The Tepe Telegrams

News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff

Happy Anniversary, DAI!

The German Archaeological Institute, the home-base of the Göbekli Tepe Project (excavations and research conducted by the Orient and Istanbul Departments in close cooperation with the Şanlıurfa Haleplibahçe Museum, funded by the German Research Foundation), is celebrating its 190th birthday.

Founded on April 21 in 1829 by a group of international antiquaries and archaeologists as ‘Instituto di Correspondenza’ in Rome to document classical monuments and objects, the DAI today is a worldwide network of international and interdisciplinary corresponding members. For its anniversary, the institute was launching a social media campaign, inviting readers on a visit to the institute’s operational bases, archaeological sites and ongoing research projects with a 190 day blogparade from 22nd April to 27th October.

Today’s 184th post is introducing our very own research at Göbekli Tepe. Please find the article and accompanying photographs here: “Day 184 Göbekli Tepe”.

We as the DAI’s Göbekli Tepe research staff send our congratulations and are wishing all the best for many interesting future endeavours and more fascinating research.

New publication: “Markers of ‘Psychocultural’ Change”

For the recently published “Handbook of Cognitive Archaeology. Psychology in Prehistory”, edited by Tracy B. Henley, Matt J. Rossano, and Edward P. Kardas (Routledge 2019, [external link]), the Göbekli Tepe research project was approached to contribute a chapter on the site’s monumentality and its complex iconography – and how it could help us understand these buildings’ function, the intention behind their construction, and the effect of activities taking place there.

The volume aims at the application of cognitive archaeology, in particular to open that field to scholars across the behavioral sciences and it is our pleasure to introduce one of the key sites of the Anatolian Neolithic in this context with our paper on “Markers of ‘Psychocultural’ Change. The early-Neolithic monuments of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey” (by Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, Sebastian Walter, Laura Dietrich, pp. 311-332):

“The adoption of agriculture and husbandry and the shift from hunting-and-gathering to food-producing subsistence strategies in the course of the so-called Neolithization process seems to have been accompanied (and partly even preceded) by significant mental change. The sudden appearance of a variety of symbolic depictions hints at a new “psycho-cultural” mindset and a new way of viewing the world and humankind´s role in it. The oldest yet known evidence for monumental architecture was discovered at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, created in exactly this period. The site is interpreted as a social hub for meetings and feasts of different hunter groups of the region, and its iconographic repertoire gives ample examples of this new symbolic art. The imagery of this site in particular focuses on strong and dangerous animals, apparently emphasizing ideas of death and threat. In the course of this paper it is argued that the monuments of Göbekli Tepe could have served as arenas for orchestrated rituals necessary to create and strengthen group identity and social cohesion among the early-Neolithic hunter groups at this crucial transition phase of cultural and economic change.”

Book Details

Paperback: 9781138594517, pub: 2019-08-05
Hardback: 9781138594500, pub: 2019-08-05
eBook (VitalSource): 9780429488818, pub: 2019-07-24

(Detailed table of contents and introduction chapter available on publishers website.)

“Hello? Is this thing on?” – Science communication, impact and relevance. On a personal note.

About three years ago, in March 2016 we went online with the first version of this weblog. From the beginning of Klaus Schmidt’s research there in the 1990s, public outreach and the communication of research results were important part of the work regarding the site of Göbekli Tepe. With growing media covering, public interest in the archaeology of Göbekli Tepe was increasing as well – including a noticeable rise in pseudoscientific interpretations and conspiracy theories as well. Actual archaeological results seemed to play a less and less visible role in the public narrative of the site and it became clear that an effective communication strategy was needed to address this growing public interest. This was, more or less, the beginning of the ‘Tepe Telegrams’ blog you are now reading.

views and visitors

‘The Tepe Telegrams’, page views and visitors per year (March 2016-April 2019) (Graphic: J. Notroff, DAI)

In the course of the last three years we were able to publish a rather broad collection of articles on this site, some coming from earlier notes and reports, many more from questions and suggestions from you – the readership of this weblog (and we would definitely like to use the chance for saying “Thank you!” for this input). Meanwhile this project-weblog has grown into an encyclopedia of research history and ongoing research regarding the early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe – and we are indeed glad about the ongoing interest in our work and research.

