Ask an archaeologist (about Göbekli Tepe)


The Tepe-Telegrams correspondents, yours truly on site: Jens (left) and Oliver (right). (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

This weblog has been created to make basic information (together with our thoughts and interpretation) on the excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe broadly accessible. After about a year clicks, visitor numbers, discussions in the comments section, and other feedback have more than reassured us that this blog indeed found an interested readership and we’re not talking to ourselves here.

A huge THANK YOU to you, our readers!

We are constantly working on new material for the blog. Our strategy so far has been to address the questions we are most often asked: Is it a temple? How old is it? Who built it? Were Stone Age people able to build something like that (Yes, indeed!), or did they have alien help (Um, no.)?

There are still a lot more of such questions to answer and to write about yet, and even more about our attempt to make sense of this extraordinary site. But we would also like to ask you, our dear readers, if there is anything you would like to see covered in particular? Any pressing questions aside from aliens and conspiracy theories? Just leave a comment under this post and we collect your thoughts and suggestions.

We would also like to offer some kind of questionnaire – taking place Wednesday, June 28th 2017 from 5 pm to 6 pm CET (just right after we logged off our office time clock (you know, work’s work and fun’s fun). So if you got an alias over there at twitter, and if your question fits into 140 characters, you may use the hashtag #AskGT and / or address @jens2go (Jens) and @in2thepast (Oliver) with your requests and questions.

So, come and ask an archaeologist …

Re-opening of Göbekli Tepe announced for July this year.

Since last June the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe is closed to visitors due to the construction of two permanent shelters above the excavated areas at Göbekli Tepe’s south-eastern and north-western hollows (see here). Originally, completion of this work was scheduled for the end of last year, but construction work took longer than expected and the excavation still remains closed.

Meanwhile work made good progress and shelter construction is moving forward. In a recently published note, the Turkish General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums announced that the site will be closed until mid-July 2017 [external link].


Shelter construction at Göbekli Tepe, work in progress. (Photo: H. Yildiz)

As reported in various Turkish media, Şanlıurfa Culture and Tourism Director Aydın Aslan stated that the site is meant be re-opened to public visitors this summer again (here quoted from [external link], translated):

“As of July 15 2017, the shelter constructions will be completed and the site opened to visitors again. All work is carried out to balance preservation and further study of Göbekli Tepe. Our primary concern is its protection and Göbekli Tepe could be preserve best. The superstructure shelters cost about 600,000 Euros, funded by the Turkish State and the European Union. Concluding, we think it is important work for the preservation and accessibility of Göbekli Tepe minimising damage in the future.”

It is our pleasure having the chance to contribute to this work and help offering visitors the chance to return to Göbekli Tepe and experience the early Neolithic monuments again as soon as possible.

Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden …

Sensations are making stories. And archaeology-stories apparently are no exception to this rule. That’s why even the most interesting sites and finds often are further dramatised and spiced up in public discourse. Somehow ‘interesting’ isn’t satisfying enough to everybody.

The early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe has it all: far reaching implications about prehistoric hunter-gatherer social group structures, the beginning of our very own modern sedentary lifestyle, and (some of the) oldest yet known monumental architecture ever built. However, this still doesn’t seem to be enough. People love a good mystery and apparently social structures of early hunters are (noted without any complaint here) not exactly enigmatic enough to be entertaining.


The mound of Göbekli Tepe. view from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

In 2006 German magazine DER SPIEGEL came up with a cover story on the Göbekli Tepe excavations (“Die Suche nach dem Garten Eden. Archäologen auf den Spuren des biblischen Paradieses” [external link]), suggesting it was the (pre-)historical basis for the Biblical narrative about the ‘Garden of Eden’. Ever since this story multiplied and was picked up then and again, actually emphasising the great interest in our research on one hand, but also the pitfalls of all too simplifying analogies on the other. Only recently Discovery’s Science Channel (which features, among others, a segment about our research at Göbekli Tepe) was digging up the story up again (excuse the pun) for an episode of “What on Earth” called “Gateway to Eden” [external link].

To be honest, it’s not even hard to actually see where this fascination is coming from. A mythical garden, ‘paradise’ par excellence, is quite an archetypical narrative and a metaphor deeply rooted in our collective memory. The story of that ‘Garden of Eden’ seems to have great potential to fuel our imagination. Yet actually looking beyond that metaphor for a real place and location would mean to somehow misconceive the whole narrative’s elucidating intention.

