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A separated head between animals on a stone slab from Göbekli Tepe

In 2009, the last meter of filling was removed from Enclosure D, the best preserved building of Göbekli Tepe’s older Layer III. We already knew that during the refilling of the enclosures special objects, like heads of anthropomorphic sculptures, were deliberately deposited next to the pillars. Thus, special attention was payed when work progressed in these areas.

Göbekli_ZOrA_Abb. 20

Fragment of a relief showing a separated human head among animals. Found next to one of the central pillars of Enclosure D (Photos: N. Becker, Copyright DAI).

Immediately to the north of Pillar 18, one of the central pillars of the enclosure, soon a very large stone slab appeared. Its lower side showed several reliefs. When the slab was finally turned around after documentation of the find situation, a very detailed scenery became visible.

Head

Stone slab from Enclosure D, the depiction of a human head is marked in red (copyright DAI, photo N. Becker).

The slab is fragmentary. The preserved imagery is dominated by a large predator, which can tentatively be identified as a hyena. Behind it, a vulture with a very pronounced beak spreads its wings. Above the vulture, the legs of a third animal are visible, while legs and body of a fourth animal are depicted above the hyena. Right at the breaking edge of the slab one further image can be spotted: an apparently separated human head. Whether the head was part of a narrative scene with the animal depictions, remains unclear. In any case, from Göbekli Tepe – and other PPN sites – a number of images showing human heads in the claws of birds or quadrupeds are known. A similar depiction thus wouldn’t be a surprise.

Further reading

Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Klaus Schmidt, Yeni buluntular ve bulgularla. Göbekli Tepe. Neue Funde und Befunde, Arkeoloji ve Sanat – Journal of Archaeology and Art 137, 2011, 53-60.

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

22 Comments

  1. Robert Kerr

    17. May 2017 at 16:52

    Tentatively, would this lend credence to excarnation as part of post-death rituals? Separating the head (the most significant part?) from the body would be part of , or the main part of the ritual..

    • Yes, definitely. There is also evidence for this in human bones from several sites, e.g. cut marks, skulls buried separately etc.

      • Robert Kerr

        17. May 2017 at 23:28

        Does the head continue to be archaeologically significant in fully developed Neolithic sites within Anatolia? I know there’s a famous skull farther afield from Jericho,’fleshed out’ in clay, but that’s at least a thousand years later.

        • Plastered skulls are known from several PPN B sites of the southern Levant (e.g. ‘Ain Ghazal, Beisamoun, Jericho, Tell Aswad to name a few) and from to later sites in Central Anatolia, Kösk Höyük and Catalhöyük. So yes, the importance of skulls definitely continues into the fully developed Neolithic.

  2. I note that the animal at the top left of the picture, above the head of the hyena, has formidable claws. It is certainly not a hoofed animal, but another predator, like the hyena. Since many of the “fierce” animals that appear on the monoliths are very definitely shown as male, it is interesting that the hyena does not follow this pattern.
    May I ask if there are other examples of flat slabs with sculptured surfaces? I know of the sculpted porthole stones, but this piece looks rather different. Do you have other examples of (fragmentary) flat slabs with relief sculpture? Do you have any thoughts on where this slab might originally have been located?

    • We have a few more fragments of reliefed stones, but they are rather small compared to this one. There is one more fragment with a vulture relief from a layer II context next to Enclosure A-that would in fact be a good topic for another blogpost.
      When the slab in Enclosure D was discovered, our first thought was that it may be a fragment of the one pillar presumably missing in the ringwall, next to P43. The measurements speak definitely in favour of a pillar fragment. But on closer inspection it turned out that the breaking surfaces of the fragment had been smoothed. So right now our best guess is that it is a re-worked pillar fragment, which was used secondarily in Enclosure D. It is rather big for a wallstone, but we have some good examples for reliefed spolia incorporated into the walls of buildings. The so-called lionspillar building of layer II has quite a few, for example. The (rests of) reliefs were always visible in the secondary positions, so it seems the images were the reason to keep these stones within the buildings.

  3. Robert Kerr

    18. May 2017 at 10:52

    If the head was venerated, perhaps captured heads were too!? A bit of an imaginative leap but are there any indications of head-hunting in the region?