Three years of blogging are also a good opportunity to look back – into the content developed, its actual impact on the discussion and the perception of this research. Therefore we went through the research history of the Göbekli Tepe project, the different outreach approaches tested and established over the years, and a lot of statistics. The results of this little analysis has been published in a paper in an open access journal recently and can be found online here:

J. Notroff and O. Dietrich, But what is it good for? – Experiences in Public Outreach of the Göbekli Tepe Project (DAI) [external link], Archäoloigsche Informationen 42 (early view).

“With continuing strong popularity of archaeology in public perception, active science communication is more and more recognized as essential tool to not only inform about current research, but to also counter misinterpretation and misuse of archaeological data. Traditional outreach approaches like museums and popular books or articles have been complemented by new digital tools. In a time, in which facts seem to have become negotiable and ‘alternative facts’ can be proposed, pseudoscientific narratives are playing an increasing role in the public discourse on archaeological research – in particular, due to their accessibility in online media. Confronted with a growing public interest and proportionally increasing pseudoarchaeological narratives, we decided to address both in more open formats of science communication for the Göbekli Tepe Project with the creation of a project weblog whose aim it was to engage communication and provide information where the discussion actually was taking place: Online. This paper provides an insight into experiences and impact of nearly three years of science blogging.”

Cereals, feasts and monuments at Göbekli Tepe

We were asked in comments and messages to elaborate some more on the contents of our recent paper. So here is a short summary of the article recently published in PLoS ONE. For more information on the findings outlined here, please consult the original publication:

Dietrich L, Meister J, Dietrich O, Notroff J, Kiep J, Heeb J, et al. (2019) Cereal processing at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, southeastern Turkey. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0215214. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0215214

Cereal food is one of the most important components of our modern diet. Its integration into human subsistence strategy during the late Epipalaeolithic (c. 12500–9600 cal BC) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN, c. 9600–7000 cal BC) has been recognized as a very long and complex process involving the selection and utilization of plants, strategies of exploitation of plants and land, the development of cultivation, and ways of processing, storing, and consuming plants. Widespread adoption of farming and agriculture at the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPNB, c. 8800–7000 cal BC), the deliberate, large-scale cultivation of domesticated cereals and other plants, was predated by a longer period of experimentation and technological modification leading to the development of specialized tool kits for plant-food processing. Typical implements are e.g. pounding and grinding tools used in pairs, comprising a static low implement (mortar, grinding slab or grinding bowl) and an active upper tool that is moved across its surface (pestle or handstone).

Cereal use in the Early Neolithic
The regular processing of wild cereals through grinding seems to have been established first in the Late Natufian, as suggested by macrobotanical evidence as well as by morphological changes in grinding stones combined with use-wear analyses. Flat, large grinding stones and handstones became a supra-regional standard during the Levantine PPN, constituting an integral part of the architecture. Recent investigations have highlighted the area between the upper reaches of Euphrates and Tigris as one region where the transition to food-producing subsistence took place early during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The distribution areas of the wild forms of einkorn, emmer wheat, barley and other ‘Neolithic founder crops’ overlap here and DNA fingerprinting has pinpointed the transition of two wild wheat variants to domesticated crops to this part of the Fertile Crescent. Systematic early plant use has been found at a variety of sites, like Cafer Höyük, Çayönü, Hallan Çemi, Jerf el Ahmar or Körtik Tepe.
Göbekli Tepe has not played any role in discussions of early cereal use so far. The reasons can be found – at least in part – in the problematic nature of direct evidence for cereals on site. Although analysis of macrobotanical remains indicates the presence of wild einkorn (Triticum cf. boeticum/urartu), wild barley (Hordeum cf. spontaneum) and possibly wild wheat/rye (Triticum/Secale), as well as almonds (Prunus sp.) and pistachio (Pistacia sp.) at Göbekli Tepe, only a conspicuously low amount of carbonized plant remains has been recovered, both in handpicked and in flotation samples.

journal.pone.0215214.g007

Grinding tools from Göbekli Tepe. (A), (C) Neolithic handstones of type 1; (B) Neolithic handstone of type 2; (D) Experimental handstone of type 1, produced as copy of (C); (E, F) Neolithic grinding bowls (German Archaeological Institute, 3D-models H. Höhler-Brockmann and N. Schäkel).

However, Göbekli Tepe has not only produced an impressive set of architecture – monumental round to oval buildings with T-shaped limestone pillars, erected in an earlier phase, and smaller rectangular buildings, built around them in a partially contemporaneous and later phase – but also a unusually large number of over 7000 grinding tools. We analyzed these tools using an integrated approach of formal, experimental, and macro- / microscopical use-wear analyses.

