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.

The Göbekli Tepe ‘Totem Pole’


The ‘totem pole’ from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Every excavation season at Göbekli Tepe reveals new remarkable finds and although the overall spectrum of objects to be exspected is known quite well, there are also surprises. One of these was a large sculpture discovered in 2009 and excavated in 2010 superficially reminescent of the totem poles of North Americas` natives.

The sculpture had been set in the north-eastern wall of a rectangular room of Layer II and was not visible originally due to the wall completely covering it. It has the remarkable length of 1,92 metres. The pole features three main motives, one above another. The uppermost motive depicts a predator, probably a bear or a large felid. The frontal part of the head had been obliterated in antiquity; the surface of the break is covered with a thin limestone coating. Below the head, a short neck, arms and hands are visible. Their human like shape is remarkable. Although we might postulate that this depicts a “Mischwesen”, such as the “Löwenmensch” from the Aurignacian site of Hohlestein Stadel in Southwest Germany, we still cannot eliminate the possibility that these features were intended to depict animal arms and legs and not human limbs. The arms (or legs) are holding another head, which again lost its face in antiquity.


Find situation of the ‘totem pole’ after removal of wall stones in front of it (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Significantly, the motive of a wild beast holding a human head is well known from several sculptures from Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe. For this reason it is very probable that the lost face of the head being held by the “Löwenmensch” (or bear / lion / leopard) was that of a human. This suggestion is further strengthened by the fact that human arms are depicted below the head. The hands are placed opposite one another and on the stomach of the individual. This is a manner which is clearly reminiscent of the T-shaped pillars. Below the arms and hands a second person is visible. Fortunately, the face of this individual is completely preserved. Also depicted is the upper part of the body, including the arms and hands. Below the hands there is an unidentified object. It seems likely that the person is depicted giving birth, albeit that a very different explanation is also conceivable, e.g. the person could be presenting his phallus. Below the arms of the predator (or “Löwenmensch”) at both sides of the pole, large snakes are visible. Their large heads (one is partly damaged) are situated just above the head of the small individual. Below the heads of the snakes, structures are visible which might be interpreted as the legs of the uppermost human. It seems obvious that such a piece made of stone must also have had parallels in wood which have failed to survive the millennia. However, it should be noted that fragments of a quite similar totem pole-like object made of limestone were already discovered some 20 years ago in Nevalı Çori.

Read more

Köksal-Schmidt, Çiğdem, Klaus Schmidt, The Göbekli Tepe “Totem Pole“. A First Discussion of an Autumn 2010 Discovery (PPN, Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 1/10, 74-76.

Enclosure B, a short overview

Second in our series of short overviews of the architecture of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer comes Enclosure B – which also was the second structure discovered during excavations.

The ground plan of this enclosure is round, with an internal diameter of nearly 10 metres. Two central pillars and a total of eight pillars in the surrounding ring wall have been discovered so far. Most of these pillars are undecorated and none of them, as far as their front (i.e. ‘belly’) sides are visible, are adorned with the raised lateral parallel bands thought to depict a stola-like garment.


Pillar 6 in Enclosure B (Photo: I. Wagner, copyright DAI).

Pillar 6 in the southern part of Enclosure B shows the relief of a quadruped animal from above on the small side of the pillar’s head. It resembles a reptile, but there are also similar PPN depictions which may depict leopards. On the pillar-shaft a snake is depicted crawling down. It is worth noting that all reliefs are found on the backside of the pillar, i.e. not facing towards the central pillars, a clear indication that Pillar 6 likely represents a case of secondary use.