Since there are a number of peculiar elements brought up repeatedly in support of an assumed link between the Göbekli Tepe findings and the Eden myth, it seems worth the time having a closer look into and a short evaluation of these arguments in the course of this blog post.


The landscape around Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

The topographical situation of this idyllic garden delivered in the Old Testament (which, as probably most people would agree, is not exactly and specifically a proper historical source) tells of a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four streams: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14). While the latter two are well-known toponyms to this day in the region, the other two however don’t really fit into the picture, somehow raising the suspicion they might be as figuratively as the mythical gold-land of Havilah through which the Pishon is said to wind. Besides, there are no water sources at Göbekli Tepe at all (actually one of the arguments against an ideal settlement situation, cf. this discussion). Göbekli Tepe hardly ever was a flourishing garden in the literal sense.

Göpekli Tepe 2002

Snakes on a pillar. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

“But what about the snakes?” is an argument often put forward in favour of the Eden narrative. Yes, there are depictions of snakes at Göbekli Tepe. A lot, actually. Quite a lot. It almost is a snake pit rather than the single seducer trying to sell forbidden fruits. And what about all those other animal reliefs? There are spiders and scorpions, foxes and vultures, cranes, ducks, and boars. And more. In numbers certainly equalling those of  snake reliefs. So, this sole focus on the serpent seems a bit unfair towards the other animals. Are we going to ignore all these many additional animals (and few human depictions)  – or how do these fit into the story?

Göbekli Tepe 2002

Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird. (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, DAI)

Another small find produced by the Göbekli Tepe excavations, a so-called plaquette, is also often referred to as a clue in the ‘Garden of Eden’ line of argument. The small stone tablet is showing three carved symbols among which some recognise a snake and a tree (and we all can see where this would be heading). However, with a view to the recent discussion of the ambiguity of prehistoric art and the challenge to properly ‘read’ (let alone understand) it here, this particular find seems a weak advocate. Upon closer inspection of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography and its analogies from other sites, it becomes much more likely that the ‘tree’ actually might depict a person and the third object to its right may be understood as a bird – somehow changing the whole narrative of this object quite a bit.

Returning to that recent “What on Earth” episode, one could find the idea attractive that the remarkable pair of central pillars in each enclosure somehow could be interpreted as a mythical couple (even without the all too obvious ‘Adam and Eve’ analogy), some male and female ancestor. The show seems to suggest this, prominently quoting myself in this context. But – and this is the important point here, I  would like to make (and actually made in “What on Earth”, which somehow may have got lost on the cutting floor) – there are convincing leads showing that this is not the most favourable interpretation. The fact that both central pillars of Enclosure D are shown wearing belts and loincloths, for instance, seems to hint at two male individuals here – in analogy to contemporary clay figurines.

09_Zentralpfeiler (7)

Belt and loincloth at one of the central pillars of Enclosure D underline the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

Projecting a much younger and much later written down mythology onto archaeological material predating it for millennia leaves any secure grounds for substantial conclusions. Linking the early Neolithic, 10th millennium BC structures of Göbekli Tepe with a narrative written down not earlier then the 11th or 10th century BC (thus about 9,000 years later – after these enclosures were long abandoned and backfilled) would seem more than just a bit far-fetched.

As we already noted in our FAQ here:

“We disagree wholeheartedly with any parallels drawn between Göbekli Tepe and the ‘Garden of Eden’, for which there is absolutely no archaeological evidence. Certainly, Göbekli Tepe lies in a chain of hills north of the Harran plain, the scene of numerous biblical narratives, though this is where any associations with the Bible end. Anything more is pure conjecture.”

Or, as Klaus Schmidt once put it in an interview [external link]:
“Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden.”

On Air: “Faith moves Stones”

Holiday season at the end of the year offers some time to calm down and contemplate the past year. Media, of course, traditionally help this purpose by airing classic Christmas shows like Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” and, following the nature of the feast, quite some reflections on cult and religion.

This year, German radio station Deutschlandfunk [external link] asks for the origin of religion and civilisation in its programme on Forschung aktuell: Wissenschaft im Brennpunkt (Current Research: Science in the Spotlight – external link). Under the title “Glaube versetzt Steine” (Faith moves Stones) journalist Volkart Wildermuth is approaching this question from psychology, archaeology, and ethnology – including a strong focus on our own research at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.


