A-Sitting on a Tell (Our contribution to the “Day of Archaeology” project)

Yesterday, July 29th was this year’s “Day of Archaeology” [external link] – a project aiming to “… provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world.” Happy to be invited to contribute as well, we thought to share some impressions from a typical day excavating at Göbekli Tepe – ‘just another day in the (field) office’ so to say …

4.30 o’clock. Ante meridiem. Definitely too early for an honest “Good morning.” not pressed through clenched teeth. It’s still dark outside, the dim light barely enough to distinguish a black thread from a white one: The muezzin just called the faithful to prayer and, probably unintentionally, the archaeologists to finally get up as well. Breakfast at such an early hour basically consists of not more than some strong tea, a slice of soft white flatbread (which will be rather dry within the hour), and a handful of olives – taken in the quiet and still fresh morning air of the excavation house’s courtyard in the light of setting stars and a single light bulb. Actually, it’s too early for an honest breakfast too.

The next 20 minutes or so expedition’s staff is silently gathering over tea and bread in dining room and yard before it is time to go. For work, finally. On leaving the historic oriental brick-house in the old part of this eastern Anatolian town, everyone grabs a piece of equipment or provisions for the day to come and one after another heads through the narrow alleys towards the waiting mini bus and driver. A 20-minutes-ride through yet still abandoned streets lies ahead – to the excavation site outside and beyond town. The last chance for a nap.

Dim Alleys

To work. Through dim alleyways. (Photo: J. Notroff)

As we arrive on this early Neolithic site, somewhere up in the mountains of southeastern Turkey, a pale moon is still hanging around a sky only slowly changing from black to blue. Groups of local workmen just arrived minutes before by tractor from a village down the hill. Still dressed in coats and cardigans against the morning coolth, they are waiting for day’s work to  start while the bunch of students and scientists are collecting tools and instruments, equipment and journals. Finally, first light is sounding the bell for the workday to start as a still shy sun is hesitantly peeking above the eastern horizon. Workmen and archaeologists alike are heading to the excavation trenches, a caravan of shovels and buckets, of head-scarves and hats. Everyone knows his place and assignment; gangs finding together following a long-established system (and dare you trying to change this!): There’s two diggers, a shoveller, and two basket-carriers. Always. All of them accompanied by a student ready to label, note, and measure any find of interest they may unearth.


Early birds. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Soon the air is filled with the sound of pickaxes and of chanting and laughing workmen; their bright purple headscarves fluttering in a breeze. Soil is shifted, rocks are moved. Basket after basket of debris is brought out of the trenches. As the dust of history is slowly removed, the ancient remains are rising gradually: Boulders, slabs, and walls pulled back into present-daylight. Slowly the earth is releasing those secrets of the past it was keeping for so many years. For centuries. For millennia.

And so business is going on. And on. The dusty work only interrupted by a short breakfast. Children from the nearby village are coming around, bringing their fathers and uncles and brothers some food and cool water. Everyone’s hungry – and more lively – by now, so this breakfast is a much more substantial and communicative matter than the sparse and mute one in the very morning: Over yet another tea (there’s always tea, get used to it), over some cheese and flatbread, over tomatoes and cucumbers and olives, conversations are drifting around the table for half an hour of otiosity. Half an hour of lethargic rest in the shadows; the sun – not shy at all anymore – now showing its true nature, relentlessly burning down from a shimmering sky. There’s no other shadow out there, so returning to work means returning into the heat of a furnace.


Breakfast. (Photo: T. Yildiz)

Excavation View

As dusty as busy. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Back in the dust soon the clanking of picks loosening dirt and rubble can be heard. A group of visitors, marvelling at the site’s sight, takes the chance to curiously quiz the archaeologists before returning to their air-conditioned busses. Workmen continue to dig; students still are busily taking notes, picking out small pieces of charcoal and fragments of flint tools and stone vessels from the excavated soil, collecting them in buckets and plastic bags – each labelled with date and information on their exact find spot. Two workers are intently hauling a large sculpture to the edge of an excavation trench. Dirt is sifted dry and wet (a rather dusty respectively muddy business); a steady flow of find material is coming towards provisional lab and office facilities in the excavation’s ‘headquarters’ of construction containers and tents upon the next hill crest – eagerly awaited by specialists, keen to have a look onto the latest piece of obsidian or the peculiar amazing new stone sculpture.

