Earlier this year we organised a session at the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference which was held in Maastricht (Netherlands) this year. Already in this session’s title we asked contributors and audience the crucial question “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?” – and we had quite a broad spectrum of approaches to this topic and discussed many possible charactersitics (alas, as often in research we just could not find the one all-embracing answer – but to be honest, no-one really expected this).
Dr Anna Fagan from the University of Melbourne, who did her PhD on “Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East” in 2016, was one of the colleagues presenting in our session and contributing to this discussion. She kindly agreed to recapitulate and sum up her PhD research published earlier in World Archaeology for a guest blogpost and we are pleased to share her contribution here:
Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe
The excavations of Göbekli Tepe by the German Archaeological Institute over the last two decades have unearthed an unprecedented and as yet unparalleled level of monumental art and architecture, constructed by hunting-and-gathering human groups prior to the full adoption of agriculture. The astonishing and unexpected nature of the finds has driven home the need for more suitable interpretative frameworks that can make sense of the diversity and unfamiliarity of the prehistoric past. Indeed, preceding discussions of the site have served only to further the distance between now and the Neolithic through strict reliance on modern Western concepts that in prehistory would surely have been unimaginable. Hence, in order to come closer to understanding other societies and archaeologies, we must turn to ways of thinking that do not replicate the dominant and historically specific Western ontology.
Engagement with non-Western thinkers and ethnographies reveals the conceptual potential of different modes of thought, metaphysics, and ways of being. Taking other systems of knowledge on equal intellectual terms is not only a matter of political exigency, but also constitutes a more holistic, reflexive, and critical archaeology. For instance, innumerable human groups around the globe describe realities wherein personhood and social relations are not exclusive to humans. Instead, animals, plants and material life can potentially act as subjects, with consciousness, agency and intentionality.
By liberating thought from Western metaphysical foundationalism, we become aware of the inadequacy of modern Western theories of matter to explain the prehistoric world fully. Paying attention to the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the Göbekli architecture reveals limestone to be an agentive materiality from which powerful entities were released and brought into being through the practices of carving. It was likely that highly volatile gods, spirits and animals occupied the socio-cosmic universe of prehistoric south-east Anatolia. Through depicting these powerful or threatening agencies, people set up channels of engagement through which they could interact with dangerous entities on their own terms, affording participants a rare degree of controlled interaction in the existentially risky realm of the spirit world.
However, this does not mean that T-pillars and statuary remained static entities; rather, they may have been capable of movement, absence or transformation. As demonstrated by finds of offering bowls and channels for libations, these beings might have been animated – or tempered – by consumption. Indeed, Göbekli challenges conventional conceptual commitments to permanence, fixity and finality. Practices of image-creation and monument construction at the site seem more committed to processes of making than finished production. Stelae are installed in incomplete states or are reworked into new forms and enclosures were subject to considerable modifications in structure and layout throughout their use-lives. In Enclosure C, for instance, walls with embedded pillars were later engulfed by additional internal walls, stelae and installations, shrinking the circumference of the building through time. With each building phase, artefacts, offerings, skeletal remains, and sculptures were ‘fed back’ into the structural fabric. These labour-intensive changes along with the cumulative wrapping of the space seem to articulate efforts to entrap, engulf, and contain. We might even consider the Göbekli enclosures to be mouths of a sort: cavernous cavities with enormous T-pillar teeth, teeming with statuary of ravenous predators.
The notion that the limestone from which Göbekli is built constituted a vital and even ‘hungry’ materiality may be further explored through practices pertaining to stone extraction. For instance, the infill for the enclosures appears to have been stored on site to be used later, suggesting that these remains retained a special quality separate from other types of settlement waste (Dietrich, Notroff and Schmidt 2017, 119). The fact that the infill consists primarily of animal remains and limestone rubble might indicate where it was stored prior to burial, and with the quarries in close proximity, they present a viable option. If we consider limestone as alive – and thus the process of stone extraction to have been existentially risky – depositing feasting deposits in extraction hollows may have served as ritual offerings for relocated stones. Hollows in the quarry presented metaphysical voids that needed to be addressed and recompensed. Thus, through feasting and depositional practices, the rock was duly ‘fed’.
