From the Göbekli Tepe Research Project

Author: Oliver Dietrich (Page 3 of 5)

Call for Papers: “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?”

We frequently get questions regarding the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe, and much of our work really centers around that issue. Is it a temple, a sanctuary, something else? How does Göbekli Tepe relate to similar phenomena in contemporaneous and later sites? We want to throw some more light on this by asking the following question in a session organised in the frame of the EAA Annual Meeting 2017 in Maastricht. 


What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?

Organizers: Oliver Dietrich1, Laura Dietrich1; Deniz Erdem 2; Jens Notroff 1; KrisztiĂĄn Oross3

(1. German Archaeological Institute, Orient Department; 2. Centre of Research and Assessment of Cultural Environment (TACDAM), Middle East Technical University; 3. Institute of Archaeology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Extraordinary features which challenge conventional interpretations are readily denoted as ‘special’ by archaeologists. ‘Special buildings‘ is an often-used label in Near Eastern Archaeology for constructions deviating in architecture, elaborate inner fittings, finds and often also treatment after the end of use (intentional destruction, burial) from domestic spaces. ‘Special buildings’ start to exist during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region between the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, well-known examples come inter alia from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el Ahmar, Nevalı Çori, or ÇatalhöyĂŒk.

The term ‘special building’ is not unknown in the European Neolithic, although with a considerably different meaning. In Europe, constructions such as megaliths, earthworks and ditches have been approached in ways similar to the ‘special buildings’ of the Near East, without labelling them as one group however.

A general approach to this issue is still missing. The essential question is whether by ‘special buildings’ we are facing a phenomenon common to Neolithic societies which has to be considered another component of the so-called Neolithic Package.

The session follows two main questions:

  1. Are there really commonalities between the buildings categorized as special, i.e. is ‘special buildings’ more than an ill-defined label for the uncommon? Could we converge the information to a common definition?
  1. Is there a tradition of ‘special buildings’ throughout the Neolithic, are they part of the ‘Neolithic package’ transferred from the Near East to Europe? If so, what elements travel, what meanings change?


Submission for Papers and Posters is open from  3 Febrauary 2017, session number is 322:

Enclosure A, a short overview

During the first field season at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 one of the landowners had started to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar with a sledgehammer. Fortunately he could be persuaded to stop, and in the 1996 work started in this area. What came to light here was the first of the monumental buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer (Layer III), later called Enclosure A.

Anlage A

Enclosure A in 1997 (Photo: M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

The ground plan of Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. First radiocarbon data suggest that it may be a little younger than other Enclosures, C and D, and maybe the rectangular shape already could indicate the transition to the later, rectangular, Layer II building type. The existence of different outer walls may as well hint at a longer building history and possible alteration over toime. However, Enclosure A is still not entirely excavated, so any description must remain preliminary as of yet.

Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench leaning against the inner walls of the building. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the south-western side of Pillar 1. The front side of this pillar carries a central groove running vertically from below the head to its base, covering about one third of its width. This groove and the raised bands to either side are decorated with five snakes in bas-relief. Maybe this is a depiction of a stola-like garment which is similarly known from other pillars as well. Pillar 2 carries on its right side a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox, and crane. Its narrower back side is adorned with a bucranium between the vertical bands of another stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 was not found in its original position, but was at some time moved to this, secondary, location. In the course of this action, the original back side of the pillar became its front and vice versa.


Göbekli Tepe, detail of the main excavation area with Enclosure A (Plan: K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).

Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four, though it is expected that this number will rise once excavations are continued in this area. Pillar 5 shows a snake again, Pillars 3 and 4 are without reliefs. Pillar 17 was heavily destroyed already in prehistory, and is without reliefs so far, too. As with all the buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer, one animal species seems to dominate the imagery of Enclosure A. In this case, it is the snake which appears noteworthy often.

Further Reading

Klaus Schmidt, The Urfa-Project 1996, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/96,2–3.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/1, 2001, 45-54.

