Emblematic signs? On the iconography of animals at Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe was once called „a Stone Age zoo“ by its late discoverer Klaus Schmidt. This judgement is certainly appropriate, as the range of animals depicted is impressive. Bears, boars, snakes, foxes, wildcats, aurochs, gazelle, quadruped reptiles, birds, spiders, insects, quadrupeds, scorpions and many more are inhabiting the enclosures. But there is also some underlying structure to this zoo-like ensemble.


The enclosures in the main excavation area with their prevalent animal species (several photographers, copyright DAI).

The enclosures of Göbekli Tepe show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle. While in Enclosure A the snake prevails, in Enclosure B foxes are dominant, for example. In Enclosure C boars take over and in Enclosure D birds are playing an important role. Interpreting these differences as figurative expression of community patterns could probably hint at the different groups building the particular enclosures. Distinct enclosures may have served different social entities.


The character of these entities remains open to discussion at the moment. There are some clues however. Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing (Schmidt 2010, 70). For example, awls and points of bone are nearly completely absent. The tasks carried out with them probably were not practiced here, and it may well be that the part of the population carrying them out was absent, too. Further, clay figurines are absent completely from Göbekli. This observation gains importance in comparison to Nevalı Çori, where clay figurines are abundant, missing only in the ‘cult building’ with its stone sculptures and T-shaped pillars (Hauptmann 1993, 67; Morsch 2002, 148). Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male, and while evidence for some domestic tasks is missing, there is evidence for flint knapping on a much larger scale than in any contemporary settlement, and shaft straighteners are very frequent, too. Göbekli Tepe could have been a place for just a part of society, for male hunters. At least their ideology is exclusively represented at the site.

Anlage D

The pillars of Enclosure D (several photographers, copyright DAI).

But does that mean that all male hunters had access to the site? An answer is again hard to find, but another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures themselves. They are not of a size to accommodate very large groups of people at a time. If we imagine them open to the sky, then a certain public aspect would have to be taken into account, but another possibility is a reconstruction along the lines of largely subterranean buildings accessible through openings in the roof, similar to the kivas of the North-American Southwest, rather unimpressive and hidden from the outside. It is a distinct possibility that only a small group of people or ritual specialists had access to the enclosures. Taking into account the fierce and deadly iconography of Göbekli Tepe´s enclosures, male initiation rites including the hunt of fierce animals and the symbolic decent into an otherworld (especially if the enclosures really were roofed), symbolic death and rebirth as an initiate could have been one purpose of rituals at Göbekli Tepe.

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.

Hauptmann, Harald, 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 (Rome 2003) 37-69.

Morsch, Michael, Magic Figurines? Some Remarks about the Clay Objects of Nevalı Çori. In Magic Practices and Ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic. Proceedings of a Workshop held at the 2nd International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE) in Copenhagen 2000, edited by Hans Georg K. Gebel, Bo Dahl Hermansen and Charlott Hoffmann Jensen (Berlin 2002) 145–162.

Klaus Schmidt, “Ritual Centres” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/05, 13-21.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoning excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica (Ljubliana) 37, 2010, 239-256.

“Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe”. EAA Annual Meeting 2016

Göbekli Tepe

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


Between 31st August and 4th September, the 22nd Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologistzs will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Göbekli Tepe project will participate in this event with a paper by Oliver Dietrich on “Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe” in the frame of session TH3-09 Communities united: linking archaeological record and conceptual approaches on social cohesion, organized by Agnė Čivilytė and Laura Dietrich.

