With “Religion, History, and Place in the Origin of Settled Life” (Boulder, Colorado 2018) [external link] recently a new volume edited by Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and best known for his groundbreaking research at Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey, has been published by University Press of Colorado on the role of religion and ritual in the Middle East, focusing on the repetitive construction of houses and cult buildings.
Göbekli Tepe research staff gladly provided some new insights into ongoing research on the site and its interpretation to this volume with a contribution on “Establishing Identities in the Proto-Neolithic: ‘History Making’ at Göbekli Tepe from the Late Tenth Millennium cal BCE” by Lee Clare, Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, and Devrim Sönmez (pp. 115-136):
“Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is a long recognized key site for the study of socio-ritual components of transitional Neolithic communities living in Upper Mesopotamia, a core zone of Neolithization, in the late tenth millennium cal bce. In addition to the construction of the large monumental buildings with their T-shaped monoliths, these groups can be credited with early domestication activities involving wild plant and animal species, which from the mid-ninth millennium cal BCE began to show characteristic morphological changes associated with the emergence of identifiable domesticated forms. Ritual practices and belief systems identified at Göbekli Tepe provide unprecedented insights into the worldview of these ‘proto-Neolithic’ communities at this important juncture in world history. Not only this, the site offers explanations as to how these groups could have overcome various challenges presented by ‘Neolithization’ processes, including demographic growth, increasing competition over biotic and abiotic resources, and a more pronounced vertical social differentiation, with division of labor and craft specialization. In this contribution, it is posited that ‘history making’ at Göbekli Tepe, as reflected, for example, through repititive building activities at the site, could have been used to encourage group identity and to promote a sense of belonging to a common ‘cultic community’, so important in the face of these challenges. Furthermore, it is proposed that these same ‘history making events’ might also have been harnessed by individuals and sub-groups in an attempt to legitimize social status and local, perhaps even regional political influence.”
Sadly, we have to pass the news that on August 2, Prof. em. Harald Hauptmann passed away. Professor Hauptmann was the former director of the Istanbul Department at the German Archaeological Institute, and, what many people may not be aware of, played a unique role in the initiation of excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe. For this reason, he remained a valuable friend and special mentor over the years.
Following the completion of his PhD in Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology (Ur- und Frühgeschichte) at Heidelberg University, which focused on the early Neolithic in Thessaly, Hauptmann was made research lecturer at the Istanbul Department of the German Archaeological Institute, a position that he held for five years, until 1971. During this time, he was involved in excavations at such renowned sites as Boğazköy and Norşuntepe. Subsequently, he accepted the call to Heidelberg University, where he held the chair for Pre- and Protohistory and Near Eastern Archaeology until 1994. In these years, he initiated field research at two notable sites in Southeastern Turkey, at Lidar Höyük and Nevali Çori. This latter site would not only be of major significance for Anatolian Neolithic research, but it was also the first site at which T-shaped limestone pillars were revealed in an architectural context.
Returning to the German Archaeological Institute as head of the Istanbul Department in 1994, Hauptmann continued to focus on the Neolithic in Southeastern Turkey. Together with his former student Klaus Schmidt, who already assisted at Nevali Çori, he initiated field research at Göbekli Tepe, which to this day remains a crucial site for the study of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and early monumental architecture. Over the first two decades of research at Göbekli Tepe, Hauptmann remained a prominent figure for the excavation project. A constant source of knowledge and inspiration, especially following the untimely death of Klaus Schmidt in 2014, he always had an open ear and was keen to discuss latest finds and new developments.
Hauptmann’s contributions to the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology of Anatolia are meanwhile considered essential and pioneering work. In particular, we at the Göbekli Tepe research project are thankful for the exchange with Harald Hauptmann. We have not only lost an esteemed colleague, but also a close friend.
Since recently there has been renewed interest in the results of geophysical survey undertaken at Göbekli Tepe in the years 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2012 we put together this short overview on these works and their results – which helped to understand the extension of the Neolithic site and its monuments even in those parts of the tell not yet excavated.
Without a doubt, the most widely known features of the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site are the monumental buildings, which, due to their ‘outstanding universal value’, were recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Notably, since the very early years of excavations, one of the most pressing questions has been whether these structures, with their characteristic T-pillars, were restricted to certain parts of the mound (where revealed through excavation and suggesting a unique agglomeration of this particular building type) or whether they existed all over the tell.
