the tablets were the individual property of persons, or part of the paraphernalia of cultic ceremonies. There are some leads though. The buttons and spacer beads, often made from greenstone and most likely part of the personal adornment, do appear frequently in Göbekli Tepe and in settlements with ‚special buildings’ like Nevalı Çori or Çayönü. They seem to be bound to such peculiar contexts and maybe to a group of religious specialists present there.


Nemrik type ‘scepters’ from Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photos N. Becker, T. Goldschmidt, K. Schmidt).

A look at other sites may strengthen this image a little more. The richly furnished burials found at Körtik Tepe [external link], a site partly contemporary with Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III (but apparently starting much earlier) and sharing much of its material culture, situated more to the East in the Tigris region, are very important for understanding early Neolithic social hierarchy. Besides the settlement, at Körtik Tepe more than 450 graves have been discovered. The amount of grave goods differs considerably, there is also a large number of graves without any. Some skeletons show evidence for complex rites prior and posterior to burial, including the decoration of bones with ochre and lime-plaster. Of course, a simple relationship between burial gifts, elaborate grave rites and the social status of the deceased cannot be drawn, as the furnishing of graves also (and sometimes predominantly) is determined by the belief system and values of society or the views of the bereaved on the deceased. The broken objects at Körtik Tepe, in many cases stone bowls, could very well hint at a ritual deposition of equipment used in celebrations at the graves more than at the personal belongings of the dead. Such celebrations may implicitly and in the first place have served the purpose of handling the loss produced by the death for the social group. However, not all individuals seem to have received equal attention, and the excavators also observed that grave goods generally got more elaborated and numerous over time, which they take as a sign of increasing social hierarchization. The graves of Körtik Tepe thus seem to offer tentative evidence for social distinction among groups contemporary with Göbekli Tepe.

Most interestingly, also decorated stone plaquettes are part of burials at Körtik Tepe, marking them as possible individual property or signs of the social function of some of the deceased. The exact number of decorated plaquettes from Körtik is not clear, but it seems to be a restricted find group. It is possible that the possession of plaquettes themselves and – probably more important – the knowledge stored on them in abstract and symbolic form was restricted to a certain group of people. This would again hint at specialists in memory, ritual and maybe religion, drawing their importance to the group from memorizing, saving and reproducing crucial knowledge.

Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable also 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 Tepe. 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. Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and domestic cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male, and while evidence for some domestic tasks is missing, there is evidence for flint knapping on a much larger scale than in any contemporary settlement, and shaft straighteners are very frequent, too. Göbekli Tepe could have been a place for just a part of society, for male hunters. At least their ideology seems to be exclusively represented at the site.

Another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures. They are not of a size to accommodate very large groups of people at a time. If we imagine them open to the sky, then a certain public aspect would have to be taken into account, but another possibility is a reconstruction along the lines of largely subterranean buildings accessible through openings in the roof, similar to the kivas of the North-American Southwest, rather unimpressive and hidden from the outside. It is a distinct possibility that only a small group of religious specialists had access to the enclosures.

As mentioned above, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence for constant construction activity. In Addition to the erection of new monuments, activities took also place in already existing enclosures. New circle walls were added, and the re-use of pillars from other, dismantled enclosures is a frequent phenomenon. The general impression is that working at Göbekli Tepe in itself was of central importance to PPN people. One reason for this may lie in the strengthening of social cohesion such activities in combination with feasting (maybe preluded by communal hunts) bring about, but building and rebuilding Göbekli Tepe – and maybe other sites like it – may also have been a way to gain and maintain social power and influence by those possessing the knowledge necessary to construct and meaningfully decorate the ‘special buildings’.

Complementing the element of cohesion, there may also be signs of competition at Göbekli Tepe. The enclosures vary in size, in the density of iconography, and ultimately in the amount of labor invested. Also, as mentioned above, different species of animals dominate in different enclosures. That observation opens up the possibility of the circles being constructed by different groups. The possibility of competitive behavior among those groups, or individuals leading them, can thus not be ruled out.


