Tepe Telegrams

From the Göbekli Tepe Research Project

Page 9 of 11

Current state of research at Göbekli Tepe – interviewed by arkeofili.com

Arkeofili [external link], a Turkish online magazine and portal dedicated to archaeological news and reports on archaeological sites and discoveries in Turkey and the world  approached DAI’s Göbekli Tepe research staff with a couple of questions regarding excavations at site and the current state of research. Since the recently published interview [external link] received broad interests and we were repeatedly asked if an English translation was available, we are pleased to provide it here with courtesy of the Arkeofili staff for those not fluent in Turkish.

What you always wanted to know about Göbekli Tepe.

(Interview by Arkeofili staff with Jens Notroff, DAI.)

Excavation work

(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)

What is Göbekli Tepe and what is it not? Is it a temple, a house, or both (since E. B. Banning put forward that it could be domestic houses)?

That’s actually the crucial question: What was it? And that’s the challenge as well – since we do not have any written sources from that time explaining anything about world view and everyday life of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers who created this and related sites, we have to form our interpretations exclusively on the material culture they left to us.

After about 20 years of excavation and research we start to perceive the site of Göbekli Tepe as a kind of meeting point. A gathering centre of several groups of hunters roaming the area (based on iconographic parallels in the decoration of stone vessels, plaquettes etc. we may assume a catchment area of up to 200 km). Apparently, Göbekli Tepe was an important point in the landscape for regular encounters and exchange.

It is somehow true that archaeologists often all too easily use the term ‘ritual’ to describe finds and features we do not understand. And it is also true that the distinction of sacred versus profane as two strictly separated spheres is a rather modern, western view. However, we did not come up with our interpretation out of the blue – there are a couple of peculiar features about Göbekli Tepe supporting these ideas.

Since we do know the typical settlement architecture of this area and period from other contemporary sites like Nevalı Çori and in particular Çayönü in the Turkish Tigris area or Mureybet and Jerf el Ahmar in the Syrian Euphrates region, we can note that the structures at Göbekli Tepe do differ from these. The monumental circular enclosures of the older PPN A layer of Göbekli Tepe with their characteristic large T-shaped monoliths form a different, a very distinct kind of building. A type which indeed can be found in a lot of the known settlements as well – structures we usually call ‘community’ buildings. Yet while there mostly in settlements only one example of these special purpose buildings can be found, at Göbekli Tepe there seems to be a noticeable cumulation of these. Whether we really would need to call them ‘temples’ basically depends on a definition of that term we agree on. Yet usually the historic characterisation of temples would ask for some deity (or deities) being housed there – a complex concept of religion we could not provide for the early Neolithic as of yet. However, with hands and arms and elements of clothing depicted in relief, the characteristic T-pillars of Göbekli Tepe clearly own an anthropomorphoic identity and thus could be understood as  monumental sculptures. Highly abstracted, faceless, larger-than-life depictions which clearly are taking up a different sphere than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures also known from the period. 

What has Göbekli Tepe changed about our knowledge of history? Why is the discovery of and the information gained from Göbekli Tepe so important?

The most important discovery about Göbekli Tepe may have been the insight into what seems to be a very complex degree of organization within and among these early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups. To construct monumental architecture like the Göbekli Tepe pillars and enclosures indeed must have asked for a certain degree of labour division as well as cooperation between different groups, organization and coordination of this work. The realisation that these still highly mobile people invested time and effort into rather large-scale communal projects and thus may have triggered a whole slew of development subsequently leading into the so-called Neolithic lifestyle with larger settled communities, agriculture, and husbandry, is an important contribution to our understanding of the Anatolian Neolithic. Food would need to have been made available for workers gathered there, and demands may soon have exceeded returns of prevailing hunting and foraging strategies – and thus may well have been led to the exploration and exploitation of new food sources. To some degree this somehow turned around cause  and effect of our earlier picture of these line of events.


(Photo: DAI, O. Dietrich)

Why would/could the people of that time need a monumental building such as Göbekli Tepe?