Archaeological survey methods have changed significantly over the last years. One innovation which has dramatically changed the way field archaeologists work are ground-based physical sensing techniques (for a short introduction into this technology and its application see, e.g. here [external link]). This technology provides us with images of possible archaeological features beneath the surface without even taking a shovel to hand. In 2003, a geophysical survey was undertaken at Göbekli Tepe with the help of GGH – Solutions in Geoscience GmbH. In a first step, large parts of the tell were subjected to extensive magnetic prospection, and later selected areas were studied using georadar and geoelectric tomography.
As already noted by Klaus Schmidt in his 2003 field report which was published the same year (Schmidt 2003, 5), first results already provided a better understanding of the site and served to confirm earlier observations:
“More than ten large enclosures could be located in the geomagnetic map, and some more can be expected. As four enclosures are under excavation (Anlage A-D), in total a minimum of 20 enclosures seem to exist inside the mound of Göbekli Tepe. At every enclosure a number of 12 megalithic pillars can be expected. So, in total more than 200 pillars can be calculated.”
Subsequent surveys which were undertaken in the years 2006, 2007, and 2012 also confirmed the earlier predictions based on archaeological surface investigations, i.e. that the monumental circular enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the tell (cf. Dietrich et al. 2012, 675).
Map of Göbekli Tepe excavation and surveys by ground-penetrating radar (Photo: DAI).
Survey-work also provided a useful tool in the planning of field research strategies, with operations focused in areas of particular interest as indicated by survey results. From 2007, excavations were also conducted in other parts of the site where more monumental structures were suspected, e.g. in the Northwest-Hollow. Here, georadar results showed a large, cloverleaf-shaped accumulation comprising of what appeared to be several circular structures. It is in this part of the site that excavations led to the discovery of Enclosure H. Although fieldwork is still not completed in this part of the site, the current state of excavation already confirms the geophysical-geoelectric results (Dietrich et al. 2016, 56).
References and further reading:
O. Dietrich, M. Heun, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, M. Zarnkow, The Role of Cult and feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey, Antiquity 86, 2012, 674-695. [external link]
O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Chr. 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.
K. Schmidt, The 2003 Campaign at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey), Neo-Lithics 2/2003, 3-8. [external link]
(A longer and more extensive version of this text was originally published recently: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Dietrich, Masks and Masquerade in the Early Neolithic: A view from Upper Mesopotamia, Time and Mind 11:1, 2018, 3-21 [external link].)
Among early prehistoric masks, those from the Judean Hills and Desert [external link] can be considered the most prominent examples. These masks, made of stone and weighing up to approximately 2 kg, strike the modern observer with their almost expressionistic facial features – each is individual, as if depicting specific individuals or beings. Some have holes around the rim, probably to allow attaching them to something, or to actually wear them (although they are fairly heavy). Chronologically, the oldest of these Southern Levantine masks belong to the Pre-Pottery-Neolithic B, i.e. the mid 9th and 8th millennia BC. Since specimens excavated in the Nahal Hemar cave (Israel) in the early 1980s were found within an assemblage interpreted as ‘cultic’ a ritual use of these masks was assumed (Bar Yosef & Alon 1988). The Southern Levantine examples are special and important, but not unique in their period. Within the rich repertoire of sculpture from several contemporary sites in this region, a few artefacts with concave or flat rear backs stand out that could be interpreted as depitions of masks.
Figure 1: Miniature mask from Nevalı Çori (Drawing: K. Schmidt, courtesy of H. Hauptmann).
From Jerf el Ahmar, a PPNA A/transition to PPN B site in northern Syria (characterised by round and rectangular buildings with limestone foundations) two little stone heads are reported which show a conspicuous concave cavity on their backside (Jammous & Stordeur 1999; Stordeur & Abbès 2002). They are made from pebbles, only about 4 cm high and show eyes, a nose, and mouth. The backside of one of these objetcs is grooved, the other one concave. Another miniature stone mask of similar size is known from Nevalı Çori (Figure 1) in southeastern Turkey (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007, 292, nr. 110, Fig. 110; Hauptmann 2011, Fig. 17). Again eyes, nose, and mouth are depicted, the back is concave. From its find context, a middle-PPN B date can be assumed for this mask. Nevalı Çori furthermore has become well known as the first place there a characteristic element of PPN architecture of the region was discovered: T-shaped, apparently anthropomorphic, pillars which link it to another site nearby which also has produced a number of comparable masks: Göbekli Tepe.
Figure 2: Larger than life-sized mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).
A first, larger than life-sized (height: 42 cm) and complete human mask (Figure 2) made from limestone was found during clearance work before beginning of excavations in 1995 (Schmidt 1996: 2-3, Fig. 1). The depiction of the face is minimalistic, almost abstract. They eyes are very faint and the mouth is absent. Forehead and nose are carved in a geometrical manner, almost resembling a ‘T’. This manner of portraying the human face is characteristic also for three-dimensional anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe and thus a clear indicator that a human face is depicted here. Due to its height it seems too large to be actually worn, but could have been intended to be fixed to a wall or another kind of support.
