‘Special buildings‘ has become 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. This peculiar type of building seems to start existing 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. As Kathleen Kenyon has once aptly put it “… archaeologists tend to call buildings, which do not conform to the usual plan of domestic houses, shrines or temples. ” But is it that simple? Or do we summarize very different phenomena under one label just because they deviate from a ’norm‘ defined by archaeologists?
Working at Göbekli Tepe these are very important questions, and we are glad that we could gather some interesting approaches to this topic in the frame of a session at this year´s EAA Annual Meeting in Maastricht.
Our session (#s322) will be held on Saturday, September 2, between 14:00-16.45 in room 1.08.
01. Oliver Dietrich, Laura Dietrich, Deniz Erdem, Jens Notroff, Krisztián Oross, An Archaeology of ‘Special buildings‘? Introductory remarks
02. Eszter Banffy, Introduction – Special buildings in the European Neolithic?
03. Tatiana Kornienko, On the Problem of Interpreting Reliefs and Images in public structures of Northern Mesopotamia during the transition to the Neolithic
04. Anna Fagan, Special Spaces, Special Relations: An Ontological Approach to Pre-Pottery Neolithic Communal Buildings
05. Deniz Erdem, Plastering Rituals: Connecting Buildings and Bodies through Plaster
06. Theodor Aurelian Ignat, Catalin Lazar, Thoughts about special dwellings from tell settlement proximity. Sultana-Malu Rosu, a case study.
This is the English version of a text published by Oliver Dietrich and Jens Notroff in the latest issue of Aktüel Arkeoloji [external link].
Our knowledge of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia has undergone dramatic changes in the last three decades. The region long held a peripheral role in research on this period. Ever since the seminal work of K. Kenyon at Jericho, the roots of food producing were sought in the Southern Levant. Not only was the traditional differentiation of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in an earlier PPN A (c. 9600-8800 cal BC) and a later PPN B (c. 8800-7000 cal BC) devised at Jericho, but the existence of a wall and the famous tower seemed to be evidence for a strikingly early hierarchized society living in a ‘town’. The function of wall and tower have been heavily disputed later on, as has the attribution ‘town’, and the role of the Southern Levant as the core area of Neolithization.
With the influential research of L. and R. Braidwood at Jarmo, the focus of archaeological studies into the earliest Neolithic shifted to the northeast of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, or, as the Braidwoods put it, its ‘hilly flanks’. In recent years, it has become clear that the region encompassed between the middle and upper reaches of Euphrates and Tigris and the foothills of the Taurus Mountains has the potential to be a cradle of the new way of life that we call the Neolithic. The distribution areas of the wild forms of einkorn and emmer wheat, barley and the other ‘Neolithic founder crops’ overlap here, and the transition of the two wheat variants to domesticated crops has been pinpointed to this area. But it is especially one site in this region that has triggered paradigmatic changes in our views on early Neolithic society.
The tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated about 15 km northeast of the modern town of Şanlıurfa on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range. With a height of 15 m, the mound covers an area of about 9 ha, measuring 300 m in diameter. Neolithic artefacts were first recognized during a combined survey by the Universities of Chicago and Istanbul in the 1960s, but the architecture hidden by the mound remained unrecognized until its discovery in 1994 by Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute. Since then annual excavation work has been conducted.
Aerial view of Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, Photo M. Morsch).
During excavation work, a rough stratigraphical schema has been established. The older Layer III with monumental architecture consisting of 10-30 m wide circles formed by huge monolithic pillars in a distinct T-shape was dated tentatively to the PPN A /early PPN B. The pillars, reaching a height of up to 4 m, are interconnected by walls and benches which define the inner and outer spaces of the enclosures. They are always orientated towards a central pair of even larger pillars of the same shape. Depictions of arms and hands on some of them indicate their anthropomorphic character. The pillars are richly decorated with reliefs showing mainly animals, and there also is a large number of limestone sculptures depicting animals and humans from the enclosures. After the end of their use, the circular buildings of Layer III were backfilled intentionally.
A younger layer is superimposed on this monumental architecture in some parts of the mound. This Layer II was dated to the early and middle PPN B. Smaller rectangular buildings of about 3 x 4 m with terrazzo floors are characteristic for this phase. They may be understood as minimized versions of the older monumental enclosures, as they share a common element – the T-shaped pillars. However, number and height of the pillars are considerably reduced: now often only two small central pillars are present, the largest among them not exceeding a height of 2 m. There are even rooms without any pillars. As with the large enclosures, no traces of domestic activities, e.g. hearths or ovens, have been detected so far. Thereafter, building activity at Göbekli Tepe seems to have come to an end. The uppermost Layer I consists of the surface soil resulting from erosion processes as well as a plough horizon.
Göbekli Tepe, overview (copyright DAI, Photo E. Kücük).
The monumental enclosures are the most impressive part of Göbekli Tepe’s archaeology. A geophysical survey, including ground-penetrating radar confirmed that these enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the site. More than ten enclosures were located on the geophysical map in addition to the nine already under excavation – the latter designated A to I in order of their discovery. Five of these structures, A, B, C, D and G, were unearthed in the main excavation area at the mound’s southern depression; one, Enclosure F, at the southwestern hilltop; Enclosure H and I in the northwestern depression, and another one, Enclosure E, on the western plateau. Göbekli Tepe, at least in the older phase, is thus no domestic site with some special buildings, it is a site made up exclusively of special buildings and strongly connected to Neolithic (symbolic and most likely religious) beliefs.
View of Göbekli Tepe’s so-called main excavation area, Enclosure D in the front. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)
This symbolic world and Göbekli Tepe at its center clearly challenge conventional views on the organization, creative possibilities and potential of hunter-gatherers. This leads to the question how highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups were able to create a monumental site like Göbekli Tepe, and what repercussions this large-scale project may have had on their society.