View into Göbekli Tepe’s main excavation are. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

“Five metre high T-shaped pillars surrounded by a circle of smaller pillars, this is Göbekli Tepe. It is not clear which cult once was followed here. But it is certain that these monumental structures were not built by some sophisticated civilisation, but by hunters and gatherers 10,000 years ago. This raises a central question: Could it be that spiritual needs brought together these people? Did faith came first – and then civilisation? Göbekli Tepe is an impressing unique find. But other data from psychology, archaeology, and ethnology are shedding a new light onto the complex interplay of spirituality, economy, and society.”

(Translated from Deutschlandfunk’s programme round-up.)

The show airs coming Boxing Day, Monday the 26th of December at 16:30 o’clock on Deutschlandfunk (on air and via online stream). The programme is in German language; a transcript (also in German) is available online [external link].

Current state of research at Göbekli Tepe – interviewed by

Arkeofili [external link], a Turkish online magazine and portal dedicated to archaeological news and reports on archaeological sites and discoveries in Turkey and the world  approached DAI’s Göbekli Tepe research staff with a couple of questions regarding excavations at site and the current state of research. Since the recently published interview [external link] received broad interests and we were repeatedly asked if an English translation was available, we are pleased to provide it here with courtesy of the Arkeofili staff for those not fluent in Turkish.

What you always wanted to know about Göbekli Tepe.

(Interview by Arkeofili staff with Jens Notroff, DAI.)

Excavation work

(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)

What is Göbekli Tepe and what is it not? Is it a temple, a house, or both (since E. B. Banning put forward that it could be domestic houses)?

That’s actually the crucial question: What was it? And that’s the challenge as well – since we do not have any written sources from that time explaining anything about world view and everyday life of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers who created this and related sites, we have to form our interpretations exclusively on the material culture they left to us.

After about 20 years of excavation and research we start to perceive the site of Göbekli Tepe as a kind of meeting point. A gathering centre of several groups of hunters roaming the area (based on iconographic parallels in the decoration of stone vessels, plaquettes etc. we may assume a catchment area of up to 200 km). Apparently, Göbekli Tepe was an important point in the landscape for regular encounters and exchange.

It is somehow true that archaeologists often all too easily use the term ‘ritual’ to describe finds and features we do not understand. And it is also true that the distinction of sacred versus profane as two strictly separated spheres is a rather modern, western view. However, we did not come up with our interpretation out of the blue – there are a couple of peculiar features about Göbekli Tepe supporting these ideas.

Since we do know the typical settlement architecture of this area and period from other contemporary sites like Nevalı Çori and in particular Çayönü in the Turkish Tigris area or Mureybet and Jerf el Ahmar in the Syrian Euphrates region, we can note that the structures at Göbekli Tepe do differ from these. The monumental circular enclosures of the older PPN A layer of Göbekli Tepe with their characteristic large T-shaped monoliths form a different, a very distinct kind of building. A type which indeed can be found in a lot of the known settlements as well – structures we usually call ‘community’ buildings. Yet while there mostly in settlements only one example of these special purpose buildings can be found, at Göbekli Tepe there seems to be a noticeable cumulation of these. Whether we really would need to call them ‘temples’ basically depends on a definition of that term we agree on. Yet usually the historic characterisation of temples would ask for some deity (or deities) being housed there – a complex concept of religion we could not provide for the early Neolithic as of yet. However, with hands and arms and elements of clothing depicted in relief, the characteristic T-pillars of Göbekli Tepe clearly own an anthropomorphoic identity and thus could be understood as  monumental sculptures. Highly abstracted, faceless, larger-than-life depictions which clearly are taking up a different sphere than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures also known from the period. 

What has Göbekli Tepe changed about our knowledge of history? Why is the discovery of and the information gained from Göbekli Tepe so important?

The most important discovery about Göbekli Tepe may have been the insight into what seems to be a very complex degree of organization within and among these early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups. To construct monumental architecture like the Göbekli Tepe pillars and enclosures indeed must have asked for a certain degree of labour division as well as cooperation between different groups, organization and coordination of this work. The realisation that these still highly mobile people invested time and effort into rather large-scale communal projects and thus may have triggered a whole slew of development subsequently leading into the so-called Neolithic lifestyle with larger settled communities, agriculture, and husbandry, is an important contribution to our understanding of the Anatolian Neolithic. Food would need to have been made available for workers gathered there, and demands may soon have exceeded returns of prevailing hunting and foraging strategies – and thus may well have been led to the exploration and exploitation of new food sources. To some degree this somehow turned around cause  and effect of our earlier picture of these line of events.