Ethnographic studies have shown that communal projects and feasts are an important factor to strengthen group cohesion. Particularly rather small gunter-gatherer bands are essentially reliant on regular meetings to exchange information, goods, and marriage partner for instance to keep the gene pool fresh. It surely is no coincidence that the site of Göbekli Tepe was created where it is – on the highest point of the mountain ridge, a landmark widely visible. Against this background it seems suitable to interpret the architecture there as mark of these gatherings. The pillars with their rich depictions representing groups and somehow storing their memory. Large amounts of animal bones, hunted game strictly, speak in favour of huge feasts hold here and residue in stone vessels with a capacity of up to 160 litres may even hint at the consumption of alcoholic beverages. So-called workforce feasts like these (this is another insight from social anthropology) are a great means to attract the mapower necessary to carry out large communal projects like the constructions at Göbekli Tepe undoubtly must have been. Regular reparation and re-arrangement within the enclosures furthermore gives the impression of on-going continued construction activity, making it even more probable that this was an important factor of the site at all: a reason to bring people together.


(Photo: DAI, E. Kücük)

Do we know what the approximate manpower is needed to build Göbekli Tepe? Were there any experimental projects/research about how the structures were built? Or is anything of that sort planned for the future? Do we have any information on the building techniques?

The surrounding rock plateaus of Göbekli Tepe clearly give us an idea on how these prehistoric stone masons were working. Next to a number of ‘negative’ hollows, where workstone pieces were extracted, a huge amount of flint and bedrock stone tools as well as some unfinished pieces like broken T-pillars and other work pieces clearly illustrate how and where the Prehistoric masons were working.


(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)

Calculating exact numbers for the necessary workforce, however, would be a bit more challenging since too many factors need to be considered. Figures for the erection of the giant moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for instance are ranging from 20 up to 75 people which would be required to move one of the statues over a distance of 15 km. Yet ethnographic records from the Indonesian Island of Nias mention up to 525 men involved in hauling a megalith of 4 m3 over a distance of 3 km to its final location. Another example from Indonesia points out that such a large number of participants is not necessarily caused exclusively by the labor involved, but that other factors have to be kept in mind as well. In Kodi, West Sumba, the transport of the stones used for the construction of megalithic tombs itself is ritualized and requires a large number of people to be involved as witnesses. Thus, also social aspects like the acquisition and maintaining of prestige among the individuals participating needs to be incorporated into the models of the erection of monumental structures.

Experiments were carried out recently by colleagues to get an idea how much work and effort would have been involved into the several processes of breaking and working the stones pieces, but are still awaiting final evaluation and publication. It should be noted that these results, while delivering useful insights, could be approximate values at best since they hardly could exactly match the skills of Prehistoric specialized craftsmen.

What does Göbekli Tepe tell us about the hierarchical organisation of people at that time?

Like already discussed above, the probably large amount of workforce necessary to create the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe speaks in favour of an emerging complex social structure. We were used to assume these hunter-gatherer bands are organised strictly egalitarian, yet a communal project like this involving different groups and complex constructions must have asked for at least some degree of coordination and labour specialisation.


(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

Is there any evidence for any production activities in Göbekli Tepe (for instance agriculture, or beer-brewing as  was mentioned by Dietrich et al.)?

Traces of typical domestic activities are missing so far at Göbekli Tepe, as are any traces of Prehistoric agriculture or husbandry – any remains of plants and animals discovered as of yet hint at the respective wild forms only.

However, numerous flint tools and flint flakes clearly hint at flint knapping on a grand scale taking place at and around Göbekli Tepe. The possible production of beer in the frame of large scale feasting is indeed a point worthy of discussion in the frame of these already mentioned large feasts – since preliminary chemical analysis hints at oxalate residues in large stone vessels at the site.

Figure 1

(Photos: DAI, K. Schmidt & N. Becker)

What do you think of the depictions on the steles? What could they be telling us – could they be narrating something?

