Next in our series about the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (here, and here) is P 66 in Enclosure H, located in the northwestern depression of the tell. The most prominent decoration of this pillar is a large horned beast, likely an aurochs, engraved with rough lines on one broadside. The animal is depicted in side view, its legs are flexed and its tongue is hanging out of the mouth. All this taken together could mean that the animal is depicted dead. Below it a smaller animal is shown, possibly in similar condition.
Pillar 66 in Enclosure H (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).
Of course this depiction is immediately reminiscent of the two famous paintings from buildings F.V.1 and A.III.1 at Çatalhöyük, showing large cattle surrounded by considerably smaller human figures (e.g. Russell 2012: 79-80, Figure 2). Mellaart’s original interpretation of the depictions as hunting scenes has been widely discussed, and we agree with Russell (2012) who has collected the multitude of different opinions – from hunting or teasing over sacrifice to ritual bull leaping – that chances of arriving at a definite interpretation are low. However, we believe that Rice (1998: 81) has a point when he observes that the tongues hanging out of these animals´ mouths and the positions of their legs may indicate that the animals are depicted dying or dead. Most important, and that is agreed upon in nearly all interpretations, are the differences in size between humans and cattle in the images. The tiny human figures encircling the large (dead?) animals clearly indicate how awe-inspiring big cattle must have been for Neolithic people. The size of the animal is emphasized also in the new depiction from Göbekli Tepe – by the smaller animal depicted alongside the large bull.
The two animals however do not seem to be the original decoration of the pillar. They are scratched into the surface with rough lines, which is usually indicative of preparatory drawings for reliefs at Göbekli Tepe. Moreover, above the large animal´s head a rest of an older relief, maybe of a bird, and several unclear lines are visible. The placement of the pillar deviates from the usual arrangement, it is not ‚looking‘ towards the central pillars, but stands parralel to them. Taken together, all clues hint towards a secondary use of an older pillar.
A large worked block was placed on the pillar´s head. This has been observed also for other pillars, especially those of Enclosure B in the main excavation area. A possible explanation could be height compensation, at least in the case that the pillars originally carried a roof.
Rice, M. 1998. The Power of the Bull. New York.
Russell, N. (2012): Hunting Sacrifice at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. In: Porter, A.M. & Schwartz, G.M. (eds.), Sacred Killing. The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the ancient Near East, Winona Lake, 79-95.
Since we get lots of questions regarding Göbekli Tepe’s pillars and their depictions, we will try to post short descriptions here. This time it’s Pillar 56 in Enclosure H.
Pillar 56 stands in the eastern circular wall of Enclosure H, located in the nortwestern depression of the tell. The pillar is excavated to a height of 2,15 m, its shaft is 0,94 m wide, the head measures 1,55 m. The southwestern broadside of this pillar is completely covered with reliefs. A total of 55 animals are depicted so closely packed, that the outline of one merges with the contour of the next image. Many depictions are reduced to silhouettes, it is hard to exactly determine which animal species is depicted for every example without fail.
Pillar 56 in Enclosure H. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)
In the upper part a group of ducks is portrayed, followed by snakes and number of quadruped animals, most likely felids. Between these, a large bird of prey can be spotted, clutching a snake in its claws. The bird and one of the snakes depicted below it deviate from the viewing axis of the other animals, not looking towards the enclosure’s centre, but into the opposite direction.
On the pillar’s shaft cranes and again duck-like water birds are depicted, followed below again by snakes. The narrower side of the shaft shows a bucranium accompanied by two snakes; the head’s narrow side has a snake curling down. The other broadside of the pillar shows faint lines which could suggest more duck-shaped depictions. Futher excavation will be needed to shed more light on this side of the pillar since it is currently largely concealed by the excavation trench’s baulk.
Pillar 56 is yet another example for the very rich decoration of single pillars within Göbekli Tepe’s enclosures. The large bird of prey grasping a snake and interrupting the symmetry of the depiction by looking in another direction seems to be the most important element and, as well attested on other pillars, too, could indicate a rather narrative character of the whole ensemble – maybe commemorating an important moment of a lore or myth. Important at least and in particular to the builders of Enclosure H.