(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)

Why would/could the people of that time need a monumental building such as Göbekli Tepe?

Ethnographic studies have shown that communal projects and feasts are an important factor to strengthen group cohesion. Particularly rather small gunter-gatherer bands are essentially reliant on regular meetings to exchange information, goods, and marriage partner for instance to keep the gene pool fresh. It surely is no coincidence that the site of Göbekli Tepe was created where it is – on the highest point of the mountain ridge, a landmark widely visible. Against this background it seems suitable to interpret the architecture there as mark of these gatherings. The pillars with their rich depictions representing groups and somehow storing their memory. Large amounts of animal bones, hunted game strictly, speak in favour of huge feasts hold here and residue in stone vessels with a capacity of up to 160 litres may even hint at the consumption of alcoholic beverages. So-called workforce feasts like these (this is another insight from social anthropology) are a great means to attract the mapower necessary to carry out large communal projects like the constructions at Göbekli Tepe undoubtly must have been. Regular reparation and re-arrangement within the enclosures furthermore gives the impression of on-going continued construction activity, making it even more probable that this was an important factor of the site at all: a reason to bring people together.


(Photo: DAI, E. Kücük)

Do we know what the approximate manpower is needed to build Göbekli Tepe? Were there any experimental projects/research about how the structures were built? Or is anything of that sort planned for the future? Do we have any information on the building techniques?

The surrounding rock plateaus of Göbekli Tepe clearly give us an idea on how these prehistoric stone masons were working. Next to a number of ‘negative’ hollows, where workstone pieces were extracted, a huge amount of flint and bedrock stone tools as well as some unfinished pieces like broken T-pillars and other work pieces clearly illustrate how and where the Prehistoric masons were working.


(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)

Calculating exact numbers for the necessary workforce, however, would be a bit more challenging since too many factors need to be considered. Figures for the erection of the giant moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for instance are ranging from 20 up to 75 people which would be required to move one of the statues over a distance of 15 km. Yet ethnographic records from the Indonesian Island of Nias mention up to 525 men involved in hauling a megalith of 4 m3 over a distance of 3 km to its final location. Another example from Indonesia points out that such a large number of participants is not necessarily caused exclusively by the labor involved, but that other factors have to be kept in mind as well. In Kodi, West Sumba, the transport of the stones used for the construction of megalithic tombs itself is ritualized and requires a large number of people to be involved as witnesses. Thus, also social aspects like the acquisition and maintaining of prestige among the individuals participating needs to be incorporated into the models of the erection of monumental structures.

Experiments were carried out recently by colleagues to get an idea how much work and effort would have been involved into the several processes of breaking and working the stones pieces, but are still awaiting final evaluation and publication. It should be noted that these results, while delivering useful insights, could be approximate values at best since they hardly could exactly match the skills of Prehistoric specialized craftsmen.

What does Göbekli Tepe tell us about the hierarchical organisation of people at that time?

Like already discussed above, the probably large amount of workforce necessary to create the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe speaks in favour of an emerging complex social structure. We were used to assume these hunter-gatherer bands are organised strictly egalitarian, yet a communal project like this involving different groups and complex constructions must have asked for at least some degree of coordination and labour specialisation.


(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

Is there any evidence for any production activities in Göbekli Tepe (for instance agriculture, or beer-brewing as  was mentioned by Dietrich et al.)?

Traces of typical domestic activities are missing so far at Göbekli Tepe, as are any traces of Prehistoric agriculture or husbandry – any remains of plants and animals discovered as of yet hint at the respective wild forms only.

However, numerous flint tools and flint flakes clearly hint at flint knapping on a grand scale taking place at and around Göbekli Tepe. The possible production of beer in the frame of large scale feasting is indeed a point worthy of discussion in the frame of these already mentioned large feasts – since preliminary chemical analysis hints at oxalate residues in large stone vessels at the site.

Figure 1

(Photos: DAI, K. Schmidt & N. Becker)

What do you think of the depictions on the steles? What could they be telling us – could they be narrating something?

The wide range of varying motifs and recurrent symbols (and combinations thereof) suggests that these are not mere decorative elements; these depictions rather have an extraordinarily complex, mythological, content with indeed a likely narrative character. The symbols themselves are plain to see (naturalistic portrayals interchange with strongly abstract signs) and yet the meanings behind them, so obvious to the people in the Neolithic, remain hidden from us today. Of particular note is, however, the absence of what might be termed mythological hybrids and monsters; all animals depicted at Göbekli Tepe occurred naturally near the site, i.e. are species of Eurasian wild fauna.