Figure 3: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, Drawing: Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, DAI).
The second example is another miniature (height: 5.7 cm), also made from limestone (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007: 275, No. 29, Fig. 29). It was found in the upper layers of the filling of Enclosure D in 2001 (Figure 3). With a concave rear like the specimen reported from Nevalı Çori, it follows the same minimalistic principle as the large mask from Göbekli Tepe. Again, it is clear that a human face is depicted, but individual characteristics are not given. The eyes are not even suggested here, a mouth is absent again.
Figure 4: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, made from a flint cortex (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
The third mask, a miniature again (height: 4.7 cm) is of a different type (Figure 4). Not only was it made from a flint cortex, it also is much more expressive, due to curved chevrons engraved into its forehead, not unlike the mask from Jerf el Ahmar discussed above. This may indicate a headdress, but the fairly low setting of the lines could also hint at tattooing or scarification. The back was not finished. This mask was found in 2010, high in the stratigraphy, during excavations in Enclosure H, next to (central) Pillar 51.
Figure 5: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, engraved in a flint cortex (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).
A fourth miniature (height: 4.5 cm high) of a mask was also engraved into a flint cortex (Figure 5). Its form follows the reduced depiction of the face of the first two examples again, with more pronounced eyes. It was found in 2008 next to the eastern central pillar of Enclosure C.
While the first mask can only broadly be dated to the PPN as a surface find, the second mask from the filling of Enclosure D could indicate a PPN A date, as could the miniature mask from Enclosure C, with its position nearby one of the central pillars. Enclosure C has been damaged and disturbed in prehistory by a large pit directed at the central pillars, but the mask seems to come from an untouched floor layer. The third mask was found next to a central pillar of Enclosure H. The stone circle was also damaged and disturbed in prehistory already.
Three of the masks found at Göbekli Tepe have undoubtedly a similar style to the example from Nevalı Çori. They show non-individualized faces. However, at Göbekli Tepe the mouth is not depicted, while the Nevalı Çori mask almost gives the impression of a screaming face. Together with the finds from other sites, a large repertoire of masks in different styles is suggested. All types, with and without mouth, more individualized or abstract, are also well attested for in the large repertoire of limestone sculpture found at Göbekli Tepe (Figure 6). Their treatment during the refilling events can shed some light on aspects of the use of masks during the PPN at this site.
Figure 6: Selection of limestone heads from Göbekli Tepe, not to scale (Photos: N. Becker, D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, DAI).
Burial rites at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been applied to a part of a hierarchical system of anthropomorphic depictions. The enclosures’ central pillars are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic. The surrounding pillars are also stylized, but smaller and contain zoomorphic decoration. They are orientated towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering. Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture, which may partly depict masked people, is smaller and intentionally fragmented. The stone masks are strongly related to this category through form and deposition treatment. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly (masked?) heads, and complete masks, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. If we assume that the stone masks are miniature or supra-sized representations of real organic masks actually worn, they could well attest that ritual activity at Göbekli Tepe and other sites included masquerade to the point where people became an active part within this complex mythology.
During the early Neolithic in the Near East, masks and masking possessed a significant role in rituals re-enacting mythological narratives closely related to death, taking place at sites with special purpose buildings and a noticeably rich iconography. This importance apparently justified the time-consuming and complicated manufacture of these praraphernalia as well as miniature and larger-than-life-sized representations of these items. A small amount of possible mask depictions in stone are all what remains of a presumably manifold Early Neolithic tradition of ritual masquerade.
Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit, Stuttgart 2007.
Bar Yosef, O. and Alon, D., Nahal Hemar Cave, ‘Atiqot 18, 1988, 1-81.
Hauptmann, H., The Urfa Region, in: Özdoğan, M., Başgelen, N., Kuniholm, P. (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, Istanbul 2011, 85-138.
Jammous, B. and Stordeur, D., Jerf el-Ahmar: un site Mureybetien du moyen Euphrate Syrien, horizon PPNA – Xe millénaire avant JC, in: del Olmo-Lete, G. and Montero Fenollós, J.-L. (eds.), Archaeology of the Upper Syrian Euphrates, the Tishrin Dam Areas, Barcelona 1999, 57-69.
Schmidt, K., The Urfa Project 1996, Neo-Lithics 2, 1996, 2-3.
Schmidt, K., Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in south-eastern Anatolia, Berlin 2012.