Göbekli Tepe
As a first step in our analysis we had to determine the functional variation of these grinding tools, as a wide range of uses is attested archaeologically and ethnographically, ranging from cereal processing to pounding of meat or crushing of minerals. Grinding and pounding equipment from Göbekli Tepe was documented through 3D-modelling by structure from motion, and surfaces were macro- and microscopically analyzed for use-wear. We used replicas of the equipment identified on site to experimentally grind different materials and establish a reference collection for the identification of the observed traces. Further, phytolith samples taken from the sediments inside and outside buildings at Göbekli Tepe and from grinding stone surfaces allowed us to determine and quantify the presence of plants. Phytoliths were abundant in all nine soil samples examined, ranging from 0.5 to 3.0 million phytoliths per gram of sediment. Grass phytoliths were the most common group identified. The sediments inside the rectangular buildings largely contain markers for the upper and middle part of plants. This could be indicative of harvested cereals, as plants are usually collected and transported in sheaves. To contextualize the results, we assessed the spatial distribution of grinding equipment and identified potential activity areas.

journal.pone.0215214.g010

We found that the most common types of handstones used at Göbekli Tepe show use-wear traces connected to cereal processing. Handstones with such traces concentrate in some of the rectangular buildings, but even more so in open spaces between and around them and the (at least partly) contemporary monumental round structures.
Building D was taken as a case study to asses grinding stone use within the latter. There, grinding equipment from the deepest layer, which appears to be connected to the partially intentional refilling of the structure, also shows traces of ochre, indicating its processing in this structure.
The overall quantity of 7268 analyzed grinding tools from Göbekli Tepe appears to be too high for simple daily use, given their relatively high productivity. A single handstone of the most common types could have produced an average of 4800 g flour within eight working hours, as our experiments show. If we assume that one person needs between 500 g and 1000 g of cereals daily as nutrients for survival, this amount would be enough to feed five to ten people.

Interpretation
The organization of work and food supply has always been a central question of research into Göbekli Tepe, as the construction and maintenance of the monumental architecture would have necessitated a considerable work force. Göbekli Tepe has a high concentration of distinctive architecture, often addressed as ‘special buildings’, which do not repeat the characteristic plans of domestic buildings from contemporaneous settlements. Extensively excavated settlement sites like Nevalı Çori or Çayönü have one ‘special building’ per settlement phase, while Göbekli Tepe has several, likely contemporary buildings of this type, which different groups of people likely used. For the buildings excavated so far, we have observed certain regularities governing the decoration of the 69 known pillars–mostly with animal motifs, but also with abstract signs. While in building A snake images prevail, in building B foxes are dominant. In building C boar take over, and in building D the imagery is more diverse with birds, especially vultures, playing a significant role. In building H felines are of importance. We see these differences in figurative expression as evidence for different groups of people ornamenting the buildings with the emblematic animals central to their group identities. The site has also produced a wide range of stationary and portable art, far outnumbering such finds from other contemporary sites. Many of the animal and human depictions are clearly marked as male, there are almost no clearly recognizable female depictions, a situation contrary to the materials known from settlements.
At the same time, Göbekli Tepe´s remote location on a barren mountain ridge is very unusual compared to the setting of contemporaneous Neolithic settlements, which are regularly located next to water sources. The construction of monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe, and other similar sites in its vicinity, would have necessitated a workforce of hundreds of people even by conservative estimates. One model to explain cooperation in small-scale communities involves ritualized work feasts. M. Dietler and E. Herbich define work feasts as events in which “commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labour,” the incentive to work together is provided by the prospect of large amounts of food and drink. The main archaeological marker for feasting would be evidence of the presence of larger amounts of foodstuffs and tools than needed by the inhabitants of a site for their subsistence. Through our analysis, we have identified evidence for Göbekli Tepe that fits that pattern for plant food. As no large storage facilities have been identified, we argue for a production of food for immediate consumption and interpret these seasonal peaks in activity at the site as evidence for the organization of large work feasts. This adds to archaeozoological data suggesting large-scale hunting of migratory gazelle between midsummer and autumn.