The wide range of varying motifs and recurrent symbols (and combinations thereof) suggests that these are not mere decorative elements; these depictions rather have an extraordinarily complex, mythological, content with indeed a likely narrative character. The symbols themselves are plain to see (naturalistic portrayals interchange with strongly abstract signs) and yet the meanings behind them, so obvious to the people in the Neolithic, remain hidden from us today. Of particular note is, however, the absence of what might be termed mythological hybrids and monsters; all animals depicted at Göbekli Tepe occurred naturally near the site, i.e. are species of Eurasian wild fauna.

The numerous wild and dangerous-looking animals found adorning the pillars may have fulfilled some kind of protective function, perhaps comparable to totem animals found in more recent foraging cultures, or they may have acted as ‘guardians’ of the enclosures. Interestingly, the symbols and motifs discovered at Göbekli Tepe have also been found at numerous other Neolithic sites in Upper Mesopotamia, where they were applied to stone vessels, so-called shaft straighteners, and various other objects. This suggests the existence of a larger community with a common belief system, shared mythological traditions and iconography. Göbekli Tepe might have been one of its ritual centres.

Abb. 2--GT14_1783_3807

(Photo: DAI, Nico Becker)

Did you find evidence for any ritual stages or processes before the intentional burying of the structures? Were you able to discern a shared procedure for the burial of all the structures? How do we know they were intentionally buried?

The site as we see it today is the last stage of a supposedly much longer use-life. Thus we do basically find this latest phase of activity, the backfilling, represented in the archaeological record. The rather homogenous nature of the filling material within the enclosures, consisiting of limestone rubble, sculpture and stone tool fragments, and a significant amount of animal bones, speaks in favour of intentional backfilling events. Other than this filling material, finds within the enclosures which could be linked to their actual use are rare. In most cases it looks like the enclosures were almost cleared prior the filling event. A stone plate and boar sculpture placed at the foot of one of Enclosure C’s central pillars seems to have been placed there in a delibirate act.

Figure 8

(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

However, there must have been some knowledge of the structures even some time after they were backfilled and ‘buried’ since the later architecture (like a terrace wall on top for instance) clearly makes reference to the former enclosures’ space. Also a pit dug into the filling of Enclosure C, clearly directed at the central pillars, underlines this impression, maybe the tops of some pillars were even still visible then (which might also explain the addition of cup marks to some of the larger pillars’ heads).

Have you found any female figures or depictions in Göbekli Tepe? Does this tell us anything concerning a male dominated society, possibly?

So far, every known depiction – as long as their sex is clearly recognizeable – seems to be male, be it animals or humans. The only exception is a later added grafitto of a single woman on a stone slab in one of the later PPN B buildings.

While this may somehow denote the site of Göbekli Tepe as a refuge of male hunters, it does of course not at all mean that women did not play a role in PPN society. There is a wide range of finds clearly connected to women in the contemporary settlements for instance – however, at Göbekli Tepe they (respectively their activity) remain invisible as of yet.


(Photo: DAI, K. Schmidt)

Currently, what are the primary research questions you’re seeking answers to? What themes/questions have priority for the Göbekli Tepe team?

The future still holds a lot of work for ongoing excavation and research. We are in the lucky position now to have gathered a substantial amount of material to be examined and analysed. While in particular conservation issues are an important factor of the research project’s coming task (ensuring proper protection and preservation of the excavated structures), we are also looking forward to finally clarfiy the site’s complex stratigraphy and internal chronology which still is one of the major research questions. Furthermore we aim to expand knowledge of prehistoric building methods and histories due to renewed detailed building research in the excavated PPN A and B structures at Göbekli Tepe while the important bioarchaeological work looking into the complex history of animal husbandry, as well as analysing finds of human bone material will of course be continued.

Göbekli_Fig. 1

(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)

How does the work here continue after Klaus Schmidt?

