A Short Note on a New Figurine Type from Göbekli Tepe

This text has been published originally (and in slightly different form) as a short contribution by Oliver Dietrich and Klaus Schmidt (†) in Neo-Lithics [external link] 1/17, 43-46.

The most striking aspects of Göbekli Tepe are without question the monumentality of the site and the rich imagery. Besides the reliefs on the pillars, there is a wide range of stone sculptures and figurines. Klaus Schmidt, who excavated the site for 20 years, has dedicated several papers to this find group (Hauptmann and Schmidt 2007; Schmidt 1998; 1999; 2008; 2009; 2010); a comprehensive synthesis is still missing (for the anthropomorphic sculpture Dietrich et al. forthcoming). A total of 149 sculptures has been found to date at Göbekli Tepe. Of these, 86 depict animals, 38 humans, four anthropomorphic masks, three phalli, nine are human-animal composite sculptures and a further nine are indeterminable. Many of the sculptures are in a fragmentary state, which may have its reason in social practises connected to the early Neolithic imagery – including intentional fragmentation and deposition of a selection of fragments, mostly heads in meaningful contexts next to the pillars (Becker et al. 2012; Dietrich et al. forthcoming). Many of the fragments may have been originally part of sculptures in the shape of the ‘Urfa Man’, the oldest life-sized human sculpture currently known, discovered during construction work at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle (Hauptmann 2003; Schmidt 2010. 247, 248-249). But there is also a range of other types, and the current contribution is dedicated to one of those.

The figurine

During the 2012 autumn excavation season at Göbekli Tepe, a small figurine (5,1×2,3×2,7 cm) was handed in as a surface find from the north-western hilltop of the tell (Fig. 2). The motif of the figurine is an ithyphallic person sitting with legs dragged toward his body on an unidentifiable object. He is looking up and grasping his legs. Between the legs, a large erect phallus is depicted (Fig. 3), and a quadruped animal is sitting on the person´s left shoulder (Fig. 4). As one half of the figurine has a thick layer of sinter, the question whether there originally was another animal on the other shoulder remains open. The animal species cannot be determined with security neither, but the general form is consistent with depictions of large wildcats or bears at Göbekli Tepe (e.g. Schmidt 1999. 9-10, nr. A8). The material of the sculpture is unusual for the site on the other hand. Nearly all sculptures and figurines so far known from Göbekli Tepe were made from local limestone. The new figurine is most likely made from nephrite[1]. The figurine is perforated crosswise in its lower part. A functional interpretation for this detail is hard to give as one perforation would have sufficed to wear it as a pendant for example. Maybe the figurine was meant to be fixed to a support.

The unclear find circumstances and the unusual material raise the question of the figurine´s provenance. The sinter layer is a characteristic for finds from Göbekli Tepe (and clearly indicates that the figurine was originally buried with the right side down), but could have formed of course also at another site with similar natural conditions. There is however an older find that could represent a fragment of the same figurine type. This fragment, comprising head and shoulder of a small figurine (3,9×4.0x2.8cm) made from brownish limestone, was discovered in 2002, also on the surface of the tell (Fig. 5). There are two more examples of larger seated sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. A first depiction of a seated person (h. 32.5cm; Fig. 6), badly preserved, was found on the surface of the tell, too (Schmidt 1999. 9, Plate. 1/1). Here, the hands are brought together under the belly, the gesture reminds of the ‘Urfa Man’ who most likely is presenting a phallus (Hauptmann 2003), but unfortunately the lower part of the sculpture is not preserved. A snake could be depicted crawling up the back and head of the sculpture, but this remains uncertain, too. Another example (h. 44cm) was found more recently in a deep sounding in the northwestern depression of the tell (Area K10-55, Locus 21.2; Fig. 7). The find context is still under evaluation, much speaks for a PPN B date so far. The preservation of this sculpture is also rather bad, the lower part is missing again. Both examples show some clear differences compared to the figurine: the arms are folded in front of the body, there is no animal on the shoulder, and the persons seem to sit on the ground, not on some object. As the lower part is missing we cannot be sure whether a phallus was depicted. Summing up, it seems nevertheless reasonably sure that the new figurine is from Göbekli Tepe – and represents a type, or variant, not known so far in the site´s sculptural inventory.