Indicators for social differentiation
At Göbekli Tepe the enclosures of Layer III consist of several large megalithic elements cut from the surrounding limestone plateaus. The setting of the Neolithic quarries is demonstrated by numerous traces, between them an unfinished T pillar with a size of about 7 m and volume of 20 m³. The central pillars of Enclosure D weigh 10 metric tons each, and the pillars in the circle are only slightly smaller. Cutting, decorating, and transporting them is not a small task. There would of course also be the possibility that the enclosures were erected and constructed in the course of a longer period, but research into their building history does not seem to indicate this. On the other hand there is ample evidence for revisited work in already existing enclosures, for ongoing rearrangement, repair, depletion and re-use of some pillars in other enclosures. Consistent and intense work at thus seems very probable there.
Unfinished T-pillar in the quarries of Göbekli Tepe, tell in background. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)
There is some evidence for more than one group of people involved in construction activity. The image range of the different enclosures is far from random. In Enclosure A snakes are the dominating species, in Enclosure B foxes are frequent, in Enclosure C many boars are represented, while Enclosure D is more varied, with birds playing an important role. A possible connection of these animals to totems of different clans working at Göbekli Tepe is a possible line of interpretation which should be explored in future research.
To sum up, there is reason to believe that larger groups of people were active at Göbekli Tepe. Planning, organization and coordination of construction work were obviously necessary, as well as a mode to gather the needed workforce which most probably outnumbers the members of a single band or even a local group of hunter-gatherers. Some clues to the reasons people gathered at Göbekli Tepe come from the filing material of the enclosures. The fill material consists of limestone rubble, bones, fragments of stone artifacts and flint debitage (tools are rarer); its quite homogenous character makes the whole process of backfilling almost resembling a burial. Enclosure D alone comprised nearly 500 cubic meters of debris. With traces of permanent settlement absent, this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized ‘work feasts’ rooted in the belief systems of the people congregating there. Large amounts of wild game were hunted and consumed. Feasting, respectively the organization of large feasts, is known ethnographically as a method to accumulate influence, to create hierarchies, and ultimately to exercise power over others. Yet there are even further indicators for social inequality in the early Neolithic archaeological record.
Limestone head from Göbekli Tepe, supposedly part of a sculpture similar to ‘Urfa Man’ (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
A general impression of the existence of hierarchical concepts within the groups constructing the Göbekli Tepe enclosures is conferred by the layout of these structures already. The smaller pillars in the circle walls are looking towards the larger central pair of pillars. Whatever gathering is depicted here, it does not seem to be one of equals. Another differentiation seems to exist between the clearly anthropomorphic, but abstract pillars and more natural human depictions in the style of the PPN sculpture of a man from Urfa-Yeni Mahalle. The ‘Urfa statue’, regarded as the oldest naturalistic life-sized sculpture of a human, has a face, and its eyes are depicted by deep holes with inset blade segments of black obsidian, but it lacks a mouth. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace or collar. It is not entirely clear, but it seems that its hands are holding a phallus. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is a conical tap, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. From Göbekli Tepe there are several life-sized human heads made of limestone, which probably have been part of similar sculptures originally. The heads seem to have been intentionally broken off the statues and were in many cases deposited next to the T-shaped pillars in the course of refilling the enclosures. While their exact relation to the pillars remains unclear, it seems quite possible to assume that they represent another hierarchical level or another sphere compared to these abstracted pillar-beings. This would be a strong lead to assume a concept of hierarchy in the spiritual realm. The question at hand is, if real life was structured accordingly.
One symptom, and maybe a prerequisite for the evolution of social hierarchy is specialization and division of labor. Göbekli Tepe stands witness to the existence of both. It is hard to imagine that the reliefs on these pillars and the elaborated sculptures were made by inexperienced people. The uniformity of types, the coherent style, the exactness of realization all speak in favor of a fixed canon of motifs and techniques that had to be learned. While transport and erection of the monoliths may have been accomplished in a short time span by a large work force, the artistry seems to hint at highly specialized craft(s). It seems possible that a part of the population had to be set free from subsistence activities and were cared for at least for some time of the year by the others while learning and executing work at Göbekli Tepe. Of course, the intensity and duration of such work periods is hard to apprehend, and their effect may not have been decisive in restructuring a complete society in the short term.
Greenstone buttons from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, Photos I. Wagner, K. Schmidt).
When trying to infer social hierarchization, archaeologists frequently turn to special treatment of individuals in funerary ritual or to ‚prestige’ items of material culture. At Göbekli Tepe, burials are missing so far, but it is not hard to find ‘special’ items. Looking at the portable material culture, there are spacer beads and buttons, often made of greenstone, zoomorphic pestles or ‚scepters’ of the so-called Nemrik type, elaborately decorated thin walled stone bowls, and, of course, decorated shaft straighteners and small stone tablets. The decorated tablets and shaft straighteners also pose an argument for specialization. In can be assumed that the signs on them were readable, because they repeat images and, more importantly, combinations of images known as well from the pillars, as from objects discovered at other sites in vicinity. They most likely represent a way to fix memories and knowledge of the society creating them in a form intelligible at least to initiated specialists. The challenge addressing these items as individual signs of social distinction at Göbekli Tepe lies in the fact that they come from the enclosures’ filling. They are not found in the contexts of their primary use, and there thus is no possibility to determine whether e.g. the stone bowls, the ‚scepters’ (if this determination is right), or the tablets were the individual property of persons, or part of the paraphernalia of cultic ceremonies. There are some leads though. The buttons and spacer beads, often made from greenstone and most likely part of the personal adornment, do appear frequently in Göbekli Tepe and in settlements with ‚special buildings’ like Nevalı Çori or Çayönü. They seem to be bound to such peculiar contexts and maybe to a group of religious specialists present there.