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. HĂŒbner, 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]

Göbekli Tepe in images

Photography certainly is an important tool for documentation in archaeology. For me personally, it is also a hobby (you can find me on Flickr here: external link). Going through the loads of photos the digital age produces and often readily forgets, I found some images of Göbekli Tepe that I wanted to share here. The collection is not finished and the post will be expanded as I dig deeper into my archives. So come back for more if you like what you see!


Göbekli Tepe is situated at the northern periphery of the fertile crescent, on the highest point of the GermuƟ mountain range overlooking the Harran plain. The site lies on an otherwise barren limestone plateau.The tell has a diameter of around 300 m and is characterized by several mounds divided by depressions. At the highest point, Göbekli Tepe has about 15  m of stratigraphy. This is a view of the tell from the south, with the excavation camp. Taken in 2007, during my first field season at the site with the late Klaus Schmidt.

Work starts early at Göbekli Tepe (usually around 6 am), so there are lots of opportunities to catch the special morning light. Images of the tell seen from the southeast from 2007 and of the main excavation area seen from the southeastern hilltop, in 2012.

All areas excavated so far show a similar general stratigraphic sequence. The oldest layer III is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars, which were positioned in circle-like structures. The pillars were interconnected by limestone walls and benches leaning at the inner side of the walls. The circles measure 10-20m. Work in Enclosures D and C, 2009-2010.

In the centre of the enclosures stand always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m.  The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Images of the central pillars of Enclosure D in 2007.

Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the central pillars. The western central pillar of Enclosure D during excavation, 2009.

There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Richly decorated pillars from Enclosure D, 2012.

Decoration of the pillars is not arbitrary. There are marked differences between the animal species depicted inside each enclosure. It could well be that the dominant species are connected to certain groups, in the sense of emblematic, or totemic symbols related to their identities. Foxes are the animal most frequently depicted in Enclosure B. The images are close-ups of the depictions on the central pillars.

Decorations on the pillars are not limited to low reliefs. On Pillar 27 in Enclosure C the high relief of a snarling predator is preserved. Directly in front of it, a boar is depicted in side view in low relief. A hunting scene? Images from 2009.

Pillar 27 is not the only example indicating narrative meaning of Göbekli Tepe’s imagery. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. Photo from 2009.


Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the early and middle PPNB. This layer is characterised by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5m. Layer II building with bench, pillar and stationary limestone vessel on the southeastern hilltop, 2012.

At Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic quarry areas from which the workpieces for the enclosures originate are well known. They lie on the limestone plateau immediately adjacent to the site. The maximum distances that had to be covered were 600-700m. The largest standing pillars discovered so far have 5.5m and weigh around 10t. In the quarry areas however there is one example of a 7 m long pillar preserved.Photo from 2007.

To be continued…


The ‘Urfa Man’


This short post is about the ‘Urfa Man’. Let’s start with an answer to a very common question: no, he is not from Göbekli Tepe. He was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site at Urfa-Yeni Mahalle / Yeni Yol (Bucak & Schmidt 2003; Çelik 2011; Hauptmann 2003; Hauptmann & Schmidt 2007), broken in four nearly equal pieces.

The settlement was largely destroyed, but photos showing the construction work seem to reveal an interesting detail about the site: it featured a small T-shaped pillar (Çelik 2011, 142, Fig. 19), similar to those from Göbekli Tepe’s Layer II.  This speaks for a PPN B date, as does the archaeological material recovered (Çelik 2011).

The ‘Urfa man’ himself gives witness to the ability of early Neolithic people to sculpt the human body naturalistically. It is the oldest known statue of a man, slightly larger than life-size. In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-shaped pillars, the ‘Urfa man’ has a face, eyes originally emphasized by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes, and ears ; a mouth, however, is not depicted. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is only a conical plug, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. Both hands seem to grab his penis.