Cereal processing at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, southeastern Turkey

We have finally published some thoughts on processing and use of cereals at Göbekli Tepe. As the text is open access, we will just leave the link , some beautiful images of phytoliths, use-wear and grinding stones as well as the abstract here:

Dietrich L, Meister J, Dietrich O, Notroff J, Kiep J, Heeb J, Beuger A,
Schütt B (2019) Cereal processing at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe,
southeastern Turkey. PLOS ONE 14(5): e0215214.
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0215214
journal.pone.0215214.g007

Grinding tools from Göbekli Tepe. (A), (C) Neolithic handstones of type 1; (B) Neolithic handstone of type 2; (D) Experimental handstone of type 1, produced as copy of (C); (E, F) Neolithic grinding bowls (German Archaeological Institute, 3D-models H. Höhler-Brockmann and N. Schäkel).

Abstract

We analyze the processing of cereals and its role at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, southeastern Anatolia (10th / 9th millennium BC), a site that has aroused much debate in archaeological discourse. To date, only zooarchaeological evidence has been discussed in regard to the subsistence of its builders. Göbekli Tepe consists of monumental round to oval buildings, erected in an earlier phase, and smaller rectangular buildings, built around them in a partially contemporaneous and later phase. The monumental buildings are best known as they were in the focus of research. They are around 20 m in diameter and have stone pillars that are up to 5.5 m high and often richly decorated. The rectangular buildings are smaller and–in some cases–have up to 2 m high, mostly undecorated, pillars. Especially striking is the number of tools related to food processing, including grinding slabs/bowls, handstones, pestles, and mortars, which have not been studied before. We analyzed more than 7000 artifacts for the present contribution. The high frequency of artifacts is unusual for contemporary sites in the region. Using an integrated approach of formal, experimental, and macro- / microscopical use-wear analyses we show that Neolithic people at Göbekli Tepe have produced standardized and efficient grinding tools, most of which have been used for the processing of cereals. Additional phytolith analysis confirms the massive presence of cereals at the site, filling the gap left by the weakly preserved charred macro-rests. The organization of work and food supply has always been a central question of research into Göbekli Tepe, as the construction and maintenance of the monumental architecture would have necessitated a considerable work force. Contextual analyses of the distribution of the elements of the grinding kit on site highlight a clear link between plant food preparation and the rectangular buildings and indicate clear delimitations of working areas for food production on the terraces the structures lie on, surrounding the circular buildings. There is evidence for extensive plant food processing and archaeozoological data hint at large-scale hunting of gazelle between midsummer and autumn. As no large storage facilities have been identified, we argue for a production of food for immediate use and interpret these seasonal peaks in activity at the site as evidence for the organization of large work feasts.

A rather odd figure: The so-called Kilisik Sculpture from Adıyaman, Turkey

The apparently anthropomorphic appearance and meaning of (at least some of) the T-shaped pillars known from Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori (and likely many of the other sites with similar pillars in the area too) could have been convincingly explained by a number of very characteristic details depicted in reliefs on these pillars. Among them arms and hands as well as stola-like garments and, in the case of Göbekli Tepe’s Pillars 18 and 31 (in Building D), even belts and loincloths.

D1Js5VPWoAA0bxt.jpg large

The characteristic T-pillars can be recognized as larger-than-life human(-like) sculptures due to a number of specific elements. (Illustration: J. Notroff)

It was the discovery of these peculiar new type of T-shaped pillars, for the first time excavated in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic settlement of Nevalı Çori on the middle Euphrates (like Göbekli Tepe in Şanlıurfa Province) in the 1980s [external link], which also shed new light onto another find – until then rather considered an archaeological oddity – of a unique piece of sculpture: The so-called Kilisik Sculpture found in 1965 near Adıyaman in southeastern Turkey.

The sculpture was originally found by a local farmer and purchased from him by two archaeology students working at the excavations in Arsameia “about an hour by horse north-west of the Roman bridge in the village of Kilisik” and later transferred to the Archaeological Museum in Adıyaman (Hauptmann 2012, 18-20). The stele is measuring c. 80 cm in height and carved from limestone, the conspiciously T-shaped head shows a broader back and rather slim face with an emphasized nose and only suggested eyes. Arms are depicted on both sides of the body, the hands meeting above the belly at some bulge which can be identified as head of another, smaller figure below. Whose left arm is more or less hanging down, but the right hand seems to reach towards its lower body – where a circular hollow was carved into the stone (Hauptmann 2012, 20 (in an earlier interpretation, Hauptmann (2000, 8-9) even discussed the possibility to read head and body of the smaller figure as navel and penis depictions, cf. also Verhoeven 2001)). Whether or not this hollow already was part of the sculpture’s original design or was later added (maybe for a phallus to be mounted or something similar, or to indicate a hermaphroditic nature of the figure as e.g. Hodder and Meskell (2011, 238) suggested) remains unclear.