Help Needed

“There’s help needed at the sieves.” (Drawing: J. Notroff)

While the sun is moving towards its zenith, work’s pace is decreasing noticeably. It’s an arduous business and after eight hours of digging, just when midday’s heat is reaching its peak, everyone is happy to call it a (field) day. Last measurements are taken and yelled and noted, last photos are taken too; tools and instruments, equipment and journals are collected and put away yet again. Bidding good bye, the crew of workmen is boarding tractors and trailers, leaving for that small village down the hill – dragging behind a dustcloud all the way. Buckets full of small finds are loaded into the mini bus and taken to the excavation house. As the bus is slowly crawling down the dirt track everyone’s trying to find a comfortable position, finally taking another short rest – legs stretched, the dusty hat pulled down over the eyes. With the madness of an average oriental big city’s rush hour the drive back costs a multiple of the time the way there in morning did took us – enough time for a nap also. Appreciated.


Daily commute. (Drawing: J. Notroff)

Back in town, as we leave the car and head through heated-up narrow old-town alleys towards the excavation house, buckets and pieces of equipment in hand, the muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer again. Well, for the archaeologists it’s lunchtime for now; the cook is already waiting. Of course a meal in the Orient is not finished without the mandatory tea (you get the idea), so showers still have to wait for yet another 10 minutes or so. There’s got to be time for that.

But even now work isn’t done yet for the day. After the refreshing effect of a shower (and fresh clothes; don’t you ever underestimate the effect of fresh clothes!), everyone’s gathering in the excavation house’s courtyard – again. The buckets brought back from site are emptied, the finds carefully cleaned and washed, sorted, and spread onto coarse screens to let them dry in the sun. Meanwhile those finds of the day before, now all clean and dry and pretty, are examined, sorted, listed, catalogued, drawn and photographed where necessary. Let alone the paperwork. Field notes and reports. Accounting and administration. More reports. Over are the times where an expedition to the middle of nowhere, far from home, office, and institute meant one wouldn’t be on call. In the age of globalization, mobile communication, and wifi even in the back of beyond, everyone’s expecting to receive an answer to e-mail, text, and phone call – preferably within the hour.

Excavation House

Afternoon shift at the dig house. (Photo: J. Notroff)

The darkness of night has already fallen (summer over here almost skipping the twilight of dusk), the muezzin has called the faithful to prayer one last time for today. Over dinner, some conversation and, finally!, a beer or glass of wine, another day’s slowly facing its end in the dim evening light of the excavation house’s courtyard. Sooner or later everyone’s pushing off; it’s not going to be a very long night – about 4.30 o’clock, ante meridiem, the muezzin will call the faithful to prayer again. And the archaeologists to finally get up. Again.

This short article was obviously inspired and fuelled by Agatha Christie Mallowan’s “Come, Tell Me How You Live” (the title of this contribution directly deriving from a poem in the short epilogue of her book). This ‘Archaeological Memoir’, published in 1946, gives an account of her days in the field together with her husband Max Mallowan (esteemed British archaeologist and excavator of Tell Brak, Tell Arpachiyah, and other sites) describing the daily routine of an archaeological excavation. It is a very entertaining, a witty and spirited little book; one I’d personally recommend not only to archaeologist-colleagues. Christie Mallowan (indeed identical to the well-known crime novelist you just may have thought of) slipped quite some of these archaeological adventures and experiences into her better known ‘Whodunnits’: “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “Death on the Nile” (1937) evocating long and colourful journeys to these sites and “Murder in Mesopotamia” (1936) even depiciting an extraordinary dramatically case of ‘excavation fever’ – not at all unknown to those who can relate such a situation (minus the murder though, most likely).

Entering a new Project Phase

The coming weeks will herald in a new phase of research for the Göbekli Tepe project. Not only are we looking forward to the arrival of new staff members, proven experts in many different fields, we are also launching new sub-projects with internationally renowned scientists and institutions on important topics like stratigraphy and chronology, building research, and the detailed analysis of a broad range of find groups together with the site’s archaeozoology and geography.