K. Schmidt, „Adler und Schlange“ – „Großbilder“ des Göbekli Tepe und ihre Rezeption, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.), Anatolian Metall VI. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 25, Bochum 2013, 145-152. [external link]
O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Ch. Hübner, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Anlage H. Ein Vorbericht beim Ausgrabungsstand von 2014, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.) Anatolian Metal VII – Anatolien und seine Nachbarn vor 10.000 Jahren / Anatolia and Neighbours 10.000 years ago. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 31, Bochum 2016, 53-69. [external link]
Of course, magazines have to sell stories – and superlatives always are a good argument in this case. People just love to hear about the biggest, oldest, and most spectacular. And what could be more spectecular than a headline like „The Oldest Temples in the World“? That’s how you sell a find, don’t you? Yet, as scientists we need to show some healthy reservation – in particular when dealing with such phrases and terms which obviously have developed a certain history on their own. It’s all too easy to make up a good story or ‚hypothesis‘, but substantiating such proposition is where real research actually starts.
Against the background of the historical definition of ancient Roman or Greek or Near Eastern temples for instance, this peculiar type of building implicitly forms places to worshipadeityordeities in our language use – the existence of this concept of ‚divinity‘ is crucial to the temple as home of a god or goddesses in antiquity. It is a futile task trying to answer this complex question based on the archaeological record exclusively. We know to identify the temples of ancient Rome and Greece and the Near East and to name the gods these were housing due to the written record those cultures have left to us. Delving deep into the prehistory of the Anatolian Neolithic, however, confronts us with a sudden lack of any sources other than the material record. The challenge in relying to physically tangible sources solely to grasp rather spiritual concepts is obvious. Yet, the material culture of Göbekli Tepe and related sites and the elements of monumental architecture in particular may offer a lead worth following.
Main excavation area with monumental PPN A enclosures (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
The T-shaped pillars forming the major and most prominent feature of Göbekli Tepe’s architecture need to play a crucial role in our observations here. While large and highly abstracted, they also clearly own human characteristics: some of these pillars show arms on their sides and hands brought together above the abdomen. There are elements of clothing depicted in relief as well: stola-like garments draped around pillars‘ shoulders and fox-skin loincloths depicted dangling from belts. This emphasizes quite impressively that the T-pillars apparently have to be understood as monumental anthropomorphic sculptures. Most interestingly, however, is that they are always depicted faceless. There are no eyes, no nose or mouth present, these pillar-statues remain bereft of individuality on first glance – only to be distinguished, at least in the case of the central pillars of Enclosure D for example, by peculiar symbols below their heads – not unlike where one would wear necklaces. So, while still nameless to us, the Neolithic people may well have recognized who it was depicted here towering above them.
In particular the central pillars of Enclosure D illustrate the anthropomorphic character of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars (3D-model: HS Karlsruhe; Photos: N. Becker, DAI).
With a height of about 5.5 m it is particularly the T-pillars‘ larger-than-life appearance which seems so remarkable – especially given that their highly abstract character is intentional and not to the result of deficient craftsmanship. Apart from the numerous animal sculptures uncovered at Göbekli Tepe, the so called ‚Urfa Man‘ gives witness to Neolithic sculptors‘ ability to portray the human body naturalistically. This oldest known statue of a man, about life-size, was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Urfa-Yeni Yol. In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-pillars, whose identity and meaning apparently seems to a different one, ‚Urfa Man‘ has a face, his eyes depicted by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes (a mouth, however, is missing). From Göbekli Tepe there are known several limestone-heads, too. They have a breaking edge in the neck area indicating that they originally were part of larger statues much like ‚Urfa Man‘ himself.
So-called Urfa Man is considered the oldest known life-sized sculpture of a man (Photo: J. Notroff, DAI).
Collection of limestone heads, supposedly parts of sculptures similar to ‚Urfa Man‘, from Göbekli Tepe (Photos: N. Becker, DAI).
As already noted in the beginning, we know little of the beliefs these people might have followed, so it would seem rather bold to denote these monumental pillar-statues as personifications of ‚deities‘. But faceless, larger than life and highly abstract, they clearly seem to be set on a quite different level than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures like ‚Urfa Man‘ and the Göbekli Tepe stone heads. They seem to represent something more, supposedly something beyond the self-referential depiction of human beings. Together with the obviously narrative character of other depcitions on these T-pillars which clearly exceed simple decorative purposes, this perception feeds the impression that we are confronted here with a complex iconography – with mythological narrations probably even.