The large-scale feasting at Göbekli Tepe seems partly to have had the character of work feasts to accomplish a common, supposedly religiously motivated task. The enclosures erected there convey the impression of gatherings through their layout, and, while signs for social stratification exist, this aspect – the gathering of people for a collective aim – should not be lost from sight completely in favor of competition and power acquisition by individuals. In any case it would seem that competition for influence, at least at Göbekli Tepe, was not open to everyone who was able to throw a large feast. Access to and command of knowledge crucial to 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. In conclusion, the notion of a ‘transegalitarian society’ with beginning social hierarchization on several levels brought forward by Brian Hayden seems to fit the image emerging from sites like Göbekli Tepe and Körtik Tepe.

It may be premature however to move beyond the simple observation of the early evolution of social hierarchy. We should take the limits of the momentarily available archaeological evidence into account. Göbekli Tepe is a very special site in the context of cult, the perpetuation of cultural knowledge and, maybe, ultimately religion. This is an important aspect of a society, but it is just one facet of many. Feasting in a cultic context away from settlements may have been a way to gain influence in the early Neolithic world, but at the moment it is hard to integrate into a complete picture. Complementary evidence from settlements is needed to understand how far social differentiation already influenced all aspects of life in the earlier PPN, how stable power aggregated by an individual might have been and how far his authority over others may have reached. At Göbekli Tepe, the collective aspect of accomplishing work through feasting generally seems to hint at a more indirect and maybe fragile form of power connected to a certain task.


We are grateful the General Directorate of Antiquities of Turkey for kind permission to excavate this important site. Research at Göbekli Tepe is funded by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). This text is partly based upon the following work: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt. 2017. Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe. In: R. J. Chacon, R. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. New York: Springer, 91-132.

What is the connection between Göbekli Tepe and…

Göbekli Tepe is often compared with other megalithic architecture. Stonehenge is an example here, others include the temples of Malta, the Taulas of Menorca, or the Moai of the Easter Islands. And fairly often, people also construct or believe in direct relations between these sites.

I believe this partly happens  because people tend to categorize things in relation to other things they already know.  Especially Stonehenge – for many people the iconic example for megaliths par se – can be found in every popular history book, making such comparisons with other sites with large standing stones, some of them decorated with reliefs, easy. But there is a little more to it. I remember that my  schoolbooks used to invoke the idea of a somehow interrelated Neolithic „Megalithic Culture“ that spread throughout Europe by migration. This was in the later 1980ies. Of course by this time the diffusionist view on the spread of megaliths had long been discredited by Colin Renfrew, i.a.  based on radiocarbon dates (you can see him talk about this here – external link). But textbooks just hadn’t noticed what was going on in academia. This is, by the way, a problem that archaeologists should address in some way also today.

But back to Göbekli Tepe. As we really get a lot of inquiries regarding possible interrelations of important megalithic sites, I thought I should post a short checklist here to show how different these sites really are. So here they are, in chronological order; please note that I am just writing down the main points from memory, if you have further questions please post them in the comments.

Göbekli Tepe


Göbekli Tepe, Enclosure C, illustrating the characteristic layout of the older buildings (copyright DAI, photo K. Schmidt).

Location: southeastern Turkey, on the highest point of the Germus mountain range.

Built / used between: ca. 9500-8000 cal BC, Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

By: Hunter-gatherer groups from a catchment area of about 200km around the site using stone tools.

Main characteristics: The oldest layer III (10th millenium BC) is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars weighing tons, 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 center of these enclosures there are always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m. The circles measure 10-20m. The T-shape of the pillars 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 pillars. Often the pillars bear further reliefs, mostly depictions of animals, but also of numerous abstract symbols. Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the 9th millenium BC. This layer is not characterised by big round enclosures, but by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5m.



Miniature madel of a Maltese temple from Mġarr, Museum of Valletta (Photo: O. Dietrich).

Temples of Malta

Location: Malta and Gozo, islands in the Mediterranean Sea, temples are spread widely, sometimes forming clusters.

Built / used between: The Neolithic and the Bronze Age. However, the actual  ‘Temple Period’ falls within the 4th millennium BC and the 3rd millennium BC. Temples were constructed using stone tools.

By: The local population of these islands, evidence for external contact is rare.

Main characteristics: The temples are made of limestone orthostats forming walls. They usually have an oval forecourt and a facade with an entrance made up of three megaliths, of which two are supporting the third, forming a trilithon. Inside is a passageway of similar construction leading to an open paved space flanked by apses. Decorations inside the temples include spiral motifs, animals and surfaces covered entirely with drilled holes.