As no find context has been recorded for the sculpture, it is hard to evaluate its original function. But there are several fragments, especially heads, of similar sculptures from Göbekli Tepe. At this site, statues like the ‘Urfa Man’ seem to have been part of a complex hierarchical system of imagery directly related to the functions of the circular enclosures. You can find a longer text about this here.

The presence of a sculpture like the ‘Urfa Man’ and of T-shaped pillars are strong evidence for the presence of a special building inside the settlement at Urfa-Yeni Yol. It may have been comparable to the PPN B ‘cult buildings’ of Nevalı Çori (Hauptmann 1993), but this will remain pure speculation.


Bucak, E. & K. Schmidt, 2003. DĂŒnyanın en eski heykeli. Atlas 127, 36-40.

Çelik, B., 2011, ƞanlıurfa – Yeni Mahalle, in The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, eds. M. Özdoğan, N. BaƟgelen & P. Kuniholm. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 139-164.

Hauptmann, H., 1993. Ein KultgebĂ€ude in Nevalı Çori , in Between the rivers and over the mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, eds. M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthias & M. Mellink. Roma: Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche Archaeologiche e Anthropologiche dell’AntichitĂ , UniversitĂ  di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, 37-69.

Hauptmann, H., 2003. Eine frĂŒhneolithische Kultfigur aus Urfa, in Köyden Kente. From village to cities. Studies presented to Ufuk Esin, eds. M. Özdoğan, H. Hauptmann & N. BaƟgelen. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yaınları, 623-36.

Hauptmann, H. & K. Schmidt, 2007. Anatolien vor 12 000 Jahren: die Skulpturen des FrĂŒhneolithikums, in Vor 12000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die Ă€ltesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitband zur großen Landesaustellung Baden-WĂŒrttemberg im Badischen Landesmuseum 2007, ed. C. Lichter. Karlsruhe: Badisches Landesmuseum, 67-82.



Of animals and a headless man. Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43

Addressing an earlier question from the comments, here is some more information on one of the most impressive pillars from Göbekli Tepe, Pillar 43 in Enclosure D.

Updated 05/03/17 with some more information on our views of the spherical object above the vultures wing for that reason.

Some images on Göbekli Tepe’s pillars indicate a  narrative meaning. One striking example for this is Pillar 43 in Enclosure D. The whole western broad side of this pillar is covered by a variety of motifs. Dominant is a big vulture. It lifts its left wing, while the right wing points to the front. It is possible that this gesture aims at the sphere or disc that can be seen above the tip of the right wing. But to the right of the vulture another bird, maybe an ibis or a young vulture is shown.  If we take this image as a depiction of a young bird, then the stretched-out wing of the vulture could be a gesture of protection, and the sphere could be the egg the young bird hatched from. Another possibility would be a depiction of the sun or the moon. However, the scenery could also mean something completely different, as we will see below.

(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

To the right above this scene, a snake, two H-shaped symbols and wild fowl are depicted. On the pillar’s shaft, a huge scorpion as well as the head and neck of another bird are dominating the scene. While some more reliefs to the left of the scorpion and the bird are hidden by the perimeter wall, to the right of the bird’s neck an especially interesting motif is depicted. Due to damage to the pillar it is not preserved completely, but the representation of a headless human with an erect penis is quite clearly recognizable. The depiction seems to relate to aspects of Early Neolithic death cult known from several sites and offers another interpretation for the spherical object aboive the vultures wing: it could be the depiction of the person’s head. But even without giving too much weight to this aspect of the pillar’s reliefs, it is clear that the intention behind the imagery goes well beyond depicting nature.

On the uppermost part of Pillar 43, a row of three rectangular objects with cupola-like ‘arches’ on their tops can be seen. Every one of these objects is accompanied by an animal added on the ’arch’. The meaning of these images is hard to guess, but they might represent the enclosures during their time of use, seen from the side. The rectangular part would represent the perimeter walls, while the cupolas may indicate roofs. As usually depictions of one animal species seem to dominate in every enclosure, it is an intriguing thought that buildings of different groups are depicted here with the emblematic animals of these groups added for recognition. Following this line of argument, one would also have to assume that the enclosures were depicted here rather schematic in an almost technical sectional view – what would be highly unusual compared to the other naturalistic representations from Göbekli Tepe. A final decision on the meaning of these images is not possible at the moment.