Indeed, predation and consumption seem to be the key ontological principles driving social engagements at the site. Images of decapitated human heads in the clutches of raptors or predators are common at Göbekli, suggesting that the site may have functioned, amongst other things, as a mortuary sphere where raptors potentially defleshed and disposed of the dead (as in Tibetan sky burials, Zoroastrian funerals, the mortuary practices of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia and of the Chukchi of northern Kamchatka). It was conceivably through predatory consumption of the deceased that the human soul was released, flesh transmuted into spirit matter, and vitality redistributed from the consumed to the consumer. The possibility that Göbekli served as a necropolis is supported by the considerable number of human bone fragments with evidence of partial burning, along with cut-marks denoting defleshing and other post-mortem ritual treatments uncovered from the enclosure fills (Becker et al. 2012; Notroff et al. 2016, 78). Moreover, necrophagous animals are common in the osteoarchaeological and iconographic corpus. Corvids, for instance, make up more than 50 per cent of the avifauna from the site, a number significantly higher than at other contemporaneous settlements (Peters et al. 2005, 231; Notroff, Dietrich and Schmidt 2016, 77–8). Furthermore, the common practice of decapitating anthropomorphic sculpture at the site may even have served as a proxy for the cessation and transformation of human life. Just as vultures assisted in humans’ ontological metamorphosis, so too might practices of decapitation have released the deceased from the confines of the human corpse (Fig. 1).
However, while humans are commonly found in decapitated and diminutive forms, predatory animals are portrayed as frighteningly alive, voracious and present. The human face, too, remains schematic and tokenistic, while the animal face is highly detailed. One striking example of a ravenous predator comes from Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Fig. 2), consisting of a three-dimensional high relief of a large, expertly crafted reptile, with unmistakably delineated ribs and bared teeth, descending the side of the stele.
The images of predators holding dislocated human heads, in conjunction with the evidence of intensive feasting found at the site (Dietrich et al. 2012), the remains of human bone uncovered in the enclosures’ fill, along with the high number of corvids (crows and ravens) in the avifauna evince a co-productive relationship: of animals feeding on humans and vice versa. Finds of stone bowls and depressions, located next to the central pillars in the enclosures, demonstrate that the megalithic T-pillar beings, too, not only had demands, but were capable of consumption. However, themes of death and predation at Göbekli should not be perceived as destructive but rather, co-productive. Manifest is the network of relations upon which life itself depends: the cycle of death, consumption and reproduction.
Through feeding and bringing into being volatile agencies at Göbekli Tepe, people may have aided the transformation and metamorphosis of the dead and opened up channels of engagement through which the living could influence the spirit world. Convening with powerful beings in the confines of these spiritually fortified spaces afforded humans a degree of control and perhaps even the ability to harness their predatory perspectives (see: Fagan 2016, 2017). Similarly, it is new perspectives – ones that do not replicate the dominant Western ontology – that should travel to archaeological interpretation, so that we too, can engage a more sensitive relationship with the past.
For a longer and more detailed discussion of the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the art, architecture, and osteoarchaeological finds from Göbekli Tepe, see Anna’s original article (and references therein) in World Archaeology 49.3, 2017 [external link].
You can learn more about Anna’s work and research through her profile at academia.edu [external link] or find her on twitter [external link].
Becker, N., O. Dietrich, T. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2012. “Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums.” Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie 5: 14–43.
Dietrich, O., M. Heun, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, and M. Zarnkow. 2012. “The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities: New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-Eastern Turkey.” Antiquity 86: 674–695. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00047840.
Dietrich, O., J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2017.“Feasting, Social Complexity, and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe.” Feast, Famine, or Fighting?: Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity, edited by R. J. Chacon and R. G. Mendoza, 91–132. Cham: Springer International Publishing. (Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation 8).
Fagan, A. 2016. Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East. PhD Diss. University of Melbourne.
Fagan, A. 2017. “Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe,” World Archaeology 3:318-37.