Stordeur, D. and Abbès, F., Du PPNA au PPNB: mise en lumière d´une phase transition à Jerf el Ahmar (Syrie), Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 99 (3), 2002, 563-595.
According recent media reports [external link] the Şanlıurfa Haleplibahçe Museum and the municipality of Şanlıurfa, which are responsible for the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe, have now enabled visitor access to the prehistoric ruins again.
For further information please refer to the Archaeological Museum in Şanlıurfa [external link].
Most astonishing news are spreading these days again. An article published November 14th in Epoch Times [external link] was claiming a truly amazing discovery already in it’s headline: “Australian Aboriginal symbols found on mysterious 12,000-year-old-pillar in Turkey”. Since then these news were repeatedly picked up and reproduced, and meanwhile we received many requests by interested readers here, asking if this was true.
This unusual hypothesis was based on superficial similarities between selected images and symbols occurring in both cultural contexts (Anatolian Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe and Aboriginal Australia). Aboriginal signs and symbols apparently painted onto a medicine man’s chest or carved into stones are paralleled with reliefs on Göbekli Tepe’s pillars or other objects known from this and contemporary sites of the region.
Before having a closer look into these assumed analogies, a few general remarks should be noted. According to latest research, the Australian continent most likely was settled about 65,000 years ago (cf. Clarkson et al. 2017), probably via the Malay archipelago. So, both cultures were contemporary at some point? Yes, but in different parts of the world – with an ocean between them. And with an incredibly long period of isolation in case of the Australians (Bergström 2016). This obvious chronological gap and the huge geographical distance of about 15,000 km would make a direct relation and interaction of both cultural phenomena rather difficult.
On the other hand the key evidence, the Aboriginal elder’s chest symbol, is of a much younger date. The referenced depiction seems to be the reproduction of a photograph from the late 19th / early 20th century Spencer and Gillen anthropological expeditions through the continent (further information and resources on the website of the “Reconstruction the Spencer and Gillen Collection Project”: [external link]). The original photograph was first published in 1904 (Spencer & Gillen 1904, 58 Fig. 33) – significantly later, about circa 12,000 years later to be precise, than the Göbekli Tepe pillar was carved. Again quite a distance.
Fig. 1: A shaman or medicine man with extensive body painting, Worgaia, Central Australia. Process print. (Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/eknpj5jr, CC BY 4.0)
Fig. 2: Pillar 28 from Enclosure C with a symbol resembling the Aboriginal body painting only at first glance. However, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that there are significant differences. (Photo: K. Schmidt, emphasis: J. Notroff)
Yet the rather recent study of Aboriginal symbolism at least allows us to understand the icon in question here, describing two persons communicating. However, the supposed analogy at Göbekli Tepe is (at least in this combination) a much rarer exception in early Neolithic iconography – one of which we cannot say what it actually meant to the prehistoric people carving it, due to a lack of any related sources. Besides, and that might be the strongest point to highlight here: the Göbekli Tepe symbol does not at all look exactly the same. In fact, upon closer inspection it appears quite different (cf. Fig. 2): what appears to be a straight horizontal line in the Aboriginal sign is more of an “H”-shaped icon on the T-Pillar – with two vertical ‘arms’ at each side (which are obviously missing in the Australian example).
Fig. 3: Carved graffito of a woman. Most likely a later addition to a stone slab in the ‘Lion Pillars Building’, Göbekli Tepe (Layer II, PPNB). (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)
The same has to be said about the other symbols mentioned and in particular the female figure from Göbekli Tepe’s so-called Lion’s Pillar Building which is linked to Aboriginal depictions of the Rainbow Serpent, going by the name of Yingarna – sometimes depicted as a women in some Aboriginal cultures. Again, we know context and meaning of one of these (the Australian example), but do not have any further sources for the other one at Göbekli Tepe – which, by the way, was not part of the original decoration, but is a later added (and again exceptional) graffito.
These already dubious analogies are further complicated by assumptions aiming to underline the argument, but lacking a clear factual basis. Substantiating that the Göbekli Tepe pillar symbols must be “similarly sacred” since the “pillar depicts a deity” is of course highly interesting, but not without problems as already discussed earlier. And the assertion that the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were “… created by a society that was wiped out by a cataclysmic event”, referring to a recently published study causing a similar news output, did not go without criticism too.
In the end, an all too simple identification of similarly appearing symbols and equation of the complex individual cultural phenomena behind them, would be highly speculative – and is doing injustice to both cultures and their rich iconography. Furthermore, the focus on only a few selected images and symbols in an otherwise rich (and diverse) iconographic repertoire seems arbitrary. There are many more differences to be noted between these two cultures and places than actual similarities.