This new multi-disciplinary team will turn its attention to the scientific evaluation and publication of earlier excavation results, combined with entirely new areas of study, certainly culminating in new insights of Göbekli Tepe in its cultural, economic, and environmental landscape. More information will follow in due course. Stay tuned!


View upon the most recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe’s northwestern depression. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Who built Göbekli Tepe?

Well, the short answer would be: Stone Age people with Stone Age tools. Nothing more needed, no aliens, no giants, as you can read here. For an answer to the question, who these Stone Age people were, where they came from and lived (Göbekli Tepe is not a settlement), we will have to make the finds speak.

 A point to start is the distribution of sites with similar architecture. Göbekli Tepe is not the only site with T-shaped pillars. Similar sites concentrate roughly between the Upper Balikh and the Upper Chabur rivers [read more here]. They clearly mark a region with similar cultural traits. However, the area the builders of Göbekli Tepe came from exceeds this region by far.

Gusir Höyük (Karul 2011, 2013) in the Turkish Tigris region has considerably widened the distribution area of circular enclosures. However, the pillars discovered there are slightly different, they miss the T-bar. Similar stelae have been discovered in Çayönu (Özdoğan 2011) and in Qermez Dere (Watkins et al. 1995). In addition to these two different architectonic regions, to the west, in northern Syria, a third distinct building style can be pointed out. Domestic sites like like Jerf el Ahmar, Mureybet or Tell ´Abr 3 (Stordeur et al. 2000; Yartah 2013) also have circular communal buildings. These are constructions with pisé walls and wooden supports however. Upper Mesopotamia can thus be differentiated by building traditions. But the common element is the existence of similarly arranged communal buildings, and, more important, of a range of common symbols.

Figure 2

Distribution of Göbekli Tepe´s iconography and of wild wheats (Map: T. Götzelt, Copyright DAI).

For example, shaft straighteners and plaquettes from Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur & Abbès 2002) and Tell Qaramel (Mazurowski & Kanjou 2012), as well as Tell ´Abr 3 (Yartah 2013), and Körtik Tepe (Özkaya & Coşkun 2011) feature decorations in the form of snakes and scorpions, quadruped animals, insects, and birds strongly reminiscent of the iconography of Göbekli Tepe, where they appear not only on the pillars, but also on similar items.

Göbekli Tepe 2002

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

Most striking in this regard is a small plaquette from Göbekli Tepe. From the left to the right, it shows a snake moving upwards, a stylized human figure (?) with raised arms, and a bird. What makes this small find so interesting, is that the combination of depictions reappears not only in similar (e.g. in Jerf el Ahmar with a fox in place of the human-shape?), but also in completely and nearly identical form twice on another site, Tell Abr´3 in northern Syria (Köksal-Schmidt & Schmidt 2007; Yartah 2013, with images [external link]).

The same range of depictions of snakes, scorpions, quadrupeds, insects, and birds occurs on thin walled stone cups and bowls of the Hallan Çemi type (Rosenberg & Redding 2000). Fragments of this vessel type are known from Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü (Özdoğan 2011), Nevalı Çori, Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur & Abbès 2002), Tell ´Abr 3 (Yartah 2013), and Tell Qaramel (Mazurowski & Kanjou 2012), while complete vessels have been discovered at Körtik Tepe in large numbers (Özkaya & Coşkun 2011) as part of rich grave inventories. Another connection is suggested by the zoomorphic scepters of the Nemrik type, which are present at Hallan Çemi, Nevalı Çori, Çayönü, Göbekli Tepe, Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, Jerf el Ahmar, and Dja´de (Kozłowski 2002).

We thus see a large area in Upper Mesopotamia connected by a similar iconography. While, as detailed above, several domestic sites show some aspects of this world, it concentrates at non-domestic Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe

El-Khiam-, Helwan-, Nemrik- and Byblos-Points from Göbekli Tepe (Photo Irmgard Wagner, Copyright DAI).