Nemrik type ’scepters‘ from Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photos N. Becker, T. Goldschmidt, K. Schmidt).
A look at other sites may strengthen this image a little more. The richly furnished burials found at Körtik Tepe [external link], a site partly contemporary with Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III (but apparently starting much earlier) and sharing much of its material culture, situated more to the East in the Tigris region, are very important for understanding early Neolithic social hierarchy. Besides the settlement, at Körtik Tepe more than 450 graves have been discovered. The amount of grave goods differs considerably, there is also a large number of graves without any. Some skeletons show evidence for complex rites prior and posterior to burial, including the decoration of bones with ochre and lime-plaster. Of course, a simple relationship between burial gifts, elaborate grave rites and the social status of the deceased cannot be drawn, as the furnishing of graves also (and sometimes predominantly) is determined by the belief system and values of society or the views of the bereaved on the deceased. The broken objects at Körtik Tepe, in many cases stone bowls, could very well hint at a ritual deposition of equipment used in celebrations at the graves more than at the personal belongings of the dead. Such celebrations may implicitly and in the first place have served the purpose of handling the loss produced by the death for the social group. However, not all individuals seem to have received equal attention, and the excavators also observed that grave goods generally got more elaborated and numerous over time, which they take as a sign of increasing social hierarchization. The graves of Körtik Tepe thus seem to offer tentative evidence for social distinction among groups contemporary with Göbekli Tepe.
Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, Copyright DAI).
Fragment of a decorated stone bowl from Göbekli Tepe (Photo. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).
Fragment of a decorated stone bowl from Göbekli Tepe (Photo N. Becker, Copyright DAI).
Most interestingly, also decorated stone plaquettes are part of burials at Körtik Tepe, marking them as possible individual property or signs of the social function of some of the deceased. The exact number of decorated plaquettes from Körtik is not clear, but it seems to be a restricted find group. It is possible that the possession of plaquettes themselves and – probably more important – the knowledge stored on them in abstract and symbolic form was restricted to a certain group of people. This would again hint at specialists in memory, ritual and maybe religion, drawing their importance to the group from memorizing, saving and reproducing crucial knowledge.
Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable also at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing. 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 Tepe. 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. Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and domestic 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 seems to be exclusively represented at the site.
Another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures. 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 religious specialists had access to the enclosures.
As mentioned above, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence for constant construction activity. In Addition to the erection of new monuments, activities took also place in already existing enclosures. New circle walls were added, and the re-use of pillars from other, dismantled enclosures is a frequent phenomenon. The general impression is that working at Göbekli Tepe in itself was of central importance to PPN people. One reason for this may lie in the strengthening of social cohesion such activities in combination with feasting (maybe preluded by communal hunts) bring about, but building and rebuilding Göbekli Tepe – and maybe other sites like it – may also have been a way to gain and maintain social power and influence by those possessing the knowledge necessary to construct and meaningfully decorate the ‘special buildings’.
Complementing the element of cohesion, there may also be signs of competition at Göbekli Tepe. The enclosures vary in size, in the density of iconography, and ultimately in the amount of labor invested. Also, as mentioned above, different species of animals dominate in different enclosures. That observation opens up the possibility of the circles being constructed by different groups. The possibility of competitive behavior among those groups, or individuals leading them, can thus not be ruled out.
The large-scale feasting at Göbekli Tepe seems partly to have had the character of work feasts to accomplish a common, supposedly religiously motivated task. The enclosures erected there convey the impression of gatherings through their layout, and, while signs for social stratification exist, this aspect – the gathering of people for a collective aim – should not be lost from sight completely in favor of competition and power acquisition by individuals. In any case it would seem that competition for influence, at least at Göbekli Tepe, was not open to everyone who was able to throw a large feast. Access to and command of knowledge crucial to 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. In conclusion, the notion of a ‘transegalitarian society’ with beginning social hierarchization on several levels brought forward by Brian Hayden seems to fit the image emerging from sites like Göbekli Tepe and Körtik Tepe.
It may be premature however to move beyond the simple observation of the early evolution of social hierarchy. We should take the limits of the momentarily available archaeological evidence into account. Göbekli Tepe is a very special site in the context of cult, the perpetuation of cultural knowledge and, maybe, ultimately religion. This is an important aspect of a society, but it is just one facet of many. Feasting in a cultic context away from settlements may have been a way to gain influence in the early Neolithic world, but at the moment it is hard to integrate into a complete picture. Complementary evidence from settlements is needed to understand how far social differentiation already influenced all aspects of life in the earlier PPN, how stable power aggregated by an individual might have been and how far his authority over others may have reached. At Göbekli Tepe, the collective aspect of accomplishing work through feasting generally seems to hint at a more indirect and maybe fragile form of power connected to a certain task.
We are grateful the General Directorate of Antiquities of Turkey for kind permission to excavate this important site. Research at Göbekli Tepe is funded by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). This text is partly based upon the following work: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt. 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. New York: Springer, 91-132.
Recently, I stumbled upon a blogpost by Graham Hancock [external link]. I was looking for something completely different, i.e. the “fallout” of the rather unfortunate meteor theory proposed by two researchers from Edinburgh in April. What I found however sent me off in a completely different direction. As it is a prime example how false interpretations of images arise, and how they could have been prevented right from the start, I thought I should write a few words about that blog post here.