Date and analogies

Without knowledge of the original find context, or analogies from clear contexts, there is no possibility to attribute the new figurine to one of Göbekli Tepe´s architectural horizons – Layer III with the PPN A and possibly early PPN B large stone circles formed of T-shaped pillars, or Layer II with early/middle PPNB rectangular or sub-rectangular buildings. Offsite analogies also seem to be scarce.

Göbekli Tepe

Fragment of a limestone figurine discovered in 2002 at Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo I. Wagner).

29 similarly seated limestone figurines are known from Mezraa-Teleilat´s phase IIIB, i.e. the Late PPN B / early Pottery Neolithic transition (Özdoğan 2003. 515-516, Figures 1a-c, 2b-c, 4, 5; Özdoğan 2011. 209, Figures 14-21; Hansen 2014: 271, Figure 9). One more find can be added to this group, a more recently published stone figurine from Çatalhöyük (Hodder 2012. Figure 14b; Hansen 2014. 271). Although the overall form is very similar, the figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat and Çatalhöyük are much more abstracted, the former are sitting on armchair-like seats, wear robe-like clothes and in some cases belts, and examples with animals on the shoulders seem to be missing. As the latest finds from Göbekli Tepe date to the middle PPN B, the figurine must be older than the finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük. Whether the naturalistic sculpture(s) from Göbekli Tepe can be regarded as the prototypes for this group and thus also a similar meaning could be proposed, cannot be answered with security for now.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 6

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo T. Goldschmidt).

Further analogies are hard to find. The much later standing female clay figurines holding leopard cubs from Hacılar (e.g. Mellaart 1970. Figure 196-197), and the so-called ‘Mistress of Animals’, a female figurine seated on a leopard and holding a leopard cub (Mellaart 1970. Figure 228), or, in another case, seated on two leopards and holding their tails (Mellaart 1970. Figure 229) are different in gesture and topic.


The meaning of the figurine from Göbekli Tepe remains enigmatic. The finds from Mezraa Teleilat and Çatalhöyük seem to be the best analogies for now. But in contrast to this group, the find discussed here has the animal on the shoulder (or one on each shoulder originally?) as an important characteristic. There are several examples of animal-human composite sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. But they show animals – birds and quadrupeds – on the heads of people, grabbing them with their claws, maybe carrying the heads away (e.g. Beile-Bohn et al. 1998.66-68, Figure 30-31; Becker et al. 2012.35). This kind of iconography most likely relates to Neolithic death cult or beliefs (Schmidt 1999.7-8). The new sculpture, with one or two animals in the shoulder area, does not fit well into this group. The animal is clinging to the shoulder in a crouched position, there is no indication of aggression or attack (Fig. 4), or a reaction of the sitting person. The animal could thus have a completely different meaning. We could be dealing with a more metaphorical relationship between man and animal here.

Dietrich, Schmidt_Fig. 7

Seated limestone sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (© DAI, Photo N. Becker).

At Göbekli Tepe, animal symbolism seems to have an emblematic/totemic connotation in some cases. In every one of the monumental enclosures of Layer III, one animal species is dominant by quantity of depictions (Notroff et al. 2014.97-98, Fig. 5.9). In Enclosure C for example boars have this role, in Enclosure A snakes, Enclosure B has many undecorated pillars, but foxes are more frequent, while Enclosure D is more diverse, with birds and insects playing an important role. Given this background, one hypothesis would be that the animal characterises the person depicted in the figurine as a member of a certain group.

The other important characteristic of the depiction is the prominent erect phallus. Göbekli Tepe´s iconography is generally nearly exclusively male (e.g. Dietrich and Notroff 2015.85), and the phallus features prominently in several depictions of animals and humans. For example, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted on Pillar 43 amongst birds, snakes and a large scorpion (Schmidt 2006). Although the central pillars of the large enclosures are clearly marked as human through the depiction of arms, hands, and in the case of Enclosure D also items of clothing, their sex is not indicated. An erect phallus however is a prominent feature of the foxes depicted on several of the central pillars. There are also a few phallus sculptures from the site (e.g. Schmidt 1999.9, Plate 2/3-4).