Additionally, Aboriginal Australians are not at all forming one single homogenous culture complex. More than 400 distinct Australian Aboriginal peoples could have been identified meanwhile, distinct groups with an own language (including a specific symbolic language) and peculiar culture (Horton 1994).
So, to answer the question posed in this headline: No. No, Göbekli Tepe was not built by Aboriginal Australians. The superficial similarities in iconography and art are exceptional coincidences in the best and misinterpretations in the most unfavourable case. With the same line of argument one could think, the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe were already inventing the letter “T” due to the characteristic shape of these omnipresent pillars …
Bergström, A., Nagle, N., Chen, Y., McCarthy, Sh., Pollard, M. O., Ayub, Q., Wilcox, St., Wilcox, L., van Oorschot, R. A. H., McAllister, P., Williams, L., Xue, Y., Mitchell, R. J., Tyler-Smith, Ch., Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes, Current Biology 26(6) (21 March 2016) 809–813. [external link]
Clarkson, Ch., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L., Smith, M., Roberts, R. G., Hayes, E., Lowe, K., Carah, X., Florin, S. A., McNeil, J., Cox, D., Arnold, L. J., Hua, Qu., Huntley, J., Brand, H. E. A., Manne, T., Fairbairn, A., Shulmeister, J., Lyle, L., Salinas, M., Page, M., Connel, K., Park, G., Norman, K., Murphy, T., Pardoe, C., Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago, Nature 547 (20 July 2017), 306–310. [external link]
Horton, D., The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society, and Culture, Canberra 1994.
Spencer, B. S. & Gillen, F. J., The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, London / New York 1904. [external link]
Recently we got a couple of notes and comments regarding a number of finds supposedly attributed to the early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe. Finds we surprisingly never addressed or mentioned or published anyway. Of course this raised questions. Not only among our readers, but also in the research team. So, I picked three of these mysterious objects and tried to follow their path all the way back. A lesson in ‘alternative facts’, their easy creation – and quick multiplication on the world wide web.
The first of these items we’re having a look into is this detailed and rather ‘life-like’ sphinx-sculpture – linked to a caption saying “The oldest known sphinx was found in Göbekli Tepe …”.
Stylistically, this sculpture already looks quite different from any other prehistoric piece of art we know of, yet those coming from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe in particular. The carefully sculpted face and body are more reminiscent of ‘classic’ ancient Greek or Roman sculptures – or those of the 18th and 19th century ‘romanticising’ sculptures. Also, the material does not really look like the yellowish-worn limestone so characteristic for Göbekli Tepe’s sculptures.
The statement connected to this depiction is even more surprising – since actually there is no single sphinx known from Göbekli Tepe (or any other related PPN-site of the region) reported. In fact, composite – hybrid – creatures are generelly very rare in prehistoric art. With a few excepetions, the concept of chimaeras seems to have become a more common (or at least more often depicted) mythological trope at a later time in human history.
Finally, with a little bit of research the sculpture in question here can be identified as being part of the garden decoration of the Royal Palace of La Granja [external link] in the Spanish town of San Ildefonso – dating to the 18th century. AD.
The second object on this list is a bit trickier. Indeed it seems to be a rather large stele showing the relief of some upright standing person. Stone and setting somehow look similar to what we would expect from Göbekli Tepe – although the style of depiction and the building visible to the right suspiciously do not really look familiar from an Anatolian early Neolithic point of view.
Again, a closer look at the actual depiction makes it clear that we are dealing with something different here. The person shows characteristical features we would expect from an ape. In particular the head, face, and tail give it away: this is a depiction of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the shape of a monkey. With this information at hand it is only a question of further reading to identify the stele as one of the monuments at the Virupakasha Temple in Hampi [external link], a World Heritage Site in southern India – dating back as much as the 7th century AD, but definitely not the Neolithic period.
Finally, the last find examined here is this standard-like object of which the caption claims it is a “G[ö]bekli Tepe god of the constellation of Orion.” Besides the challenges to project modern (or at least historical) star constellations into prehistory and even more prehsitoric art (as we already discussed here) and the terminological issues surrounding lables like ‘god’, ‘gods’, and even ‘temple’ (discussed here earlier), this piece, again, does look like nothing we know from the site of Göbekli Tepe or any other Neolithic find spot in the region.
In fact, a stylistic comparison eventually offers a lead to modern Iran. A couple of elaborate objects dating to the Bronze Age period (i.e. the 3rd millennium BC) from this region show quite some parallels. They are linked to the so-called Jiroft culture which, unfortunately, still remains raher obscure since the majority of finds associated with Jiroft are coming from illegal excavations and we do not know much about them. But again, they’re neither related to the Anatolian Neolithic nor the site of Göbekli Tepe.