Read more:

Klaus Schmidt, Animals and a Headless Man at Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/2006, 38-40. [Neo-Lithics 2/06-external link]

On the interpretation of the disc-shaped object:

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. ex oriente e.V.: Berlin (2012): p. 244.

Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe

Back in the office from a very pleasant and thought-provoking EAA Annual Meeting in Vilnius, where an intriguing session [external link] on the concept of social cohesion in archaeology was organised by Laura Dietrich and Agnė Čivilytė. As publication of the contributions may take some time, here is a (very) short version of my talk on Göbekli Tepe.


Impression from EAA Vilnius (Photo J. Notroff).

The core question of the talk was how „low-hierarchical“ hunter-gatherers were able to generate and maintain social cohesion and group identity basic to their survival. By social cohesion I mean a set of social processes that lead to developing a sense of belonging in a community, while group identity is a shared sense of belonging to a group, based on similar worldview, ideology, and beliefs. Both concepts are obviously interrelated, but not the same.

 So, how to gather people to build a megalithic site?

If we look at ethnography, we immediately find a wide range of examples not unlike the description of the transport of a megalith on Nias, with 525 people hauling it in 3 days over a distance of 3 km to the construction site of a grave (Röder 1944). Such examples have to be set in a social perspective however, as for example on Nias the number of people involved reflects the status of the builder, who will spent lots of resources to attract as many as possible (Notroff et al. 2014). We thus should not overemphasize such examples for purely technical calculations of the necessary manpower, but better have a look at the archaeological evidence first.

At Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic quarry areas from which the workpieces for the enclosures originate are well known. They lie on the limestone plateau immediately adjacent to the site. The maximum distances that had to be covered were 600-700m. However, the terrain is uneven and sloping upwards, and the megaliths are of impressive size.

The largest standing pillars discovered so far have 5.5m and weigh around 10t. In the quarry areas however there is one example of a 7 m long pillar preserved. It also shows the chaine operatoire involved in carving a megalith out of the bedrock [read more]. A channel was dug in the form of the desired workpiece. The limestone surrounding Göbekli Tepe is banked, strata of about 0.60 – 1.50 m thickness are divided by fault lines. This means that you just have to dig around a work piece, not also beneath it. Then the megalith had to be lifted, transported to the construction site, finished and decorated. The amount of work included in this process seems pretty high.

Another aspect is adding in here. It seems that the enclosures were never really finished. There is permanent construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction activity at Göbekli Tepe, and the intensity of work indicates something else than pure maintenance. Most likely the act of working at the site was central to the builders, and repeated periodically, whether or not a real need existed. For example, in the inner ring of Enclosure C there is barely one pillar standing in its original position.


Enclosure C was subject to massive re-arrangement during the PPN (Photo N. Becker, copyright DAI).

As Göbekli Tepe has no traces of settlement, there is no possibility of a direct evaluation of the number of people present on-site. If we turn to ethnographic data, core group sizes of 25-50 persons for fully mobile hunter-gatherers, and a little higher numbers for semi-sedentary residential groups are suggested. The number of people one group could spare for construction work of the amplitude visible at Göbekli Tepe is definitely too small. It seems possible that several groups had to collaborate for a period of time to carry out building activities and to supply for the builders. And there actually is vast evidence for people from a catchment area of roughly 200km around the site congregating at Göbekli Tepe [read more].