    • Actually this has been discussed, but interpretations along the line of burial rites, ancestor cult, hiistory making seem to be prevailing.

  4. On a sidenote (and before someone else points it out): we’re actually constantly discussing the interpretation of this complex iconography – and the more you look, the more you see. Just the other day we we talking about the main characteristic for the original interpretation of the large animal in the centre as ‘hyena’ – namely the mane. The depiction of a hyena wouldn’t surprise since they were common in that area (some say, they even can be witnessed there today sometimes). But it seems also possible that this striking mark on the animal’s back actually might originally have been part of the vulture’s wings next to it – adding an interesting detail and much more depth to the depiction.

    • Robert Kerr

      19. May 2017 at 15:36

      There are 8, possibly 9, marks on the hyena’s back but only 7 feathers to the wings.. And of course there’s a clear break between them. The ears are very hyena-like.

      • As I wrote, Oliver and I were just discussing these different interpretations the other day and I thought it might have been a nice little ‘extra’ to share here. The gap between both animals of course is very obvious, but could for instance hint at two different work steps – the quadruped predator could have been added at a later point, this new relief overlapping and ‘cutting’ the older vulture depiction. Yes, this is the stuff we do in the office: staring at pictures and trying to make sense of them. We’re going to report more results here soon, for sure. Watch this space.

    • Oliver and Jens – thanks for the post, as well as the extra commentary (thanks also to Robert Kerr for his comments).

      Some people have suggested that the hyena figure could be a bear – referring the more bulky body and legs (the paleolithic cave hyena and the contemporary spotted hyena both have relatively thin legs in comparison). What are your thoughts about the bear suggestion?

      Also, is that a tail behind the hyena/bear, or is it some other animal or part of some other animal? If a tail, it would appear too large to be a bears? I also thought that the markings on the animal’s back was a mane (thus in favour of being a hyena), but your suggestion about a re-carving of the vulture wing could also be correct.

      • The area behind the large animal is unfortunately rather unclear, but indeed there seems to have been a tail. Also, whether connected to the vulture wing or not, the markings on the back seem to have been made (or left there from an earlier carving) intentionally. So I would opt for a hyena at the moment.

  5. Hello and thanks again for the page and post, it’s amazing to have this first hand information.
    I need to ask about what is above the decapitated head. Is it a kind of hat? Maybe not a head but a spider abdomen and a leg? I saw another spider depicted but cannot notice the details of abdomen to compare. Anyway the special treatment of skulls seems to be sure.
    Separate topic (sorry), about the T shape: could be the design of the pilar be inspired on the capadoccia landscapes? Specifically the chimneys. There were found a venus in Spain (Venus del Torcal, Antequera) that imitates the landscapes of El Torcal, which is really peculiar, so it would not be an isolated case.
    I was reading about Asikli hoyuk and then I used google earth for take a walk in the sorroundings, and watching the chimneys I saw proportional similarities with Gobekli Tepe pillars.
    Expanding the question: Could be the T shape an imitation of Capadoccia chimneys with a stratified limestone adapted design? It is tempting for me to resolve the question of where they come from with this argument, so i need someone to tell me that hipotesis is wrong if I’m mistaken.

    • Thank you very much for your comments.

      It´s most probably the limb of another or an older depiction. The legs of mammals are depicted in that way at GT.

      So far there is no clear connection to Cappadocia, and the T-shape makes sense as an abstract depiction of the human body.

  6. My immediate impression of the large predator was and is that it resembles a bear. Rationale: Ears much more Bear like than a hyena which has larger, more bat like features. The belly is curving to look like a bit of a pot with the center of gravity closer to the rear of the animal where as the heft of a Hyena is front end. The front legs on the carving are stout and stocky -more bear like.
    Points against: Jaw and nose more square than say a grizzly. The indication of the stripes, but that is not hyena-like either. Rather spots.
    Q) What sub-species actually existed in the area at the time? There was a thing called a Cave Hyena which had differences to the modern hyena. Cave Bears were I think long gone but such a thing as a short nosed bear existed in North America at that time. Also the bear and its character is just a more anthropomorphically, human respect-worthy animal. You need to be a dedicated zoologist to ¨like¨ hyenas and their survival-worthy behaviour.