Notroff, J., O. Dietrich, and K. Schmidt. 2016. “Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic Sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey.” In Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – a Worldwide Perspective, edited by C. Renfrew, M. Boyd, and I. Morley, 65–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peters, J., A. Driesch, A. Von Den, and D. Helmer. 2005. “The Upper Euphrates: Tigris Basin, Cradle of Agropastoralism?” In The First Steps of Animal Domestication, edited by J. D. Vigne, J. Peters, and D. Helmer, 96–124. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
(Opinions and interpretations expressed in guest contributions on this blog do not necessarily need to reflect those of the research team or the German Archaeological Institute.)
“Through feeding and bringing into being volatile agencies at Göbekli Tepe, people may have aided the transformation and metamorphosis of the dead and opened up channels of engagement through which the living could influence the spirit world.”
The need to use the word “may” in the above reduces the prior and subsequent argument to garbage.
The word “may” reflects that we are always dealing with hypotheses and probabilities in archaeology. Actually it makes the difference between a scientific contribution and garbage.
Hypotheses are imaginations based on incomplete evidence. The art of science is not making them, but proving them correct. For instance when GT was found, one could have made a hypothesis on how old it is based on various circumstantial evidences, but then it was proved by C-14 analysis how old the site really is, and it the age finds can be further constrained and confirmed firmly by archaeoastronomy and palaeoclimatology. Then it becomes a proved fact, which has value. Hypotheses are still only fantasies.
This really depends on what philosopher of science you want to follow. Karl Popper proposed that the art of science is to falsify hypotheses and theories, while proving a theory correct is not possible.
When Göbekli Tepe was found, the numerous stone tools discovered allowed dating the site. Radiocarbon dating offered further proof, archaeoastronomy and paleoclimate have really nothing to do with this.
“…proving a theory correct is not possible.” – that is a theory that cannot be proved. Loop logic.
“When Göbekli Tepe was found, the numerous stone tools discovered allowed dating the site. Radiocarbon dating offered further proof, archaeoastronomy and paleoclimate have really nothing to do with this.” – Actually, it does. The enclosures are aligned to a specific star, which commemorated the YD impact event at its anniversary. The stars precess, of course. So, if one knows what to look for, when and why, one can conclude that the Enclosure D was built just at the end of YD, Enclosure C 4 centuries later, Enclosure A again 4 centuries later, and so on. With C-14 you can get a century correct, but with archaeoastronomy, a decade.
They used that particular star’s transits between the pillars as a calendar marker, for their annual feasts. (Think about it: if they had annual festivities, how did people from far away know when to come, on what day ? By looking at stars, to their transits.)
When I said ‘palaeoclimate, I meant YD ending year, locally at GT. This is when they started to build it. On that decade.
There’s no reliable proof for such an alignment, so this statement has to be considered an assumption.
Another assumption. A fine chronology down to a particular year can hardly be provided by scientific dating methods available yet, I’m afraid.
„“…proving a theory correct is not possible.” – that is a theory that cannot be proved. Loop logic.“
I don’t think this is enough to dismiss Popper‘s critical rationalism. Really, not.
“There’s no reliable proof for such an alignment, so this statement has to be considered an assumption.” – Not yet known to you. But, I actually wrote a lengthy paper about it (not yet published), discussing this particular find, so it is not an assumption from my point, but a claim that I can support with evidence. Unfortunately, not here in the comment section. The issue is too complex.
Nonetheless, hopefully you would agree that if they organized annual feasts, then they had a calendar of some sort. Yet, it was neither solar, nor lunar, but stellar. Using a stellar calendar, based on precession, makes sense in a library that deals with date spans of thousands of years (has records from that long time span) in an environment where literacy was not yet invented. The secret here is to figure it out what particular star was used for time records keeping, how, and why. And that is a very long story.
“A fine chronology down to a particular year can hardly be provided by scientific dating methods available yet, I’m afraid.” – I’m not sure if it is science or not, but if there is an ‘inscription’ on a monument that says: “Built in the year when that star was there.”, I call this a date stamp, because due to a combination of precession and proper motion, stellar positions are unique, in time.
Based on the available data, my tentative conclusion (not an assumption), is that the Enclosures are built to align properly about 4 centuries each, starting with Enclosure D, at the very end of Younger Dryas.
They had. ‘Gazelle season’, ‘pre gazelle season’, and ‘post gazelle season’ are only a few examples.