An answer to the question why these people congregated for work at Göbekli Tepe comes from the enclosureŽs fillings. The material used as backfill consists of limestone rubble from the quarries nearby, flint artefacts and animal bones smashed to get to the marrow, clearly the remains of meals. Enclosure D alone, the largest of the four circles, comprised nearly 500 cubic meters of debris. With traces of permanent settlement absent, for Göbekli Tepe this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized work feasts rooted in the belief systems of the people congregating there. This concept was explored in-depth by Dietler and Hayden and provides a good working hypothesis to explain the at least temporary supra-group cohesion generated for collective work. But of course that would not be the only occassions where people gathered at the site. Ritual activities would likely include minor feasts, with less people present, maybe even restricted to certain groups.

The enclosures excavated so far show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle, and distinct enclosures may have served different social entities [read more]. The character of these entities remains open to discussion at the moment. There are some clues however. Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing. For example, awls and points of bone are nearly completely absent. The tasks carried out with them probably were not practiced here, and it may well be that the part of the population carrying them out was absent, too. Further, clay figurines are absent completely from Göbekli. This observation gains importance in comparison to Nevalı Çori, where clay figurines are abundant, missing only in the ‘cult building’ with its stone sculptures and T-shaped pillars very similar to Göbekli Tepe. Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male.


The western broadside of Pillar 43 in Enclosure D ist decorated completely with a variety of motifs (Photo O. Dietrich).

As already shown, the pillars are often richly decorated. But in some cases, the imagery obviously is going far beyond mere decoration. The narrative character of several depictions in flat relief is underlined by Pillar 43, whose whole western broad side is covered by a variety of motifs. This could be a hint to one aspect of the enclosure®s functions – as a repository for tales, maybe myths crucially important to the groups building them.

It is also possible to identify the general theme these stories – and the enclosures – are related to. A recurring motif on reliefs is human heads between animals, or, as already seen on pillar 43, headless humans. The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN death ritual [read more]. A connection with death or ancestor cult of Neolithic groups seems to be the most probable function of Göbekli TepeÂŽs enclosures. With their rich decoration, they are monuments in stone of important aspects of these groups identities, which were reinforced during ritually repeated events that included feasting.

To sum up, it seems that at Göbekli Tepe we see two social phenomena interact. Constant building activity generated a need for cooperation that was met by large work feasts that produced social cohesion. However, there are further social practises attestable that generate cohesion. The monuments served to memorize crucial knowledge, and, together with ritual performances that probably included smaller feasting events, to reaffirm group identity. The character of these groups remains unclear at the moment. Whether we are dealing with single clans, the male hunters of certain settlements, or secret societies as the users of the enclosures remains to be seen in the future.


Notroff, J., Dietrich, O., Schmidt, K., Building Monuments – Creating Communities. Early monumental architecture at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe. In: James Osborne (ed.), Approaching Monumentality in the Archaeological Record. Albany: SUNY Press (2014), 83-105.

Röder, J., Bilder zum Megalithentransport. Paideuma – Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, III 1-2 April 1944, 84-87.

Emblematic signs? On the iconography of animals at Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe was once called „a Stone Age zoo“ by its late discoverer Klaus Schmidt. This judgement is certainly appropriate, as the range of animals depicted is impressive. Bears, boars, snakes, foxes, wildcats, aurochs, gazelle, quadruped reptiles, birds, spiders, insects, quadrupeds, scorpions and many more are inhabiting the enclosures. But there is also some underlying structure to this zoo-like ensemble.


The enclosures in the main excavation area with their prevalent animal species (several photographers, copyright DAI).

The enclosures of Göbekli Tepe show a variation in the animal species depicted prominently in the iconography of each circle. While in Enclosure A the snake prevails, in Enclosure B foxes are dominant, for example. In Enclosure C boars take over and in Enclosure D birds are playing an important role. Interpreting these differences as figurative expression of community patterns could probably hint at the different groups building the particular enclosures. Distinct enclosures may have served different social entities.