Although its original find context still could not have been figured out (Hauptmann (2012, 18) suggested an early Neolithic settlement north of the village), the Kilisik Sculpture is an extraordinary find among depictions and sculptures of that period due to its specific shape, apparently combining characteristics of very different elements of other types of known Neolithic sculpture:

  1. While significantly smaller, it still shares the rather abstract T-form of the much larger (in case of Göbekli Tepe up to 5.5 m high) T-pillars – including the depiction of arms on the sides and hands above the ‘stomach’.

    Göbekli Tepe_Fig. 3

    Pillar 31 in Building D showing anthropomorphic features like hands and arms and pieces of clothing (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

  2. The sculpture’s face, however, in particular the emphasised nose, resembles a group of more naturalistic, often (but not exclusively) life-sized human sculptures, of which the one from Urfa-Yeni Mahalle (so-called Urfa Man) may be the best known example (showing a similar gesture, also reaching towards the lower body, both hands covering (and hiding) the genitals – or pointing towards a small hollow (into which, again, a phallus could have been inserted?)). From Göbekli Tepe there are known at least a number of limestone heads (originally most probably belonging to similar sculptures) – also featuring the characteristic nose part of the face.
  3. Finally, the Kilisik Sculpture combining a larger figure grabbing a smaller one by its head below again is reminiscent of another peculiar find of a large composite sculpture from Göbekli Tepe – featuring a larger animal (?) with human-like arms grabbing for another individual’s head, and yet another, smaller, figure underneath. A similar, also composite sculpture was furthermore discovered almost 20 years earlier at Nevalı Çori too (Schmidt 2012, 73-76).

    fig-19

    Composite sculpture from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

This combination of very specific and very different elements and ideas makes the sculpture from Kilisik so special among Pre-Pottery Neolithic image representations and forms an interesting link between the various types of sculptural art of the period. Hauptmann (2012, 22) even suggested to interpret this scene as a ‘mother and child’ motive (known i.a. from two of Nevalı Çori’s clay figurines). In this case the Kilisik example would represent the first female depiction to be associated with the T-shaped sculptures. Since the depiction lacks clear sexual characteristics, this remains a rather vague and ambivalent possibility asking for further research. The Kilisik Sculpture, however, already could demonstrate that with a growing number of such finds our understanding of the complexity of early Neolithic art is still increasing.

Refrences:

H. Hauptmann, Ein frühneolithisches Kultbild aus Kommagene, in: J. Wagner (ed.), Gottkönige am Euphrat. Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene, Mainz 2000, 5-9.

H. Hauptmann, Frühneolithische Kultbilder in der Kommagene, in J. Wagner (ed.), Gottkönige am Euphrat. Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene, 2. erweiterte Auflage , Darmstadt/Mainz 2012, 13-22. [external link]

I. Hodder and L. Meskell, A “Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry. Some Aspects of Symbolism in Neolithic Turkey, Current Anthropology 52(2), 2011, 235-263. [external link]

K. Schmidt, A Stone Age Sanctuary in South- Eastern Anatolia, Berlin 2012.

M. Verhoeven, Person or Penis? Interpreting a ‘New’ PPNB Anthropomorphic Statue from the Taurus Foothills, Neo-Lithics 1/01, 2001, 8-9. [external link]

New Publication: “Ritual Practices and Conflict Mitigation at Early Neolithic Körtik Tepe and Göbekli Tepe”

Again the Göbekli Tepe research project did have the great pleasure contributing to another volume edited by Ian Hodder (Stanford University, California) which has been been recently published: Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East. Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük” (Cambridge University Press, 2019) [external link] brings together scholars of the mimetic theory of René Girard, for whom human violence is rooted in the rivalry that stems from imitation and archaeologists working at the Neolithic sites of Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. At both sites there is evidence of religious practices that center on wild animals, often large and dangerous in form. Is it possible that these wild animals were ritually killed in the ways suggested by Girardian theorists? Were violence and the sacred intimately entwined and were these the processes that made possible and even stimulated the origins of farming in the ancient Near East?

