#FactCheck: It’s on the internet, so it must be true. Right?

Recently we got a couple of notes and comments regarding a number of finds supposedly attributed to the early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe. Finds we surprisingly never addressed or mentioned or published anyway. Of course this raised questions. Not only among our readers, but also in the research team. So, I picked three of these mysterious objects and tried to follow their path all the way back. A lesson in ‘alternative facts’, their easy creation – and quick multiplication on the world wide web.

The first of these items we’re having a look into is this detailed and rather ‘life-like’ sphinx-sculpture – linked to a caption saying “The oldest known sphinx was found in Göbekli Tepe …”.

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Stylistically, this sculpture already looks quite different from any other prehistoric piece of art we know of, yet those coming from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe in particular. The carefully sculpted face and body are more reminiscent of ‘classic’ ancient Greek or Roman sculptures – or those of the 18th and 19th century ‘romanticising’ sculptures. Also, the material does not really look like the yellowish-worn limestone so characteristic for Göbekli Tepe’s sculptures.

The statement connected to this depiction is even more surprising – since actually there is no single sphinx known from Göbekli Tepe (or any other related PPN-site of the region) reported. In fact, composite – hybrid – creatures are generelly very rare in prehistoric art. With a few excepetions, the concept of chimaeras seems to have become a more common (or at least more often depicted) mythological trope at a later time in human history.

Finally, with a little bit of research the sculpture in question here can be identified as being part of the garden decoration of the Royal Palace of La Granja [external link] in the Spanish town of San Ildefonso – dating to the 18th century. AD.

The second object on this list is a bit trickier. Indeed it seems to be a rather large stele showing the relief of some upright standing person. Stone and setting somehow look similar to what we would expect from Göbekli Tepe – although the style of depiction and the building visible to the right suspiciously do not really look unfamiliar from an Anatolian early Neolithic point of view.

DC16JMzXkAEExUbAgain, a closer look at the actual depiction makes it clear that we are dealing with something different here. The person shows characteristical features we would expect from an ape. In particular the head, face, and tail give it away: this is a depiction of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the shape of a monkey. With this information at hadn it is only a question of further reading to identify the stele as one of the monuments at the Virupakasha Temple in Hampi [external link], a World Heritage Site in southern India – dating back as much as the 7th century AD, but definitely not the Neolithic period.

Finally, the last find examined here is this standard-like object of which the caption claims it is a “G[ö]bekli Tepe god of the constellation of Orion.” Besides the challenges to project modern (or at least historical) star constellations into prehistory and even more prehsitoric art (as we already discussed here) and the terminological issues surrounding lables like ‘god’, ‘gods’, and even ‘temple’ (discussed here earlier), this piece, again, does look like nothing we know from the site of Göbekli Tepe or any other Neolithic find spot in the region.

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In fact, a stylistic comparison eventually offers a lead to modern Iran. A couple of elaborate objects dating to the Bronze Age period (i.e. the 3rd millennium BC) from this region show quite some parallels. They are linked to the so-called Jiroft culture which, unfortunately, still remians raher obscure since the majority of finds associated with Jiroft are coming from illegal excavations and we do not know much about them. But again, they’re neither related to the Anatolian Neolithic nor the site of Göbekli Tepe.

These three examples should be sufficient and representative for the point we would like to make with this blog post: it’s easy to come up with an idea, it’s easy to form hypotheses. Honestly, we as scientists do it too, all the time. But every hypothesis needs to be checked, material needs to be compared, sources reviewed. We’re living in times where facts can be made up as ‘alternatives’. Stay curious, but stay suspicious. Check the facts, check the sources. And when in doubt … ask an archaeologist (or any other expert).


More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

We already expressed a couple of thoughts and remarks on a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in which Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis have suggested (original article accessible here: [external link]) that the early Neolithic monumental enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were space observatories and the site’s complex iconography the commemoration of a catastrophic astronomical event (‘Younger Dryas Comet Impact’).

Meanwhile we were putting together a more elaborate reply with further arguments and references which, in our opinion, challenge the interpretation and add more context to the paper’s discussion of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography in the light of the early Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. The editors of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry kindly agreed to publish our response in the same journal as the original article by Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

The paper (J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, L. Clare, L. Dietrich, J. Schlindwein, M. Kinzel, C. Lelek-Tvetmarken, D. Sönmez: More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(2), 2017, 57-63.) can be accessed online: [external link].