Further reading: For an easily accessible and well written overview: Trump, D.H. 2002. Malta: Prehistory and Temples. Midsea Books: Malta. Also, check out the Website of the UNESCO World Heritage List entry [external link].



Stonehenge, features of all construction phases (Drawn by en:User:Adamsan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons).


Location: Wiltshire, England.

Built / used between: several building phases between 3100 and 1600 BC.

By: People from a wider catchment area, some of the raw material was transported over vast distances, e.g. the so-called bluestones from nowadays Wales, metal tools available during the later phases.

Main characteristics: The iconic view of Stonehenge shows a ring of  standing stones around 4 m high, partly still forming trilithons. But Stonehenge has a highly complex building history that includes many changes to the layout of the site, accumulating to two megalithic stone rings and two orthostat arrangements surrounded by wooden posts and earthworks. Further, Stonehenge is part of a Neolithic/Bronze Age cultural landscape marked by earthworks and burial mounds.

Further reading: Mike Parker Pearson is the person to ask about Stonehenge and here is a great overview article that´s also freely accessible: Parker Pearson, M. 2013. Researching Stonehenge: Theories Past and Present. Archaeology International. 16, 72–83. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334



Taula of Trepuco (Juan Costa Archiv, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons).


Location: On the Balearic island of Menorca.

Built / used between: roughly between 1000 and 300 BC.

By: The local, so-called Talaiotic Culture, which is restricted to Menorca.

Main charateristics: Taulas (meaning tables) are formed of a vertical pillar (sometimes made up of several stones) on which another stone rests horizontically. They are around 4 m high and usually stand within u-shaped buildings.

Further reading: There is not so much published about the Taulas in English and available to access freely online, if you are able to read Spanish, this artcle may be a good start: Daniel Albero Santacreu, D.A. 2009-2010. Análisis arquitectónico de los recintos de taula de la isla de Menorca: significación técnica y simbólica de los parámetros constructivos. Mayurqa 33, 2009-2010: 77-94 [external link].



Moai at Ahu Tongarik (Rivi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons).


Location: Easter Island, Polynesia.

Built / used between: 1250-1500 AD.

By: the Polynesian colonizers of the Easter island.

Main charateristics: Monolithic human figures with facial features, arms/hands, up to 10 m high and integrated into ceremonial sites   The letter consist of a levelled plaza, from which a ramp led up to a rectangular platform, where the moai stood.

Further reading: A classic is Routledge, K. 1919. The mystery of Easter Island. The story of an Expedition. London: Hazel, Watson & Winey [external link]. There isa vast amount of literature though, and also an ongoing research project by the German Archaeological Institute [external link].


The sites discussed here may have had similar social functions as centers for gatherings, expressions of belief systems etc. for the societies that built them. But I believe that this short comparison also shows clearly that we are dealing with very different sites indeed, evolving in different timeframes and regions, and rooted in a very specific local cultural background each. Their architecture is hardly comparable. Superficial similarities like the T-shape of GT´s pillars and the Taulas can be explained much better by a similar function, e.g. as roof supports, than by direct interconnections between the builders over large chronological and spatial distances.





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.

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.


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.


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.


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!



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.


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.




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.


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).


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Enclosure B, a short overview

Second in our series of short overviews of the architecture of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer comes Enclosure B – which also was the second structure discovered during excavations.

The ground plan of this enclosure is round, with an internal diameter of nearly 10 metres. Two central pillars and a total of eight pillars in the surrounding ring wall have been discovered so far. Most of these pillars are undecorated and none of them, as far as their front (i.e. ‘belly’) sides are visible, are adorned with the raised lateral parallel bands thought to depict a stola-like garment.


Pillar 6 in Enclosure B (Photo: I. Wagner, copyright DAI).

Pillar 6 in the southern part of Enclosure B shows the relief of a quadruped animal from above on the small side of the pillar’s head. It resembles a reptile, but there are also similar PPN depictions which may depict leopards. On the pillar-shaft a snake is depicted crawling down. It is worth noting that all reliefs are found on the backside of the pillar, i.e. not facing towards the central pillars, a clear indication that Pillar 6 likely represents a case of secondary use.