These three examples should be sufficient and representative for the point we would like to make with this blog post: it’s easy to come up with an idea, it’s easy to form hypotheses. Honestly, we as scientists do it too, all the time. But every hypothesis needs to be checked, material needs to be compared, sources reviewed. We’re living in times where facts can be made up as ‘alternatives’. Stay curious, but stay suspicious. Check the facts, check the sources. And when in doubt … ask an archaeologist (or any other expert).
A couple of weeks ago, in June, we thanked you, the esteemed readers of this blog, for your ongoing interest in the German Archaeological Institute’s Göbekli Tepe research project as it is impressively visible by the visitor numbers of this blog. Thanks again once more! Yet we also used the opportunity to offer a kind of questionnaire via twitter, giving you the chance to adress your questions regarding the excavations at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.
Since we consider this little experiement in ‘science communication’ a success, we are not only discussing and planning to repeat something similar in the not too distant future, but also would like to share the outcome of this first Q&A here. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers and discussions which emerged from this question time of interest; some of the links provided are certainly worth a look. Thanks a lot to everyone participating.
First of all we started of with some more general remarks, intoducing ourselves as moderators of this Q&A and the site of Göbekli Tepe itsels as well as the state of research so far.
Next to obtaining material sources by excavation, one of the most important parts of archaeological research is to interpret the finds and features unearthed and collected. So this was another topic of many questions.
#AskGT are the central pillars of D the first (and most important) and what is the latest interpretation of their neck glyphs?
To properly understand how prehistoric people interacted with the world around them, it is of course inevitable to also have a look at this world they are living in, at environment and climate. Another point which also was picked up by some of the questions.
#AskGT (Visitor via comment): At what season did they gather for rituals?
Comparisons with other monuments or thoughts about a possible connection to such are quite often put forward then discussing Göbekli Tepe (in fact, we had a whole blog post dedicated to this topic just recently).
With some closing remarks we finally had to bring this most interesting hour to an end, definitely overhelmed by the number of participants and questions and really glad to see so much interest in the work of the Göbekli Tepe research project. Thanks a lot!
Since the great and very encouraging feedback this Q&A received and the interesting discussions it triggered, we can only thank everyone who participated again and repeat what’s already mirrored in this last tweet above: That we definitely repeat this in due time. So, have your questions ready – see you then.
A few kilometres northeast of modern Şanlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey, the tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Rising 15 metres and with an area of about 9 hectares, the completely man-made mound covers the earliest known monumental cult architecture in the ancient Near East. Constructed by hunter-gatherers right after the end of the last Ice Age, they also intentionally buried it about 10,000 years ago.
Göbekli Tepe has been known to archaeologists since the 1960s, when a joint survey team from the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago under the direction of Halet Çambel and Robert Braidwood observed numerous flint artefacts littering the surface of the mound. However, the monumental architecture remained undetected, and was eventually discovered by Klaus Schmidt on a grand tour of important south-eastern Turkish Neolithic sites in 1994. In addition to the high density of flint tools and flakes, his eye was caught by large limestone blocks which reminded him of another nearby Neolithic site where he had worked several years before: Nevalı Çori – where, among others, a building with monolithic T- pillars was discovered for the first time. These peculiar T-shapes reminded Schmidt of the worked stone peeking out of the surface at Göbekli Tepe. Excavations at this site began the next year.
In about 22 years of ongoing fieldwork, the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanlıurfa Museum have revealed a totally unexpected monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe, dating to the earliest Neolithic period. No typical domestic structures have yet been found, leading to the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as a ritual centre for gathering and feasting. The people creating these megalithic monuments were still highly mobile hunter-foragers and the site’s material culture corroborates this: substantial amounts of bones exclusively from hunted wild animals, and a stone tool inventory comprising a wide range of projectile points. Osteological investigations and botanical studies show that animal husbandry was not practiced at Göbekli Tepe and domesticated plants were unknown.