In his short text, Hancock explains that an independent researcher, while browsing the images in the online database of the ‘Cuneiform Digital Library’ [external link], found a depiction of the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe with their iconic T-shaped pillars. On a seal impression from Susa, dating to the Uruk V period. The settlement phase Uruk V constitutes together with Uruk IV the Late Uruk Period. The details of the absolute chronology of this period, which sees the invention of writing (i.e. proto-cuneiform script starting from Uruk IVa) and the cylinder seal, is still under debate, but a general date between 3500-3100 BC seems to be safe. Göbekli Tepe is currently dated between c. 9500-8000 BC. So, there is some chronological and regional distance between the sites (Susa lies in nowadays Iran). “Nice mystery here”, to cite Hancock. But let’s have a critical look at the evidence, which is always a good idea when doing science.
Hancock´s post refers to a fragment of a cylinder seal impression, for which the ‘Cuneiform Digital Library’ database gives a scanned black and white photo and some background information, like the material (clay), the collection (Louvre, Paris) and the primary publication (MDP 43, 676). It is also clear that the image is rotated – most likely accidentally – by 180° compared to the original publication (the number is upside down). And there they are, the two T-shaped pillars encircled by an oval, shown two times. A perfect abstract depiction of a round building from Göbekli Tepe´s older layer, as it seems. Alright, the pillars inside the perimeter wall are missing. But who cares? It could be an abstracted depiction of something a few millennia older but apparently still very well known.
The seal impression is fragmentary and highly damaged. It is obvious that the original image was more complex. If we turn the image correctly and look a little closer, in front of the left Ts, which now do not resemble Ts anymore, there is an indication of some more depictions that are hard to identify on the b&w photograph. That is why finds were and mostly still are drawn in archaeology, and in any case described extensively. And where to find a drawing and description of the find? In MDP 43 of course.
I perfectly understand that this is the point at which those with a general interest in archaeology and browsing through an online database might be lost. MDP refers to the series “Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique en Iran”. Why the “P”? Because the series was first called “Mémoires de la Délegation en Perse” and the abbreviation never changed. If we look the find up in volume 43 of this series, written by Pierre Amiet and dealing with “Glyptique Susienne”, the scene is described as “two figures sitting on the left, on curved seats, in front of apparatuses made up of two supports with square bases and an elongated oval element”. And the drawing of the sealing shows just that. The persons are touching this “oval element” with their hands. The publication has some more depictions of this kind on sealings, and at least some, such as MDP 43, nr. 673 or 674 are less fragmentary. It becomes immediately clear that we are not dealing with a depiction of T-shaped pillars, but of two supports with square feet at the bottom and a knob at the top, connected by an oval.
The depictions of people interacting with this “apparatus” are part of a group of sealings that shows people at work, and some of the images with the supports strongly hint in the direction of weaving (esp. nr. 673), the “oval” most probably being the depiction of a thread.
So, absolutely no “nice mystery here”. Just a misinterpretation of a highly fragmentary depiction. While dealing with prehistoric imagery things like that can happen quickly. Because the human brain interprets things in relation to former experiences and knowledge. In the case at hand, I have seen images of Göbekli Tepe´s round to oval enclosures with their iconic pair of monumental T-shaped pillars. Then I see two T-shapes on a scan of a b&w image of a highly-weathered fragment of a clay seal impression. And immediately make a connection between the two. Science starts when I challenge that superficial connection in the way described above with some simple questions that work not only in the case at hand:
General chronological and cultural-historic reasoning: What is the cultural background of the artefact I am looking at and how old is it? How likely might it be that the people making it depict an object or a site millennia older and not something well-known to them?
Iconographical reasoning: How was the way of depicting things in that particular period, may the shape I am looking at fit the way of representing certain devices / objects / things? What else might be depicted that perfectly fits the cultural background / everyday activities of the people making the artefact?
Challenging the evidence / its documentation: Is the depiction fragmentary or hard to evaluate for other reasons? What kind of documentation is available to me? Does it allow me to fully comprehend what is depicted? Or do I need further information before I can make up my mind?
Go to the sources. Archaeological artefacts, or artefacts similar to the one at hand are usually published somewhere, and these publications may hold further information and better images. It may be tricky to identify the available sources.
So, finally: Why not ask an archaeologist, some of us are nice people willing to help!
Pierre Amiet, Glyptique Susienne. Des origins à l´ époque des Perses Achéménides. Cachets, sceaux-cylindres et empreintes antiques découverts à Suse de 1913 à 1967. Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique en Iran XLIII (Paris 1972).
Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range in southeastern Turkey. The spot is hostile to settlement; the next accessible springs are located in a distance of about 5 km northeast (Edene) and to the southeast (Germuş). A number of pits at Göbekli Tepe’s western slope could represent cisterns to collect rain water; although their exact date could not have been determined yet. With a total capacity of 153,12 cubic metres (cf. Herrmann-Schmidt 2012) they may have accumulated enough water for people to stay there for a longer periods of time, but probably not during the whole rainless summer. The next Neolithic settlements so far known were found in the plain in immediate vicinity of nearby springs, like for example Urfa-Yeni Yol.
From its discovery onwards, the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe’s suprising architecture has centered around the terms ’special purpose buildings‘ (Sondergebäude), ’sanctuaries‘, or even ‚temples‘. Naturally, this line of interpretation has been called into question. As already discussed here, it is indeed quite challenging to use a rather strictly defined historical terminology and complex spiritual concepts to describe the material remains of prehistoric phenomena. Even more while cult, ritual and ultimately religion are concepts often cited but rarely clearly defined by archaeologists.
