Buried face-down. A statue from Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop

Starting from 2007 new excavation areas were opened at Göbekli Tepe´s southwestern hilltop. The aim was to get a better understanding of the architecture of the tell – would the stratigraphical situation from the southeastern excavation areas repeat here? And indeed, soon buildings characteristic for the younger Layer II appeared.

image description

The sculpture of a standing person and its find spot at Göbekli Tepe’s southwestern hilltop (copyright DAI, photos D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, drawings excavation team).

Many of the rectangular or subrectangular buildings discovered at Göbekli Tepe show evidence of rebuilding, repairing or other modifications. One very large room, discovered in area L9-17, for instance was at some point in its life-cycle subdivided by two walls into one large approximately square central room and two adjacent smaller chambers. No entries to these chambers could be identified. Maybe access was possible through the roof, but this remains speculation. In the eastern chamber soon a pillar fragment was discovered, and, when excavation continued, just to the north of it an anthropomorphic sculpture.

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Anthropomorphic sculpture found face-down in a room in the southwestern hilltop excavation areas at Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photo D. Johannes).

The sculpture was complete and lying face down. The deliberate deposition of sculptures next to pillars is a well-known phenomenon at Göbekli Tepe. The physical separation of the space the sculpture was found in from the rest of the room further strengthens the impression of an intentional placement.

The 66 cm high image shows a standing person, with bent arms and hands brought together at the belly, not unlike the posture of the T-shaped pillars. The person is looking upwards and wearing a cap. Further details of the face and the frontside of the statue will become visible only after restoration, as a thick layer of sinter is covering them. The legs are not shown, instead the sculpture has a conical tap that allowed it to be set into the ground.

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.


Losing your head at Göbekli Tepe

Just back from this year´s ICAANE in Vienna, where a very inspiring workshop on the “Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human in Near Eastern Prehistory” was organized by Jörg Becker, Claudia Beuger and Bernd Müller-Neuhof. As publication of the contributions will take some time, here is a small summary of our musings on anthropomorphic imagery at Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is a special site in many respects: its location is hostile to settlement, no water sources are in vicinity; domestic building types missing; only selection of material culture is present (very few bone tools, clay figurines absent); and there is a considerable investment of resources and work. This investment was not only made in building Göbekli Tepe. At the end of their uselifes, all buildings of layer III (PPN A, 10th millennium) were intentionally and very rapidly backfilled. The filling consists of limestone rubble from the neolithic quarry areas on the adjacent plateaus, mixed with large quantities of animal bones, flint debitage, artefacts and tools. Before backfilling started, it seems that the buildings were cleaned. If roofs should have existed, they were dismantled at that time, because absolutely no traces of them were found.


The filling material of Enclosure D (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

The backfilling obviously is a limiting factor for our understanding of the function of the enclosures, as very few in situ deposits connected to the use-time of the buildings remain. However, it seems that the backfilling was a very structured process that included certain deliberate acts. Between them, the deposition of artefacts and sculptures inside the filling, often next to the pillars, is most striking.

Figure 8

Deposition of a boar sculpture an stone plates next to one of the central npillars of Enclosure C (Photo: K. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).

So, at Göbekli Tepe we do not know very much about the actual usetime of the buildings. We have however the enclosures themselves, their layout, and the richly decorated pillars as starting points. And we know a lot of the things people did with these enclosures at the end of their uselife. It seems that they tried to highlight certain aspects of the enclosures´ meaning through their actions.

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Western central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

There are several different categories of human imagery at Göbekli Tepe. Most impressive are the T-shaped pillars. The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Whether we are dealing with depictions of ancestors of different importance, or even of gods, would be a topic for itself and an answer is hard to find at the moment.
What is clear however is that both central and surrounding pillars share the abstracted form. This abstraction is not due to the limited skills of Neolithic people in depicting the human body. It is a deliberate choice that has a meaning.

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Anthropomorphic sculpture; torso and head, limestone. The only case in which fitting fragments of an anthropomorphic sculpture were found at Göbekli Tepe  (Photo: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The other important category of depictions are more naturalistic sculptures. A total of 143 sculptures was found so far at Göbekli Tepe. Of those, 84 depict animals, 43 humans, 3 phalli and 5 are human-animal composite sculptures. It is striking that most anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe is fragmented. Of the 43 human-shaped depictions, only 9 can be regarded as complete, if we do not take smaller damages into account. What is also striking is that – in spite of large-scale excavations – there is only one case in which fitting fragments were found. If we have a closer look at the fragments preserved, a pattern emerges. The fragments preserved in the highest numbers are heads, not the often bigger torsi. The large number of broken off heads, and the regulated fractures, speak in favor of intentional fragmentation.

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A selection of anthropomorphic heads from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: DAI).

Further, the heads were not discarded randomly. They were deposited carefully in the enclosure fillings, often next to pillars. Their treatment is similar to zoomorphic sculpture in this respect. However, zoomorphic depictions are most often complete, there is no indication of intentional damage. So while deposition patterns are similar, pre-deposition treatment is not. Human heads seem to have had a special role in the beliefs connected with the enclosures.

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Distribution of sculptures in the main excavation area of Göbekli Tepe (Map: Thomas Götzelt, Graphics N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

The special role of separated human heads is also visible in Göbekli Tepe´s reliefs. Immediately behind the eastern central pillar of Enclosure D the fragment of a relief was found. It shows a human head among several animals – a vulture and a hyena can be clearly identified. Another example is Pillar 43, also in Enclosure D. There, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted among several birds, snakes and a large scorpion. The interaction of animals with human heads is even clearer from several composite sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. They show birds, but also quadrupeds sitting on top of human heads or carrying them away. A relation of this kind of iconography with early Neolithic death rite and cult is evident.

