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 death of an aurochs: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 66, Enclosure H

Next in our series about the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (here, and here) is P 66 in Enclosure H, located in the northwestern depression of the tell. The most prominent decoration of this pillar is a large horned beast engraved with rough lines on one broadside. The animal is depicted in side view, its legs are flexed and its tongue is hanging out of the mouth. All this taken together could mean that the animal is depicted dead. Below it a smaller animal is shown, possibly in similar condition.


Pillar 66 in Enclosure H (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

Of course this depiction is immediately reminiscent of the two famous paintings from buildings F.V.1 and A.III.1 at Çatalhöyük, showing large cattle surrounded by considerably smaller human figures (e.g. Russell 2012: 79-80, Figure 2). Mellaart’s original interpretation of the depictions as hunting scenes has been widely discussed, and we agree with Russell (2012) who has collected the multitude of different opinions – from hunting or teasing over sacrifice to ritual bull leaping – that chances of arriving at a definite interpretation are low. However, we believe that Rice (1998: 81) has a point when he observes that the tongues hanging out of these animals´ mouths and the positions of their legs may indicate that the animals are depicted dying or dead. Most important, and that is agreed upon in nearly all interpretations, are the differences in size between humans and cattle in the images. The tiny human figures encircling the large (dead?) animals clearly indicate how awe-inspiring big cattle must have been for Neolithic people. The size of the animal is emphasized also in the new depiction from Göbekli Tepe – by the smaller animal depicted alongside the large bull.

The two animals however do not seem to be the original decoration of the pillar. They are scratched into the surface with rough lines, which is usually indicative of preparatory drawings for reliefs at Göbekli Tepe. Moreover, above the large animal´s head a rest of an older relief, maybe of a bird, and several unclear lines are visible. The placement of the pillar deviates from the usual arrangement, it is not ‘looking’ towards the central pillars, but stands parralel to them. Taken together, all clues hint towards a secondary use of an older pillar.

A large worked block was placed on the pillar´s head. This has been observed also for other pillars, especially those of Enclosure B in the main excavation area. A possible explanation could be height compensation, at least in the case that the pillars originally carried a roof.


Rice, M. 1998. The Power of the Bull. New York.

Russell, N. (2012): Hunting Sacrifice at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: Porter, A.M. & Schwartz, G.M. (eds.), Sacred Killing. The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the ancient Near East, Winona Lake, 79-95.


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.

A Sanctuary … or so fair a House?

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

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

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

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

“Dances with Cranes” – Animal masquerade in Pre-Pottery Neolithic ritual.

The detailed and complex, often supposedly even narrative reliefs at Göbekli Tepe’s T-pillars are one of the most fascinating features of the site (next to its impressing monumentality of course). The crucial question of its interpretation is well related to our understanding of the iconography and what it meant in its creators’ world view. Do the respective animals represent certain segments within Pre-Pottery Neolithic hunter communities, are they depicting actual events or do they give a more mythological account of spiritual concepts?

Among the skilful naturalistic reliefs, predominantly depicting animals in an accuracy that bears witness of a close relation to and careful observation of nature, birds seem to take on a special role. Water birds like ducks and cranes, but also storks, ibises, and vultures are a recurring motif in this stone-age picture book. In particular because of this careful and dedicated naturalistic representation of the animals depicted, an image on Pillar 2, one of the earliest discovered T-pillars at Göbekli Tepe, was puzzling from the very beginning (Schmidt 2012, 116-119). There, underneath an aurochs and a fox, a crane was carved into the limestone (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Pillar 2, Göbekli Tepe. Showing reliefs of aurochs, fox, and crane. The latter one with an extraordinary, rather not brid-like leg-anatomy. (Photo: DAI)

Again, one can only admire the virtuosity of this work, clear outlines forming the animals in the typical flat relief style well attested at the site from other carvings already. Yet something about that crane looks incongruous. Its long legs seem a bit odd, resembling much more those of a human than what would be expected as typical for a bird. Upon closer inspection a bird’s legs appear to bend backwards – so quite the opposite of what is depicted here. Actually, and we have to emphasise this here for any (archaeo-)zoologist’s peace of mind, this is only half true since bird-knees are situated much closer to their pelvis inside the body and not visible outside; what often is (erroneously) mistaken for the knees are in reality their tarsal (ankle) bones. However, the depiction of that crane on Pillar 2 still looks off from what could be seen in nature – so, would this mean rather poor observation skills or a lazy craftsman in this case? Since other reliefs from the site do properly depict bird anatomy (cf. Fig. 2), ignorant artists do not seem to be the most convincing explanation. Should we thus consider some intentional deviation from the naturalistic mode of representation which dominates the majority of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography here? If so, what could this peculiar depiction mean?