The mound of Göbekli Tepe seen from the south. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)
The mound of Göbekli Tepe seen from the south. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)
Aerial of the so-called main excavation area of Göbekli Tepe, the older monumental enclosures in the lower center. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)
Schematic plan of Göbekli Tepe’s main excavation area (plus Enclosure E). (Plan: K. Schmidt & J. Notroff, DAI)
It is currently possible to distinguish two different phases at Göbekli Tepe although this will undoubtedly change with continued research. The site is characterised by an older layer dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A period (ca. 9,600-8,800 calBC) which produced monumental circular huge T-shaped pillars arranged in circle-like enclosures around two even taller central pillars and a younger layer, early and middle PPN B (c. 8,800-7,000 calBC) in date. It consists of smaller rectangular buildings containing often only two small central pillars or even none at all. These may be reduced variations (or later adaptations) of the older and considerably larger monuments, of which four were excavated in the main excavation area in the mound’s southern depression. Notably these structures, labelled Enclosures A, B, C, and D, were apparently backfilled intentionally at the end of their use-lives. Enclosure D, the best preserved of the circular buildings, serves to give an impression of the general layout and set-up of these enclosures.
In the centre two colossal pillars, measuring about 5.5 m, are founded in shallow pedestals carved out of the carefully smoothed bedrock. This central pair of pillars is surrounded by a circle formed of similar, but slightly smaller pillars which are connected by stone walls and benches. While these surrounding pillars often are decorated with depictions of animals like foxes, aurochs, birds, snakes, and spiders, the central pair in particular illustrates the anthropomorphic character of the T-pillars. They clearly display arms depicted in relief on the pillars’ shafts, with hands brought together above the abdomen, pointing to the middle of the waist. Belts and loincloths underline this impression and emphasize the human-like appearance of these pillars. Their larger-than-life and highly abstracted representation is intentionally chosen and not owed to deficient craftsmanship, as other finds like the much more naturalistic animal and human sculptures clearly demonstrate. This suggests that whatever the larger-than-life T-pillars are meant to depict and embody is on a different level than the life-sized sculptures in the iconography of Göbekli Tepe and the Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia.
Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).
Detail of Pillar 18 showing hands, belt, and loincloth in relief. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
While naturalistic and abstract depictions find their most monumental manifestation on the T-shaped pillars, there are others. Similar and clearly related iconography also occurs on functional objects like so-called shaft straighteners, on stone bowls and cups, as well as on small stone tablets which apparently do not have any other function than to bear these signs. Furthermore, these objects are not restricted to Göbekli Tepe and the few other sites with T-shaped pillars in its closer vicinity, but are known from places up to 200 km around the site. A spiritual concept seems to have linked these sites to each other, suggesting a larger cultic community among PPN mobile groups in Upper Mesopotamia, tied in a network of communication and exchange.
Ethnologic and historic analogies emphasize the importance of regular gatherings and collective activities as means of maintaining social cohesion in hunter-gatherer communities. Gatherings also serve other purposes like the exchange of information, goods, and marriage partners. Such large-scale gatherings naturally need to be established in locations that are known and easily accessible for the participating groups.
Limestone head from Göbekli Tepe, supposedly part of a sculpture similar to ‘Urfa Man’ (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
Collection of plaquettes bearing iconographic symbolism from Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
The topographical situation of Göbekli Tepe as a landmark overlooking the surrounding plains, seem a perfectly suitable central space for these groups and people inhabiting the wider region. Large communal tasks executed as collective work events, reflected in the apparently continuous construction activity at Göbekli Tepe, provided a unifying reason for people to come together. Additionally ethnographic studies provide more examples demonstrating that work forces necessary for such collaborative projects can be gathered with the prospect of lavish feasts.
That this may have been the case at Göbekli Tepe is further corroborated by a closer look at the massive amount of filling material of the enclosures, which consists of limestone rubble, flint artefacts, fragments of stone vessels, other ground stone tools, and in particular an impressively large numbers of animal bones – above all gazelle and aurochs. These remains hint at the consumption of enormous amounts of meat, most likely during feasts framing these large-scale meetings and communal activities, including monument construction.
Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).
Repetitive feasting at Göbekli Tepe may have played an essential role not only in creating and strengthening social bonds among the individuals and groups meeting there, but must also have stressed the economic potential of these hunter-gatherers to repeatedly feed such large crowds. In response to this pressure, new food resources and processing techniques may have been explored, subsequently paving the way for a complete change in subsistence strategy. In this scenario, the early appearance of monumental religious architecture motivating work feasts to draw as many hands as possible for the execution of complex, collective tasks is changing our understanding of one of the key moments in human history: the emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry – and the onset of food production and the Neolithic way of live.
This text was originally written by Jens Notroff & Oliver Dietrich for and published at the weblog of Boston University’s American School of Oriental Research: The Ancient Near East Today – Current News About The Ancient Past [external link], July 2017: Vol. V, No. 7 under the title “Göbekli Tepe: Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production” [external link].
We already expressed a couple of thoughts and remarks on a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in which Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis have suggested (original article accessible here: [external link]) that the early Neolithic monumental enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were space observatories and the site’s complex iconography the commemoration of a catastrophic astronomical event (‘Younger Dryas Comet Impact’).