P43 emphasises the narrative character of the T-pillars‘ relief (Photo: B. Steinhilber).
It is these T-pillars in particular which form the centre and most important element of the site of Göbekli Tepe, so they naturally become a strong argument in the interpretation of these enclosures as well. If we after all would like to call them ‚temples‘ or still hesitate to use this term finally comes down to the definition one applies. But differing so noticeably from the well-known general types of contemporary settlement patterns (and also apparently lacking most of the material culture which is so typically for clearly domestic contexts), we confidently name these structures ‚communal‘ or ’special purpose buildings‘ with all due scientifical propriety. This is even more compelling since apparently almost every settlement site of the period and region seems to have produced at least one comparable communal structure of similar design and layout. Only at Göbekli Tepe there is a noticeable cumulation of this peculiar building type – but this should be topic of another contribution.
Further reading N. Becker, O. Dietrich, Th. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5, 2012, 14-43.
O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, in: N. Lanerie (ed.), Defining the Sacred. Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford & Philadelphia 2015, 75-89.
J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, K. Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: C. Renfrew, M. J. Boyd and Iain Morley (eds.), Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World. “Death Shall Have no Dominion”, Cambridge 2016, 65-81.
Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).
The characteristic element of Göbekli Tepe´s architecture are the T-shaped pillars. In the older Layer III (10th millenium BC) the monolithic pillars weigh tons and reach heights between 4 m (pillars in the stone circles) and 5.5 m (central pillars). The T-shape of the pillars 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 pillars. Often the pillars bear further reliefs, mostly depictions of animals, but also of numerous abstract symbols.
Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the 9th millenium BC. This layer is not characterised by big round enclosures, but by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5 m.
T-shaped pillar visible on the surface at Karahantepe (Photo: D. Johannes, Copyright DAI, Schmidt 2006, Fig. 94).
The large pillars are so far only known from Göbekli Tepe. This may change over time however, as there now are several sites that show smaller pillars, resembling those of Göbekli Tepe´s younger layer. T-shaped pillars resembling the smaller examples from Göbekli Tepe’s Layer II were first recorded at the settlement site of Nevalı Çori. Several more sites in the near vicinity of Göbekli – Sefer Tepe, Karahan, and Hamzan Tepe – are known to have similar pillars, but no excavation work has been carried out so far. With the Neolithic site of Urfa-Yeni Yol, which seems to have revealed a small T-shaped pillar in the course of construction work in that area, with Taşlı Tepe, and with Gusir Höyük three more related sites were added to this list recently. A further addition to the sites with T-shapes is the so-called Kilisik statue, that closely resembles the general pillar form but has more naturalistic features [find a text by Marc Verhoeven on this find here – external link].
While most sites concentrate in a rather small radius around Göbekli Tepe, Gusir Höyük in the Turkish Tigris region [more information – external link] has considerably widened the distribution area of circular enclosures, however the pillars discovered there are slightly differently shaped – they seem to be missing the bar of the T. Similar stelae have been discovered in Cayönü and Qermez Dere. As only Gusir Höyük has been excavated, nobody can tell at the moment what the other sites might hide.
Further reading Çelik, Bahattin. 2011a. “Karahan Tepe: a new cultural centre in the Urfa area in Turkey.” Documenta Praehistorica 38: 241–253.
Çelik, Bahattin. 2011b. “Şanlıurfa—Yeni Mahalle.” In The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan, Nezih Başgelen and Peter Kuniholm, 139–164. Archaeology & Art Publications, Istanbul.
Çelik, Bahattin, Güler, Mustafa, Güler, Gül. 2011. A new Pre-Pottery Neolithic settlement in southeastern Turkey: Taşlı Tepe. Anadolu / Anatolia 37: 225-236.
Moetz, Fevzi K. and Bahattin Çelik 2012. “T‑shaped pillar sites in the landscape around Urfa.” In Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by Roger Matthews and John Curtis, 695–703. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden.
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?