Fig. 2: Pillar 56 from Göbekli Tepe, however, does show (among many other animals) the depiction of long-legged birds with proper anatomical legs. (Photo: DAI)

In 2003 Nerissa Russell and Kevin J. McGowan published a most fascinating paper [external link] about a notable crane-bone find from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Çatalhöyük (Russell & McGowan 2003). This central Anatolian settlement site dates to the middle of the 8th and the 7th millennium BC (PPN B to Pottery Neolithic) and shows some considerable links with Göbekli Tepe, especially in terms of iconography. The find of particular interest here is a single Common Crane left-wing coming from a deposition at Çatalhöyük’s East Mound. These bones were found together with a cattle horn core, two wild goat horns, a dog head, and a stone mace head. This association of cattle, canid, and crane alone already may be a noteworthy correlation to the depiction on Pillar 2 from Göbekli Tepe. Yet the analysis of the crane bone itself is even more interesting: it is the part of the wing which has little flesh, but the large flight feathers attached. Consequently, the cut marks on these bones do not indicate simple butchery waste, but the intention to separate the wing at the joints. Furthermore, the cutting motions indicate that apparently one or two holes were pierced through the skin between the bones. While one could of course imagine that the wing could have been mounted to a lot of things, the authors plausibly suggest that it might have been part of a costume – fibres running through the holes attested by cut marks could have been helped to attach it to a person’s shoulder for instance (Russell & McGowan 2003, 447-448).

One of the most intriguing facets in this context is that cranes are famous for their dances. Breeding pairs and whole groups of cranes perform these complex movements. Their dances serve purposes of socialisation and pair bonding, but also to avert aggression. As soon as one of the birds starts, others are joining – yes, they even would do so if a human initiated the dance. Dancing was emphasized as integral social behaviour among PPN hunter groups, stressing communal unity and intensifying group cohesion (Garfinkel 1998). Bipedal and almost human-sized, with a comparable life-span and similar social structure, it is easily imaginable that these hunters somehow could identify with the dancing cranes, maybe even consider them reborn humans or ancestors. Russel and McGowan thus suggest that crane dances may well have been imitated to re-enact myths of origin, maybe of the own clan or humanity as such (Russell & McGowan 2003, 451-453) (Fig. 3). Related ritual dances are indeed not unknown from historic and ethnographic contexts and have been attested from a wide geographical and chronological range. Examples are known among Khanty (Ostiak) shamans from Siberia (Armstrong 1943, 73; Balzer 1996), the indigenous Ainu of Japan (St. John 1873), the Twa of central Africa (Campbell 1914, 79), and the sema dances of the Alevi in Turkey (Erol 2010) to just name a few.


Fig. 3: Dancing the crane dance. (Drawing: J. G. Swogger, with courtesy of the Catalhöyük Research Project)

So, since the fascination with cranes and their dances seem to be a thoroughly human phenomenon throughout space and time, the possibility of related Neolithic rituals should not come as a surprise. Cranes seem to have played an important role in the world of PPN hunter-gatherers. Remains of crane bones were reported from PPN B Jericho (Tchernov 1993) and Çatalhöyük (Russel & McGowan 2005) for instance, and they are known in significant numbers from Göbekli Tepe as well (where they form the second largest group in the avifauna right after corvids (cf. Peters et al. 2005, Table 1)). Next to the already introduced crane depiction from Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 2, similar reliefs were discovered on Pillars 33 and 38 which, too, stand out due to their comparatively thick legs and what seems to be ‘human-like knees’ (Fig. 4 and 5). From PPN B Bouqras in Syria a frieze of about 18 painted and incised cranes is known – the repeated depiction of the same posture maybe indicating a dancing scene (Clason 1989/90; Russell & McGowan 2003, 450). Another little known painting at Çatalhöyük displays two cranes facing each other, their heads raised (Mellaart 1966, 190, Plates LXII-LXIII; Russell & McGowan 2003, 450). Since noticeably often pairs of animals facing each other are depicted, cranes may have been linked to a larger symbolism of pairs or twins which well reminds of Göbekli Tepe’s dualistic central pillars as well.