Just recently a colleague challenged the existence of pure domestic or ritual structures for the Neolithic, arguing that archaeologists tend to impose modern western distinctions of sacred vs. profane on prehistory, while anthropology in most cases shows these two spheres to be inseparably interwoven (Banning 2011, 624-627). In his eyes, Göbekli Tepe rather was a settlement with buildings rich in symbolism, but nevertheless domestic in nature. Undisputedly, this boundary is perceived much stricter today after centuries of secularization in the western hemisphere, although it should be noted that this differentiation indeed also is known from non-western societies, too. Banning’s arguments that in-house inhumations, caches and wall paintings are demonstrating that ‚the sacred‘ clearly is leaking into everyday live in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Banning 2011, 627-629) and that therefore a clear distinction is impossible to define, is valid, too, of course. In fact the idea of manifestations of the sacred in houses or parts of houses is neither new, nor surprising as already M. Eliade pointed out in his seminal work on the entanglement of the sacred and profane. Yet Eliade also emphasized that belief and faith of course could focus within special places and structures particularly dedicated to give ‚the sacred‘ a room: „… the sanctuary – the center par excellence was there, close to [man], in the city, and he could be sure of communicating with the world of the gods by entering the temple.“ (Eliade 1959, 43). All this is essentially theoretical thinking, based on historical sources and ethnologic observation. But going back to prehistoric periods which are denying such direct access, we are thrown back again at a selection of what is left physically and intentionally – exclusively. In case of the enclosures unearthed at Göbekli Tepe this means to focus on the material culture found in this context and the structures themselves.
Pillar 31, one of the central pillars of Enclosure D, illustrates the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars due to the depiction of arms, hands, and a loincloth. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
Among these, still the monumental T-shaped pillars can be regarded as the site’s most prominent and most defining moment. While they remain faceless, the depiction of arms, hands, and clothing clearly identifies these up to 5.5 m high pillars as anthropomorphic, but distinctively also larger than life at the same time. Their highly abstracted character must be considered intentional, in particular since we know of the existence of more naturalistic and life-sized sculptures like for example the contemporaneous ‚Urfa man‘ and numerous heads of similar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. So, even though we cannot know if these buildings actually were really meant to house gods or deities, the peculiar role of these larger-than-life anthropomorphic images forming the centre and main element of the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe remain conspiciously disctinctive to the life-sized sculpture heads which were apparently carefully deposited in the backfill.
So-called Urfa Man is considered the oldest known life-sized sculpture of a man (Photo: J. Notroff, DAI).
Limestone head from Göbekli Tepe, supposedly part of a sculpture similar to ‘Urfa Man’ (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
Early Neolithic domestic architecture is well known in the upper Euphrates region due to the long and secure stratigraphy of rectangular buildings at Çayönü Tepesi (Schirmer 1988; 1990; Özdoğan 1999) and extensive excavations at Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1988) for instance, both stiuated in Turkey. Contemporaneous with Göbekli Tepe in this sequence would be Çayönü’s so-called grillplan-phase (PPNA), the ‚channeled‘ ground plans (early PPNB; attested also in Nevalı Çori), and the ‚cobble paved buildings‘ (middle PPNB). Research of the last 20 years in the region has revealed that almost every settlement site of the 10th and 9th millennium BC, which was excavated more extensively, shows a spatial distinction into living quarters and workshop areas and furthermore produced special buildings or free spaces for apparently communal or ritual activity. Characteristic traits of these so-called special purpose buildings are benches at the inner walls, rich and elaborate inner fittings as well as outstanding installations and finds like (stone) sculptures and sometimes human burials – as the examples of Nevalı Çori’s ‚Terrazzo Building‘, Çayönü’s ‚Skull‘, ‚Terrazzo‘ and ‚Flagstone Buildings‘ or the communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet (northern Syria) demonstrate, to just name some.
Reconstruction of the ‚Terrazzo Building‘ at Nevalı Çori where T-Pillars were found for the first time. (Photo: H. Hauptmann, reconstruction: N. Becker, DAI.)
At Göbekli Tepe no traces of this well-documented typical domestic PPN architecture could have been proven as of yet. But the existing structures at the site clearly mirror features and layout of those outstanding communal ’special purpose‘ buildings which usually are the exception within settlements. At Göbekli Tepe, however, this building type is not an exception, but the general rule – almost overrepresented compared to other settlement sites, while whole object classes (like clay figurines for instance) known from these settlements are almost completely absent.
Summing up, from our point of view there seems to be ample evidence to interpret Göbekli Tepe as a peculiar place formed of special purpose structures related to cult and ritual with distinct and fixed life-cycles of building, use, deconstruction and burial. All of these stages seem to be marked by specific ritual acts, of which the last, i.e. those related to burial and deposition of symbolic objects are naturally best visible in the archaeological record. What remains is largely a problem of adequate terminology to address these buildings and the site as a whole. If ‘temple’ is understood as a technical term for specialized cult architecture, one could indeed consider this lable for Göbekli Tepe. If the term is defined in our western perception as a place where a god is present, maybe ’sanctuary’‘ would be a more neutral description; alternatively the auxiliary construction of ’special purpose buildings‘ (Sondergebäude) may be used to escape any trap of culturally bound denominations. But in any case one thing is sure: the idea that Göbekli Tepe’s buildings are „so fair a house“ seems not the most convincing interpretation of the available evidence so far.
A more detailed discussion of this question can be found in:
O. Dietrich and J. Notroff, A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In: N. Lanerie (ed.), Defining the Sacred. Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow 2015, 75-89.
E. E. Banning, So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East, Current Anthropology 52/5, 2011, 619-660.
M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Brace & World 1959.