Fig. 1

Aerial view of the mound of Göbekli Tepe with excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)

Our reservations, which are not meant to silence any further archaeoastronomic discussion for Göbekli Tepe at all but rather comment on a number of discrepances we see in the interpretation, are summed up here:

1. The original layout of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round-oval buildings is still subject of ongoing research (none of these structures are completely excavated as of yet). One should be aware that many of the T-pillars incorporated into the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe are not standing in their original positions and the buildings underwent significant modification during their life-cycles. Building archaeology studies have revealed that in many cases pillars were ‘recycled’, i.e. pulled out and used elsewhere. The monuments as we see them today are the culmination of multi-phase building and rebuilding events. Additionally, there is the significant possibility that we are dealing with roofed structures; this fact alone would pose limitations to a function as sky observatories.

2. The chronological frame Sweatman and Tsikritsis suggest for Pillar 43 (10950 BC +/- 250 years) is still 700-1000 years older than the oldest radiocarbon date so far available for Enclosure D (which stems from organic material retrieved from a wall plaster matrix). While there is evidence for later re-use of pillars (see above), assuming such a long tradition of knowledge relating to an unconfirmed (ancient) cosmic event appears extremely far-fetched. So far, any available date for Göbekli Tepe rather marks the end than the beginning of the Younger Dryas.

3. The assumption that asterisms are stable across time and cultures is not convincing. It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.

4. Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ contribution appears incredibly arbitrary, considering images adorning just a few selected pillars. Meanwhile more than 60 monumental limestone T-pillars are known from Göbekli Tepe – among these many feature similar carved low reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (e.g. Pillar 56 in Enclosure H). Furthermore, the iconographic programme is not restricted to the limestone pillars; it is known from other find groups (including stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes) not only from Göbekli Tepe but also from numerous contemporary sites in the wider region.

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Pillar 56 from Enclosure H is another example for the rich and often complex iconography of Göbekli Tepe. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)

5. Göbekli Tepe’s iconography is actually even more complex than the paper suggests. The animals depicted on the pillars seem to follow an intentional pattern, whereby each building has a different emphasis, i.e. with one animal or more being especially prominent. If we interpret these differences as an expression of community and belonging, this could hint at different groups having been responsible for the construction of particular enclosures. In other words, specific enclosures may have served the needs of different social entities. For this reason, it is extremely problematic to pick out any one pillar and draw far-reaching but isolated interpretations while leaving out its context. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these subtler but significant details. Details like the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as a symbol of death, catastrophe and extinction by Sweatman and Tsikritsis, silently omits the clearly emphasised phallus which must contradict the lifeless notion; rather, this image implies a more versatile narrative behind these depictions. It should also be noted that there are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which apparently went unnoticed in the study at hand.

Fig. 4

Distribution of the appearance of figurative representations in the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe. Note: The different state of excavation as well as chronological depth of construction periods have to be considered; later added graffiti as well as symbolically reduced icons were not included. (Graphic: J. Notroff & N. Becker, DAI)

Fig. 2

Pillar 43 from Enclosure D and its particularly rich relief-decoration – actually extending not only on the pillar’s western broadside (left), but also the southern (middle) and northern (right) narrow sides. (Photos: K. Schmidt, N. Becker, DAI)

Pre-Pottery Neolithic iconography, by far exceeding the realms of Göbekli Tepe, is often especially concerned with articulation and disarticulation of the human body. Particularly the depiction of severed human heads or headless bodies in combination with necrophagous animals (preferably but not exclusively vultures) is a well-known theme and may be rooted in a complex multiphase Pre-Pottery Neolithic mortuary ritual. Similar depictions of a bird grasping a human head are known from Göbekli Tepe as well as life-sized human sculpture heads which were deposited within the buildings.

Fig. 5

Fragmented sculpture from Göbekli Tepe showing a bird of prey crouched on a human head. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)


Meanwhile both authors of the orginal study replied to our response (same issue of MAA, see link above), stressing that “… given the statistical basis o[f] [their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.” (Sweatman and Tsikritsis, Comment, MAA 17(2), 66). Admittedly though, we still would like to express our doubt that human creativity really can be treated as a statistical case solely.

Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden …

Sensations are making stories. And archaeology-stories apparently are no exception to this rule. That’s why even the most interesting sites and finds often are further dramatised and spiced up in public discourse. Somehow ‘interesting’ isn’t satisfying enough to everybody.

The early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe has it all: far reaching implications about prehistoric hunter-gatherer social group structures, the beginning of our very own modern sedentary lifestyle, and (some of the) oldest yet known monumental architecture ever built. However, this still doesn’t seem to be enough. People love a good mystery and apparently social structures of early hunters are (noted without any complaint here) not exactly enigmatic enough to be entertaining.


