A Sanctuary … or so fair a House?

Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range in southeastern Turkey. The spot is hostile to settlement; the next accessible springs are located in a distance of about 5 km northeast (Edene) and to the southeast (Germuş). A number of pits at Göbekli Tepe’s western slope could represent cisterns to collect rain water; although their exact date could not have been determined yet. With a total capacity of 153,12 cubic metres (cf. Herrmann-Schmidt 2012) they may have accumulated enough water for people to stay there for a longer periods of time, but probably not during the whole rainless summer. The next Neolithic settlements so far known were found in the plain in immediate vicinity of nearby springs, like for example Urfa-Yeni Yol.

From its discovery onwards, the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe’s suprising architecture has centered around the terms ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude), ‘sanctuaries’, or even ‘temples’. Naturally, this line of interpretation has been called into question. As already discussed here, it is indeed quite challenging to use a rather strictly defined historical terminology and complex spiritual concepts to describe the material remains of prehistoric phenomena. Even more while cult, ritual and ultimately religion are concepts often cited but rarely clearly defined by archaeologists.

Just recently a colleague challenged the existence of pure domestic or ritual structures for the Neolithic, arguing that archaeologists tend to impose modern western distinctions of sacred vs. profane on prehistory, while anthropology in most cases shows these two spheres to be inseparably interwoven (Banning 2011, 624-627). In his eyes, Göbekli Tepe rather was a settlement with buildings rich in symbolism, but nevertheless domestic in nature. Undisputedly, this boundary is perceived much stricter today after centuries of secularization in the western hemisphere, although it should be noted that this differentiation indeed also is known from non-western societies, too. Banning’s arguments that in-house inhumations, caches and wall paintings are demonstrating that ‘the sacred’ clearly is leaking into everyday live in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Banning 2011, 627-629) and that therefore a clear distinction is impossible to define, is valid, too, of course. In fact the idea of manifestations of the sacred in houses or parts of houses is neither new, nor surprising as already M. Eliade pointed out in his seminal work on the entanglement of the sacred and profane. Yet Eliade also emphasized that belief and faith of course could focus within special places and structures particularly dedicated to give ‘the sacred’ a room: “… the sanctuary – the center par excellence was there, close to [man], in the city, and he could be sure of communicating with the world of the gods by entering the temple.” (Eliade 1959, 43). All this is essentially theoretical thinking, based on historical sources and ethnologic observation. But going back to prehistoric periods which are denying such direct access, we are thrown back again at a selection of what is left physically and intentionally – exclusively. In case of the enclosures unearthed at Göbekli Tepe this means to focus on the material culture found in this context and the structures themselves.

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Pillar 31, one of the central pillars of Enclosure D, illustrates the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars due to the depiction of arms, hands, and a loincloth. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Among these, still the monumental T-shaped pillars can be regarded as the site’s most prominent and most defining moment. While they remain faceless, the depiction of arms, hands, and clothing clearly identifies these up to 5.5 m high pillars as anthropomorphic, but distinctively also larger than life at the same time. Their highly abstracted character must be considered intentional, in particular since we know of the existence of more naturalistic and life-sized sculptures like for example the contemporaneous ‘Urfa man’ and numerous heads of similar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. So, even though we cannot know if these buildings actually were really meant to house gods or deities, the peculiar role of these larger-than-life anthropomorphic images forming the centre and main element of the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe remain conspiciously disctinctive to the life-sized sculpture heads which were apparently carefully deposited in the backfill.

Early Neolithic domestic architecture is well known in the upper Euphrates region due to the long and secure stratigraphy of rectangular buildings at Çayönü Tepesi (Schirmer 1988; 1990; Özdoğan 1999) and extensive excavations at Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1988) for instance, both stiuated in Turkey. Contemporaneous with Göbekli Tepe in this sequence would be Çayönü’s so-called grillplan-phase (PPNA), the ‘channeled’ ground plans (early PPNB; attested also in Nevalı Çori), and the ‘cobble paved buildings’ (middle PPNB). Research of the last 20 years in the region has revealed that almost every settlement site of the 10th and 9th millennium BC, which was excavated more extensively, shows a spatial distinction into living quarters and workshop areas and furthermore produced special buildings or free spaces for apparently communal or ritual activity. Characteristic traits of these so-called special purpose buildings are benches at the inner walls, rich and elaborate inner fittings as well as outstanding installations and finds like (stone) sculptures and sometimes human burials – as the examples of Nevalı Çori’s ‘Terrazzo Building’, Çayönü’s ‘Skull’, ‘Terrazzo’ and ‘Flagstone Buildings’ or the communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet (northern Syria) demonstrate, to just name some.

special-buildings

‘Special purpose buildings’ of the PPN: 1. Çayönü, ‘Flagstone Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11c), 2. Çayönü, ‘Skull Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11b), 3. Çayönü, ‘Terrazzo Building’ (after Schirmer 1983, fig. 11a), 4. Nevalı Çori (after Hauptmann 1993, fig. 9), 5. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 9), 6. Mureybet (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 2), 7. Jerf el Ahmar (after Stordeur et al. 2000, fig. 5).