As you keep referring to a paper that explains the reasoning behind your assumptions it may be best to publish it, so we can respond in detail. I agree with you that endless discussions with vague references to the evidence presented in that paper are not very helpful.
Part 1 of the whole story is being peer reviewed at the moment. The part that refers to the reference star would be in the final part, perhaps 4th. As the reviewing goes, exceedingly slow, the final part ain’t gonna be published in 2018, despite of my efforts to the contrary. Perhaps not even in 2019. On the other hand, you also never published any images of the ’empty’ pillars. One crucial piece of evidence for my claims I expect to find hidden on the Pillar 42. That is, if I figured out the index of the GT library correctly.
Anyway, it goes both ways: you wait for me to publish, I wait for you to publish. Competitiveness does not lead to progress as fast as cooperation does.
Actually it‘s not a competition. We do research, we publish data. Others use these data to do own research, and publish their data. We look at these data. Etc. It‘s more of circle. Of course we can only review, use, and reply to data we know of, in publication.
You are correct – it is a circle. But, every circle has a shortcut through the centre of it. I am particularly interested in the images of the ’empty’ Pillar 42, where I think exists some proofs for my theory. In exchange for those images I can offer you images of some figures that you are unaware of, which are of marginal interest to me, but which I found nonetheless in the process of examination. We can exchange those data through private e-mails, and then in publications give credit to each other for the images. That is what I mean by ‘cooperation’. I think it is better for both parties involved than these endless exchanges of comments. Call it a fair trade.
We told you before that we are not making “deals”. May I help you with some freely available information (http://www.kulturvarliklari.gov.tr/Eklenti/4653,33kazi3.pdf?0) on the reliefs of Pillar 42 though?
The preliminary report for the 2011 excavation season says clearly, on page 323: “D yapısı batı alanında yapı iç dolgusunda kazıya devam edildi. Burada bulunan P42 numaralı dikilitaşın, T-biçimli baş kısmının hemen altında kabartma tekniğiyle yapılmış bir yılan figürü bulundu. Yılan başı dikilitaş gövdesinin alt kısmına doğru ilerler şekilde yapılmıştır. Yılan başının hemen altında yaban ördeği benzeri bir kuş motifi bulundu. Bu tasvirlerin bulunduğu seviyeden itibaren dikilitaş iç mekân duvar dokusu içine yerleştirilmiştir. Bu nedenle kabartma motiflerin devamının olup olmadığı sorusu açık kalacaktır.”
So, you see, everything published, no secrets here, no necessity for deals. And I absolutely agree that endless exchanges of comments (not initiated by us, by the way) are fruitless in this case.
“A considerable number of human bone fragments” in evidence within the enclosure infill. Correct? I thought the human element was very limited?
Limited compared to animal bones, yes. Yet still considerable. See e.g.: //dainstblog.com/2017/06/28/new-publication-in-science-advances-evidence-for-skull-cult-at-gobekli-tepe.
They seem to be almost entirely fragments of skull. Given the significance that seems to be ascribed to skulls, wouldn’t this suggest that a distinction should be made between ‘human bones’ and a more precise ‘skull fragments’?
From Gresky et al. 2017: „a considerable number of fragmented human bones (n = 691) have been recovered. Notably, most of the human bone fragments (n = 408) stem from the skull, whereas postcranial fragments are less frequent (n = 283). Although these statistics could reflect taphonomic processes at work, a positive selection of skull material could be indicated“
“One striking example of a ravenous predator comes from Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Fig. 2), consisting of a three-dimensional high relief of a large, expertly crafted reptile, with unmistakably delineated ribs and bared teeth, descending the side of the stele”.
It is more likely that the predator is a Feline based on the shape of the head and it having whiskers stemming from the nasal area. The spirit essence of the Feline is, the great huntress of the night-time, (in the darkness). The Feline represented the Sun, for the most part, when it was in the underworld. This was in opposition to the Eagle or Bird of Prey that represented the great hunter of the daytime. Pictorially, the Tail of the Feline indicates that the Sun is at a hole on western edge and represents the Setting Sun. Pictorially it does appear that the depiction is of a starving Sun entering the dark, watery, underworld.
more specifically, most likely a leopard. And later Anatolian cultures e.g. the Haitians did indeed worship the leopard as a solar goddess (along with a storm god, represented by a bull). Since this and other shared iconography is also present at Catal Huyuk, it does seem a fruitful line of investigation..
