From the Göbekli Tepe Research Project

A tale of snakes and birds: Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 56.

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.

Further reading:

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]


  1. Robert Kerr

    Two observations: they are not species that would normally co-exist peacefully; secondly, all the animals are facing the same way. A strange tableau! Clearly lining up to enter the ark!

    • Oliver

      Let me just add to Jens’ response that the snake in the claws of the bird indicates that a portrait of peaceful coexistence wasn’t the artist’s intention. Neither on the other Reliefs from Göbekli Tepe, the site is very much about the exact opposite.

  2. Jens

    Important observations indeed, yet upon closer inspection not as obvious as it may seem on first glance (in both cases actually):

    “… 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.” (see above)

    Any link to much later religious narratives seems rather futile in my opinion due to a lack of appropriate sources.

  3. Donna J. Sutliff

    The large bird of prey (image #15), and snakes #22, #6 and #9 are all facing to the right (i.e. toward the enclosure’s center). I do not see a snake held in the bird of prey’s claws. Are you referring to image # 22 or #31? I do not see that either of these snakes is clearly held in the bird’s claws. Image #31 is facing more to the left (i.e. away from the enclosure’s center) than to the right. I would also add that image #32 seems to me not to be a “figure”, but is merely the “background”. Figure #31 is unusual as it may be purposefully simultaneously representing a “figure” and a “background” . Perhaps the ancients wanted this ambiguity for this snake. All the other animal images are clearly “figures”. Also, what is image #8?
    That the bird of prey, the only bird of prey depicted on the pillar, is the dominant image and is facing towards the enclosure’s center may be symbolic. Birds of prey fly high, so perhaps the ancients believed that birds of prey were “in touch with Heaven”. If so, the central pillars the bird of prey faces may have been believed to provide access to “Heaven”. This is consistent with the point of view that the pillars were astronomical sighting devices. The pillars may have also served to attract lightning, which may have been symbolized by the snake. That the bird of prey prevails over the snake may signify that lightning can be manipulated by bird-men (i.e. these early astronomers who regarded themselves as high-flying birds with access to Heaven’s secrets).

    • Oliver

      There seem to be some misunderstandings here. The center of Enclosure H is to the left of P 56, as stated in the text (you can find a plan of the enclosure here:
      The bird and snake 22 face to the right, away from the centre. Depictions 6 and 9 are rather unclear parts of reliefs, at least 6 looks very much like a snake´s tail. Image 31 clearly faces left. Image 32 is not the background. It is either the extension of image 18 or part of an older, erased relief (we assumed the latter when making the graphic, but this is indeed open to discussion). Image 18 is the snake the bird is ‘holding’. Neolithic artists did not aim for complete realism – so you shouldn´t expect a naturalistic depiction of claws wrapped around the snake´s body here. However the posture of the bird is very similar to the moment a bird of prey swoops down to catch an animal.
      Image 8 is, again, an obliterated older relief. Such traces are frequent on the pillars.

  4. Donna J. Sutliff

    I hope that you can publish the imagery on all the pillars as you have done for pillar 56, including “erased”, vestigal images. That would make decoding the images easier.

    • Oliver

      We are working on a monograph on the pillars right now, hoping to finish it next year.

  5. archaeologyhouston

    Reblogged this on From the Trenches ! and commented:
    A great little article about the subject of our upcoming lecture, “Solving the Mystery of Göbekli Tepe: the Oldest Temple on Earth?” on Thurs Feb 9 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas. Lecturer is acclaimed professor Mehmet Ozdogan with the Istanbul University. Lecture sponsored by the Turkish Consulate, Houston.

  6. menotu

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned that #17 looks like a dinosaur.

    • Oliver

      Simple: it’s not a dinosaur.

    • Jens

      I can only guess but would assume that’s because dinosaurs became extinct about 66 million years ago – i.e. circa 65,988,000 before these reliefs were carved at Göbekli Tepe.

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