Offering a perspective from Göbekli Tepe and related sites, our team contributed a paper (by Lee Clare, Oliver Dietrich, Julia Gresky, Jens Notroff, Joris Peters, Nadja Pöllath) on “Ritual Practices and Conflict Mitigation at Early Neolithic Körtik Tepe and Göbekli Tepe, Upper Mesopotamia” (pp. 96-128):

“The cognitive principles of the social brain have remained unaltered since their appearance in anatomically modern humans in Africa some 200,000 years ago. However, by the Early Holocene these capacities, were being challenged by the outcomes of newly emerging lifeways , commonly referred to as ‘Neolithic’. Growing levels of sedentism and new and expanding social networks, were prompting a unique series of behavioural and cultural responses. In recent years, research at the early Neolithic (PPNA) occupation site of Körtik Tepe has provided evidence for heightened levels of interpersonal violence and homicide; yet, at the same time, there are no indications in the present archaeological record for between-group fighting (‘warfare’). In this study, we investigate whether this scenario, at a time when we might expect to see a rise in inter community frictions in the wake of adjusting subsistence strategies and socio-political boundaries, can be at least partially explained by René Girard’s mimetic theory. To this end we consult the pictorial repertoire from the contemporaneous and extraordinary site of Göbekli Tepe.”


Book Details

Expected online publication date: March 2019
Print publication year: 2019
Online ISBN: 9781108567626
https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108567626

(Detailed table of contents and introduction chapter available on publishers website.)

On Air: National Geographic’s “Riddle of the Stone Age Giants”

A new National Geographic Channel [external link] documentary movie about current state of research and excavations at Göbekli Tepe, filmed last year and titled “Riddle of the Stone Age Giants” [external link] has premiered February 24th. The show is as an update to an earlier NatGeo documentary (“Cradle of the Gods” [external link] from 2011), but also collects enough new material to become a full feature special and can be viewed online on the channels website here [external link] (for viewers accessing the site from the US).

Update: A localized Turkish version of the documentary was just announced [external link] to be aired March 17 via National Geographic Türkiye. A German version is scheduled later this May.

Building with big stones. – Or: There is no globe-spanning ‘Megalithic Culture’.

Recently a colleague from the University of Gothenburg, Bettina Schulz Paulsson, published a most interesting study [external link] about the origin and evolution of megalithic constructions in Europe (Schulz Paulsson 2019). Since we received quite a number of questions and comments about the absence of any reference to the Göbekli Tepe monuments in the discussion, we thought this could be a good opportunity to address a wider misunderstanding regarding megalithic phenomenona throughout the world: It is important to note that there is no one globe-spanning ‘Megalithic Culture’, but rather megalithic cultures (plural) – building with great (Greek: mégas) stone (Greek: líthos).

Dolmen de la Frébouchère, France. (Photo: Wladyslaw, Creative Commons: CC-BY-SA 3.0).

In her analysis, Schulz Paulsson looked into the origin of a very specific type of European Neolithic monuments known from the Atlantic coast up to Scandinavia: So-called dolmens, which are basically built of large stone slabs, piled on top of each other, much resembling giant tables. These monuments were erected above ground and most often covered by a mound of stones or soil. Archaeological research could demonstrate that these can be considered megalithic tombs (e.g. i.a. Montelius 1907; Joussaume 1985; Sherrat 1990; Cummings and Richards 2014). The current study could demonstrate, based on more than 2,400 radiocarbon dates from such megalithic constructions and their surroundings and Bayesian modelling (cf. e.g. Bronk Ramsey 2009), that the first megalithic tombs of this type seem to date about 4,800 BC in the Channel Islands, Corsica, Sardinia – and north-western France. But only in the latter region there are also known similar earthen grave monuments actually preceding the first megaliths. Since the other regions are lacking any similar related earlier structures, the possible origin of this specific building tradition apparently thus could be tracked back to the Paris basin (if this really means megalithic building tradition in Europe is necessarily the result of cultural diffusion may be worth a discussion of its own; in an earlier comment, University College London’s David Wengrow noted the interesting possibility of similar underlying principles and related skills in maritime techniques (dragging and lifting canoes) and megalith transport [external link]).