The mound of Göbekli Tepe. view from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

In 2006 German magazine DER SPIEGEL came up with a cover story on the Göbekli Tepe excavations (“Die Suche nach dem Garten Eden. Archäologen auf den Spuren des biblischen Paradieses” [external link]), suggesting it was the (pre-)historical basis for the Biblical narrative about the ‘Garden of Eden’. Ever since this story multiplied and was picked up then and again, actually emphasising the great interest in our research on one hand, but also the pitfalls of all too simplifying analogies on the other. Only recently Discovery’s Science Channel (which features, among others, a segment about our research at Göbekli Tepe) was digging up the story again (excuse the pun) for an episode of “What on Earth” called “Gateway to Eden” [external link].

To be honest, it’s not even hard to actually see where this fascination is coming from. A mythical garden, ‘paradise’ par excellence, is quite an archetypical narrative and a metaphor deeply rooted in our collective memory. The story of that ‘Garden of Eden’ seems to have great potential to fuel our imagination. Yet actually looking beyond that metaphor for a real place and location would mean to somehow misconceive the whole narrative’s elucidating intention.

Since there are a number of peculiar elements brought up repeatedly in support of an assumed link between the Göbekli Tepe findings and the Eden myth, it seems worth the time having a closer look into and a short evaluation of these arguments in the course of this blog post.


The landscape around Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

The topographical situation of this idyllic garden delivered in the Old Testament (which, as probably most people would agree, is not exactly and specifically a proper historical source) tells of a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four streams: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14). While the latter two are well-known toponyms in the region to this day, the other two however don’t really fit into the picture, somehow raising the suspicion they might be as figuratively as the mythical gold-land of Havilah through which the Pishon is said to wind. Besides, there are no water sources at Göbekli Tepe at all (actually one of the arguments against an ideal settlement situation, cf. this discussion). Göbekli Tepe hardly ever was a flourishing garden in the literal sense.

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Snakes on a pillar. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)

“But what about the snakes?” is an argument often put forward in favour of the Eden narrative. Yes, there are depictions of snakes at Göbekli Tepe. A lot, actually. Quite a lot. It almost is a snake pit rather than the single seducer trying to sell forbidden fruits. And what about all those other animal reliefs? There are spiders and scorpions, foxes and vultures, cranes, ducks, and boars. And more. In numbers certainly equalling those of  snake reliefs. So, this sole focus on the serpent seems a bit unfair towards the other animals. Are we going to ignore all these many additional animals (and few human depictions)  – or how do these fit into the story?

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

Another small find produced by the Göbekli Tepe excavations, a so-called plaquette, is also often referred to as a clue in the ‘Garden of Eden’ line of argument. The small stone tablet is showing three carved symbols among which some recognise a snake and a tree (and we all can see where this would be heading). However, with a view to the recent discussion of the ambiguity of prehistoric art and the challenge to properly ‘read’ (let alone understand) it here, this particular find seems a weak advocate. Upon closer inspection of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography and its analogies from other sites, it becomes much more likely that the ‘tree’ actually might depict a person and the third object to its right may be understood as a bird – somehow changing the whole narrative of this object quite a bit.

Returning to that recent “What on Earth” episode, one could find the idea attractive that the remarkable pair of central pillars in each enclosure somehow could be interpreted as a mythical couple (even without the all too obvious ‘Adam and Eve’ analogy), some male and female ancestor. The show seems to suggest this, prominently quoting myself in this context. But – and this is the important point here, I  would like to make (and actually made in “What on Earth”, which somehow may have got lost on the cutting floor) – there are convincing leads showing that this is not the most favourable interpretation. The fact that both central pillars of Enclosure D are shown wearing belts and loincloths, for instance, seems to hint at two male individuals here – in analogy to contemporary clay figurines.

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Belt and loincloth at one of the central pillars of Enclosure D underline the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)

Projecting a much younger and much later mythology onto archaeological material predating it for millennia leaves any secure grounds for substantial conclusions. Linking the early Neolithic, 10th millennium BC, structures of Göbekli Tepe with a narrative written down not earlier then the 11th or 10th century BC (thus about 9,000 years later – after these enclosures were long abandoned and backfilled) would seem more than just a bit far-fetched.

As we already noted in our FAQ here:

“We disagree wholeheartedly with any parallels drawn between Göbekli Tepe and the ‘Garden of Eden’, for which there is absolutely no archaeological evidence. Certainly, Göbekli Tepe lies in a chain of hills north of the Harran plain, the scene of numerous biblical narratives, though this is where any associations with the Bible end. Anything more is pure conjecture.”

Or, as Klaus Schmidt once put it in an interview [external link]:
“Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden.”