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.

Lithic Analysis or “Meet the Flint-stones”

This is Jonas and in this short contribution I would like to introduce myself and the research I am conducting. In the frame of the Göbekli Tepe project I will be responsible for the documentation and anlysis of lithic materials. Previously my focus has been on lithics from sites dated to the earliest Neoltihic in Central Europe. Upon my first visit to the site, I was astonished by the large amounts of flint. The analysis of this exceptional material will provide unique insights into lithic technologies, for example, châine opératiore, as well as cultural preferences, including diverse knapping techniques. Due to the extraordinarily large numbers of flint recovered from the site, I will be focusing on materials recovered from carefully chosen areas/archaeological features. Drop back soon for updates and new insights.


Collection of projectile points from Göbekli Tepe. Just a small example of the lithic industry present at site. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

“Dances with Cranes” – Animal masquerade in Pre-Pottery Neolithic ritual.

The detailed and complex, often supposedly even narrative reliefs at Göbekli Tepe’s T-pillars are one of the most fascinating features of the site (next to its impressing monumentality of course). The crucial question of its interpretation is well related to our understanding of the iconography and what it meant in its creators’ world view. Do the respective animals represent certain segments within Pre-Pottery Neolithic hunter communities, are they depicting actual events or do they give a more mythological account of spiritual concepts?

Among the skilful naturalistic reliefs, predominantly depicting animals in an accuracy that bears witness of a close relation to and careful observation of nature, birds seem to take on a special role. Water birds like ducks and cranes, but also storks, ibises, and vultures are a recurring motif in this stone-age picture book. In particular because of this careful and dedicated naturalistic representation of the animals depicted, an image on Pillar 2, one of the earliest discovered T-pillars at Göbekli Tepe, was puzzling from the very beginning (Schmidt 2012, 116-119). There, underneath an aurochs and a fox, a crane was carved into the limestone (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Pillar 2, Göbekli Tepe. Showing reliefs of aurochs, fox, and crane. The latter one with an extraordinary, rather not brid-like leg-anatomy. (Photo: DAI)

Again, one can only admire the virtuosity of this work, clear outlines forming the animals in the typical flat relief style well attested at the site from other carvings already. Yet something about that crane looks incongruous. Its long legs seem a bit odd, resembling much more those of a human than what would be expected as typical for a bird. Upon closer inspection a bird’s legs appear to bend backwards – so quite the opposite of what is depicted here. Actually, and we have to emphasise this here for any (archaeo-)zoologist’s peace of mind, this is only half true since bird-knees are situated much closer to their pelvis inside the body and not visible outside; what often is (erroneously) mistaken for the knees are in reality their tarsal (ankle) bones. However, the depiction of that crane on Pillar 2 still looks off from what could be seen in nature – so, would this mean rather poor observation skills or a lazy craftsman in this case? Since other reliefs from the site do properly depict bird anatomy (cf. Fig. 2), ignorant artists do not seem to be the most convincing explanation. Should we thus consider some intentional deviation from the naturalistic mode of representation which dominates the majority of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography here? If so, what could this peculiar depiction mean?


Fig. 2: Pillar 56 from Göbekli Tepe, however, does show (among many other animals) the depiction of long-legged birds with proper anatomical legs. (Photo: DAI)

In 2003 Nerissa Russell and Kevin J. McGowan published a most fascinating paper [external link] about a notable crane-bone find from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Çatalhöyük (Russell & McGowan 2003). This central Anatolian settlement site dates to the middle of the 8th and the 7th millennium BC (PPN B to Pottery Neolithic) and shows some considerable links with Göbekli Tepe, especially in terms of iconography. The find of particular interest here is a single Common Crane left-wing coming from a deposition at Çatalhöyük’s East Mound. These bones were found together with a cattle horn core, two wild goat horns, a dog head, and a stone mace head. This association of cattle, canid, and crane alone already may be a noteworthy correlation to the depiction on Pillar 2 from Göbekli Tepe. Yet the analysis of the crane bone itself is even more interesting: it is the part of the wing which has little flesh, but the large flight feathers attached. Consequently, the cut marks on these bones do not indicate simple butchery waste, but the intention to separate the wing at the joints. Furthermore, the cutting motions indicate that apparently one or two holes were pierced through the skin between the bones. While one could of course imagine that the wing could have been mounted to a lot of things, the authors plausibly suggest that it might have been part of a costume – fibres running through the holes attested by cut marks could have been helped to attach it to a person’s shoulder for instance (Russell & McGowan 2003, 447-448).