The numerous wild and dangerous-looking animals found adorning the pillars may have fulfilled some kind of protective function, perhaps comparable to totem animals found in more recent foraging cultures, or they may have acted as ‘guardians’ of the enclosures. Interestingly, the symbols and motifs discovered at Göbekli Tepe have also been found at numerous other Neolithic sites in Upper Mesopotamia, where they were applied to stone vessels, so-called shaft straighteners, and various other objects. This suggests the existence of a larger community with a common belief system, shared mythological traditions and iconography. Göbekli Tepe might have been one of its ritual centres.

Abb. 2--GT14_1783_3807

(Photo: DAI, Nico Becker)

Did you find evidence for any ritual stages or processes before the intentional burying of the structures? Were you able to discern a shared procedure for the burial of all the structures? How do we know they were intentionally buried?

The site as we see it today is the last stage of a supposedly much longer use-life. Thus we do basically find this latest phase of activity, the backfilling, represented in the archaeological record. The rather homogenous nature of the filling material within the enclosures, consisiting of limestone rubble, sculpture and stone tool fragments, and a significant amount of animal bones, speaks in favour of intentional backfilling events. Other than this filling material, finds within the enclosures which could be linked to their actual use are rare. In most cases it looks like the enclosures were almost cleared prior the filling event. A stone plate and boar sculpture placed at the foot of one of Enclosure C’s central pillars seems to have been placed there in a delibirate act.

Figure 8

(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

However, there must have been some knowledge of the structures even some time after they were backfilled and ‘buried’ since the later architecture (like a terrace wall on top for instance) clearly makes reference to the former enclosures’ space. Also a pit dug into the filling of Enclosure C, clearly directed at the central pillars, underlines this impression, maybe the tops of some pillars were even still visible then (which might also explain the addition of cup marks to some of the larger pillars’ heads).

Have you found any female figures or depictions in Göbekli Tepe? Does this tell us anything concerning a male dominated society, possibly?

So far, every known depiction – as long as their sex is clearly recognizeable – seems to be male, be it animals or humans. The only exception is a later added grafitto of a single woman on a stone slab in one of the later PPN B buildings.

While this may somehow denote the site of Göbekli Tepe as a refuge of male hunters, it does of course not at all mean that women did not play a role in PPN society. There is a wide range of finds clearly connected to women in the contemporary settlements for instance – however, at Göbekli Tepe they (respectively their activity) remain invisible as of yet.


(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

Currently, what are the primary research questions you’re seeking answers to? What themes/questions have priority for the Göbekli Tepe team?

The future still holds a lot of work for ongoing excavation and research. We are in the lucky position now to have gathered a substantial amount of material to be examined and analysed. While in particular conservation issues are an important factor of the research project’s coming task (ensuring proper protection and preservation of the excavated structures), we are also looking forward to finally clarfiy the site’s complex stratigraphy and internal chronology which still is one of the major research questions. Furthermore we aim to expand knowledge of prehistoric building methods and histories due to renewed detailed building research in the excavated PPN A and B structures at Göbekli Tepe while the important bioarchaeological work looking into the complex history of animal husbandry, as well as analysing finds of human bone material will of course be continued.

Göbekli_Fig. 1

(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)

How does the work here continue after Klaus Schmidt?

Upon the death of Klaus Schmidt, responsibility for the German Research Foundation-funded project “The early Neolithic society of Upper Mesopotamia and its subsistence” passed to Prof. Dr. Ricardo Eichmann of the DAI, Orient Department for which Dr. Lee Clare coordinates the work of its research staff. Heritage issues at Göbekli Tepe are coordinated by Prof. Dr. Felix Pirson from DAI’s Istanbul branch.

Close cooperation has also been established with the Şanlıurfa Museum, whose director acted as site director (Kazi Başkanı) at Göbekli Tepe since September 2014.

In other areas, the Turkish authorities established a ‘Scientific Advisory Board’ to facilitate collaboration between project stakeholders. This board comprises three eminent Turkish archaeologists: Prof. Dr. Mehmet Özdoğan (University of Istanbul), Doç. Dr. Necmi Karul (University of Istanbul) and Prof. Dr. Gülriz Kozbe (Batman University).