Here´s the abstract:

‘During the 10th and 9th millennia BC, at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia monumental circular enclosures made up of up to 5.5m high pillars, decorated richly, mainly with animal motifs, were erected by hunter-gatherer communities. One of the important questions regarding this site concerns the way in which small-scale groups joined their forces for construction work, creating a place that clearly is strongly connected to their worldview.
20 years of excavation have revealed some clues. The distribution of elements of Göbekli´s iconography evidences a catchment area of about 200km around the site as the homeland of these groups. A close look at the massive amount of filling in Göbekli´s enclosures reveals that these are not dealing sterile sediments. The material used to intentionally backfill the buildings at the end of their use-lifes consists of limestone rubble from the quarries nearby, flint artefacts and immense amounts of animal bones smashed to get to the marrow, clearly the remains of meals. With traces of settlement absent, for Göbekli Tepe this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized feasts as a mode to gather workforces and ensure cooperation. The present contribution will explore the likeliness and possible consequences of this scenario.’

See you there!

Friday, September 2nd, 2016, 9.15, Faculty of History, Room 331

Boars in Göbekli Tepe´s Enclosure C: just a story of hunters and prey?

Depictions and sculptures of boars predominate the imagery of Enclosure C. Pillar 12 for example has a very nice depiction of a boar with pronounced canine teeth. Next to this depiction a sculpture of a boar was found, obviously deposited there during refilling. Another deposition of a boar sculpture, this time together with stone plates, was found next to one of Enclosure C´s central pillars. The list continues with many further examples, as most boar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe are from Enclosure C. The richness of both  boar depictions  and sculptures hints at a special concern of the builders of that stone circle with wild boar. As other enclosures also feature a dominant animal species, there is the possibility that we are dealing with emblematic or totemic animals here. But not all of the depictions are just “emblematic” in character. It seems that some, or all, also tell a story.

In an earlier post [link], I have shortly reviewed the possibility of narrative elements in Göbekli Tepe´s iconography with regard to snake depictions. For example, 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.

Another pair of animals to which that kind of metaphoric “reading” might apply is boars and snarling predators. Both are depicted frequently at Göbekli Tepe, and in a highly standardized way. One cannot help to note the emphasis the depictions put on the dangerous parts of these animals, especially their teeth. Of special interest for an understanding of at least one aspect of the meaning of this imagery is Pillar 27 in Enclosure C. On its shaft there is a high relief of a predator moving downwards. Both, animal and pillar are made of one piece. Below the predator, a much smaller depiction of a boar was added in flat relief. The choice of different techniques for the images may not be coincidental. The small boar appears to be lying on the side, the predator moving towards it. One possible interpretation would be – again – a hunting scene, with the boar possibly depicted already dead.

At this point, another aspect of Enclosure C has to be mentioned. It is the only enclosure so far, where at least for one building phase a clear entrance situation (later blocked by a wall) could be discovered. The supposed entrance way is formed by two walls branching off almost rectangularly towards the south and running nearly parallel to each other. The walls are made of conspicuously huge stones which are worked on all sides. Like a barrier, a huge stone slab protrudes into this passage. The slab has not been completely preserved, however it is safe to say that once it had been provided with a central opening closed by a stone setting, of which two layers are still preserved. At the southern side of the slab, looking away from Enclosure C and towards the visitor, there is a relief of a boar lying on its back below the opening of the door hole. The reliefed porthole stone is accompanied by another building element. At first, in front of the porthole stone, the plastically carved sculpture of a strong beast of prey with a wide open mouth could be recognized. Whether it is a lion or a bear cannot be decided. Only 80cm away, we found a similar counterpart whose probably sculptured head, however, had been severed and is lost. When the excavation went on it became obvious that the second, eastern column, together with the western counterpart, belonged to one gigantic, monolithic, U-shaped object. Obviously, together with the porthole slab, it marked the entrance of Enclosure C.

So the scenery of Pillar 27 is somehow repeated at the very entrance of the stone circle. Not only are a boar in flat relief and three dimensional predators shown, this time the boar also lies on its back. But what could be the meaning of this? Or, more directly put, why would you portray an animal presumably important to  your group’s identity in an unfortunate condition? Some explanation might come from the predators here. They are often also portrayed in unfavourable conditions with their ribs clearly sticking out, as also on Pillar 27. Images of that sort are known from other contexts and sites in the Near Eastern Neolithic and beyond. They could reflect a dual symbolism of life and death, the interaction and correlation of both principles. This would fit with the general character of the enclosures. Their use-lifes included burial, the treatment of human imagery found inside them shows close relations to death ritual [link], as do finds of skull fragments with cut marks inside the filling. Symbolic death and rebirth are important features of rites of passage, as for example initiation ceremonies. The imagery could thus open up a path towards a deeper understanding of the functions of Göbekli Tepe´s enclosures.