One of the most intriguing facets in this context is that cranes are famous for their dances. Breeding pairs and whole groups of cranes perform these complex movements. Their dances serve purposes of socialisation and pair bonding, but also to avert aggression. As soon as one of the birds starts, others are joining – yes, they even would do so if a human initiated the dance. Dancing was emphasized as integral social behaviour among PPN hunter groups, stressing communal unity and intensifying group cohesion (Garfinkel 1998). Bipedal and almost human-sized, with a comparable life-span and similar social structure, it is easily imaginable that these hunters somehow could identify with the dancing cranes, maybe even consider them reborn humans or ancestors. Russel and McGowan thus suggest that crane dances may well have been imitated to re-enact myths of origin, maybe of the own clan or humanity as such (Russell & McGowan 2003, 451-453) (Fig. 3). Related ritual dances are indeed not unknown from historic and ethnographic contexts and have been attested from a wide geographical and chronological range. Examples are known among Khanty (Ostiak) shamans from Siberia (Armstrong 1943, 73; Balzer 1996), the indigenous Ainu of Japan (St. John 1873), the Twa of central Africa (Campbell 1914, 79), and the sema dances of the Alevi in Turkey (Erol 2010) to just name a few.


Fig. 3: Dancing the crane dance. (Drawing: J. G. Swogger, with courtesy of the Catalhöyük Research Project)

So, since the fascination with cranes and their dances seem to be a thoroughly human phenomenon throughout space and time, the possibility of related Neolithic rituals should not come as a surprise. Cranes seem to have played an important role in the world of PPN hunter-gatherers. Remains of crane bones were reported from PPN B Jericho (Tchernov 1993) and Çatalhöyük (Russel & McGowan 2005) for instance, and they are known in significant numbers from Göbekli Tepe as well (where they form the second largest group in the avifauna right after corvids (cf. Peters et al. 2005, Table 1)). Next to the already introduced crane depiction from Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 2, similar reliefs were discovered on Pillars 33 and 38 which, too, stand out due to their comparatively thick legs and what seems to be ‘human-like knees’ (Fig. 4 and 5). From PPN B Bouqras in Syria a frieze of about 18 painted and incised cranes is known – the repeated depiction of the same posture maybe indicating a dancing scene (Clason 1989/90; Russell & McGowan 2003, 450). Another little known painting at Çatalhöyük displays two cranes facing each other, their heads raised (Mellaart 1966, 190, Plates LXII-LXIII; Russell & McGowan 2003, 450). Since noticeably often pairs of animals facing each other are depicted, cranes may have been linked to a larger symbolism of pairs or twins which well reminds of Göbekli Tepe’s dualistic central pillars as well.


Fig. 4: Of the three birds depicted on Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 38 at least two (likely to be identified as cranes) demonstrate rather unusually bend, almost human-like legs. (Photo: DAI)


Fig. 5: Detail of Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 33 showing a crane (note the characteristic neck, head, and tail feathers) with unusual sturdy and bend legs. (Photo: DAI)

