Emblematic signs? On the iconography of animals at Göbekli Tepe

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


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

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


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

Anlage D

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

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

Further Reading

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

Hauptmann, Harald, Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori. In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink (Rome 2003) 37-69.

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

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

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

Who built Göbekli Tepe?

Well, the short answer would be: Stone Age people with Stone Age tools. Nothing more needed, no aliens, no giants, as you can read here. For an answer to the question, who these Stone Age people were, where they came from and lived (Göbekli Tepe is not a settlement), we will have to make the finds speak.

 A point to start is the distribution of sites with similar architecture. Göbekli Tepe is not the only site with T-shaped pillars. Similar sites concentrate roughly between the Upper Balikh and the Upper Chabur rivers [read more here]. They clearly mark a region with similar cultural traits. However, the area the builders of Göbekli Tepe came from exceeds this region by far.

Gusir Höyük (Karul 2011, 2013) in the Turkish Tigris region has considerably widened the distribution area of circular enclosures. However, the pillars discovered there are slightly different, they miss the T-bar. Similar stelae have been discovered in Çayönu (Özdoğan 2011) and in Qermez Dere (Watkins et al. 1995). In addition to these two different architectonic regions, to the west, in northern Syria, a third distinct building style can be pointed out. Domestic sites like like Jerf el Ahmar, Mureybet or Tell ´Abr 3 (Stordeur et al. 2000; Yartah 2013) also have circular communal buildings. These are constructions with pisé walls and wooden supports however. Upper Mesopotamia can thus be differentiated by building traditions. But the common element is the existence of similarly arranged communal buildings, and, more important, of a range of common symbols.

Figure 2

Distribution of Göbekli Tepe´s iconography and of wild wheats (Map: T. Götzelt, Copyright DAI).

For example, shaft straighteners and plaquettes from Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur & Abbès 2002) and Tell Qaramel (Mazurowski & Kanjou 2012), as well as Tell ´Abr 3 (Yartah 2013), and Körtik Tepe (Özkaya & Coşkun 2011) feature decorations in the form of snakes and scorpions, quadruped animals, insects, and birds strongly reminiscent of the iconography of Göbekli Tepe, where they appear not only on the pillars, but also on similar items.

Göbekli Tepe 2002

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

Most striking in this regard is a small plaquette from Göbekli Tepe. From the left to the right, it shows a snake moving upwards, a stylized human figure (?) with raised arms, and a bird. What makes this small find so interesting, is that the combination of depictions reappears not only in similar (e.g. in Jerf el Ahmar with a fox in place of the human-shape?), but also in completely and nearly identical form twice on another site, Tell Abr´3 in northern Syria (Köksal-Schmidt & Schmidt 2007; Yartah 2013, with images [external link]).

The same range of depictions of snakes, scorpions, quadrupeds, insects, and birds occurs on thin walled stone cups and bowls of the Hallan Çemi type (Rosenberg & Redding 2000). Fragments of this vessel type are known from Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü (Özdoğan 2011), Nevalı Çori, Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur & Abbès 2002), Tell ´Abr 3 (Yartah 2013), and Tell Qaramel (Mazurowski & Kanjou 2012), while complete vessels have been discovered at Körtik Tepe in large numbers (Özkaya & Coşkun 2011) as part of rich grave inventories. Another connection is suggested by the zoomorphic scepters of the Nemrik type, which are present at Hallan Çemi, Nevalı Çori, Çayönü, Göbekli Tepe, Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, Jerf el Ahmar, and Dja´de (Kozłowski 2002).

We thus see a large area in Upper Mesopotamia connected by a similar iconography. While, as detailed above, several domestic sites show some aspects of this world, it concentrates at non-domestic Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe

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

The range of flint projectile points made on-site may further strengthen the impression of people from different areas gathering here (Schmidt 2001). PPN A types present at Göbekli Tepe include el-Khiam, Helwan and Aswad points; regarding the PPNB, Byblos and Nemrik points are very frequent, Nevalı Çori points are rare. Nemrik points have an eastern distribution pattern within the fertile crescent, el-Khiam and Byblos points are distributed to the west, within the Levant, Nevalı Çori points more to the north and the middle Euphrates area (Kozłowski 1999). It has to be stressed here that those points were not imported-the flint used is clearly local. At Göbekli Tepe, the whole reduction sequence is attested, although flint is not present at the limestone plateau, but had to be brought to the site from the surrounding valleys. Most of the primary production is based on naviform cores. Flint knapping took place in an abundance not known from contemporaneous sites. Maybe some characteristic of the place made it especially desirable to use points made there. Another possible point in favor of people from a larger area congregating at Göbekli Tepe is presented by raw material sourcing of the obsidian found onsite [read more here – external link].

So, to finally answer the question of who built Göbekli Tepe: Stone Age people coming from a radius of roughly 200km around the site. With Stone Age tools.