Klaus Schmidt (1954-2014)

(Photo: DAI)

What questions/problems/issues do you personally find the most exciting and interesting in Göbekli Tepe? What may the future research shed light on in the upcoming years?

Personally, I am interested in the social implications the findings at Göbekli Tepe put forward: How does the society structure of these hunter groups change once complex communal projects demand cooperation and coordination? When do elites form and rise – and how do they represent themselves?

Furthermore I am also involved in the still challenging task of revising and developing a coherent stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe’s complex layers and features. This, together with the preparation of a couple of monographs regarding the results of about 20 years of research, it’s finds and findings will be an important task within our research for the coming years.

What do you think may be the pros and cons of the promotion and publicity projects that were recently started at/for Göbekli Tepe?          

The public has a justified interest in this kind of research and its results. We are not doing this for our own or to fill up museums and bookshelves, but to actually answer the essential questions probably all of us keep asking: Where are we coming from and how do we get here? Göbekli Tepe certainly is one of those sites considered part of our shared cultural heritage – it is within the realm of interest but also responisbility of each of us. So, of course public campaigns and information projects are definitely considered an important part of our work and indeed supported.

Thank you!

My pleasure, thank you too!

(Original interview published in Turkish at on September 18 2016; English version by courtesy of arkeofili staff; Turkish translation by Suay Şeyma Erkuşöz, Ayşe Bursalı.)

Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe

Back in the office from a very pleasant and thought-provoking EAA Annual Meeting in Vilnius, where an intriguing session [external link] on the concept of social cohesion in archaeology was organised by Laura Dietrich and Agnė Čivilytė. As publication of the contributions may take some time, here is a (very) short version of my talk on Göbekli Tepe.


Impression from EAA Vilnius (Photo J. Notroff).

The core question of the talk was how „low-hierarchical“ hunter-gatherers were able to generate and maintain social cohesion and group identity basic to their survival. By social cohesion I mean a set of social processes that lead to developing a sense of belonging in a community, while group identity is a shared sense of belonging to a group, based on similar worldview, ideology, and beliefs. Both concepts are obviously interrelated, but not the same.

 So, how to gather people to build a megalithic site?

If we look at ethnography, we immediately find a wide range of examples not unlike the description of the transport of a megalith on Nias, with 525 people hauling it in 3 days over a distance of 3 km to the construction site of a grave (Röder 1944). Such examples have to be set in a social perspective however, as for example on Nias the number of people involved reflects the status of the builder, who will spent lots of resources to attract as many as possible (Notroff et al. 2014). We thus should not overemphasize such examples for purely technical calculations of the necessary manpower, but better have a look at the archaeological evidence first.

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. However, the terrain is uneven and sloping upwards, and the megaliths are of impressive size.

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. It also shows the chaine operatoire involved in carving a megalith out of the bedrock [read more]. A channel was dug in the form of the desired workpiece. The limestone surrounding Göbekli Tepe is banked, strata of about 0.60 – 1.50 m thickness are divided by fault lines. This means that you just have to dig around a work piece, not also beneath it. Then the megalith had to be lifted, transported to the construction site, finished and decorated. The amount of work included in this process seems pretty high.

Another aspect is adding in here. 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.


Enclosure C was subject to massive re-arrangement during the PPN (Photo N. Becker, copyright DAI).

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 from a catchment area of roughly 200km around the site congregating at Göbekli Tepe [read more].

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. With traces of permanent settlement absent, for Göbekli Tepe 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. But of course that would not be the only occassions where people gathered at the site. Ritual activities would likely include minor feasts, with less people present, maybe even restricted to certain groups.

The enclosures excavated so far show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle, and distinct enclosures may have served different social entities [read more]. 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 western broadside of Pillar 43 in Enclosure D ist decorated completely with a variety of motifs (Photo O. Dietrich).

As already shown, 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 [read more]. 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 sum up, it seems that at Göbekli Tepe we see two social phenomena interact. Constant building activity generated a need for cooperation that was met by large work feasts that produced social cohesion. However, there are further social practises attestable that generate cohesion. The monuments served to memorize crucial knowledge, and, together with ritual performances that probably included smaller feasting events, to reaffirm group identity. The character of these groups remains unclear at the moment. Whether we are dealing with single clans, the male hunters of certain settlements, or secret societies as the users of the enclosures remains to be seen in the future.


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

Röder, J., Bilder zum Megalithentransport. Paideuma – Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, III 1-2 April 1944, 84-87.