The character of these entities remains open to discussion at the moment. There are some clues however. Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable at Göbekli Tepe. On a general level, some object classes known from settlements are missing (Schmidt 2010, 70). For example, awls and points of bone are nearly completely absent. The tasks carried out with them probably were not practiced here, and it may well be that the part of the population carrying them out was absent, too. Further, clay figurines are absent completely from Göbekli. This observation gains importance in comparison to Nevalı Çori, where clay figurines are abundant, missing only in the ‘cult building’ with its stone sculptures and T-shaped pillars (Hauptmann 1993, 67; Morsch 2002, 148). Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and cult?) and one to the specialized ‘cult buildings’ – and to another sphere of ritual also evident at Göbekli Tepe. Its iconography is exclusively male, and while evidence for some domestic tasks is missing, there is evidence for flint knapping on a much larger scale than in any contemporary settlement, and shaft straighteners are very frequent, too. Göbekli Tepe could have been a place for just a part of society, for male hunters. At least their ideology is exclusively represented at the site.

Anlage D

The pillars of Enclosure D (several photographers, copyright DAI).

But does that mean that all male hunters had access to the site? An answer is again hard to find, but another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures themselves. They are not of a size to accommodate very large groups of people at a time. If we imagine them open to the sky, then a certain public aspect would have to be taken into account, but another possibility is a reconstruction along the lines of largely subterranean buildings accessible through openings in the roof, similar to the kivas of the North-American Southwest, rather unimpressive and hidden from the outside. It is a distinct possibility that only a small group of people or ritual specialists had access to the enclosures. Taking into account the fierce and deadly iconography of Göbekli TepeŽs enclosures, male initiation rites including the hunt of fierce animals and the symbolic decent into an otherworld (especially if the enclosures really were roofed), symbolic death and rebirth as an initiate could have been one purpose of rituals at Göbekli Tepe.

Further Reading

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 FrĂŒhneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.

Hauptmann, Harald, Ein KultgebĂ€ude in Nevali Çori. In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink (Rome 2003) 37-69.

Morsch, Michael, Magic Figurines? Some Remarks about the Clay Objects of Nevalı Çori. In Magic Practices and Ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic. Proceedings of a Workshop held at the 2nd International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE) in Copenhagen 2000, edited by Hans Georg K. Gebel, Bo Dahl Hermansen and Charlott Hoffmann Jensen (Berlin 2002) 145–162.

Klaus Schmidt, “Ritual Centres” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/05, 13-21.

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoning excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs, Documenta Praehistorica (Ljubliana) 37, 2010, 239-256.

“Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library”

 July 29th was this year’s “Day of Archaeology” [external link] – a project aiming to “
 provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world.” Following some impressions from a typical day excavating at Göbekli Tepe, this is our second post – about what comes after all the fieldwork…

Archaeology is seen as an exciting and adventurous occupation by many. More often than not, mentioning my job will make people say things like „Oh, I always wanted to become an archaeologist, too!“. And of course there will be the inevitable Indiana Jones reference. I have long learned not to ask back why this dream didn®t become true – the answers mostly include getting a real job. But the glamour of childhood dreams is on my side.

And itÂŽs so easy to fulfill everyone’s expectations, for example by talking about things experienced on excavations in more or less far away countries. I am involved in research in Romania (Rotbav, a Bronze Age settlement) and Turkey (Göbekli Tepe, obviously) right now. The effect on the audience is of course much better, if you say Transylvania and explain that it is the rough landscapes of southeastern Turkey, largely unknown to western tourists. And some will even have heard the name of the Turkish site, Göbekli Tepe. First monumental buildings (oh, letÂŽs simply call them temples for the conversationÂŽs sake), 12.000 years old. So, really important, really old sites, really interesting regions. You can go on and talk about all the travelling you have to do to attend conferences. For me, itÂŽs Vienna, Göteborg and Vilnius this year. The summer will see me in Romania (yeah, alright, Transylvania) studying Bronze Age artefacts, the autumn maybe back in Turkey working with Neolithic finds.

Excavation work

Excavations at Göbekli Tepe, Enclosure D,  in 2010 (Photo O. Dietrich, copyright DAI).