Food for future thought, definitely.

Further reading

Klaus Schmidt, Die steinzeitlichen Heiligtümer am Göbekli Tepe, in: Doğan-Alparslan, Meltem – Metin Alparslan – Hasan Peker – Y. Gürkan Ergin (Hrsg.), Institutum Turcicum Scientiae Antiquitatis – Türk Eskiçağ Bilimleri Enstitüsü. Colloquium Anatolicum – Anadolu Sohbetleeri VII, 2008. 59-85.

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

Joris Peters, Klaus Schmidt, Animals in the Symbolic World of Pre-pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey: a Preliminary Assessment, Anthropozoologica 39.1,2004, 179-218.

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.

Oliver Dietrich, Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Cihat Kürkçüoğlu, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stairway to the circle of boars, Actual Archaeology Magazine Spring 2013, 30-31.

On half-skeletonized animals

Hodder, I. & L. Meskell, 2011. A “Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry”. Current Anthropology 52(2), 235-63.

Huth, C., 2008. Darstellungen halb skelettierter Menschen im Neolithikum und Chalkolithikum der Alten Welt. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 38, 493-504.

Schmidt, K, 2013. Von Knochenmännern und anderen Gerippen: Zur Ikonographie halb- und vollskelettierter Tiere und Menschen in der prähistorischen Kunst, in: Sven Feldmann – Thorsten Uthmeier (Hrsg.), Gedankenschleifen. Gedenkschrift für Wolfgang Weißmüller, Erlanger Studien zur prähistorischen Archäologie 1, 195-201.


How old is it? Dating Göbekli Tepe.

Dating sites and finds is the backbone of archaeology. Regarding Göbekli Tepe, we get lots and lots of questions about its chronology. These questions are absolutely legitimate (as actually really most of them are), and even more so with a site that claims to be the ‘first’ or ‘oldest’ (yet known) in many respects, the accuracy of dating becomes paramount. Of course we have a larger number of scientific publications on the topic, and more are under way as we type this. Yet academic publication sometimes needs its time and not everyone has access to a well-sorted research library. So, here we would like to provide a short summary of the story of Göbekli Tepe’s chronology.

Fig. 1

Table 1: List of radiocarbon data made on organic samples from Göbekli Tepe (DAI).

Fig. 2

Tabel 2: The main excavation area at Göbekli Tepe with origin of C14 samples (DAI).

Fig. 3

Table 3: Charts of radiocarbon data from Göbekli Tepe (DAI).

Fig. 4

Table 4: The calibrated radiocarbon data from Göbekli Tepe – single plots (DAI).

The period Göbekli Tepe was built in is addressed as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) after one of its main cultural traits, the absence of pottery vessels (there are clay figurines later in the PPN, however). The general chronological division for the Early Neolithic was developed in the Southern Levant, by Kathleen Kenyon on the basis of the stratigraphy of Jericho. She observed a fundamental distinction in the ground plans of buildings – round constructions in the earlier PPN A, rectangular buildings in the later PPN B. She further based her subdivision on differences in the material culture. These differences are most obvious in a certain find category: projectile points. Very detailed categorization schemes have been elaborated meanwhile, based on material from sites throughout the Near East. They serve as ‘guiding fossils’ for dating (yes, early archaeologists borrowed this term from geology).

At Göbekli Tepe, we can differentiate two layers which are completely different in the type of architecture appearing in them. Layer III, the lower and thus older layer, has the famous circular enclosures with the T-shaped pillars. Layer II is characterized by smaller buildings with rectangular groundplans. They sometimes also have pillars that are much smaller than the older ones however.