Pillar 7, also located in the south of Enclosure B, has a largely obliterated relief on the right side of its head. There is also an old damage visible at the same pillar’s shaft and its head seems to have been reshaped at some point, resembling actually more a “Γ” than the typical “T”. Pillar 8 is located in the southeastern ring wall and has not produced any reliefs so far. In the eastern ring wall Pillar 14 has been excavated only partially. It bears the relief of another quadruped animal, maybe a fox, on the right side of its head which, however, is largely covered by the ring wall. Pillar 15, also in the eastern wall, stands parallel to the central pillars. That is unusual compared to the other circular enclosures’ layout where the pillars of the ring are facing the central pillars – most likely this indicates another case of secondary use of older pillars. Pillar 15, too, has no reliefs so far. And while Pillar 16 is still largely hidden in a baulk, Pillars 34 and 58 have not been completely excavated as of yet.

Both central pillars of Enclosure B, Pillars 9 and 10, bear a fox depiction – which thus dominate the reliefs of this scarcely decorated building. The fox on the western broad side of Pillar 9 is large, it measures about 110 cm. The fox on Pillar 10 follows this relief in position and measurements. Below it the shallow engravings of a boar and three dogs are visible, probably a later added hunting scene. Between these two central pillars a terrazzo floor was exposed in an area covering several square metres. This is a significant difference to most of the other PPN A enclosures discovered at Göbekli Tepe so far where the floor was formed directly of the (carefully smoothed) natural bedrock. The terrazzo may somehow work as imitation or ‘replacement’ of the limestone floor here and we can not exclude yet that there is some older floor level underneath. Interestingly, in front of central Pillar 9 a stone bowl was discovered – embedded right into the terrazzo which forms the floor of Enclosure B. A small channel running to to this bowl underlines its possible role in rituals which seem to have taken place here between both central pillars.


Porthole stone found in situ in a wall in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B (Photo: N. Becker, copyright DAI).

To the south of the central pillars, a  bit off the Enclosure’s center, a so-called porthole stone was found lying on the terrazzo floor. ‘Porthole stones’, i.e. roughly quadrangular megalithic workpieces with one or two central openings are known in larger numbers from Göbekli Tepe. There are good arguments to interpret them as possible entrances, as another example found in a deep sounding to the north of Enclosure B demonstrates. This richly decorated porthole stone was found in situ, embedded into a wall. Whether the other example, found in the enclosure’s center, was installed orginally in a wall, too, or maybe in a possible roof, must remain unclear so far and may be answered by further research.

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. 


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:

Enclosure A, a short overview

During the first field season at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 one of the landowners had started to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar with a sledgehammer. Fortunately he could be persuaded to stop, and in the 1996 work started in this area. What came to light here was the first of the monumental buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer (Layer III), later called Enclosure A.

Anlage A

Enclosure A in 1997 (Photo: M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

The ground plan of Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. First radiocarbon data suggest that it may be a little younger than other Enclosures, C and D, and maybe the rectangular shape already could indicate the transition to the later, rectangular, Layer II building type. The existence of different outer walls may as well hint at a longer building history and possible alteration over toime. However, Enclosure A is still not entirely excavated, so any description must remain preliminary as of yet.

Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench leaning against the inner walls of the building. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the south-western side of Pillar 1. The front side of this pillar carries a central groove running vertically from below the head to its base, covering about one third of its width. This groove and the raised bands to either side are decorated with five snakes in bas-relief. Maybe this is a depiction of a stola-like garment which is similarly known from other pillars as well. Pillar 2 carries on its right side a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox, and crane. Its narrower back side is adorned with a bucranium between the vertical bands of another stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 was not found in its original position, but was at some time moved to this, secondary, location. In the course of this action, the original back side of the pillar became its front and vice versa.


Göbekli Tepe, detail of the main excavation area with Enclosure A (Plan: K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).

Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four, though it is expected that this number will rise once excavations are continued in this area. Pillar 5 shows a snake again, Pillars 3 and 4 are without reliefs. Pillar 17 was heavily destroyed already in prehistory, and is without reliefs so far, too. As with all the buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer, one animal species seems to dominate the imagery of Enclosure A. In this case, it is the snake which appears noteworthy often.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, The Urfa-Project 1996, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/96,2–3.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/1, 2001, 45-54.