It is hard to say whether all these diverse depictions / contexts share a similar basic meaning, or a multitude of meanings is implied. There is a vast ethnographic and historic repertoire of phallic depictions in the context of power, dominance, aggression, marking of boundaries/ownership, and apotropaism (e.g. Sütterlin-Eibl-Eibesfeldt 2013 with bibliography). Phallic symbolism is also often integrated in rites of admission in social groups. The association of animal and phallic symbolism in the sitting (watching?) figurine could hypothetically hint at such rites of admission, it could be a mnemonic object illustrating an aspect/moment of the rituals involved. However, further finds from secure and informative contexts from Göbekli Tepe, or elsewhere, should be awaited to shed some more light on this new figurine type.


Becker N., Dietrich O., Götzelt Th., Köksal-Schmidt Ç., Notroff J., Schmidt, K. 2012. Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5: 14-43.

Beile-Bohn M., Gerber, C., Morsch, M. Schmidt K. 1998. Neolithische Forschungen in Ober-mesopotamien. Gürcütepe und Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 48: 5-78.

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

Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., Zarnkow, M. 2012. The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86: 674-695.

Dietrich, O., Köksal-Schmidt, Ç., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2013. Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data. Neo-Lithics 1/13: 36-41.

Dietrich, O., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. 2017. Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe. In R. J. Chacon, R. Mendoza (eds.). Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer. New York: 91-132.

Dietrich, O., Dietrich, L., Notroff, J. Forthcoming. Anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe. In J. Becker, C. Beuger, B. Müller-Neuhof (eds.), Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory. Workshop Proceedings 10th ICAANE in Vienna, Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden.

Hansen, S. 2014. Neolithic figurines in Anatolia. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 6. 10500-5200 BC: Environment, Settlement, Flora, Fauna, Dating, Symbols of Belief, with Views from North, South, East and West. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 265-292.

Hauptmann, H. 2003. Eine frühneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann, N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications: Istanbul: 623-636.

Hauptmann, H., Schmidt K. 2007. Die Skulpturen des Frühneolithikums. In Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Theiss Verlag. Stuttgart: 67-82.

Hodder, I. 2012. Renewed work at Çatalhöyük. In M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 3. Central Turkey. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 245-277.

Mellaart, J. 1970. Excavations at Hacılar (2). University Press. Edinburgh.

Notroff, N., Dietrich, O., Schmidt, K. 2014. Building Monuments – Creating Communities. Early monumental architecture at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In J. Osborne (ed.), Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. SUNY Press. Albany: 83-105.

Özdoğan, M. 2003.A group of Neolithic stone figurines from Mezraa-Teleilat. In M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann and N. Başgelen (eds.), From villages to towns. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 511-523.

Özdoğan, M. 2011. Mezraa-Teleilat. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen, P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin. Archaeology and Art Publications. Istanbul: 203-260.

Schmidt, K. 1999. Frühe Tier- und Menschenbilder vom Göbekli Tepe. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 49: 5-21.

Schmidt, K. 1998. Beyond daily bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic ritual from Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics 2/98: 1-5.

Schmidt, K. 2006. Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe. Neo-Lithics 2/2006: 38-40.

Schmidt, K. 2008. Die zähnefletschenden Raubtiere des Göbekli Tepe. In: D. Bonatz, R. M. Czichon, F. Janoscha Kreppner (eds.), Fundstellen. Gesammelte Schriften zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altvorderasiens ad honorem Hartmut Kühne. Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden: 61-69.

Schmidt, K. 2009. Göbekli Tepe – eine apokalyptische Bilderwelt aus der Steinzeit. Antike Welt 4: 45-52.

Schmidt, K. 2010. Göbekli Tepe – The Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII: 239-256.

Schmidt K. 2012a. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. exOriente: Berlin.

Sütterlin, C., Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. 2013. Human cultural defense: means and monuments of ensuring collective territory. Neo-Lithics 2/13: 42-48.

[1] Optical classification by Klaus Schmidt.

On Air: Smithsonian Channel’s “Secrets”

Episode 8 of the current 4th season of Smithsonian Channel‘s [external link] documentary series “Secrets” [external link] will center on the excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe  and its early Neolithic monuments.


(Courtesy of blink films & MA Productions)

The upcoming episode, provocatively titled “Garden of Eden” [external link] (and yes, admittedly we were a bit uncomfortable about that title – for certain reasons) is exploring the question why hunter-gatherers started to engage in large-scale communal projects, and the peculiar role early monument-construction played for emerging Neolithic societies.