Göbekli Tepe

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

Projectile points from Göbekli Tepe include PPN A types like el-Khiam, Helwan and Aswad points; regarding the PPNB, Byblos and Nemrik points are very frequent, Nevalı Çori points are rare. They clearly show that the site was in use beginning from the PPN A and into the PPN B. A closer examination of the points reveals, however, that characteristic forms of the latest PPN B are missing. Göbekli Tepe was abandoned after the middle PPN B, i.e. around 8000 BC. That is the time when agriculture finally is fully established; the demise of a hunter-gatherer site would thus fit in this general picture. There are neither domesticated plants, nor animals at Göbekli Tepe. Radiocarbon data support the general archaeological dating (see below).


Filling material in Enclosure D (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).

So far so good, but there is a problem with this story. The enclosures of Layer III were treated in a special way at the end of their use lives. They were cleaned, part of their fittings dismantled, and refilled. During the refilling, objects that obviously had a great importance to PPN people were deposited in the filling [link]. However it seems that refilling was a relatively fast process. There are no intermediate sterile layers brought in by water or wind.

This refilling is fascinating in regard to the enclosure’s functions but poses severe problems for the dating of Layer III using the radiocarbon method, as organic remains from the fill-sediments could be older or younger than the enclosures, with younger samples becoming deposited at lower depths, thus producing an inverse stratigraphy. Another issue is the lack of carbonized organic material available for dating; only in the last campaigns have larger quantities been discovered.

Given these inherent difficulties, in a first approach the attempt was made to date the architecture directly using pedogenic carbonates. These begin to form on limestone surfaces as soon as they are buried with sediment. Unfortunately the pedogenic carbonate layers accumulate at a variable rate over long time periods, so a sample comprising a whole layer will yield only an average value. This problem can be avoided by sampling only the oldest calcium carbonate layer in a thin section: the result should be a date near the beginning of soil formation around the stone, i.e. near the time of its burial. Radiocarbon data are available from both the architecture of Layers III and II. Although the observed archaeological stratigraphy is confirmed by the relative sequence of the data, absolute ages are clearly too young, with Layer III being pushed into the 9th millennium, and Layer II producing ages from the 8th or even 7th millennia calBC. Therefore, the data fail to provide absolute chronological points of reference for architecture and strata. At most they serve as a terminus ante quem for the backfilling of the enclosures (Layer III) and the abandonment of the site (Layer II).

A far better source of organic remains for the direct dating of architectural structures is the wall plaster used in the enclosures. This wall plaster comprises loam, which also contains small amounts of organic material. A sample (KIA-44149, cf. Tables 1-4) taken from the wall plaster of Enclosure D gives a date of 9984 ± 42 14C-BP (9745-9314 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level), thus placing the circle in the PPNA. This approach will be pursued in more detail in the future. A series of 80 samples has already been dated and will be published soon.

Concerning the filling material from the enclosures, two approaches have been pursued, the first dedicated to the dating of animal bones and a second to ages made on charcoal. The archaeological appraisal of a recently acquired series of 20 data made on bone samples is quite complicated as they pose some methodological problems. At least within the group of samples chosen, collagen conservation is poor, and the carbonate-rich sediments at Göbekli Tepe may be the cause for problems with the dating of apatite fractions.

Carbonized plant remains have been very scarce at the site, thus limiting the possibilities for dating charcoal. Nevertheless, three charcoal samples are available for Enclosure A. While two samples (Hd-20025 and Hd-20036, cf. Tables 1-4) stem from back-fill and have been dated to the late 10th / earliest 9th millennium calBC, a third charcoal sample (KIA-28407, cf. Tables 1-4) was taken from beneath a fallen fragment of a pillar. This sample has provided a date for a possible final filling event around the mid-9th millennium calBC. It is confirmed by a measurement (IGAS-2658, cf. Tables 1-4) made on humic acids from a buried humus horizon that provides a terminus ante quem for Layer II in area L9-68, dating to the late 9th / early 8th millennium calBC.