So, a day in archaeology. Driving up dusty roads to an enigmatic site in a far away land, uncovering and writing new chapters in the history of mankind. There are these days, sure. But at the moment, my usual workday starts around 9 oÂŽclock and ends around 6. I am a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute. These days my work centers on writing up a monograph on the sculptures found at Göbekli Tepe. And then, there is another one scheduled on the iconic architectonic feature of this site, the richly decorated T-shaped pillars, and a third one on the features from the main excavation area. Dusty roads? At the moment rather dusty bookshelves. Surprised? Well, you watched the movie, didn’t you? Dr. Jones standing in front of the class, saying “Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Doctor Tyree’s Philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.” That much is true.


The place where most archaeology happens (Photo: O. Dietrich).

Actually, I love these seventy percent (letŽs rather make it 80% by the way). Because that is where the real discoveries happen, where you write history. Let me explain. I have written up a lengthy catalogue of all the zoomorphic (animal-shaped) and anthropomorphic (human-shaped) sculpture from Göbekli Tepe. What I am doing right know is looking at the find contexts of the sculptures, their preservation and similar finds in other sites. Why the find context matters? Find context is everything in archaeology. Have a great find somewhere from a field? Still a great find, but without knowledge on the place it ended up hundreds or thousands of years ago, possibilities of interpretation are severely limited. Was it found in a domestic area, is it an object of everyday use? In a sanctuary, connected to ritual and belief? What was it used for exactly? Here is an example. Some of my sculptures portray rather nasty snarling predators. They also have long conical taps at one end. ItŽs obvious they were put in somewhere. But without some of them discovered in the original place of use (in situ, introducing some more fancy archaeological jargon) we wouldnŽt know much more. A find from 2011 reveals that the snarling predators were set into the walls of Göbekli TepeŽs megalithic buildings. They were literally jumping at visitors, invoking awe and fear, setting the scene and mood for the rituals performed there. All of that would have been lost without find context. So, find context is everything to archaeologists, and it is what makes the difference between us and treasure hunters (and Mr. Jones).


In situ findspot of a sculpture in Enclosure C (Photos D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).

The predator example of course is a very simple one. But if many clues are taken together, there really is the possibility to tell a fairly coherent story. That is what I love about archaeology, and what I am doing right now day by day. Want to know more? Here you can find a longer text on the image of the use of sculptures at Göbekli Tepe that is right now emerging. And of course, everything is about context.


“Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe”. EAA Annual Meeting 2016

Göbekli Tepe

A T-shaped pillar of approximately 7 m length left in the quarries on the western plateau (Photo: © DAI).


Between 31st August and 4th September, the 22nd Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologistzs will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Göbekli Tepe project will participate in this event with a paper by Oliver Dietrich on “Building big. Incentives for cooperative action of hunter-gatherers at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe” in the frame of session TH3-09 Communities united: linking archaeological record and conceptual approaches on social cohesion, organized by Agnė Čivilytė and Laura Dietrich.

HereÂŽs the abstract:

‘During the 10th and 9th millennia BC, at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia monumental circular enclosures made up of up to 5.5m high pillars, decorated richly, mainly with animal motifs, were erected by hunter-gatherer communities. One of the important questions regarding this site concerns the way in which small-scale groups joined their forces for construction work, creating a place that clearly is strongly connected to their worldview.
20 years of excavation have revealed some clues. The distribution of elements of GöbekliÂŽs iconography evidences a catchment area of about 200km around the site as the homeland of these groups. A close look at the massive amount of filling in GöbekliÂŽs enclosures reveals that these are not dealing sterile sediments. The material used to intentionally backfill the buildings at the end of their use-lifes consists of limestone rubble from the quarries nearby, flint artefacts and immense amounts of animal bones smashed to get to the marrow, clearly the remains of meals. With traces of settlement absent, for Göbekli Tepe this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized feasts as a mode to gather workforces and ensure cooperation. The present contribution will explore the likeliness and possible consequences of this scenario.’

See you there!

Friday, September 2nd, 2016, 9.15, Faculty of History, Room 331

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