“On a hilltop in southeastern Turkey, archaeologists have unearthed a complex of standing stones that pre-dates Stonehenge by more than 6,000 years. This monument has rewritten prehistoric archaeology and fascinated some theologians, who have linked the site to the Garden of Eden. Take an up-close look at Gobekli Tepe and its intricate carvings, which feature a landscape with wildlife, birds, and serpents. Then see how this 11,000-year-old wonder has forced archaeologists to rethink their understanding of the beginnings of human civilization.”

The episode will be on cable TV (Smithsonian Channel) i.a. Monday, June 12 to Saturday, June 17. For more details see Smithsonian Channel‘s schedule [external link].

A separated head between animals on a stone slab from Göbekli Tepe

In 2009, the last meter of filling was removed from Enclosure D, the best preserved building of Göbekli Tepe’s older Layer III. We already knew that during the refilling of the enclosures special objects, like heads of anthropomorphic sculptures, were deliberately deposited next to the pillars. Thus, special attention was payed when work progressed in these areas.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 20

Fragment of a relief showing a separated human head among animals. Found next to one of the central pillars of Enclosure D (Photos: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

Immediately to the north of Pillar 18, one of the central pillars of the enclosure, soon a very large stone slab appeared. Its lower side showed several reliefs. When the slab was finally turned around after documentation of the find situation, a very detailed scenery became visible.


Stone slab from Enclosure D, the depiction of a human head is marked in red (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

The slab is fragmentary. The preserved imagery is dominated by a large predator, which can tentatively be identified as a hyena. Behind it, a vulture with a very pronounced beak spreads its wings. Above the vulture, the legs of a third animal are visible, while legs and body of a fourth animal are depicted above the hyena. Right at the breaking edge of the slab one further image can be spotted: an apparently separated human head. Whether the head was part of a narrative scene with the animal depictions, remains unclear. In any case, from Göbekli Tepe – and other PPN sites – a number of images showing human heads in the claws of birds or quadrupeds are known. A similar depiction thus wouldn’t be a surprise.

Further reading

Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Klaus Schmidt, Yeni buluntular ve bulgularla. Göbekli Tepe. Neue Funde und Befunde, Arkeoloji ve Sanat – Journal of Archaeology and Art 137, 2011, 53-60.

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.

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 up 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 to this day in the region, 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.

Göpekli Tepe 2002

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?

Göbekli Tepe 2002

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.

09_Zentralpfeiler (7)

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 written down 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.”

New publication: ‘Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe’

The new year brings new books, and here is one we would like to point out, because, well, we have a contribution on Göbekli Tepe in there.


Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. Springer International Publishing: New York.


The book [external link], edited by Richard Chacon and Ruben G. Mendoza, contains  contributions by  anthropologists, archaeologists and sociologists on the question how social complexity developed in different regions of the world. Our topic is the start of social hierarchization during the early Neolithic, a subject the findings from Göbekli Tepe can significantly contribute to.

So, as a teaser, here is our abstract:

Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt

Feasting, Social Complexity and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe

Early Neolithic social complexity is a topic much discussed but still under-researched. The present contribution explores the possible role of feasting in the emergence of social complexity, hierarchical societies and the shift to the Neolithic way of life in Upper Mesopotamia. This region has long been placed at the periphery of the area relevant for crucial steps in Neolithization. With the hill sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe however it has produced a site that challenges this traditional assumption. There, large circle-like enclosures made up of often richly decorated T-shaped pillars of up to 5.5 m height have been erected during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (10th millennium BC), followed by smaller rectangular pillar-buildings throughout the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (9th millennium BC). Vast evidence for feasting at the site seems to hint at work feasts to accomplish the common, religiously motivated task of constructing these enclosures.

Given the significant amount of time, labour and skilled craftsmanship invested, and as elements of Göbekli Tepe´s material culture can be found around it in a radius of roughly 200 km all over Upper Mesopotamia, it is likely that the site was the cultic centre of transegalitarian groups.

Access to and command of knowledge crucial to the society´s identity and well-being may have served as a social barrier hindering individuals to step outside of the given limits, while being the basis for power over the work-force of others for a restricted group of people. Social hierachization seems to emerge already in the PPN A of Upper Mesopotamia, earlier than hitherto thought, and maybe also earlier than in the Southern Levant, a region long thought to be the cradle of the new, Neolithic way of life.