The conspicuousness of the Göbekli Tepe crane depictions, which, since large birds are practically unknown from the older, Palaeolithic pictorial art, might be the oldest yet known images of this bird, was already noted upon their discovery by Klaus Schmidt (Peters et al. 2005, 227; Schmidt 2003, 26-28; 2012, 170-174, 182-184). The representation of human legs somehow evoke the impression of masked people (which would not be surprising, given the discovery of several stone masks at Göbekli Tepe) yet leave us with the still rather bird-like depiction of three (or four) ‘toes’. Schmidt suggested to not just identify this as simple masquerade but, on the basis of ethnographic analogies regarding shamanistic rituals of hunter communities, maybe even as the visualisation of a transformation into the animal itself (Peters et al. 2005, 231; Schmidt 2012, 119, 205-208). A kind of cognitive, and subsequently accepted physical metamorphosis in the course of the ritual by imitating the cranes’ dancing. Although proper evidence for such specific rituals and performances naturally is rare in the archaeological material, this line of thought at least offers an interesting interpretation for the unusual deviation from the strictly naturalistic animal depictions. Furthermore, together with the possible remains of what seems to be a crane costume from Çatalhöyük, it adds a fascinating facet to our slowly growing understanding of Pre-Pottery Neolithic social and ritual life.

It seems intriguing to even expand these thoughts beyond the discussion of dancing humans disguised as cranes. One of the wall paintings from Çatalhöyük for instance may also show vultures with human legs according to James Mellaart (Mellaart 1967, 167, Figs. 14 & 15). And at the foot of one of Enclosure D’s central pillars at Göbekli Tepe, right underneath the depicition of a fox skin-loincloth that pillar was ‘wearing’, the bones of a foxtail were found – probably hinting at the presence of a real such item of clothing there. Thus it seems reasonable and necessary to also consider other, even more costumes and their possible application in PPN ritual. As Russell and McGowan already emphasized (2003, 454): bulls (and vultures) are not the only animal symbols in the Neolithic world and we have to keep our eyes open to identify the more fragile clues among the material remains we are studying.

References (incl. further reading)

E. A. Armstrong, Crane dance in East and West, Antiquity 17, 1943, 71-76.

M. M. Balzer, Flights of the sacred: Symbolism and theory in Siberian shamanism, American Anthropologist 98 (2), 1996, 305-318. [external link]

D. Campbell, A few notes on Butwa: An African secret society, Man 14, 1914, 76-81.

A. T. Clason, The Bouqras bird frieze, Anatolica 16, 1989/90, 209-213.

A. Erol, Re-Imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah, Middle Eastern Studies 46:3, 2010, 375-387. [external link]

Y. Garfinkel, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press 2003.

J. Mellaart, Excavations at Çatal Hüyük, 1965: Fourth preliminary report, Anatolian Studies 16, 1966, 165-191.

J. Mellaart, Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. London: Thames & Hudson 1967.

J. Peters, A. von den Driesch, N. Pöllath, K. Schmidt, Birds in the megalithic art of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, Southeast Turkey. In: G. Grupe and J. Peters (eds.), Feathers, Grit and Symbolism. Birds and Humans in the Ancient Old and New Worlds. Proceedings of the 5th Meeting of the ICAZ Bird Working Group in Munich (26,7.-28.7.2004). Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH 2005, 223-234.

N. Russel and K. J. McGowan, Dance of the Cranes: Crane symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond, Antiquity 77, 2003, 445-455. [external link]

N. Russel and K. J. McGowan, Çatalhöyük bird bones. In: I. Hodder (ed.), Inhabiting Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995-1999 Seasons. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 99-110. [external link]

K. Schmidt, “Kraniche am See”. Bilder und Zeichen vom frühneolithischen Göbekli Tepe (Südosttürkei). In: W. Seipel (ed.), Der Turmbau zu Babel. Ursprung und Vielfalt von Sprache und Schrift. Band IIIa: Schrift. Wien – Milano: Kunsthistorische Musuem Wien 2003, 23-29.

K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in south-eatern Anatolia. Berlin: ex Oriente e.V. 2012.

H. C. St. John, The Ainos: Aborigines of Yeso, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2, 1873, 248-254.

E. Tchernov, Exploitation of birds during the Natufian and early Neolithic of the southern Levant, Archaeofauna 2, 1993, 121-143.