Göbekli Tepe, Building D. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

But what about Göbekli Tepe now? First of all, the monumental structures excavated in south-eastern Turkey are significantly older (dating to the 10th millennium BC) – and also significantly different from the European megalithic tombs discussed in Schulz Paulsson’s study. Although a relation to mortuary ritual may be discussed for activities having taken place at Göbekli Tepe as well (cf. Notroff et al. 2016; Gresky et al. 2017), according current state of research these buildings were not primarily constructed as graves (to this day no related burials were found), but as place of complex social gatherings, exchange and communication. Unlike the European dolmens, Göbekli Tepe’s monuments consist of monolithic T-shaped pillars arranged in considerably larger circles, grouping around another pair of similar pillars. Dry-stone walls and stone benches are connecting these pillars, forming the characteristic huge circular structures.

So, to cut a long discussion short: While there is a clear typological, regional, and chronological relation between several of the European megalithic constructions, no link whatsoever leads to (or from) the Pre-Pottery Neolithic monuments in Anatolia. These are very different structures of a very different construction type and a very different function. From different periods and geographical regions, thousands of kilometres and years apart. There are no intermediate forms bridging this huge gap, no other finds suggesting any such relation.

References:

Chr. Bronk Ramsey, Bayesian Analysis of Radiocarbon Dates, Radiocarbon 51(1), 2009, 337-360. [external link]

V. Cummings and C. Richards, The essence of the dolmen: the Architecture of megalithic construction / Préhistoires Méditerranéennes [En ligne], Colloque |2014, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2014, consulté le 05 mars 2019 [external link].

J. Gresky, J. Haelm, L. Clare, Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult, Science Advances 3(6), 2017, e1700564. [external link]

R. Joussaume, Des dolmens pour les morts, Paris 1985.

O. Montelius, Dolmens en France et en Suède, Le Mans 1907.

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.

A. Sherratt, The genesis of megaliths: Monumentality, ethnicity and social complexity in Neolithic north-west Europe, World Archaeology 22, 1990,147-167. [external link]

B. Schulz Paulsson, Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe, PNAS 116(9), 2019, 3460-3465. [external link]

Tracking Analogies: The Shigir Idol from the Urals

In 1894 a very special discovery was made in a peat bog c. 100 km north of Jekatarinburg in the Urals. Gold miners discovered fragments of an originally possibly 5.3 m high wooden sculpture carved from a piece of larch. In addition to geometrical motifs, the truly monumental sculpture is decorated with eight human faces on its front – and back side. Missing clear analogies, the date of this exceptional sculpture was long uncertain and topic of research debate. Only in 2014 a series of radiocarbon dates finally resolved the issue: The Shigir idol dates to around 9,600 cal BC (according latest analyses (Zhilin et al. 2018).

At this point in time, there is only one other site that has produced human respectively human-like monumental depictions – Göbekli Tepe. There is a considerable geographic distance between both sites, however, which makes direct contacts and interaction not the most probable explanation for these apparent similarities. Even more, certain methodological issues have to be emphasised here: The Shigir bog has exceptionally good conditions for wood preservation, at Göbekli Tepe and other contemporary sites of the Urfa region, durable stone was chosen to produce monumental imagery (of course, the lack of preserved wooden images does not exclude their former existence, carving techniques visible with Göbekli Tepe’s and other site’s rich stone art may well have been developed in wood here too). We are thus looking at two very special areas and distinctive situations here, and other regions between both phenomenons may as well have been rich in comparable imagery – which  is just not preserved.

If we travel south from Göbekli Tepe to the Middle Euphrates region, there are sites like Jerf el Ahmar, with ‘special buildings’ that have much in common with the Göbekli Tepe structures.  Jerf el Ahmar is a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A / transition to PPN B site in northern Syria characterized by round and rectangular buildings with limestone foundations. There, large subterranean round buildings with benches along the walls have been discovered. And, noteworthily in the context of this discussion, these buildings included wooden posts. If these were decorated, remains unknown, but would certainly be a possibility worth consideration. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing such extraordinary finds and possibly far-reaching analogies: Much of the picture archaeology can draw today depends on original building style and the materials used – and surviving remains preserved to this day.

Further reading

Zhilin, M., Savchenko, S., Hansen, S., Heussner, K., & Terberger, T. (2018). Early art in the Urals: New research on the wooden sculpture from Shigir. Antiquity, 92(362), 334-350. doi:10.15184/aqy.2018.48

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