  • Karul, N. (2011). Gusir Höyük. In: Özdoğan, M., Başgelen, N. & Kuniholm, P. (eds), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Archaeology & Art Publications, Istanbul 1-17.
  • Karul, N. (2013). Gusir Höyük/Siirt. Yerleşik Avcılar. Arkeo Atlas 8, 22–29.
  • Kozłowski, S.K. (1999). The eastern wing of the Fertile Crescent. Late prehistory of Greater Mesopotamian lithic industries. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Kozłowski, S. K. (2002). Nemrik. An aceramic village in northern Irak. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology Warsaw University.
  • Mazurowski, R.F., Kanjou, Y. (eds., 2012). Tell Qaramel 1999–2007. Protoneolithic and Early Pre-pottery Neolithic Settlement in Northern Syria. Warsaw: Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology.
  • Özdoğan, A. (2011). Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 185-269.
  • Özkaya, V. & Coşkun, A. (2011). Körtik Tepe. In: M. Özdoğan, N. Başgelen & P. Kuniholm (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 1. The Tigris Basin. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 89-127.
  • Rosenberg, M. & Redding, R.W. (2000). Hallan Çemi and early village organization in Eastern Anatolia, in Kuijt, I. (ed.), Life in neolithic faming communities. Social organization, identity and differenziation. New York et. al.: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 39-61.
  • Schmidt, K. (2001). Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient 26/1, 45-54.
  • Stordeur D. & Abbès. F. (2002). Du PPNA au PPNB: mise en lumière d’une phase de transition à Jerf el Ahmar (Syrie). Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, 99(3), 563-595.
  • Stordeur, D., Brenet, M., Der Aprahamian, G. & Roux, J.-C. (2000). Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPNA (Syrie). Paléorient 26, 1, 29-44.
  • Watkins, T., Betts, A., Dobney, K. & Nesbitt. M. (1995). Qermez Dere, Tel Afar, north Iraq: third interim report, in T. Watkins (ed.) Qermez Dere, Tel Afar, north Iraq: interim report no 3. Edinburgh: Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, 1–9.
  • Yartah, T. (2013). Vie quotidienne, vie communautaire et symbolique à Tell´Abr 3 – Syrie du Nord. Données nouvelles et nouvelles réflexions sur L´horizon PPNA au nord du Levant 10000-9000 BP. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Lyon.

Further Reading (links to fulltexts)

  • 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.
  • Köksal-Schmidt, Ç & Schmidt, K. (2007). Perlen, Steingefäße, Zeichentäfelchen. Handwerkliche Spezialisierung und steinzeitliches Symbolsystem. In: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (ed.), Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit, Stuttgart, 97-109.
  • Schmidt, K. (2005). “Ritual Centres” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia. Neo-Lithics 2/05, 13-21.

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!

Why did it have to be snakes?

Snakes are omnipresent at Göbekli Tepe. Even today you may have the luck to encounter a Levantine Viper when visiting the site (yes, they are poisonous, but just let them be, they are also protected by the Washington Convention). In most cases you will only see their image in stone. Snakes are among the most often depicted animals at Göbekli Tepe. They appear on pillars, on porthole stones, on small stone plaquettes and shaft straightheners. Especially Enclosure A is full of them. Pillar 1, one of the central pillars of this building, shows what seems to be a net of snakes.

P01 - Schlangen vgl.jpg

Pillar 1 in Enclosure A and fragment of a stone plaquette discovered in 2013 (Photos: DAI).

A recent (2013) find of a small fragment of a stone plaquette from a deep sounding in trench K10-13 shows a very similar motif. Two snake heads and below them a net-like depiction of interwoven snake bodies are clearly visible. The motif seems to have been of such importance that it was reproduced in handy size to be carried around. Why this preoccupation with snakes?
A first explanation is that they fit very well in the range of animals depicted at Göbeklki Tepe. The site crawls with dangerous insects, scorpions, scolopenders; and the mammals depict are not any more friendly. This has something to do with the overall meaning of the site. Much of Göbekli´s iconography is related to early Neolithic death rites.
But there is another aspect to the apparent popularity of snakes at Göbekli Tepe.


Pillar 20 in Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

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. If this depiction really shows a battle between snake and aurochs, in which the snake prevails, there would be room for some interesting, but of course hypothetical, connections to other aspects of Göbekli´s material culture.

As mentioned, centipedes/millipedes and snakes are animals often depicted on PPN shaft straighteners. Morenz & Schmidt (2009) have taken this observation as a starting point to propose a metaphorical relation between the depiction and the object worked with the shaft straighteners. Form and deadliness of snake and arrow were maybe perceived as similar or at least wished to be. A further analogy could be seen between the fast flying arrow and the fast attack of the snake. There is vast ethnographical evidence for big game hunting with poisoned projectiles. If we start from the not completely unlikely hypothesis that this could have been the case also in the Neolithic, the image on Pillar 20 could possibly refer to this complex of analogies and metaphors, and could be ’read‘ as a depiction of a hunt in the widest sense, without the representation of an actual human actor.

Further Reading:
Morenz, L.D. & Schmidt, K.  2009. Große Reliefpfeiler und kleine Zeichentäfelchen. Ein frühneolithisches Zeichensystem in Obermesopotamien, in: Petra Andrássy – Julia Budka – Frank Kammerzell (Hrsg.), Non-Textual Marking Systems, Writing and Pseudo Script from Prehistory to Modern Times, Lingua Aegyptia – Studia monographica 8, Göttingen, 2009, 13-31.

Schmidt, K. 2014. „Adler und Schlange“ – „Großbilder“ des Göbekli Tepe und ihre Rezeption , in: Yalcin, Ünsal (Hrsg.), Anatolian Metall VI. Der Anschnitt Beiheft 25. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Deutschen Bergbau-Museum Nr. 195, Bochum 2013, 145-152. [read online – external link]