Göbekli Tepe in images

Photography certainly is an important tool for documentation in archaeology. For me personally, it is also a hobby (you can find me on Flickr here: external link). Going through the loads of photos the digital age produces and often readily forgets, I found some images of Göbekli Tepe that I wanted to share here. The collection is not finished and the post will be expanded as I dig deeper into my archives. So come back for more if you like what you see!


Göbekli Tepe is situated at the northern periphery of the fertile crescent, 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. This is a view of the tell from the south, with the excavation camp. Taken in 2007, during my first field season at the site with the late Klaus Schmidt.

Work starts early at Göbekli Tepe (usually around 6 am), so there are lots of opportunities to catch the special morning light. Images of the tell seen from the southeast from 2007 and of the main excavation area seen from the southeastern hilltop, in 2012.

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. The circles measure 10-20m. Work in Enclosures D and C, 2009-2010.

In the centre of the enclosures stand always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m.  The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Images of the central pillars of Enclosure D in 2007.

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. The western central pillar of Enclosure D during excavation, 2009.

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. Richly decorated pillars from Enclosure D, 2012.

Decoration of the pillars is not arbitrary. There are marked differences between the animal species depicted inside each enclosure. It could well be that the dominant species are connected to certain groups, in the sense of emblematic, or totemic symbols related to their identities. Foxes are the animal most frequently depicted in Enclosure B. The images are close-ups of the depictions on the central pillars.

Decorations on the pillars are not limited to low reliefs. On Pillar 27 in Enclosure C the high relief of a snarling predator is preserved. Directly in front of it, a boar is depicted in side view in low relief. A hunting scene? Images from 2009.

Pillar 27 is not the only example indicating narrative meaning of Göbekli Tepe’s imagery. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. Photo from 2009.


Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the early and middle PPNB. This layer is characterised 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. Layer II building with bench, pillar and stationary limestone vessel on the southeastern hilltop, 2012.

At Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic quarry areas from which the workpieces for the enclosures originate 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. The largest standing pillars discovered so far have 5.5m and weigh around 10t. In the quarry areas however there is one example of a 7 m long pillar preserved.Photo from 2007.

To be continued…


Deciphering a meal at Göbekli Tepe (part 1)

Figure 8

(Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI.)

This short post is meant to introduce myself, Laura, as a new member of the Göbekli Tepe project team. I am an archaeologist doing research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age from the Levant to the Carpathian Basin with a focus on the archaeology of food and conflict. Exploring the preparation of vegetable meals in Göbekli Tepe and inferring the social dimensions of vegetable food is part of my project during the next three years.

Göbekli Tepe has a big potential for such studies. Not only is there a vast material culture related to food processing (grinding stones, pestles, mortars, sickles etc.), but food, and also vegetable food, seems to have had a special place in the worldview of its builders. Here is a little teaser.

In 2008, during the excavation of the final layers of Enclosure C, a special discovery was made. A wild boar and two stone platters lie in front of one of the central pillars of Enclosure C. The sculpture is around 30 cm high; its length is almost 50 cm. Both platters are similarly large, with diameters of 47 and 50 cm. They have been intentionally perforated in the middle; other similar finds from the site are usually unperforated. Strike marks are obvious around the perforation. Their surface is very well smoothed, although the northern platter is better worked than the southern one. Both platters are round with slightly convex surfaces down to the perforation. The wild boar is sitting with his mouth on the platters, somehow slightly oblique, its neck oriented to the hole.The platters don’t sit directly on the ground, but suprapose other stone vessels. Several more wild boar sculptures and reliefs are known from Enclosure C.  All of them are part of one bigger ensemble surrounding the central pillars – and this ensemble clearly shows strong links to the preparation of food.

We are only at the start of deciphering the multiple layers of meaning inherent in the buildings of Göbekli Tepe. So stay tuned for more as I start as we begin to unveil the site’s secrets.