Call for Papers: “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?”

We frequently get questions regarding the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe, and much of our work really centers around that issue. Is it a temple, a sanctuary, something else? How does Göbekli Tepe relate to similar phenomena in contemporaneous and later sites? We want to throw some more light on this by asking the following question in a session organised in the frame of the EAA Annual Meeting 2017 in Maastricht. 


What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?

Organizers: Oliver Dietrich1, Laura Dietrich1; Deniz Erdem 2; Jens Notroff 1; Krisztián Oross3

(1. German Archaeological Institute, Orient Department; 2. Centre of Research and Assessment of Cultural Environment (TACDAM), Middle East Technical University; 3. Institute of Archaeology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Extraordinary features which challenge conventional interpretations are readily denoted as ‘special’ by archaeologists. ‘Special buildings‘ is an often-used label in Near Eastern Archaeology for constructions deviating in architecture, elaborate inner fittings, finds and often also treatment after the end of use (intentional destruction, burial) from domestic spaces. ‘Special buildings’ start to exist during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region between the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, well-known examples come inter alia from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el Ahmar, Nevalı Çori, or Çatalhöyük.

The term ‘special building’ is not unknown in the European Neolithic, although with a considerably different meaning. In Europe, constructions such as megaliths, earthworks and ditches have been approached in ways similar to the ‘special buildings’ of the Near East, without labelling them as one group however.

A general approach to this issue is still missing. The essential question is whether by ‘special buildings’ we are facing a phenomenon common to Neolithic societies which has to be considered another component of the so-called Neolithic Package.

The session follows two main questions:

  1. Are there really commonalities between the buildings categorized as special, i.e. is ‘special buildings’ more than an ill-defined label for the uncommon? Could we converge the information to a common definition?
  1. Is there a tradition of ‘special buildings’ throughout the Neolithic, are they part of the ‘Neolithic package’ transferred from the Near East to Europe? If so, what elements travel, what meanings change?


Submission for Papers and Posters is open from  3 Febrauary 2017, session number is 322:


On Air: “Faith moves Stones”

Holiday season at the end of the year offers some time to calm down and contemplate the past year. Media, of course, traditionally help this purpose by airing classic Christmas shows like Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” and, following the nature of the feast, quite some reflections on cult and religion.

This year, German radio station Deutschlandfunk [external link] asks for the origin of religion and civilisation in its programme on Forschung aktuell: Wissenschaft im Brennpunkt (Current Research: Science in the Spotlight – external link). Under the title “Glaube versetzt Steine” (Faith moves Stones) journalist Volkart Wildermuth is approaching this question from psychology, archaeology, and ethnology – including a strong focus on our own research at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.


View into Göbekli Tepe’s main excavation are. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

“Five metre high T-shaped pillars surrounded by a circle of smaller pillars, this is Göbekli Tepe. It is not clear which cult once was followed here. But it is certain that these monumental structures were not built by some sophisticated civilisation, but by hunters and gatherers 10,000 years ago. This raises a central question: Could it be that spiritual needs brought together these people? Did faith came first – and then civilisation? Göbekli Tepe is an impressing unique find. But other data from psychology, archaeology, and ethnology are shedding a new light onto the complex interplay of spirituality, economy, and society.”

(Translated from Deutschlandfunk’s programme round-up.)

The show airs coming Boxing Day, Monday the 26th of December at 16:30 o’clock on Deutschlandfunk (on air and via online stream). The programme is in German language; a transcript (also in German) is available online [external link].

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)


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.


Could we really call it a ‘temple’?

Of course, magazines have to sell stories – and superlatives always are a good argument in this case. People just love to hear about the biggest, oldest, and most spectacular. And what could be more spectecular than a headline like “The Oldest Temples in the World”? That’s how you sell a find, don’t you? Yet, as scientists we need to show some healthy reservation – in particular when dealing with such phrases and terms which obviously have developed a certain history on their own. It’s all too easy to make up a good story or ‘hypothesis’, but substantiating such proposition is where real research actually starts.