H. Hauptmann, Nevalı Cori: Architektur, Anatolica XV, 1988, 99-110.
H. Hauptmann, Ein Kultgebäude in Nevalı Cori. In: M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae and M. Mellink (eds.), Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata. Rome: Università di Roma „La Sapienza“, 37-69.
R. A. Herrmann and K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – Untersuchungen zur Gewinnung und Nutzung von Wasser im Bereich des steinzeitlichen Bergheiligtums. In: F. Klimscha, R. Eichmann, C. Schuler and H. Fahlbusch (eds.), Wasserwirtschaftliche Innovationen im archäologischen Kontext. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH, 2012, 57-67.
A. Özdoğan, Çayönü. In: M. Özdoğan and N. Başgelen (eds.), Neolithic in Turkey. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1999, 35-63.
W. Schirmer, Zu den Bauten des Çayönü Tepesi, Anatolica XV, 1988, 139-159.
W. Schirmer, Some Aspects of Building at the ‚Aceramic Neolithic‘ Settlement of Çayönü Tepesi, Wolrd Archeology 21/3, 1990, 363-378.
D. Stordeur, M. Brenet, G. der Aprahamian and J. C. Roux, Les bâtiments communautaires de Jerf el Ahmar et Mureybet horizon PPN A (Syrie), Paleórient 26/1, 2000, 29-44.
Arkeofili [external link], a Turkish online magazine and portal dedicated to archaeological news and reports on archaeological sites and discoveries in Turkey and the world approached DAI’s Göbekli Tepe research staff with a couple of questions regarding excavations at site and the current state of research. Since the recently published interview [external link] received broad interests and we were repeatedly asked if an English translation was available, we are pleased to provide it here with courtesy of the Arkeofili staff for those not fluent in Turkish.
What you always wanted to know about Göbekli Tepe.
(Interview by Arkeofili staff with Jens Notroff, DAI.)
(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)
What is Göbekli Tepe and what is it not? Is it a temple, a house, or both (since E. B. Banning put forward that it could be domestic houses)?
That’s actually the crucial question: What was it? And that’s the challenge as well – since we do not have any written sources from that time explaining anything about world view and everyday life of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers who created this and related sites, we have to form our interpretations exclusively on the material culture they left to us.
After about 20 years of excavation and research we start to perceive the site of Göbekli Tepe as a kind of meeting point. A gathering centre of several groups of hunters roaming the area (based on iconographic parallels in the decoration of stone vessels, plaquettes etc. we may assume a catchment area of up to 200 km). Apparently, Göbekli Tepe was an important point in the landscape for regular encounters and exchange.
It is somehow true that archaeologists often all too easily use the term ‘ritual’ to describe finds and features we do not understand. And it is also true that the distinction of sacred versus profane as two strictly separated spheres is a rather modern, western view. However, we did not come up with our interpretation out of the blue – there are a couple of peculiar features about Göbekli Tepe supporting these ideas.
Pillar 1 in Enclosure A shows a net-like pattern formed of snakes and a ram (Photo: C. Gerber, coopyright DAI).
Pillar 2 in Enclosure A with a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox and crane (Photo: C. Gerber, copyright DAI).
Since we do know the typical settlement architecture of this area and period from other contemporary sites like Nevalı Çori and in particular Çayönü in the Turkish Tigris area or Mureybet and Jerf el Ahmar in the Syrian Euphrates region, we can note that the structures at Göbekli Tepe do differ from these. The monumental circular enclosures of the older PPN A layer of Göbekli Tepe with their characteristic large T-shaped monoliths form a different, a very distinct kind of building. A type which indeed can be found in a lot of the known settlements as well – structures we usually call ‘community’ buildings. Yet while there mostly in settlements only one example of these special purpose buildings can be found, at Göbekli Tepe there seems to be a noticeable cumulation of these. Whether we really would need to call them ‘temples’ basically depends on a definition of that term we agree on. Yet usually the historic characterisation of temples would ask for some deity (or deities) being housed there – a complex concept of religion we could not provide for the early Neolithic as of yet. However, with hands and arms and elements of clothing depicted in relief, the characteristic T-pillars of Göbekli Tepe clearly own an anthropomorphoic identity and thus could be understood as monumental sculptures. Highly abstracted, faceless, larger-than-life depictions which clearly are taking up a different sphere than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures also known from the period.
What has Göbekli Tepe changed about our knowledge of history? Why is the discovery of and the information gained from Göbekli Tepe so important?
The most important discovery about Göbekli Tepe may have been the insight into what seems to be a very complex degree of organization within and among these early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups. To construct monumental architecture like the Göbekli Tepe pillars and enclosures indeed must have asked for a certain degree of labour division as well as cooperation between different groups, organization and coordination of this work. The realisation that these still highly mobile people invested time and effort into rather large-scale communal projects and thus may have triggered a whole slew of development subsequently leading into the so-called Neolithic lifestyle with larger settled communities, agriculture, and husbandry, is an important contribution to our understanding of the Anatolian Neolithic. Food would need to have been made available for workers gathered there, and demands may soon have exceeded returns of prevailing hunting and foraging strategies – and thus may well have been led to the exploration and exploitation of new food sources. To some degree this somehow turned around cause and effect of our earlier picture of these line of events.
(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)
Why would/could the people of that time need a monumental building such as Göbekli Tepe?