The T-shaped pillars discovered at Göbekli Tepe are big. The central pair of Enclosure D measure 5.5 m and weigh about 8 to 10 metric tons each. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but still reach around 4 m. How Stone Age people were able to make these pillars and to transport them seems a mystery to many of the site’s visitors. We can however offer some answers to both questions, as we are in the lucky situation to know where the pillars come from.
Göbekli Tepe lies on an otherwise barren limestone plateau at the highest point of the Germuş mountain range. The quarry areas for the megalithic workpieces lie on exactly that plateau. As there are several loci with impressive traces of the Stone Age masons, the plateau forms part of the archaeological site and reservation.
The location for the quarries was not chosen without reason. The limestone surrounding Göbekli Tepe is banked, strata of about 0.60 – 1.50 m thickness are divided by fault lines. This means that you just have to dig around a work piece, not also beneath it. As limestone goes, the material at Göbekli Tepe is pretty hard and cristalline, and there are no carstic phenomena. Which means that it is a first class raw material for sculpting and masonry. Even the hardest limestone is however so soft that it can easily be worked by flint tools.
Flint picks, and possibly also wooden tools were used to dig channels in the form of the desired workpiece into the limestone. The Stone Age quarry workers would choose a location on the plateau where the banks had approximately the thickness of the final piece. When they reached the fault line, most probably wooden beams and wedges were used to lift the piece out. Although the limestone at Göbekli Tepe is of good quality, in several cases something went wrong and nearly finished pillars, stone blocks, rings and other pieces were left in the quarries. This is an especially lucky situation for the archaeologist, as we can observe the techniques employed first hand.
Most impressive is a T-shaped pillar far out on the edge of the western plateau. The location shows another work-reduction strategy: if you start at the edge of the plateau, you do not have very much material to remove on one side. And you know exactly how thick the limestone bank is before you start. The pillar still lying here is the largest discovered so far at Göbekli Tepe. It has 7 m and is 1.5 m thick. Why exactly it was left at the quarry site is not clear. A small crack may have formed in the stone during work, or some kind of natural flaw became visible. With workpieces that big, small flaws mean an instability that will most likely cause the pillar to break during transport or installation at its final location. In this case, the distance to the tell is several hundred meters. Another possibility is that the project turned out to be just a little too big in the end.
For the second part of such a project, the transport, direct traces are absent from Göbekli Tepe. Ethnographic evidence from Indonesia, where megaliths are built still today at grave sites, hints at sledges and wooden planks as the tools of choice. The number of people involved is hard to guess. The distances the monoliths had to be hauled to the tell are comparatively small at Göbekli Tepe, in the worst case about 500m, in the best less than 100m. But the monoliths hewn from the bedrock are large and heavy, in case of the 7.0m pillar the weight would have been around 50 metric tons. Ethnographic records from the early 20th century report that on the Indonesian island of Nias 525 men were involved in hauling a megalith of 4 cubic meters (considerably smaller than at GT) over a distance of 3 km (considerably more than at GT) to its final location in 3 days using a wooden sledge (Schröder 1917). That such a large number of participants is not necessarily caused by the labour involved exclusively, shows another example from Indonesia. In Kodi, West Sumba, the transport of the stones themselves used for the construction of megalithic tombs is ritualised and asks for a large number of people involved as witnesses (Hoskins 1986).
So, even if the making of the large pillars is not such a big mystery, and absolutely possible with Stone Age tools and detailed knowlegde of the raw materials (no need to involve aliens here!), there are still some open questions to resolve.
Bibliography: Hoskins, J. A. (1986) So My Name Shall Live: Stone-Dragging and Grave-Building in Kodi, West Sumba. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 142/1, 31–51.
Schröder, E. E. W. (1917) Nias, ethnographische, geographische en historische aanteekeningen en studien. Leiden: Brill.
Further reading: Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. Eine Beschreibung der wichtigsten Befunde erstellt nach den Arbeiten der Grabungsteams der Jahre 1995-2007, in: Erste Tempel – frühe Siedlungen. 12000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur. Ausgrabungen und Forschungen zwischen Donau und Euphrat. Herausgegeben für ArchaeNova e.V., Isensee, Oldenburg (2009) 187-223.
Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Building Monuments – Creating Communities. Early monumental architecture at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In: James Osborne (Hrsg.), Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. Albany: SUNY Press (2014), 83-105.
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.
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]