Against the background of the historical definition of ancient Roman or Greek or Near Eastern temples for instance, this peculiar type of building implicitly forms places to worship a deity or deities in our language use – the existence of this concept of ‘divinity’ is crucial to the temple as home of a god or goddesses in antiquity. It is a futile task trying to answer this complex question based on the archaeological record exclusively. We know to identify the temples of ancient Rome and Greece and the Near East and to name the gods these were housing due to the written record those cultures have left to us. Delving deep into the prehistory of the Anatolian Neolithic, however, confronts us with a sudden lack of any sources other than the material record. The challenge in relying to physically tangible sources solely to grasp rather spiritual concepts is obvious. Yet, the material culture of Göbekli Tepe and related sites and the elements of monumental architecture in particular may offer a lead worth following.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 2

Main excavation area with monumental PPN A enclosures (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

The T-shaped pillars forming the major and most prominent feature of Göbekli Tepe’s architecture need to play a crucial role in our observations here. While large and highly abstracted, they also clearly own human characteristics: some of these pillars show arms on their sides and hands brought together above the abdomen. There are elements of clothing depicted in relief as well: stola-like garments draped around pillars’ shoulders and fox-skin loincloths depicted dangling from belts. This emphasizes quite impressively that the T-pillars apparently have to be understood as monumental anthropomorphic sculptures. Most interestingly, however, is that they are always depicted faceless. There are no eyes, no nose or mouth present, these pillar-statues remain bereft of individuality on first glance – only to be distinguished, at least in the case of the central pillars of Enclosure D for example, by peculiar symbols below their heads – not unlike where one would wear necklaces. So, while still nameless to us, the Neolithic people may well have recognized who it was depicted here towering above them.

Pfeiler 18 mit Podest 2

In particular the central pillars of Enclosure D illustrate the anthropomorphic character of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars (3D-model: HS Karlsruhe; Photos: N. Becker, DAI).

With a height of about 5.5 m it is particularly the T-pillars’ larger-than-life appearance which seems so remarkable – especially given that their highly abstract character is intentional and not to the result of deficient craftsmanship. Apart from the numerous animal sculptures uncovered at Göbekli Tepe, the so called ‘Urfa Man’ gives witness to Neolithic sculptors’ ability to portray the human body naturalistically. This oldest known statue of a man, about life-size, was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Urfa-Yeni Yol.  In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-pillars, whose identity and meaning apparently seems to a different one, ‘Urfa Man’ has a face, his eyes depicted by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes (a mouth, however, is missing). From Göbekli Tepe there are known several limestone-heads, too. They have a breaking edge in the neck area indicating that they originally were part of larger statues much like ‘Urfa Man’ himself.


So-called Urfa Man is considered the oldest known life-sized sculpture of a man (Photo: J. Notroff, DAI).

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 17

Collection of limestone heads, supposedly parts of sculptures similar to ‘Urfa Man’, from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: N. Becker, DAI).

As already noted in the beginning, we know little of the beliefs these people might have followed, so it would seem rather bold to denote these monumental pillar-statues as personifications of ‘deities’. But faceless, larger than life and highly abstract, they clearly seem to be set on a quite different level than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures like ‘Urfa Man’ and the Göbekli Tepe stone heads. They seem to represent something more, supposedly something beyond the self-referential depiction of human beings. Together with the obviously narrative character of other depcitions on these T-pillars which clearly exceed simple decorative purposes, this perception feeds the impression that we are confronted here with a complex iconography – with mythological narrations probably even.

Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 11

P43 emphasises the narrative character of the T-pillars’ relief (Photo: B. Steinhilber).

It is these T-pillars in particular which form the centre and most important element of the site of Göbekli Tepe, so they naturally become a strong argument in the interpretation of these enclosures as well. If we after all would like to call them ‘temples’ or still hesitate to use this term finally comes down to the definition one applies. But differing so noticeably from the well-known general types of contemporary settlement patterns (and also apparently lacking most of the material culture which is so typically for clearly domestic contexts), we confidently name these structures ‘communal’ or ‘special purpose buildings’ with all due scientifical propriety. This is even more compelling since apparently almost every settlement site of the period and region seems to have produced at least one comparable communal structure of similar design and layout. Only at Göbekli Tepe there is a noticeable cumulation of this peculiar building type – but this should be topic of another contribution.

Further reading
N. Becker, O. Dietrich, Th. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5, 2012, 14-43.

O. Dietrich, 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 2015, 75-89.

J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, K. Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: C. Renfrew, M. J. Boyd and Iain Morley (eds.), Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World. “Death Shall Have no Dominion”, Cambridge 2016, 65-81.