Meanwhile we were putting together a more elaborate reply with further arguments and references which, in our opinion, challenge the interpretation and add more context to the paper’s discussion of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography in the light of the early Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. The editors of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry kindly agreed to publish our response in the same journal as the original article by Sweatman and Tsikritsis.
The paper (J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, L. Clare, L. Dietrich, J. Schlindwein, M. Kinzel, C. Lelek-Tvetmarken, D. Sönmez: More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(2), 2017, 57-63.) can be accessed online: [external link].
Aerial view of the mound of Göbekli Tepe with excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)
Our reservations, which are not meant to silence any further archaeoastronomic discussion for Göbekli Tepe at all but rather comment on a number of discrepances we see in the interpretation, are summed up here:
1. The original layout of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round-oval buildings is still subject of ongoing research (none of these structures are completely excavated as of yet). One should be aware that many of the T-pillars incorporated into the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe are not standing in their original positions and the buildings underwent significant modification during their life-cycles. Building archaeology studies have revealed that in many cases pillars were ‘recycled’, i.e. pulled out and used elsewhere. The monuments as we see them today are the culmination of multi-phase building and rebuilding events. Additionally, there is the significant possibility that we are dealing with roofed structures; this fact alone would pose limitations to a function as sky observatories.
2. The chronological frame Sweatman and Tsikritsis suggest for Pillar 43 (10950 BC +/- 250 years) is still 700-1000 years older than the oldest radiocarbon date so far available for Enclosure D (which stems from organic material retrieved from a wall plaster matrix). While there is evidence for later re-use of pillars (see above), assuming such a long tradition of knowledge relating to an unconfirmed (ancient) cosmic event appears extremely far-fetched. So far, any available date for Göbekli Tepe rather marks the end than the beginning of the Younger Dryas.
3. The assumption that asterisms are stable across time and cultures is not convincing. It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.
4. Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ contribution appears incredibly arbitrary, considering images adorning just a few selected pillars. Meanwhile more than 60 monumental limestone T-pillars are known from Göbekli Tepe – among these many feature similar carved low reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (e.g. Pillar 56 in Enclosure H). Furthermore, the iconographic programme is not restricted to the limestone pillars; it is known from other find groups (including stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes) not only from Göbekli Tepe but also from numerous contemporary sites in the wider region.
Pillar 56 from Enclosure H is another example for the rich and often complex iconography of Göbekli Tepe. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)
5. Göbekli Tepe’s iconography is actually even more complex than the paper suggests. The animals depicted on the pillars seem to follow an intentional pattern, whereby each building has a different emphasis, i.e. with one animal or more being especially prominent. If we interpret these differences as an expression of community and belonging, this could hint at different groups having been responsible for the construction of particular enclosures. In other words, specific enclosures may have served the needs of different social entities. For this reason, it is extremely problematic to pick out any one pillar and draw far-reaching but isolated interpretations while leaving out its context. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these subtler but significant details. Details like the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as a symbol of death, catastrophe and extinction by Sweatman and Tsikritsis, silently omits the clearly emphasised phallus which must contradict the lifeless notion; rather, this image implies a more versatile narrative behind these depictions. It should also be noted that there are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which apparently went unnoticed in the study at hand.
Distribution of the appearance of figurative representations in the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe. Note: The different state of excavation as well as chronological depth of construction periods have to be considered; later added graffiti as well as symbolically reduced icons were not included. (Graphic: J. Notroff & N. Becker, DAI)
Pillar 43 from Enclosure D and its particularly rich relief-decoration – actually extending not only on the pillar’s western broadside (left), but also the southern (middle) and northern (right) narrow sides. (Photos: K. Schmidt, N. Becker, DAI)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic iconography, by far exceeding the realms of Göbekli Tepe, is often especially concerned with articulation and disarticulation of the human body. Particularly the depiction of severed human heads or headless bodies in combination with necrophagous animals (preferably but not exclusively vultures) is a well-known theme and may be rooted in a complex multiphase Pre-Pottery Neolithic mortuary ritual. Similar depictions of a bird grasping a human head are known from Göbekli Tepe as well as life-sized human sculpture heads which were deposited within the buildings.
Fragmented sculpture from Göbekli Tepe showing a bird of prey crouched on a human head. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
Meanwhile both authors of the orginal study replied to our response (same issue of MAA, see link above), stressing that “… given the statistical basis o[f] [their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.” (Sweatman and Tsikritsis, Comment, MAA 17(2), 66). Admittedly though, we still would like to express our doubt that human creativity really can be treated as a statistical case solely.