The range of flint projectile points made on-site may further strengthen the impression of people from different areas gathering here (Schmidt 2001). PPN A types present at Göbekli Tepe include el-Khiam, Helwan and Aswad points; regarding the PPNB, Byblos and Nemrik points are very frequent, Nevalı Çori points are rare. Nemrik points have an eastern distribution pattern within the fertile crescent, el-Khiam and Byblos points are distributed to the west, within the Levant, Nevalı Çori points more to the north and the middle Euphrates area (Kozłowski 1999). It has to be stressed here that those points were not imported-the flint used is clearly local. At Göbekli Tepe, the whole reduction sequence is attested, although flint is not present at the limestone plateau, but had to be brought to the site from the surrounding valleys. Most of the primary production is based on naviform cores. Flint knapping took place in an abundance not known from contemporaneous sites. Maybe some characteristic of the place made it especially desirable to use points made there. Another possible point in favor of people from a larger area congregating at Göbekli Tepe is presented by raw material sourcing of the obsidian found onsite [read more here – external link].

So, to finally answer the question of who built Göbekli Tepe: Stone Age people coming from a radius of roughly 200km around the site. With Stone Age tools.


  • Karul, N. (2011). Gusir Höyük. In: Özdoğan, M., Başgelen, N. & Kuniholm, P. (eds), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Archaeology & Art Publications, Istanbul 1-17.
  • Karul, N. (2013). Gusir Höyük/Siirt. Yerleşik Avcılar. Arkeo Atlas 8, 22–29.
  • Kozłowski, S.K. (1999). The eastern wing of the Fertile Crescent. Late prehistory of Greater Mesopotamian lithic industries. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Kozłowski, S. K. (2002). Nemrik. An aceramic village in northern Irak. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology Warsaw University.
  • Mazurowski, R.F., Kanjou, Y. (eds., 2012). Tell Qaramel 1999–2007. Protoneolithic and Early Pre-pottery Neolithic Settlement in Northern Syria. Warsaw: Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology.
  • Özdoğan, A. (2011). Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 185-269.
  • Özkaya, V. & Coşkun, A. (2011). Körtik Tepe. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 89-127.
  • Rosenberg, M. & Redding, R.W. (2000). Hallan Çemi and early village organization in Eastern Anatolia, in Kuijt, I. (ed.), Life in neolithic faming communities. Social organization, identity and differenziation. New York et. al.: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 39-61.
  • Schmidt, K. (2001). Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient 26/1, 45-54.
  • Stordeur D. & Abbès. F. (2002). Du PPNA au PPNB: mise en lumière d’une phase de transition à Jerf el Ahmar (Syrie). Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, 99(3), 563-595.
  • Stordeur, D., Brenet, M., Der Aprahamian, G. & Roux, J.-C. (2000). Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPNA (Syrie). Paléorient 26, 1, 29-44.
  • Watkins, T., Betts, A., Dobney, K. & Nesbitt. M. (1995). Qermez Dere, Tel Afar, north Iraq: third interim report, in T. Watkins (ed.) Qermez Dere, Tel Afar, north Iraq: interim report no 3. Edinburgh: Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, 1–9.
  • Yartah, T. (2013). Vie quotidienne, vie communautaire et symbolique à Tell´Abr 3 – Syrie du Nord. Données nouvelles et nouvelles réflexions sur L´horizon PPNA au nord du Levant 10000-9000 BP. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Lyon.

Further Reading (links to fulltexts)

  • Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. & Zarnkow, M. (2012). The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86, 674-695.
  • Köksal-Schmidt, Ç & Schmidt, K. (2007). Perlen, Steingefäße, Zeichentäfelchen. Handwerkliche Spezialisierung und steinzeitliches Symbolsystem. In: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (ed.), Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit, Stuttgart, 97-109.
  • Schmidt, K. (2005). “Ritual Centres” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia. Neo-Lithics 2/05, 13-21.

The current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars


Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).

The characteristic element of Göbekli Tepe´s architecture are the T-shaped pillars. In the older Layer III (10th millenium BC) the monolithic pillars weigh tons and reach heights between 4 m (pillars in the stone circles) and 5.5 m (central pillars). The T-shape of the pillars is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the pillars. Often the pillars bear further reliefs, mostly depictions of animals, but also of numerous abstract symbols.
Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the 9th millenium BC. This layer is not characterised by big round enclosures, but by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5 m.

Karahan_D. Johannes

T-shaped pillar visible on the surface at Karahantepe (Photo: D. Johannes, Copyright DAI, Schmidt 2006, Fig. 94).

