Guarded by beasts: a porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe

During the 2009 and 2010 excavation seasons at Göbekli Tepe, several new trenches at the northwestern hilltop of the tell were opened. Below the plough horizon, as we already had expected, soon rectangular rooms appeared, the characteristic features of the younger Layer II at Göbekli Tepe. However, in the eastern part of the new trenches, the rooms ended quite abruptly. Instead of them, for some time, there was – more or less nothing. That is, of course we were not digging in sterile soil, the sediments were full of finds, just the architecture was missing.


Göbekli Tepe, the areas on the northwestern hilltop under excavation in 2010 (Photo O. Dietrich).

What do you do as an archaeologist in such a situation? Dig on, of course. And after some days of rather monotonous work, that simple strategy paid off. The colour of the sediment suddenly changed into a reddish tone. At Göbekli Tepe, this is a clear indication that you have reached the filling sediments of the older building layer III. And, just to confirm the rule, soon the head of a new monumental pillar appeared.

Unfortunately we were not able to resume work in those areas on the northwestern hilltop in the following years, as other excavation areas and preparation for the construction of permanent shelter structures over the site required the full attention of the excavation team. However, besides new information on the layer II architecture of the side, two important discoveries came from our work in the ‘north-west’.


Göbekli Tepe. A monumental porthole stone from the northwestern hilltop areas (Photo O. Dietrich).

First, a very important detail for the interpretation of the site in general: it seems, that the situation in the main excavation area in the southeastern depression of the tell is not unique. There, the layer II buildings largely exclude the area of the monumental enclosures. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, as a roughly semi-circular ‘terrace wall’ physically marked the position of the Enclosures A-D, giving the tell an amphitheare-like appearance.

Second, in one of the areas, a very important find was made. What seemed in the moment of discovery to be a larger worked stone, a usual thing at Göbekli Tepe, turned after several days of detailed excavation into a  monumental porthole stone. Several such stones with a central opening are known from the site, and they could have played a role as entrances to the enclosures or other buildings. One of them lies approximately in the centre of Enclosure B and gives some reason to think about an entrance through a possible roof for that bulding.

However, the new porthole stone from the northwestern areas was completely different, and that not only regarding its enormous measurements of c. 3x3m. First, unlike all examples found before, it has two openings. Second, it is richly decorated with three c. 0.5m long sculptures of quadrupeds (bull, ram and a wildcat) and a 1.5 m long snake in high relief, as well as a row of cupholes. Unfortunately, the stone was not in situ, that is, not in its original architectonic context. But the decorations clearly show that it must have been part of an important building whose entrance had to be guarded accordingly.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, in: Mehmet Özdoğan – Nezih Başgelen – Peter Kuniholm (Hrsg.), The Neolithic in Turkey. New Excavations & New Research. The Euphrates Basin, Archaeology and Art Publications (2011): 50-52.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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…


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


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

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

Updated 05/03/17 with some more information on our views of the spherical object above the vultures wing for that reason.

Some images on Göbekli Tepe’s pillars indicate a  narrative meaning. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. The whole western broad side of this pillar is covered by a variety of motifs. Dominant is a big vulture. It lifts its left wing, while the right wing points to the front. It is possible that this gesture aims at the sphere or disc that can be seen above the tip of the right wing. But to the right of the vulture another bird, maybe an ibis or a young vulture is shown.  If we take this image as a depiction of a young bird, then the stretched-out wing of the vulture could be a gesture of protection, and the sphere could be the egg the young bird hatched from. Another possibility would be a depiction of the sun or the moon. However, the scenery could also mean something completely different, as we will see below.

To the right above this scene, a snake, two H-shaped symbols and wild fowl are depicted. On the pillar’s shaft, a huge scorpion as well as the head and neck of another bird are dominating the scene. While some more reliefs to the left of the scorpion and the bird are hidden by the perimeter wall, to the right of the bird’s neck an especially interesting motif is depicted. Due to damage to the pillar it is not preserved completely, but the representation of a headless human with an erect penis is quite clearly recognizable. The depiction seems to relate to aspects of Early Neolithic death cult known from several sites and offers another interpretation for the spherical object aboive the vultures wing: it could be the depiction of the person’s head. But even without giving too much weight to this aspect of the pillar’s reliefs, it is clear that the intention behind the imagery goes well beyond depicting nature.

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

Read more:

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

On the interpretation of the disc-shaped object:

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. ex oriente e.V.: Berlin (2012): p. 244.

Why did it have to be snakes?

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

P01 - Schlangen vgl.jpg

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

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


Pillar 20 in Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

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

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

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

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