The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN. One of the most remarkable examples is the skull building from Cayönü. At this site, the situation is very much opposed to Göbekli Tepe however. There are lots of burials, but only a few anthropomorphic depictions. At Nevali Cori, burials with separated skulls, in one case with a flint dagger still in place, were discovered, but also an imagery that is very similar to Göbekli Tepe. For example, the so-called totempole shows a bird sitting on a human head. There is also a larger number of limestone heads from Nevali Cori, mirroring the situation at Göbekli Tepe to some degree. Of course, one could also add the special treatment of human heads in many southern Levantine sites, but also at Köşk Höyük and Catalhöyük here. At Catalhöyük, we find many of the elements observable at Göbekli Tepe still in place in a much later context. This includes iconography of birds carrying away human heads, special treatment of heads in burials and figurines with intentionally broken off heads, or with heads designed from the start to be taken off.

To sum up, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence of a hierarchy of anthropomorphic depictions. The central pillars of the enclosures are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic by arms hands, and items of clothing. The surrounding pillars are also abstracted, but smaller, and show mainly zoomorphic decorations. They are looking towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering.
Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture is smaller and intentionally fragmented. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly heads, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. This practise is highly evocative of elements of neolithic death cult that also reflects in Göbekli´s iconography.
It seems that the abstracted pillar-beings represent another sphere than the naturalistic sculptures. Zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculpture is placed next to them. The connection to death rites could indicate that the pillars belong to that sphere. Whether we are dealing with depictions of important ancestors here, and whether the deposition practice of fragmented sculpture, and, during the use-time of the enclosures, possibly human heads- vizualizes that new members are added to this group, remains a question for further studies.

Further reading:
Nico Becker, Oliver Dietrich, Thomas Götzelt, Cigdem Köksal-Schmidt, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Iain Morley (Hrsg.), Death shall have no Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – A Worldwide Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2016), 65-81.

On Çayönü:
Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1989. „Çayönü. A Conspectus of recent work.“ Paléorient 15: 65-74.

Özdoğan, Mehmet and Aslı Özdoğan .1998. „Buildings of cult and the cult of buildings.“ In Light on top of the Black Hill. Studies presented to Halet Çambel, edited by Güven Arsebük, Machteld J. Mellink and Wulf Schirmer, 581-601. Istanbul: Ege Yayınları.

Özdoğan, Aslı. 2011. “Çayönü.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 185-269. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1988. „Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi.“ Anatolica XV, 139-159.

Schirmer, Wulf. 1990. “Some aspects of buildings at the “aceramic-neolithic” settlement of Çayönü Tepesi.” World Archaeology 21, 3: 363-387.

On Nevalı Çori:
Hauptmann, Harald. 1988. “Nevalı Cori: Architektur.” Anatolica XV: 99-110.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1993. “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori.” In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink: 37-69. Rom: Gruppo Editoriale Internazionale-Roma.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1999. “The Urfa Region.” In Neolithic in Turkey, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan and Nezih Başgelen, 65-86. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları.

On Çatalhöyük:
Hodder, I. 2011. Çatalhöyük. The Leopard´s Tale. London: Thames and Hudson.

On Neolithic death and skull cult (just a few points to start from, there is vast literature on this):
Bienert, H.-D. 1991. Skull Cult in the Prehistoric Near East, Journal of Prehistoric Religion 5, 9-23.

Bonogofsky, M. 2005. A bioarchaeological study of plastered skulls from Anatolia: New discoveries and interpretations, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 15, 124-135.

Croucher, K. 2012. Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lichter, C. 2007. Geschnitten oder am Stück? Totenritual und Leichenbehandlung im jungsteinzeitlichen Anatolien, in: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (Hrsg.), Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-Württemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, 246-257.

10th ICAANE, Vienna

The 10th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE – external link) will be held between 25‒29 April, 2016, in Vienna. The Göbekli Tepe research team will take part in the workshop “Iconography and Symbolic Meaning of the Human
in Near Eastern Prehistory” organized by Jörg Becker, Claudia Beuger and Bernd Müller-Neuhof with a paper on “Anthropomorphic Iconography at Göbekli Tepe”.

We are scheduled for April 28, 10.00 o´clock.

Anthropomorphic Iconography at Göbekli Tepe

Oliver Dietrich, Lee Clare, Jens Notroff


Fragmented anthropomophic sculpture, found in 2014 (Image: DAI, Photo N. Becker).

The early Aceramic Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe in Upper Mesopotamia stands out as one of the extraordinary sites from the early Holocene. Dating to a time of early sedentary communities and coinciding with the very beginnings of processes that culminate in the domestication of plants and animals, the Göbekli Tepe site is well known for its impressive megalithic architecture. This takes the form of large circular monumental enclosures, also comprising impressive T-shaped pillars. These pillars carry characteristic
anthropomorphic features in low-relief, such as hands, arms, and items of clothing. In addition to these larger-than-life monolithic figures, the site has also produced various other forms of anthropomorphic representations. These include depictions of humans carved onto the surfaces of the T-pillars themselves, limestone sculptures and figurines, and engravings on stone plaquettes.
In this paper, we focus on different expressions of anthropomorphic depiction at the site, and propose that the observable variety could correlate with diverging levels of symbolic meaning, providing unparalleled insights into human worldview at this important transition in human history.

Hope to see you there!