The large pillars are so far only known from Göbekli Tepe. This may change over time however, as there now are several sites that show smaller pillars, resembling those of Göbekli Tepe´s younger layer. T-shaped pillars resembling the smaller examples from Göbekli Tepe’s Layer II were first recorded at the settlement site of Nevalı Çori. Several more sites in the near vicinity of Göbekli – Sefer Tepe, Karahan, and Hamzan Tepe – are known to have similar pillars, but no excavation work has been carried out so far. With the Neolithic site of Urfa-Yeni Yol, which seems to have revealed a small T-shaped pillar in the course of construction work in that area, with Taşlı Tepe, and with Gusir Höyük three more related sites were added to this list recently. A further addition to the sites with T-shapes is the so-called Kilisik statue, that closely resembles the general pillar form but has more naturalistic features [find a text by Marc Verhoeven on this find here – external link].

While most sites concentrate in a rather small radius around Göbekli Tepe, Gusir Höyük in the Turkish Tigris region [more information – external link] has considerably widened the distribution area of circular enclosures, however the pillars discovered there are slightly differently shaped – they seem to be missing the bar of the T. Similar stelae have been discovered in Cayönü and Qermez Dere. As only Gusir Höyük has been excavated, nobody can tell at the moment what the other sites might hide.

Further reading
Çelik, Bahattin. 2011a. “Karahan Tepe: a new cultural centre in the Urfa area in Turkey.” Documenta Praehistorica 38: 241–253.

Çelik, Bahattin. 2011b. “Şanlıurfa—Yeni Mahalle.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 139–164. Archaeology & Art Publications, Istanbul.

Çelik, Bahattin, Güler, Mustafa, Güler, Gül. 2011. A new Pre-Pottery Neolithic settlement in southeastern Turkey: Taşlı Tepe. Anadolu / Anatolia 37: 225-236.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1988. “Nevalı Cori: Architektur.” Anatolica XV: 99-110.

Karul, Necmi. 2011. “Gusir Höyük.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 1–17. Archaeology & Art Publications, Istanbul.

Karul, Necmi. 2013. “Gusir Höyük/Siirt. Yerleşik Avcılar.” Arkeo Atlas 8: 22–29.

Moetz, Fevzi K. and Bahattin Çelik 2012. “T‑shaped pillar sites in the landscape around Urfa.” In Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by Roger Matthews and John Curtis, 695–703. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden.

Losing your head at Göbekli Tepe

Just back from this year´s ICAANE in Vienna, where a very inspiring workshop on the “Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory” was organized by Jörg Becker, Claudia Beuger and Bernd Müller-Neuhof. As publication of the contributions will take some time, here is a small summary of our musings on anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is a special site in many respects: its location is hostile to settlement, no water sources are in vicinity; domestic building types missing; only selection of material culture is present (very few bone tools, clay figurines absent); and there is a considerable investment of resources and work. This investment was not only made in building Göbekli Tepe. At the end of their uselifes, all buildings of layer III (PPN A, 10th millennium) were intentionally and very rapidly backfilled. The filling consists of limestone rubble from the neolithic quarry areas on the adjacent plateaus, mixed with large quantities of animal bones, flint debitage, artefacts and tools. Before backfilling started, it seems that the buildings were cleaned. If roofs should have existed, they were dismantled at that time, because absolutely no traces of them were found.


The filling material of Enclosure D (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

The backfilling obviously is a limiting factor for our understanding of the function of the enclosures, as very few in situ deposits connected to the use-time of the buildings remain. However, it seems that the backfilling was a very structured process that included certain deliberate acts. Between them, the deposition of artefacts and sculptures inside the filling, often next to the pillars, is most striking.

Figure 8

Deposition of a boar sculpture an stone plates next to one of the central npillars of Enclosure C (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

So, at Göbekli Tepe we do not know very much about the actual usetime of the buildings. We have however the enclosures themselves, their layout, and the richly decorated pillars as starting points. And we know a lot of the things people did with these enclosures at the end of their uselife. It seems that they tried to highlight certain aspects of the enclosures´ meaning through their actions.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

Western central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

There are several different categories of human imagery at Göbekli Tepe. Most impressive are the T-shaped pillars. The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Whether we are dealing with depictions of ancestors of different importance, or even of gods, would be a topic for itself and an answer is hard to find at the moment.
What is clear however is that both central and surrounding pillars share the abstracted form. This abstraction is not due to the limited skills of Neolithic people in depicting the human body. It is a deliberate choice that has a meaning.