Pillar 7, also located in the south of Enclosure B, has a largely obliterated relief on the right side of its head. There is also an old damage visible at the same pillar’s shaft and its head seems to have been reshaped at some point, resembling actually more a “Γ” than the typical “T”. Pillar 8 is located in the southeastern ring wall and has not produced any reliefs so far. In the eastern ring wall Pillar 14 has been excavated only partially. It bears the relief of another quadruped animal, maybe a fox, on the right side of its head which, however, is largely covered by the ring wall. Pillar 15, also in the eastern wall, stands parallel to the central pillars. That is unusual compared to the other circular enclosures’ layout where the pillars of the ring are facing the central pillars – most likely this indicates another case of secondary use of older pillars. Pillar 15, too, has no reliefs so far. And while Pillar 16 is still largely hidden in a baulk, Pillars 34 and 58 have not been completely excavated as of yet.

Both central pillars of Enclosure B, Pillars 9 and 10, bear a fox depiction – which thus dominate the reliefs of this scarcely decorated building. The fox on the western broad side of Pillar 9 is large, it measures about 110 cm. The fox on Pillar 10 follows this relief in position and measurements. Below it the shallow engravings of a boar and three dogs are visible, probably a later added hunting scene. Between these two central pillars a terrazzo floor was exposed in an area covering several square metres. This is a significant difference to most of the other PPN A enclosures discovered at Göbekli Tepe so far where the floor was formed directly of the (carefully smoothed) natural bedrock. The terrazzo may somehow work as imitation or ‘replacement’ of the limestone floor here and we can not exclude yet that there is some older floor level underneath. Interestingly, in front of central Pillar 9 a stone bowl was discovered – embedded right into the terrazzo which forms the floor of Enclosure B. A small channel running to to this bowl underlines its possible role in rituals which seem to have taken place here between both central pillars.


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

To the south of the central pillars, a  bit off the Enclosure’s center, a so-called porthole stone was found lying on the terrazzo floor. ‘Porthole stones’, i.e. roughly quadrangular megalithic workpieces with one or two central openings are known in larger numbers from Göbekli Tepe. There are good arguments to interpret them as possible entrances, as another example found in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B demonstrates. This richly decorated porthole stone was found in situ, embedded into a wall. Whether the other example, found in the enclosure’s center, was installed orginally in a wall, too, or maybe in a possible roof, must remain unclear so far and may be answered by further research.

Enclosure A, a short overview

During the first field season at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 one of the landowners had started to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar with a sledgehammer. Fortunately he could be persuaded to stop, and in the 1996 work started in this area. What came to light here was the first of the monumental buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer (Layer III), later called Enclosure A.

Anlage A

Enclosure A in 1997 (Photo: M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

The ground plan of Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. First radiocarbon data suggest that it may be a little younger than other Enclosures, C and D, and maybe the rectangular shape already could indicate the transition to the later, rectangular, Layer II building type. The existence of different outer walls may as well hint at a longer building history and possible alteration over toime. However, Enclosure A is still not entirely excavated, so any description must remain preliminary as of yet.

Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench leaning against the inner walls of the building. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the south-western side of Pillar 1. The front side of this pillar carries a central groove running vertically from below the head to its base, covering about one third of its width. This groove and the raised bands to either side are decorated with five snakes in bas-relief. Maybe this is a depiction of a stola-like garment which is similarly known from other pillars as well. Pillar 2 carries on its right side a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox, and crane. Its narrower back side is adorned with a bucranium between the vertical bands of another stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 was not found in its original position, but was at some time moved to this, secondary, location. In the course of this action, the original back side of the pillar became its front and vice versa.


Göbekli Tepe, detail of the main excavation area with Enclosure A (Plan: K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).

Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four, though it is expected that this number will rise once excavations are continued in this area. Pillar 5 shows a snake again, Pillars 3 and 4 are without reliefs. Pillar 17 was heavily destroyed already in prehistory, and is without reliefs so far, too. As with all the buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer, one animal species seems to dominate the imagery of Enclosure A. In this case, it is the snake which appears noteworthy often.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, The Urfa-Project 1996, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/96,2–3.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/1, 2001, 45-54.