Fig. 4: Of the three birds depicted on Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 38 at least two (likely to be identified as cranes) demonstrate rather unusually bend, almost human-like legs. (Photo: DAI)


Fig. 5: Detail of Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 33 showing a crane (note the characteristic neck, head, and tail feathers) with unusual sturdy and bend legs. (Photo: DAI)

The conspicuousness of the Göbekli Tepe crane depictions, which, since large birds are practically unknown from the older, Palaeolithic pictorial art, might be the oldest yet known images of this bird, was already noted upon their discovery by Klaus Schmidt (Peters et al. 2005, 227; Schmidt 2003, 26-28; 2012, 170-174, 182-184). The representation of human legs somehow evoke the impression of masked people (which would not be surprising, given the discovery of several stone masks at Göbekli Tepe) yet leave us with the still rather bird-like depiction of three (or four) ‘toes’. Schmidt suggested to not just identify this as simple masquerade but, on the basis of ethnographic analogies regarding shamanistic rituals of hunter communities, maybe even as the visualisation of a transformation into the animal itself (Peters et al. 2005, 231; Schmidt 2012, 119, 205-208). A kind of cognitive, and subsequently accepted physical metamorphosis in the course of the ritual by imitating the cranes’ dancing. Although proper evidence for such specific rituals and performances naturally is rare in the archaeological material, this line of thought at least offers an interesting interpretation for the unusual deviation from the strictly naturalistic animal depictions. Furthermore, together with the possible remains of what seems to be a crane costume from Çatalhöyük, it adds a fascinating facet to our slowly growing understanding of Pre-Pottery Neolithic social and ritual life.

It seems intriguing to even expand these thoughts beyond the discussion of dancing humans disguised as cranes. One of the wall paintings from Çatalhöyük for instance may also show vultures with human legs according to James Mellaart (Mellaart 1967, 167, Figs. 14 & 15). And at the foot of one of Enclosure D’s central pillars at Göbekli Tepe, right underneath the depicition of a fox skin-loincloth that pillar was ‘wearing’, the bones of a foxtail were found – probably hinting at the presence of a real such item of clothing there. Thus it seems reasonable and necessary to also consider other, even more costumes and their possible application in PPN ritual. As Russell and McGowan already emphasized (2003, 454): bulls (and vultures) are not the only animal symbols in the Neolithic world and we have to keep our eyes open to identify the more fragile clues among the material remains we are studying.

References (incl. further reading)

E. A. Armstrong, Crane dance in East and West, Antiquity 17, 1943, 71-76.

M. M. Balzer, Flights of the sacred: Symbolism and theory in Siberian shamanism, American Anthropologist 98 (2), 1996, 305-318. [external link]

D. Campbell, A few notes on Butwa: An African secret society, Man 14, 1914, 76-81.

A. T. Clason, The Bouqras bird frieze, Anatolica 16, 1989/90, 209-213.

A. Erol, Re-Imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah, Middle Eastern Studies 46:3, 2010, 375-387. [external link]

Y. Garfinkel, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press 2003.

J. Mellaart, Excavations at Çatal Hüyük, 1965: Fourth preliminary report, Anatolian Studies 16, 1966, 165-191.

J. Mellaart, Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. London: Thames & Hudson 1967.

J. Peters, A. von den Driesch, N. Pöllath, K. Schmidt, Birds in the megalithic art of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, Southeast Turkey. In: G. Grupe and J. Peters (eds.), Feathers, Grit and Symbolism. Birds and Humans in the Ancient Old and New Worlds. Proceedings of the 5th Meeting of the ICAZ Bird Working Group in Munich (26,7.-28.7.2004). Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH 2005, 223-234.

N. Russel and K. J. McGowan, Dance of the Cranes: Crane symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond, Antiquity 77, 2003, 445-455. [external link]

N. Russel and K. J. McGowan, Çatalhöyük bird bones. In: I. Hodder (ed.), Inhabiting Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995-1999 Seasons. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 99-110. [external link]

K. Schmidt, “Kraniche am See”. Bilder und Zeichen vom frühneolithischen Göbekli Tepe (Südosttürkei). In: W. Seipel (ed.), Der Turmbau zu Babel. Ursprung und Vielfalt von Sprache und Schrift. Band IIIa: Schrift. Wien – Milano: Kunsthistorische Musuem Wien 2003, 23-29.

K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in south-eatern Anatolia. Berlin: ex Oriente e.V. 2012.

H. C. St. John, The Ainos: Aborigines of Yeso, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2, 1873, 248-254.

E. Tchernov, Exploitation of birds during the Natufian and early Neolithic of the southern Levant, Archaeofauna 2, 1993, 121-143.

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

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

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

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

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 7

(Photo: DAI)


Göbekli Tepe in images

Photography certainly is an important tool for documentation in archaeology. For me personally, it is also a hobby (you can find me on Flickr here: external link). Going through the loads of photos the digital age produces and often readily forgets, I found some images of Göbekli Tepe that I wanted to share here. The collection is not finished and the post will be expanded as I dig deeper into my archives. So come back for more if you like what you see!