Abb. 3--GT14_1785-1786_5979

Anthropomorphic sculpture; torso and head, limestone. The only case in which fitting fragments of an anthropomorphic sculpture were found at Göbekli Tepe  (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The other important category of depictions are more naturalistic sculptures. A total of 143 sculptures was found so far at Göbekli Tepe. Of those, 84 depict animals, 43 humans, 3 phalli and 5 are human-animal composite sculptures. It is striking that most anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe is fragmented. Of the 43 human-shaped depictions, only 9 can be regarded as complete, if we do not take smaller damages into account. What is also striking is that – in spite of large-scale excavations – there is only one case in which fitting fragments were found. If we have a closer look at the fragments preserved, a pattern emerges. The fragments preserved in the highest numbers are heads, not the often bigger torsi. The large number of broken off heads, and the regulated fractures, speak in favor of intentional fragmentation.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 17

A selection of anthropomorphic heads from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: DAI).

Further, the heads were not discarded randomly. They were deposited carefully in the enclosure fillings, often next to pillars. Their treatment is similar to zoomorphic sculpture in this respect. However, zoomorphic depictions are most often complete, there is no indication of intentional damage. So while deposition patterns are similar, pre-deposition treatment is not. Human heads seem to have had a special role in the beliefs connected with the enclosures.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 21

Distribution of sculptures in the main excavation area of Göbekli Tepe (Map: Thomas Götzelt, Graphics N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The special role of separated human heads is also visible in Göbekli Tepe´s reliefs. Immediately behind the eastern central pillar of Enclosure D the fragment of a relief was found. It shows a human head among several animals – a vulture and a hyena can be clearly identified. Another example is Pillar 43, also in Enclosure D. There, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted among several birds, snakes and a large scorpion. The interaction of animals with human heads is even clearer from several composite sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. They show birds, but also quadrupeds sitting on top of human heads or carrying them away. A relation of this kind of iconography with early Neolithic death rite and cult is evident.

The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN. One of the most remarkable examples is the skull building from Cayönü. At this site, the situation is very much opposed to Göbekli Tepe however. There are lots of burials, but only a few anthropomorphic depictions. At Nevali Cori, burials with separated skulls, in one case with a flint dagger still in place, were discovered, but also an imagery that is very similar to Göbekli Tepe. For example, the so-called totempole shows a bird sitting on a human head. There is also a larger number of limestone heads from Nevali Cori, mirroring the situation at Göbekli Tepe to some degree. Of course, one could also add the special treatment of human heads in many southern Levantine sites, but also at Köşk Höyük and Catalhöyük here. At Catalhöyük, we find many of the elements observable at Göbekli Tepe still in place in a much later context. This includes iconography of birds carrying away human heads, special treatment of heads in burials and figurines with intentionally broken off heads, or with heads designed from the start to be taken off.

To sum up, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence of a hierarchy of anthropomorphic depictions. The central pillars of the enclosures are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic by arms hands, and items of clothing. The surrounding pillars are also abstracted, but smaller, and show mainly zoomorphic decorations. They are looking towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering.
Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture is smaller and intentionally fragmented. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly heads, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. This practise is highly evocative of elements of neolithic death cult that also reflects in Göbekli´s iconography.
It seems that the abstracted pillar-beings represent another sphere than the naturalistic sculptures. Zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculpture is placed next to them. The connection to death rites could indicate that the pillars belong to that sphere. Whether we are dealing with depictions of important ancestors here, and whether the deposition practice of fragmented sculpture, and, during the use-time of the enclosures, possibly human heads- vizualizes that new members are added to this group, remains a question for further studies.

Further reading:
Nico Becker, Oliver Dietrich, Thomas Götzelt, Cigdem Köksal-Schmidt, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Iain Morley (Hrsg.), Death shall have no Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – A Worldwide Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2016), 65-81.

On Çayönü:
Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1989. „Çayönü. A Conspectus of recent work.“ Paléorient 15: 65-74.

Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1998. „Buildings of cult and the cult of buildings.“ In Light on top of the Black Hill. Studies presented to Halet Çambel, edited by Güven Arsebük, Machteld J. Mellink and Wulf Schirmer, 581-601. Istanbul: Ege Yayınları.

Özdoğan, Aslı. 2011. “Çayönü.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 185-269. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1988. „Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi.“ Anatolica XV, 139-159.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1990. “Some aspects of buildings at the “aceramic-neolithic” settlement of Çayönü Tepesi.” World Archaeology 21, 3: 363-387.

On Nevalı Çori:
Hauptmann, Harald. 1988. “Nevalı Cori: Architektur.” Anatolica XV: 99-110.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1993. “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori.” In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink: 37-69. Rom: Gruppo Editoriale Internazionale-Roma.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1999. “The Urfa Region.” In Neolithic in Turkey, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan and Nezih Başgelen, 65-86. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları.

On Çatalhöyük:
Hodder, I. 2011. Çatalhöyük. The Leopard´s Tale. London: Thames and Hudson.

On Neolithic death and skull cult (just a few points to start from, there is vast literature on this):
Bienert, H.-D. 1991. Skull Cult in the Prehistoric Near East, Journal of Prehistoric Religion 5, 9-23.

Bonogofsky, M. 2005. A bioarchaeological study of plastered skulls from Anatolia: New discoveries and interpretations, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 15, 124-135.

Croucher, K. 2012. Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lichter, C. 2007. Geschnitten oder am Stück? Totenritual und Leichenbehandlung im jungsteinzeitlichen Anatolien, in: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (Hrsg.), Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-Württemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, 246-257.

To light or not to…


The relief on Pillar 51 in Enclosure H under different light conditions: at the moment of discovery with hard light from one side, on a cloudy day, and a night shot with directed light (Photos: N. Becker, (c) DAI).

Photographs are far from objective. They suggest meaning through the selection of the scene, but also through a certain perspective, focal point, light. Everyone who has held a camera in hands will agree on this, and it is also true for archaeological photographs.Many photos from Göbekli Tepe that you will see on this website or in publications were taken using artificial lighting. Often the background is black. This may be perceived as the attempt to create a certain mood. The objects, pillars and reliefs may appear more enigmatic, gloomy, related to another realm. As we interpret Göbekli Tepe as a site associated with Neolithic cult and religion, this would certainly fit.

Pfeiler 18 mit Podest 2

A possibility for “objective” documentation? 3D-scan of Pillar 18 in Enclosure D (Graphics :Hochschule Karlsruhe, (c) DAI).

The explanation for the use of artificial lighting is another one however. Apart from some photographs, where it really was done for artistic reasons (see for example Berthold Steinhilber´s lightworks of Göbekli Tepe-external link), directed light is necessary in many cases to enhance the details of reliefs and surfaces in general.
If you visit Göbekli Tepe around the afternoon, like many people do, you could be slightly disappointed. Due to the sun´s position, many reliefs will not be visible very well. Some you will not be able see at all. Nearly every pillar at Göbekli Tepe has its “own time“, when reliefs will be best visible. Not in all cases really good, but best under direct sunlight conditions. Moreover, this “best moment” may also coincide with heavy shadows on other parts of the pillar. This is why night shots with directed light are the better choice in many cases.
Direct sunlight may also not have been the way the pillars were illuminated during Neolithic rituals. They do not seem to be made for this. The question whether the enclosures were roofed is still under debate, but there is also the possibility that activities took place after sunset and the reliefs were illuminated dramatically by fire.
But indifferent of this question, we are absolutely aware of the “dramatic” atmosphere generated in these pictures. And it turned out that some journals, including a few aimed at a scientific audience, liked the night shots much better than even good daylight images. It is clear that the images we use to describe a site or a find are not neutral. They can imply an interpretation of the site or of the artefact in question, or at least subtly influence the reader´s perception. Even a very neutral image, let´s say of an axe, with a white background and a scale, sends a message: that of absolute scientific objectivity.

So, here is the big question: How should we, as archaeologists, use images?

How did they do it? Making and moving monoliths at Göbekli Tepe

The T-shaped pillars discovered at Göbekli Tepe are big. The central pair of Enclosure D measure 5.5 m and weigh in at 8 metric tons each. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but still reach around 4 m. How Stone Age people were able to make these pillars and to transport them seems a mystery to many of the site’s visitors. We can however offer some answers to both questions, as we are in the lucky situation to know where the pillars come from.