Larger amounts of carbonized material have been discovered in deep soundings excavated in preparaiton of the construction of permanent shelter structures over the site in recent years. Two deep soundings were excavated directly adjacent to the ring wall belonging to Enclosure D, with three new ages obtained from charcoal recovered from the sounding in area L9-78. These samples were collected close to the bedrock, which in its interior forms the floor of this enclosure. Calibrated ages cluster between 9664 to 9311 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level (UGAMS-10795, 10796, 10799, cf. Tables 1-4), a time-span which is in good agreement with the earlier measurement made on clay mortar from the ring wall of Enclosure D between Pillars 41 and 42 (KIA-44149, 9984 ± 42 14C-BP, 9745-9314 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Tables 1-4). Based on these data, we now have a much clearer picture of the chronological frame within which construction activities took place in the area of Enclosure D. It is only regrettable that these four data all correspond to a period with a slight plateau in the calibration curve, thus resulting in larger probability ranges. Additional excavation work is needed to clarify the exact stratigraphical correlation of the three new charcoal dates with Enclosure D.

Finally, from the filling material of Enclosure D there is one new 14C-age made on collagen from an animal tooth found north of Pillar 33 (KIA-44701, 9800 ± 120 14C-BP, 9746-8818 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Tables 1-4). Taken together with another new measurement made on charcoal extracted from the same fill (Layer III) in area L9-69 (UGAMS-10798, 9540 ± 30 14C-BP, 9127-8763 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Table 1-4) there can still be no consensus regarding the time of abandonment and burial of this enclosure. Further radiocarbon measurements will be needed to clarify this process. Indeed, the animal tooth used to produce sample KIA-44701 (cf. Table 1) might even come from the enclosue’s use-life which, as we know, would have included the celebration of large feasts [link]. This line of thought would then allow for a considerable time (i.e. several hundred years) of use of the enclosure prior to its burial sometime in the late 10th or early 9th millennium calBC (UGAMS-10798, cf. Tables 1-4). But at the moment a rather short life-span of the enclosure remains possible too. At this point, reference should again be made to sample IGAS-2658 (8880 ± 60 14C-BP, 8241-7795 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, Table 1-4) taken from a humus layer in area L9-68. This date marks the last PPN activities in this area and provides a terminus ante quem for Layer II.

To present, only one date is available for Enclosure C (UGAMS-10797, 9700 ± 30 14C-BP, 9261-9139 calBC at the 91.6% probability level, cf. Table 1-4). This sample was taken from a deep sounding in area L9-97 between the outermost ring walls of the enclosure and close to the bedrock. This could indicate that building activities at the outer ring walls of this enclosure were underway during the backfilling of Enclosure D. However, a larger series of data and a close inspection of Enclosure C´s building history will be necessary to confirm such far-reaching conclusions.

As a preliminary conclusion, the still limited series of radiocarbon data seems to suggest that the Layer III enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were not exactly contemporaneous. Earliest radiocarbon dates stem from Enclosure D, for which the relative sequence of construction (ca. mid-10th millennium calBC), usage, and burial (late 10th millennium calBC) are documented. The outer ring wall of Enclosure C could be younger than Enclosure D. However, more data are needed to confirm this interpretation. Finally, Enclosure A seems younger than Enclosures C and D. With only eleven radiocarbon dates, many questions remain for the moment that our new series of data will hopefully answer.

Further Reading
B. Kromer, K. Schmidt, Two Radiocarbon Dates from Göbekli Tepe, South Eastern Turkey, Neo-Lithics 3/98, 1998, 8–9.

O. Dietrich, C. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data, Neo-Lithics 1/2013, 36-41.

Göbekli Tepe´s material culture
K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/2001, 45-54.

Dating of animal bone
O. Dietrich, Radiocarbon dating the first temples of mankind. Comments on 14C-Dates from Göbekli Tepe. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 4, 2011, 12-25.