Upon the death of Klaus Schmidt, responsibility for the German Research Foundation-funded project “The early Neolithic society of Upper Mesopotamia and its subsistence” passed to Prof. Dr. Ricardo Eichmann of the DAI, Orient Department for which Dr. Lee Clare coordinates the work of its research staff. Heritage issues at Göbekli Tepe are coordinated by Prof. Dr. Felix Pirson from DAI’s Istanbul branch.

Close cooperation has also been established with the Şanlıurfa Museum, whose director acted as site director (Kazi Başkanı) at Göbekli Tepe since September 2014.

In other areas, the Turkish authorities established a ‘Scientific Advisory Board’ to facilitate collaboration between project stakeholders. This board comprises three eminent Turkish archaeologists: Prof. Dr. Mehmet Özdoğan (University of Istanbul), Doç. Dr. Necmi Karul (University of Istanbul) and Prof. Dr. Gülriz Kozbe (Batman University).

Klaus Schmidt (1954-2014)

(Photo: DAI, D. Johannes)

What questions/problems/issues do you personally find the most exciting and interesting in Göbekli Tepe? What may the future research shed light on in the upcoming years?

Personally, I am interested in the social implications the findings at Göbekli Tepe put forward: How does the society structure of these hunter groups change once complex communal projects demand cooperation and coordination? When do elites form and rise – and how do they represent themselves?

Furthermore I am also involved in the still challenging task of revising and developing a coherent stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe’s complex layers and features. This, together with the preparation of a couple of monographs regarding the results of about 20 years of research, it’s finds and findings will be an important task within our research for the coming years.

What do you think may be the pros and cons of the promotion and publicity projects that were recently started at/for Göbekli Tepe?          

The public has a justified interest in this kind of research and its results. We are not doing this for our own or to fill up museums and bookshelves, but to actually answer the essential questions probably all of us keep asking: Where are we coming from and how do we get here? Göbekli Tepe certainly is one of those sites considered part of our shared cultural heritage – it is within the realm of interest but also responisbility of each of us. So, of course public campaigns and information projects are definitely considered an important part of our work and indeed supported.

Thank you!

My pleasure, thank you too!

(Original interview published in Turkish at arkeofili.com on September 18 2016; English version by courtesy of arkeofili staff; Turkish translation by Suay Şeyma Erkuşöz, Ayşe Bursalı.)

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 enclosure´s 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 Tepe´s 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 Tepe´s 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 Frühneolithikums, ZORA 5, 2012, 14-43.

Hauptmann, Harald, Ein Kultgebäude 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 it´s 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, let´s simply call them temples for the conversation´s 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, it´s 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 o´clock 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 (let´s 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. It´s 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 wouldn´t know much more. A find from 2011 reveals that the snarling predators were set into the walls of Göbekli Tepe´s 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.


A-Sitting on a Tell (Our contribution to the “Day of Archaeology” project)

Yesterday, 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.” Happy to be invited to contribute as well, we thought to share some impressions from a typical day excavating at Göbekli Tepe – ‘just another day in the (field) office’ so to say …

4.30 o’clock. Ante meridiem. Definitely too early for an honest “Good morning.” not pressed through clenched teeth. It’s still dark outside, the dim light barely enough to distinguish a black thread from a white one: The muezzin just called the faithful to prayer and, probably unintentionally, the archaeologists to finally get up as well. Breakfast at such an early hour basically consists of not more than some strong tea, a slice of soft white flatbread (which will be rather dry within the hour), and a handful of olives – taken in the quiet and still fresh morning air of the excavation house’s courtyard in the light of setting stars and a single light bulb. Actually, it’s too early for an honest breakfast too.

The next 20 minutes or so expedition’s staff is silently gathering over tea and bread in dining room and yard before it is time to go. For work, finally. On leaving the historic oriental brick-house in the old part of this eastern Anatolian town, everyone grabs a piece of equipment or provisions for the day to come and one after another heads through the narrow alleys towards the waiting mini bus and driver. A 20-minutes-ride through yet still abandoned streets lies ahead – to the excavation site outside and beyond town. The last chance for a nap.