Beitrag Göbekli Tepe_Abb. 1

Göbekli Tepe lies at the highest point of the Germuş mountain range, on an otherwise barren limestone plateau. The plateau served as raw material source for Göbekli Tepe’s buildings (Photo: M. Morsch, ©DAI).

Göbekli Tepe lies on an otherwise barren limestone plateau at the highest point of the Germuş mountain range. The quarry areas for the megalithic workpieces lie on exactly that plateau. As there are several loci with impressive traces of the Stone Age masons, the plateau forms part of the archaeological site and reservation.

The location for the quarries was not chosen without reason. 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. As limestone goes, the material at Göbekli Tepe is pretty hard and cristalline, and there are no carstic phenomena. Which means that it is a first class raw material for sculpting and masonry. Even the hardest limestone is however so soft that it can easily be worked by flint tools.

Flint picks, and possibly also wooden tools were used to dig channels in the form of the desired workpiece into the limestone. The Stone Age quarry workers would choose a location on the plateau where the banks had approximately the thickness of the final piece. When they reached the fault line, most probably wooden beams and wedges were used to lift the piece out. Although the limestone at Göbekli Tepe is of good quality, in several cases something went wrong and nearly finished pillars, stone blocks, rings and other pieces were left in the quarries. This is an especially lucky situation for the archaeologist, as we can observe the techniques employed first hand.

Göbekli Tepe

A T-shaped pillar of approximately 7 m length left in the quarries on the western plateau (Photo: © DAI).

Most impressive is a T-shaped pillar far out on the edge of the western plateau. The location shows another work-reduction strategy: if you start at the edge of the plateau, you do not have very much material to remove on one side. And you know exactly how thick the limestone bank is before you start. The pillar still lying here is the largest discovered so far at Göbekli Tepe. It has 7 m and is 1.5 m thick. Why exactly it was left at the quarry site is not clear. A small crack may have formed in the stone during work, or some kind of natural flaw became visible. With workpieces that big, small flaws mean an instability that will most likely cause the pillar to break during transport or installation at its final location. In this case, the distance to the tell is several hundred meters. Another possibility is that the project turned out to be just a little too big in the end.

For the second part of such a project, the transport, direct traces are absent from Göbekli Tepe. Ethnographic evidence from Indonesia, where megaliths are built still today at grave sites, hints at sledges and wooden planks as the tools of choice. The number of people involved is hard to guess. The distances the monoliths had to be hauled to the tell are comparatively small at Göbekli Tepe, in the worst case about 500m, in the best less than 100m. But the monoliths hewn from the bedrock are large and heavy, in case of the 7.0m pillar the weight would have been around 50 metric tons. Ethnographic records from the early 20th century report that on the Indonesian island of Nias 525 men were involved in hauling a megalith of 4 cubic meters (considerably smaller than at GT) over a distance of 3 km (considerably more than at GT) to its final location in 3 days using a wooden sledge (Schröder 1917). That such a large number of participants is not necessarily caused by the labour involved exclusively, shows another example from Indonesia. In Kodi, West Sumba, the transport of the stones themselves used for the construction of megalithic tombs is ritualised and asks for a large number of people involved as witnesses (Hoskins 1986).

So, even if the making of the large pillars is not such a big mystery, and absolutely possible with Stone Age tools and detailed knowlegde of the raw materials (no need to involve aliens here!), there are still some open questions to resolve.

Hoskins, J. A. (1986) So My Name Shall Live: Stone-Dragging and Grave-Building in Kodi, West Sumba. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 142/1, 31–51.

Schröder, E. E. W. (1917) Nias, ethnographische, geographische en historische aanteekeningen en studien. Leiden: Brill.

Further reading:
Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. Eine Beschreibung der wichtigsten Befunde erstellt nach den Arbeiten der Grabungsteams der Jahre 1995-2007, in: Erste Tempel – frühe Siedlungen. 12000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur. Ausgrabungen und Forschungen zwischen Donau und Euphrat. Herausgegeben für ArchaeNova e.V., Isensee, Oldenburg (2009) 187-223.

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