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Reconstruction of the ‘Terrazzo Building’ at Nevalı Çori where T-Pillars were found for the first time. (Photo: H. Hauptmann, reconstruction: N. Becker, DAI.)

At Göbekli Tepe no traces of this well-documented typical domestic PPN architecture could have been proven as of yet. But the existing structures at the site clearly mirror features and layout of those outstanding communal ‘special purpose’ buildings which usually are the exception within settlements. At Göbekli Tepe, however, this building type is not an exception, but the general rule – almost overrepresented compared to other settlement sites, while whole object classes (like clay figurines for instance) known from these settlements are almost completely absent.

Summing up, from our point of view there seems to be ample evidence to interpret Göbekli Tepe as a peculiar place formed of special purpose structures related to cult and ritual with distinct and fixed life-cycles of building, use, deconstruction and burial. All of these stages seem to be marked by specific ritual acts, of which the last, i.e. those related to burial and deposition of symbolic objects are naturally best visible in the archaeological record. What remains is largely a problem of adequate terminology to address these buildings and the site as a whole. If ‘temple’ is understood as a technical term for specialized cult architecture, one could indeed consider this lable for Göbekli Tepe. If the term is defined in our western perception as a place where a god is present, maybe ‘sanctuary’’ would be a more neutral description; alternatively the auxiliary construction of ‘special purpose buildings’ (Sondergebäude) may be used to escape any trap of culturally bound denominations. But in any case one thing is sure: the idea that Göbekli Tepe’s buildings are “so fair a house” seems not the most convincing interpretation of the available evidence so far.

A more detailed discussion of this question can be found in:

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

References:

E. E. Banning, So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East, Current Anthropology 52/5, 2011, 619-660.

M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Brace & World 1959.

H. Hauptmann, Nevalı Cori: Architektur, Anatolica XV, 1988, 99-110.

H. Hauptmann, Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Cori. In: M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae and M. Mellink (eds.), Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata. Rome: Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, 37-69.

R. A. Herrmann and K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – Untersuchungen zur Gewinnung und Nutzung von Wasser im Bereich des steinzeitlichen Bergheiligtums. In: F. Klimscha, R. Eichmann, C. Schuler and H. Fahlbusch (eds.), Wasserwirtschaftliche Innovationen im archäologischen Kontext. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH, 2012, 57-67.

A. Özdoğan,  Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan and N. Başgelen (eds.), Neolithic in Turkey. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1999, 35-63.

W. Schirmer, Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi, Anatolica XV, 1988, 139-159.

W. Schirmer, Some Aspects of Building at the ‘Aceramic Neolithic’ Settlement of Çayönü Tepesi, Wolrd Archeology 21/3, 1990, 363-378.

D. Stordeur, M. Brenet, G. der Aprahamian and J. C. Roux, Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPN A (Syrie), Paleórient 26/1, 2000, 29-44.

Call for Papers: “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?”

We frequently get questions regarding the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe, and much of our work really centers around that issue. Is it a temple, a sanctuary, something else? How does Göbekli Tepe relate to similar phenomena in contemporaneous and later sites? We want to throw some more light on this by asking the following question in a session organised in the frame of the EAA Annual Meeting 2017 in Maastricht. 

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What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?

Organizers: Oliver Dietrich1, Laura Dietrich1; Deniz Erdem 2; Jens Notroff 1; Krisztián Oross3

(1. German Archaeological Institute, Orient Department; 2. Centre of Research and Assessment of Cultural Environment (TACDAM), Middle East Technical University; 3. Institute of Archaeology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Extraordinary features which challenge conventional interpretations are readily denoted as ‘special’ by archaeologists. ‘Special buildings‘ is an often-used label in Near Eastern Archaeology for constructions deviating in architecture, elaborate inner fittings, finds and often also treatment after the end of use (intentional destruction, burial) from domestic spaces. ‘Special buildings’ start to exist during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region between the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, well-known examples come inter alia from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el Ahmar, Nevalı Çori, or Çatalhöyük.

The term ‘special building’ is not unknown in the European Neolithic, although with a considerably different meaning. In Europe, constructions such as megaliths, earthworks and ditches have been approached in ways similar to the ‘special buildings’ of the Near East, without labelling them as one group however.

A general approach to this issue is still missing. The essential question is whether by ‘special buildings’ we are facing a phenomenon common to Neolithic societies which has to be considered another component of the so-called Neolithic Package.

The session follows two main questions:

  1. Are there really commonalities between the buildings categorized as special, i.e. is ‘special buildings’ more than an ill-defined label for the uncommon? Could we converge the information to a common definition?
  1. Is there a tradition of ‘special buildings’ throughout the Neolithic, are they part of the ‘Neolithic package’ transferred from the Near East to Europe? If so, what elements travel, what meanings change?

 

Submission for Papers and Posters is open from  3 Febrauary 2017, session number is 322:

http://www.eaa2017maastricht.nl

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.