Dim Alleys

To work. Through dim alleyways. (Photo: J. Notroff)

As we arrive on this early Neolithic site, somewhere up in the mountains of southeastern Turkey, a pale moon is still hanging around a sky only slowly changing from black to blue. Groups of local workmen just arrived minutes before by tractor from a village down the hill. Still dressed in coats and cardigans against the morning coolth, they are waiting for day’s work to  start while the bunch of students and scientists are collecting tools and instruments, equipment and journals. Finally, first light is sounding the bell for the workday to start as a still shy sun is hesitantly peeking above the eastern horizon. Workmen and archaeologists alike are heading to the excavation trenches, a caravan of shovels and buckets, of head-scarves and hats. Everyone knows his place and assignment; gangs finding together following a long-established system (and dare you trying to change this!): There’s two diggers, a shoveller, and two basket-carriers. Always. All of them accompanied by a student ready to label, note, and measure any find of interest they may unearth.


Early birds. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Soon the air is filled with the sound of pickaxes and of chanting and laughing workmen; their bright purple headscarves fluttering in a breeze. Soil is shifted, rocks are moved. Basket after basket of debris is brought out of the trenches. As the dust of history is slowly removed, the ancient remains are rising gradually: Boulders, slabs, and walls pulled back into present-daylight. Slowly the earth is releasing those secrets of the past it was keeping for so many years. For centuries. For millennia.

And so business is going on. And on. The dusty work only interrupted by a short breakfast. Children from the nearby village are coming around, bringing their fathers and uncles and brothers some food and cool water. Everyone’s hungry – and more lively – by now, so this breakfast is a much more substantial and communicative matter than the sparse and mute one in the very morning: Over yet another tea (there’s always tea, get used to it), over some cheese and flatbread, over tomatoes and cucumbers and olives, conversations are drifting around the table for half an hour of otiosity. Half an hour of lethargic rest in the shadows; the sun – not shy at all anymore – now showing its true nature, relentlessly burning down from a shimmering sky. There’s no other shadow out there, so returning to work means returning into the heat of a furnace.


Breakfast. (Photo: T. Yildiz)

Excavation View

As dusty as busy. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Back in the dust soon the clanking of picks loosening dirt and rubble can be heard. A group of visitors, marvelling at the site’s sight, takes the chance to curiously quiz the archaeologists before returning to their air-conditioned busses. Workmen continue to dig; students still are busily taking notes, picking out small pieces of charcoal and fragments of flint tools and stone vessels from the excavated soil, collecting them in buckets and plastic bags – each labelled with date and information on their exact find spot. Two workers are intently hauling a large sculpture to the edge of an excavation trench. Dirt is sifted dry and wet (a rather dusty respectively muddy business); a steady flow of find material is coming towards provisional lab and office facilities in the excavation’s ‘headquarters’ of construction containers and tents upon the next hill crest – eagerly awaited by specialists, keen to have a look onto the latest piece of obsidian or the peculiar amazing new stone sculpture.

Help Needed

“There’s help needed at the sieves.” (Drawing: J. Notroff)

While the sun is moving towards its zenith, work’s pace is decreasing noticeably. It’s an arduous business and after eight hours of digging, just when midday’s heat is reaching its peak, everyone is happy to call it a (field) day. Last measurements are taken and yelled and noted, last photos are taken too; tools and instruments, equipment and journals are collected and put away yet again. Bidding good bye, the crew of workmen is boarding tractors and trailers, leaving for that small village down the hill – dragging behind a dustcloud all the way. Buckets full of small finds are loaded into the mini bus and taken to the excavation house. As the bus is slowly crawling down the dirt track everyone’s trying to find a comfortable position, finally taking another short rest – legs stretched, the dusty hat pulled down over the eyes. With the madness of an average oriental big city’s rush hour the drive back costs a multiple of the time the way there in morning did took us – enough time for a nap also. Appreciated.