Dating of pedogenic carbonates
K. Pustovoytov, 14C Dating of Pedogenic Carbonate Coatings on Wall Stones at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-Lithics 2/2002, 3-4.

K. Pustovoytov, H. Taubald, Stable Carbon and Oxygen Isotope Composition of Pedogenic Carbonate at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey) and its Potential for Reconstructing Late Quaternary Paleoenviroments in Upper Mesopotamia. Neo-Lithics 2/2003, 25-32.

K. Pustovoytov, K. Schmidt, H. Parzinger, Radiocarbon dating of thin pedogenic carbonate laminae from Holocene archaeological sites. The Holocene 17. 6, 2007, 835-843.

Dating of mud plaster
O. Dietrich, K. Schmidt, A radiocarbon date from the wall plaster of enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics 2/2010, 82-83.

Göbekli Tepe – The first 20 Years of Research

Part 1: A (Re-) Discovery (1994-1996)

Beitrag Göbekli Tepe_Abb. 1

Göbekli Tepe before the start of excavations in 1995 (Photo O. Durgut, copyright DAI).

Göbekli Tepe was for the first time recognized as an archaeological site during a large-scale survey project conducted by the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago in 1963. In his account of work in the Urfa province, Peter Benedict describes the site as a cluster of mounds of reddish soil separated by depressions. The slopes were clustered with flint, and he described what he thought to be two small islamic cemeteries. The impressions of the survey team are mirrored in early aerial photographs of the site, taken before excavations started. The reddish-brown tell with its hight of up to 15m and a diameter of 300 m is the only colourful spot on the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Situated on the highest point of this geological feature, Göbekli Tepe is a prominent landmark at the edge of the Harran plain. The surveyors identified the materials at Göbekli Tepe as Neolithic, but missed the importance of the site. Further research may also not have seemed possible because of the assumed islamic graveyards.

Between 1983 and 1991 large-scale excavations, in fact rescue excavations in advance of the construction of the Atatürk barrage, were under way at another important Neolithic site in the Urfa region, Nevalı Çori. Under the direction of Harald Hauptmann, a Neolithic settlement was excavated that had large rectangular domestic buildings often similar to Cayönü´s channeled buildings. However, excavations revealed also one building (with three construction phases) that was completely different from anything known before in the Neolithic of the Near East. Not only was a large number of monumental stone sculptures discovered, but the rectangular building itself had T-or Gamma-shaped pillars running along the walls, interconnected by a bench, and a pair of T-shaped pillars in the centre. Due to the representation of arms and hands, these pillars could be understood as highly abstracted depictions of the human body.


The “wishing tree” at the highest point of Göbekli Tepe in 1995. The slopes of the tell are littered with finds (Photo M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

Nevalı Çori was finally flooded by the Atatürk Barrage in 1991. But one of the members of the excavation team, Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014), wanted to find out whether there were more settlements like Nevalı Çori hidden in the Urfa region, with special buildings and elaborated stone sculpture. In 1994 he visited all Neolithic sites mentioned in the literature. Drawing on the experience gained at Nevalı Çori, Schmidt was able to identify the ‘tombstones’ at Göbekli Tepe as Neolithic work-pieces and T-shaped pillars. The moment of discovery is best described in his own words [author’s translation based on Schmidt 2006]:

“October 1994, the land colored by the evening sun. We walked through slopy, rather difficult and confusing terrain, littered with large basalt blocks. No traces of prehistoric people visible, no walls, pottery sherds, stone tools. Doubts regarding the sense of this trip, like many before with the aim to survey prehistoric, in particular Stone Age sites, were growing slowly but inexorably. Back in the village, an old man had answered our questions whether there was a hill with çakmaktaşı, flint, in vicinity, with a surprisingly clear „Yes!“. And he had sent a boy to guide us to that place […]. We could drive only a small part of the way, at the edge of the basalt field we had to start walking […]. Our small group was made up of a taxi driver from the town, our young guide, Michael Morsch, a colleague from Heidelberg, and me. Finally we reached a small hill at the border of the basalt field, offering a panoramic view of a wide horizon. Still no archaeological traces, just those of sheep and goat flocks brought here to graze. But we had finally reached the end of the basalt field; now the barren limestone plateau lay in front of us. […] On the opposed hill a large mound towered above the flat plateau, divided by depressions into several hilltops. […] Was that the mound we were looking for? The ‘knocks’ of red soil Peter Benedict had described in his survey report, Göbekli Tepe, or to be more precise, Göbekli Tepe ziyaret? […] When we approached the flanks of the mound, the so far gray and bare limestone plateau suddenly began to glitter. A carpet of flint covered the bedrock, and sparkled in the afternoon sun, not unlike a snow cover in the winter sun. But this spectacular sight was not only caused by nature, humans had assisted in staging it. We assured ourselves several times: These were not flint nodules fragmented by the forces of nature, but flakes, blades and fragments of cores, in short artifacts. […] Other finds, in particular pottery, were absent. On the flanks of the mound the density of flint became lower. We reached the first long-stretched stone heaps, obviously accumulated here over decades by farmers clearing their fields […]. One of those heaps held a particularly large boulder. It was clearly worked and had a form that was easily recognizable: it was the T-shaped head of a pillar of the Nevalı Çori type…”.


S1, the first test trench at Göbekli Tepe (Photo M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

At the moment of its re-discovery in 1994, Göbekli Tepe was nearly untouched by modern activities. The tell could be reached only by foot or horse. The only use, agriculture without deep ploughing, was documented by the extensive ‘walls’ of stones cleared from the fields. Due to heavy winter rains, the possibilities for agriculture are good throughout the region, but Göbekli Tepe is the only spot of arable land in the wider area.

Systematic survey preceded fieldwork. It resulted in a wide range of finds, including sculptures not unlike the ones already known from Nevalı Çori. Excavation work was initiated by Klaus Schmidt the following year, as a cooperative project with the Museum of Şanlıurfa under the direction of Adnan Mısır and the Istanbul branch of the German Archaeological Institute under the direction of Harald Hauptmann.

A first test trench was opened at the base of the southeastern slope, where a modern pit had been cut through a terrazzo floor. Already in this first excavation area a peculiarity of the site was recognized: the tell is not formed mainly of earth and loam. Göbekli Tepe’s sediments are largely made up of limestone cobbles, bones and flints, mixed with relatively little earth. The trench further revealed rectangular buildings characteristic for what was later determined as Layer II, dating to the early and middle PPN B. Two rests of pillars further confirmed the similarities between Göbekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori.

Anlage A

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

Excavation work did not continue in this area in the next year. During the first field season one of the landowners had started work to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He had dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar head 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 enclosures of Göbekli Tepe´s older layer (Layer III).

The ground plan of what was later called Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A nearly destroyed by the farmer, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench of the enclosure. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the left 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. It is most likely that they represent a real object, some kind of stola-like garment.

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 a stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 is not 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. Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four.

The following field seasons have revealed astonishing features and finds at Göbekli Tepe that considerably have changed our image of complexity, creativity and organization of the last hunter-gatherers of southwest Asia.

To be continued – stay tuned for future posts on the fascinating history of research at Göbekli Tepe!

Read the full story here:
Klaus Schmidt, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel. Das rätselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjäger. Die archäologische Entdeckung am Göbekli Tepe. C.H. Beck: München (2006).

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

The original survey report by Peter Benedict:
Benedict, Peter. 1980. “Survey Work in Southeastern Anatolia.” In İstanbul ve Chicago Üniversiteleri karma projesi güneydoğu anadolu tarihöncesi araştırmaları – The Joint Istanbul – Chicago Universities Prehistoric Research in Southeastern Anatolia, edited by Halet Çambel and Robert J. Braidwood, 150-91. Istanbul: University of Istanbul, Faculty of Letters Press.

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.

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.