Much appreciated article. However, the original paper has to be purchased.
Too bad as for me as part of the non-scientific (i.e. non-archeological, non-anthropological) audience of this blog, the premises made are quite hard to catch. It would have been interesting to learn in more detail about those “other systems of knowledge” that enable “liberating thought from Western metaphysical foundationalism”. With only pretty shortly made premises, it’s hard to follow the author’s interpretation.
Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately we do not have any influence on the publication strategy of the journal in question here, but there is a huge discussion going on regarding ‘open access’ and accessibility of research papers in the scientific community right now. While we won’t change academic publications quickly yet, the creation of this research weblog was intended to provide an easier access to our results and interpretations, and to give at least an overview on what’s happening on the site and our desks. Hence we are really thankful to colleagues like Anna here who kindly agree to share their research with an audience beyond these journals, too.
Interesting Paper. Why do you focus on ontology that hasn’t evolved culturally form PPN West Asia? Isn’t it just as likely that the Western (especially religious) mindset evolved precisely from its Mesopotamian roots and GT might be a key pre-cursor to this?
Interesting thoughts. History, however, is not a one-way street. We are not the direct descendants of the people who constructed GT. The characteristic western worldview is a multilayered system that ows a lot to Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
GT people *do* have direct descendants, in the Middle East. Their cultural heritage is also preserved, again in the Middle East. Considering that Classical Antiquity includes the Middle Eastern civilizations, especially those of the Greeks and Egyptians, the western worldview does have cultural links with the heritage of GT. Further, considering that GT is actually a mosaic of stories from all sides of the northern hemisphere, a careful examination can reveal that some of the stories depicted are at the very basic roots of the western cultures. The present western worldview is, however, indeed at present detached from nature and shamanism.
well you can start from the position that it’s not possible to get into the mindset of the builders of GT or (presumably?) you can look at any shared symbolism that evolved in the area and see if millennia later any of that symbolism remains to be explained by written records. Indo-European speakers share concepts through the words they use and historians construct proto-Indo European religious concepts (which include divine twins, storm gods, celestial deities etc).. Hopefully you can make a best guess about what the the auroch hunting, feasting, skull cult(s) of GT were up before the agricultural revolution they started
There’s no evidence for the language(s?) spoken by the builders of Göbekli Tepe.
I wasn’t suggesting there was (though i think at least one of the pre-proto indo-hittite theories goes back to within a couple of millennia of GT builders). I was talking about iconography which persists through time and cultures.. e.g. bull worship
The paper starts out saying: “we must turn to ways of thinking that do not replicate the dominant and historically specific Western ontology.”
But soon after the author introduces neoliberal notions of risk, scarcity, consumption. Were the builders of Gobekli Tepe neoliberals, or is the author unaware of her own biases?
“We might even consider the Göbekli enclosures to be mouths of a sort: cavernous cavities with enormous T-pillar teeth, teeming with statuary of ravenous predators.” Here, neoliberal ideas of nonstop consumption run rampant. I see rather loving sculptures of animal companions.
For an alternative approach to finding meaning in what the GT builders were doing, read Estelle Orrelle’s brilliant dissertation “Material Images of Humans from the Natufians to Pottery Neolithic Periods in the Levant”
“It was likely that highly volatile gods, spirits and animals occupied the socio-cosmic universe of prehistoric south-east Anatolia. Through depicting these powerful or threatening agencies, people set up channels of engagement through which they could interact with dangerous entities on their own terms, affording participants a rare degree of controlled interaction in the existentially risky realm of the spirit world.”
It seems the author sees the world in terms of “powerful or threatening agencies” and has projected herself onto Gobekli Tepe artifacts. The chief evidence for “the existentially risky realm of the spirit world” is in her own experience, not necessarily that of the creators of the sculptures at Gobekli Tepe. There are many other stories you can tell about Gobekli Tepe; prioritizing one under the guise of academic expertise irritates.