Ethnographic studies have shown that communal projects and feasts are an important factor to strengthen group cohesion. Particularly rather small gunter-gatherer bands are essentially reliant on regular meetings to exchange information, goods, and marriage partner for instance to keep the gene pool fresh. It surely is no coincidence that the site of Göbekli Tepe was created where it is – on the highest point of the mountain ridge, a landmark widely visible. Against this background it seems suitable to interpret the architecture there as mark of these gatherings. The pillars with their rich depictions representing groups and somehow storing their memory. Large amounts of animal bones, hunted game strictly, speak in favour of huge feasts hold here and residue in stone vessels with a capacity of up to 160 litres may even hint at the consumption of alcoholic beverages. So-called workforce feasts like these (this is another insight from social anthropology) are a great means to attract the mapower necessary to carry out large communal projects like the constructions at Göbekli Tepe undoubtly must have been. Regular reparation and re-arrangement within the enclosures furthermore gives the impression of on-going continued construction activity, making it even more probable that this was an important factor of the site at all: a reason to bring people together.
(Photo: DAI, E. Kücük)
Do we know what the approximate manpower is needed to build Göbekli Tepe? Were there any experimental projects/research about how the structures were built? Or is anything of that sort planned for the future? Do we have any information on the building techniques?
The surrounding rock plateaus of Göbekli Tepe clearly give us an idea on how these prehistoric stone masons were working. Next to a number of ’negative‘ hollows, where workstone pieces were extracted, a huge amount of flint and bedrock stone tools as well as some unfinished pieces like broken T-pillars and other work pieces clearly illustrate how and where the Prehistoric masons were working.
(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)
Calculating exact numbers for the necessary workforce, however, would be a bit more challenging since too many factors need to be considered. Figures for the erection of the giant moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for instance are ranging from 20 up to 75 people which would be required to move one of the statues over a distance of 15 km. Yet ethnographic records from the Indonesian Island of Nias mention up to 525 men involved in hauling a megalith of 4 m3 over a distance of 3 km to its final location. Another example from Indonesia points out that such a large number of participants is not necessarily caused exclusively by the labor involved, but that other factors have to be kept in mind as well. In Kodi, West Sumba, the transport of the stones used for the construction of megalithic tombs itself is ritualized and requires a large number of people to be involved as witnesses. Thus, also social aspects like the acquisition and maintaining of prestige among the individuals participating needs to be incorporated into the models of the erection of monumental structures.
Experiments were carried out recently by colleagues to get an idea how much work and effort would have been involved into the several processes of breaking and working the stones pieces, but are still awaiting final evaluation and publication. It should be noted that these results, while delivering useful insights, could be approximate values at best since they hardly could exactly match the skills of Prehistoric specialized craftsmen.
What does Göbekli Tepe tell us about the hierarchical organisation of people at that time?
Like already discussed above, the probably large amount of workforce necessary to create the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe speaks in favour of an emerging complex social structure. We were used to assume these hunter-gatherer bands are organised strictly egalitarian, yet a communal project like this involving different groups and complex constructions must have asked for at least some degree of coordination and labour specialisation.
(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)
Is there any evidence for any production activities in Göbekli Tepe (for instance agriculture, or beer-brewing as was mentioned by Dietrich et al.)?
Traces of typical domestic activities are missing so far at Göbekli Tepe, as are any traces of Prehistoric agriculture or husbandry – any remains of plants and animals discovered as of yet hint at the respective wild forms only.
However, numerous flint tools and flint flakes clearly hint at flint knapping on a grand scale taking place at and around Göbekli Tepe. The possible production of beer in the frame of large scale feasting is indeed a point worthy of discussion in the frame of these already mentioned large feasts – since preliminary chemical analysis hints at oxalate residues in large stone vessels at the site.
(Photos: DAI, K. Schmidt & N. Becker)
What do you think of the depictions on the steles? What could they be telling us – could they be narrating something?
The wide range of varying motifs and recurrent symbols (and combinations thereof) suggests that these are not mere decorative elements; these depictions rather have an extraordinarily complex, mythological, content with indeed a likely narrative character. The symbols themselves are plain to see (naturalistic portrayals interchange with strongly abstract signs) and yet the meanings behind them, so obvious to the people in the Neolithic, remain hidden from us today. Of particular note is, however, the absence of what might be termed mythological hybrids and monsters; all animals depicted at Göbekli Tepe occurred naturally near the site, i.e. are species of Eurasian wild fauna.
Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Photo D. Johannes, copyright DAI).
Pillar 27 in Enclosure C, detail of predator in high relief and boar in low relief (Photo D. Johannes, copyright DAI).
Did you find evidence for any ritual stages or processes before the intentional burying of the structures? Were you able to discern a shared procedure for the burial of all the structures? How do we know they were intentionally buried?
The site as we see it today is the last stage of a supposedly much longer use-life. Thus we do basically find this latest phase of activity, the backfilling, represented in the archaeological record. The rather homogenous nature of the filling material within the enclosures, consisiting of limestone rubble, sculpture and stone tool fragments, and a significant amount of animal bones, speaks in favour of intentional backfilling events. Other than this filling material, finds within the enclosures which could be linked to their actual use are rare. In most cases it looks like the enclosures were almost cleared prior the filling event. A stone plate and boar sculpture placed at the foot of one of Enclosure C’s central pillars seems to have been placed there in a delibirate act.
(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)
However, there must have been some knowledge of the structures even some time after they were backfilled and ‚buried‘ since the later architecture (like a terrace wall on top for instance) clearly makes reference to the former enclosures‘ space. Also a pit dug into the filling of Enclosure C, clearly directed at the central pillars, underlines this impression, maybe the tops of some pillars were even still visible then (which might also explain the addition of cup marks to some of the larger pillars’ heads).
Have you found any female figures or depictions in Göbekli Tepe? Does this tell us anything concerning a male dominated society, possibly?
So far, every known depiction – as long as their sex is clearly recognizeable – seems to be male, be it animals or humans. The only exception is a later added grafitto of a single woman on a stone slab in one of the later PPN B buildings.