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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.

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

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.

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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].

A Brief Report on Fieldwork at Göbekli Tepe in 2016

In 2016 construction work commenced on two permanent shelters at Göbekli Tepe. These structures will provide additional protection from the elements (wind, sun and rain) to archaeological features in excavation areas in the south-eastern and north-western parts of the site. Fieldwork in spring and autumn of this year concentrated on the documentation of prehistoric architecture in areas affected by building activities. Additional time was spent in the site find-depots, including sorting and inventory work of stored archaeological materials. These measures were essential in preparation for pending analyses and studies taking place in the frame of the recently initiated research phase.

In the course of our excavations at one of the positions assigned to shelter support constructions in the so-called main excavation area in the south-eastern hollow, work was concentrated on the previously unexcavated part of a rectangular stone structure (‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56) of the type commonly assigned to Layer 2 (attributed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period).

1

Plan of the western parts of the ‘southeast hollow’ (main excavation area). The location of ‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56 is marked with a black frame.

In the northwest quarter of the room fill deposits were left untouched in order to provide additional support for the T-pillar (PXIII) located (still in-situ) at a central position at the western end of the room. The base of this T-pillar was found to be embedded in a raised platform at the western end of the building. In the northeast corner of the room a stone feature was revealed. This feature is comprised of three low (c. 50 cm high) walls (to the north, east and west). Two of the walls (to the north and east) are constructed of limestone blocks and were built up against the main walls of the room. The southern wall of the feature is made of a large worked limestone slab, perhaps a fragment of a T-pillar or similar object. The feature is open to the west. A lack of evidence for burning would speak against its function as an oven. Excavations within the building yielded numerous finds, including chipped stone and animal bone remains. A large stone vessel was found in-situ on the floor of the building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Ch. Hübner, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Anlage H. Ein Vorbericht beim Ausgrabungsstand von 2014, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.) Anatolian Metal VII – Anatolien und seine Nachbarn vor 10.000 Jahren / Anatolia and Neighbours 10.000 years ago. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 31, Bochum 2016, 53-69. [external link]

Full research ahead!

Last week about two dozen colleagues, specialists of several disciplines from archaeology, geography, zoology and botany to anthropology, building research, and beyond were gathering in the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute here in Berlin to discuss the many new facets, challenges, and opportunities the Göbekli Tepe research project will encounter now with the new 3-year project phase just launched a couple of weeks ago.

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Current and future Göbekli Tepe research project staff. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Future research will shed more light on, among others, the site’s stratigraphy and the complex building history of the enclosures, the interesting treatment of human and animal bones found there and what this would mean in the wider context of Pre-Ptottery Neolithic subsistence adnd society. Together with the colleagues we will gain new information on the variety of sculptures and reliefs, on prehistoric climate and environment, and much, much more.

We look forward to an interesting and productive research phase ahead and to present these colleagues and their fascinating work, just like Laura who lead off here recently with her research into preparation of vegetable meals at Göbekli Tepe, in the coming weeks. Watch this space.

“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).

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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)

P33

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.

Upcoming: “Leaping Foxes, Dancing Cranes – Human-Animal Entanglement in a Hunter’s World”

November 24th 2016 Aarhus University [external link] will held a seminar on “Tracing Animism in Human Evolution: Inter-species Entanglements in pre-Modern Human Beliefs” as part of their “Material Culture Heritage” programme [external link].

“Animism is the belief that animals, plants, objects and other beings of nature are animated with ‘souls’. It is a cosmology in which nonhuman creatures and things are believed to have motivations, feelings and agency very similar to or identical with those of human beings. Thus, communications with and relations between the spirits, animals and humans are fundamentally social. Animism is closely associated with shamanistic practices and its inherent idea of shape-changing and of hybrid existences between animals, humans and things. Since the work of Tylor (1871) animism has often been conceptualized as the original form of religion in hunter-gatherer societies hence characterizing the outset of human history. There is in current research, however, a growing awareness of the changing nature of animism, which may take different forms in different societies and thus is not solely tied to a hunter-gatherer way of life. Based on case studies, experimental evidence and cross-cultural comparisons, the seminar papers explore whether there is a transcultural essence and multi-period presence of animism, whilst the perspectives taken represent archaeology as well as psychology and history of religion.”

Organised by by Armin W. Geertz (Study of Religion Research Program), Mathias Bjørnevad Jensen & Helle Vandkilde (Materials Culture & Heritage, Archaeology) the seminar will take place from 13:00 to 17:00 in AU Moesgård’s Foredragssalen (lecture hall). Represented by Jens Notroff, the Göbekli Tepe research project is glad having been invited to comment on the seminar’s topic from an early Neolithic perspective and present insight into latest research at this Pre-Pottery Neolithic site in southeastern Anatolia. Our contribution titled “Leaping Foxes, Dancing Cranes – Human-Animal Entanglement in a hunter’s world” will explore the changing self-perception of Neolithic hunters’ role and interaction within their environment.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 7

(Photo: DAI)