Göbekli Tepe is situated at the northern periphery of the fertile crescent, on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range overlooking the Harran plain. The site lies on an otherwise barren limestone plateau.The tell has a diameter of around 300 m and is characterized by several mounds divided by depressions. At the highest point, Göbekli Tepe has about 15  m of stratigraphy. This is a view of the tell from the south, with the excavation camp. Taken in 2007, during my first field season at the site with the late Klaus Schmidt.

Work starts early at Göbekli Tepe (usually around 6 am), so there are lots of opportunities to catch the special morning light. Images of the tell seen from the southeast from 2007 and of the main excavation area seen from the southeastern hilltop, in 2012.

All areas excavated so far show a similar general stratigraphic sequence. The oldest layer III is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars, which were positioned in circle-like structures. The pillars were interconnected by limestone walls and benches leaning at the inner side of the walls. The circles measure 10-20m. Work in Enclosures D and C, 2009-2010.

In the centre of the enclosures stand always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m.  The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Images of the central pillars of Enclosure D in 2007.

Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. The western central pillar of Enclosure D during excavation, 2009.

There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Richly decorated pillars from Enclosure D, 2012.

Decoration of the pillars is not arbitrary. There are marked differences between the animal species depicted inside each enclosure. It could well be that the dominant species are connected to certain groups, in the sense of emblematic, or totemic symbols related to their identities. Foxes are the animal most frequently depicted in Enclosure B. The images are close-ups of the depictions on the central pillars.

Decorations on the pillars are not limited to low reliefs. On Pillar 27 in Enclosure C the high relief of a snaling predator is preserved. Directly in front of it, a boar is depicted in side view in low relief. A hunting scene? Images from 2009.

Pillar 27 is not the only example indicating narrative meaning of Göbekli Tepe’s imagery. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. Photo from 2009.


Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the early and middle PPNB. This layer is characterised by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5m. Layer II building with bench, pillar and stationary limestone vessel on the southeastern hilltop, 2012.

At Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic quarry areas from which the workpieces for the enclosures originate are well known. They lie on the limestone plateau immediately adjacent to the site. The maximum distances that had to be covered were 600-700m. The largest standing pillars discovered so far have 5.5m and weigh around 10t. In the quarry areas however there is one example of a 7 m long pillar preserved.Photo from 2007.

To be continued…


The ‘Urfa Man’


So, this short post is about the ‘Urfa Man’. Let’s start with an answer to a very common question: no, he is not from Göbekli Tepe. He was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle / Yeni Yol (Bucak & Schmidt 2003; Çelik 2011; Hauptmann 2003; Hauptmann & Schmidt 2007), broken in four nearly equal pieces.

The settlement was largely destroyed, but photos showing the construction work seem to reveal an interesting detail about the site: it featured a small T-shaped pillar (Çelik 2011, 142, Fig. 19), similar to those from Göbekli Tepe’s Layer II.  This speaks for a PPN B date, as does the archaeological material recovered (Çelik 2011).

The ‘Urfa man’ himself gives witness to the ability of early Neolithic people to sculpt the human body naturalistically. It is the oldest known statue of a man, slightly larger than life-size. In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-shaped pillars, the ‘Urfa man’ has a face, eyes originally emphasized by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes, and ears ; a mouth, however, is not depicted. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is only a conical plug, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. Both hands seem to grab his penis.

As no find context has been recorded for the sculpture, it is hard to evaluate its original function. But there are several fragments, especially heads, of similar sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. At this site, statues like the ‘Urfa Man’ seem to have been part of a complex hierarchical system of imagery directly related to the functions of the circular enclosures. You can find a longer text about this here.

The presence of a sculpture like the ‘Urfa Man’ and of T-shaped pillars are strong evidence for the presence of a special building inside the settlement at Urfa-Yeni Yol. It may have been comparable to the PPN B ‘cult buildings’ of Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1993), but this will remain pure speculation.


Bucak, E. & K. Schmidt, 2003. Dünyanın en eski heykeli. Atlas 127, 36-40.

Çelik, B., 2011, Şanlıurfa – Yeni Mahalle, in The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, eds. M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 139-164.

Hauptmann, H., 1993. Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Çori , in Between the rivers and over the mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, eds. M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthias & M. Mellink. Roma: Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche Archaeologiche e Anthropologiche dell’Antichità, Università di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, 37-69.

Hauptmann, H., 2003. Eine frühneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa, in Köyden Kente. From village to cities. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin, eds. M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann & N. Başgelen. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 623-36.

Hauptmann, H. & K. Schmidt, 2007. Anatolien vor 12 000 Jahren: die Skulpturen des Frühneolithikums, in Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-Württemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, ed. C. Lichter. Karlsruhe: Badisches Landesmuseum, 67-82.