While this may somehow denote the site of Göbekli Tepe as a refuge of male hunters, it does of course not at all mean that women did not play a role in PPN society. There is a wide range of finds clearly connected to women in the contemporary settlements for instance – however, at Göbekli Tepe they (respectively their activity) remain invisible as of yet.
(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)
Currently, what are the primary research questions you’re seeking answers to? What themes/questions have priority for the Göbekli Tepe team?
The future still holds a lot of work for ongoing excavation and research. We are in the lucky position now to have gathered a substantial amount of material to be examined and analysed. While in particular conservation issues are an important factor of the research project’s coming task (ensuring proper protection and preservation of the excavated structures), we are also looking forward to finally clarfiy the site’s complex stratigraphy and internal chronology which still is one of the major research questions. Furthermore we aim to expand knowledge of prehistoric building methods and histories due to renewed detailed building research in the excavated PPN A and B structures at Göbekli Tepe while the important bioarchaeological work looking into the complex history of animal husbandry, as well as analysing finds of human bone material will of course be continued.
(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)
How does the work here continue after Klaus Schmidt?
Upon the death of Klaus Schmidt, responsibility for the German Research Foundation-funded project „The early Neolithic society of Upper Mesopotamia and its subsistence“ passed to Prof. Dr. Ricardo Eichmann of the DAI, Orient Department for which Dr. Lee Clare coordinates the work of its research staff. Heritage issues at Göbekli Tepe are coordinated by Prof. Dr. Felix Pirson from DAI’s Istanbul branch.
Close cooperation has also been established with the Şanlıurfa Museum, whose director acted as site director (Kazi Başkanı) at Göbekli Tepe since September 2014.
In other areas, the Turkish authorities established a ‘Scientific Advisory Board’ to facilitate collaboration between project stakeholders. This board comprises three eminent Turkish archaeologists: Prof. Dr. Mehmet Özdoğan (University of Istanbul), Doç. Dr. Necmi Karul (University of Istanbul) and Prof. Dr. Gülriz Kozbe (Batman University).
What questions/problems/issues do you personally find the most exciting and interesting in Göbekli Tepe? What may the future research shed light on in the upcoming years?
Personally, I am interested in the social implications the findings at Göbekli Tepe put forward: How does the society structure of these hunter groups change once complex communal projects demand cooperation and coordination? When do elites form and rise – and how do they represent themselves?
Furthermore I am also involved in the still challenging task of revising and developing a coherent stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe’s complex layers and features. This, together with the preparation of a couple of monographs regarding the results of about 20 years of research, it’s finds and findings will be an important task within our research for the coming years.
What do you think may be the pros and cons of the promotion and publicity projects that were recently started at/for Göbekli Tepe?
The public has a justified interest in this kind of research and its results. We are not doing this for our own or to fill up museums and bookshelves, but to actually answer the essential questions probably all of us keep asking: Where are we coming from and how do we get here? Göbekli Tepe certainly is one of those sites considered part of our shared cultural heritage – it is within the realm of interest but also responisbility of each of us. So, of course public campaigns and information projects are definitely considered an important part of our work and indeed supported.
My pleasure, thank you too!
(Original interview published in Turkish at arkeofili.com on September 18 2016; English version by courtesy of arkeofili staff; Turkish translation by Suay Şeyma Erkuşöz, Ayşe Bursalı.)
The relief on Pillar 51 in Enclosure H under different light conditions: at the moment of discovery with hard light from one side, on a cloudy day, and a night shot with directed light (Photos: N. Becker, (c) DAI).
Photographs are far from objective. They suggest meaning through the selection of the scene, but also through a certain perspective, focal point, light. Everyone who has held a camera in hands will agree on this, and it is also true for archaeological photographs.Many photos from Göbekli Tepe that you will see on this website or in publications were taken using artificial lighting. Often the background is black. This may be perceived as the attempt to create a certain mood. The objects, pillars and reliefs may appear more enigmatic, gloomy, related to another realm. As we interpret Göbekli Tepe as a site associated with Neolithic cult and religion, this would certainly fit.
A possibility for „objective“ documentation? 3D-scan of Pillar 18 in Enclosure D (Graphics :Hochschule Karlsruhe, (c) DAI).
The explanation for the use of artificial lighting is another one however. Apart from some photographs, where it really was done for artistic reasons (see for example Berthold Steinhilber´s lightworks of Göbekli Tepe-external link), directed light is necessary in many cases to enhance the details of reliefs and surfaces in general.
If you visit Göbekli Tepe around the afternoon, like many people do, you could be slightly disappointed. Due to the sun´s position, many reliefs will not be visible very well. Some you will not be able see at all. Nearly every pillar at Göbekli Tepe has its “own time“, when reliefs will be best visible. Not in all cases really good, but best under direct sunlight conditions. Moreover, this “best moment” may also coincide with heavy shadows on other parts of the pillar. This is why night shots with directed light are the better choice in many cases.
Direct sunlight may also not have been the way the pillars were illuminated during Neolithic rituals. They do not seem to be made for this. The question whether the enclosures were roofed is still under debate, but there is also the possibility that activities took place after sunset and the reliefs were illuminated dramatically by fire.
But indifferent of this question, we are absolutely aware of the “dramatic” atmosphere generated in these pictures. And it turned out that some journals, including a few aimed at a scientific audience, liked the night shots much better than even good daylight images. It is clear that the images we use to describe a site or a find are not neutral. They can imply an interpretation of the site or of the artefact in question, or at least subtly influence the reader´s perception. Even a very neutral image, let´s say of an axe, with a white background and a scale, sends a message: that of absolute scientific objectivity.
So, here is the big question: How should we, as archaeologists, use images?