  7. What species of bird is that ?

  8. ‘Vulture’ is a generic term, not a species. Any hunter-gatherer would readily make a distinction between numerous species of animals that to a modern man appear similar. For instance lets say that the beast is a hyena, family Hyaenidae. There are 3 extant genera in that family, with 4 species in total. Proteles cristata, the aardwolf, is a termite eater from south and east Africa and can be discarded. Hyaena brunnea, the brown hyena lives in south Africa and does not look like the beast in question. It can be discarded too. Crocuta crocuta, the spotted hyena is what people normally perceive as ‘hyena’. It is the only one of those 4 species that is a formidable hunter. But, it is a subsaharan beast of prey from tropical Africa, so it too can be discarded.

    What remains is Hyaena hyaena, the stripped hyena, a small timid beast of prey that is local in North Africa and Middle East area, including Göbekli Tepe. The stripes on the back of depicted animal clearly show that this must be the case.
    The size of that beast in comparison with the size of the vulture corroborates my conclusion. Hyaena hyaena is the species.

    A commentator before mentioned the possibility that this is a short faced bear, the largest predator in Pleistocene in the North America, 12 ft in height. the size of that beast is incomparable with the size of any vulture, so this is not that bear, especially considering that the ears of that bear were unlike those depicted here.The fact that that bear is not local, but lived only in North America, I disregard hereby, considering my hypothesis of contact between the GT people and Amerindians. I think that they could have known of that bear, and possibly have depicted it elsewhere, but not on this scene. The beast depicted is the local beast of prey, the striped hyaena, Hyaena hyaena.

    Note: among the extinct species, reconstructed animals from the Pachycrocuta genus, with 4 known species, does look like the beast depicted hereby (stripes, snout, ears alike), but they became extinct 400 ka ago, outside of an applicable range.

    Now, I repeat my question, what species is the bird, aside from obviously being a scavenger. I have my opinion, but I would like to hear yours first. Saying that this is ‘vulture’ is too naive. I suspect that even children of 5 of hunter-gatherers could have surely done better.

    • Oliver Dietrich

      26. February 2019 at 0:56

      Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and Eurasian Black vulture (Aegypius monachus) were present in the region and fit the iconography.

      Apart from that: we have now told you several times to watch your tone and discuss politely in the comments. If you are not able to do that we will simply block you. We really have had enough of your cycles of apparently reasonable questions followed by wild speculations without any proof and then by personal attacks when somebody points out that lack of proof.

  9. My apologies, if I was offensive. In my previous post I was not making wild speculations. Not this time. I simply pointed out that the locally present Hyaena hyaena looks like an animal depicted. It has stripes, like the animal on the plate. That was my conclusion, based on observation of the picture. I do not know what did you find to be a wild speculation in there, nor what kind of evidence would you need me to produce to support that simple conclusion.

    I made no personal attacks either to anyone, I believe, except perhaps if you found offensive that remark that children of hunter-gatherers could easily recognize local species of animals, presuming subsequently that the adults would have had depicted them accurately. I am not sure why would that simple fact be offensive to you — all of us who grew in modern civilization are by default amateurs in the wilderness, and that is a fact. Some people are not, but the vast majority is.

    I think that information on what species was depicted is an important detail, important to the authors of the picture, but you may disagree.

    If I may, I will comment on your answer. and give you mine, hoping that it won’t be called an unsubstantiated speculation. Please refer to the images and descriptions of the mentioned bird species on wikipedia and elsewhere, if you care.

    There are 23 extant species of vultures, of which 16 live in the Old World. Several were present in the area of GT.

    Aegyptus monarchus has necklace feathers, but the bird depicted does not. Not a good match in my opinion.
    Gyps fulvus has a ‘hanging’ neck, but the bird depicted has a straight one. Not a good match in my opinion.

    In my opinion, the vulture depicted is the Rüppell’s vulture, which currently lives in Sahel, south of Sahara. This species matches tail, wings, beak, and neck shapes with those on the picture, and lacks feathers on the head, just like the bird depicted. If this simple observational piece of information is unwanted, because of ‘lack of evidence’, please discard it.

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