Daily commute. (Drawing: J. Notroff)

Back in town, as we leave the car and head through heated-up narrow old-town alleys towards the excavation house, buckets and pieces of equipment in hand, the muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer again. Well, for the archaeologists it’s lunchtime for now; the cook is already waiting. Of course a meal in the Orient is not finished without the mandatory tea (you get the idea), so showers still have to wait for yet another 10 minutes or so. There’s got to be time for that.

But even now work isn’t done yet for the day. After the refreshing effect of a shower (and fresh clothes; don’t you ever underestimate the effect of fresh clothes!), everyone’s gathering in the excavation house’s courtyard – again. The buckets brought back from site are emptied, the finds carefully cleaned and washed, sorted, and spread onto coarse screens to let them dry in the sun. Meanwhile those finds of the day before, now all clean and dry and pretty, are examined, sorted, listed, catalogued, drawn and photographed where necessary. Let alone the paperwork. Field notes and reports. Accounting and administration. More reports. Over are the times where an expedition to the middle of nowhere, far from home, office, and institute meant one wouldn’t be on call. In the age of globalization, mobile communication, and wifi even in the back of beyond, everyone’s expecting to receive an answer to e-mail, text, and phone call – preferably within the hour.

Excavation House

Afternoon shift at the dig house. (Photo: J. Notroff)

The darkness of night has already fallen (summer over here almost skipping the twilight of dusk), the muezzin has called the faithful to prayer one last time for today. Over dinner, some conversation and, finally!, a beer or glass of wine, another day’s slowly facing its end in the dim evening light of the excavation house’s courtyard. Sooner or later everyone’s pushing off; it’s not going to be a very long night – about 4.30 o’clock, ante meridiem, the muezzin will call the faithful to prayer again. And the archaeologists to finally get up. Again.

This short article was obviously inspired and fuelled by Agatha Christie Mallowan’s “Come, Tell Me How You Live” (the title of this contribution directly deriving from a poem in the short epilogue of her book). This ‘Archaeological Memoir’, published in 1946, gives an account of her days in the field together with her husband Max Mallowan (esteemed British archaeologist and excavator of Tell Brak, Tell Arpachiyah, and other sites) describing the daily routine of an archaeological excavation. It is a very entertaining, a witty and spirited little book; one I’d personally recommend not only to archaeologist-colleagues. Christie Mallowan (indeed identical to the well-known crime novelist you just may have thought of) slipped quite some of these archaeological adventures and experiences into her better known ‘Whodunnits’: “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “Death on the Nile” (1937) evocating long and colourful journeys to these sites and “Murder in Mesopotamia” (1936) even depiciting an extraordinary dramatically case of ‘excavation fever’ – not at all unknown to those who can relate such a situation (minus the murder though, most likely).

“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.

Here´s 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 Göbekli´s 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 Göbekli´s 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

Commemorating Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014)

Today we would like to commemorate Klaus Schmidt, the former head of the Göbekli Tepe research project (conducted by the German Archaeological Institute with financial support by the German Research Foundation) and head of excavations until his unexpected death on this day two years ago. His merits and pioneering research in the Near Eastern Neolithic remain unforgotten and we are proud to continue the scientific work he initiated.

Klaus Schmidt (1954-2014)

Prof. Dr. Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014), Photo: DAI.

Prof. Dr. phil. Klaus Schmidt, prehistorian, director of the excavations at Göbekli Tepe, and co-director of the John Templeton project Our Place: Our Place in the World, passed away on 20th July, aged just 60. Klaus Schmidt was born on 11th December 1953 in Feuchtwangen, Franconia. From 1974 to 1983 he studied prehistoric archaeology, classics, and geology-palaeontology, first in Erlangen and subsequently in Heidelberg. It was during his time in Heidelberg that he came to participate at excavations headed by his university professor Harald Hauptmann at the site of Norşuntepe, in the Turkish Upper Euphrates region. In 1983 he obtained his PhD, his doctoral thesis focusing on the lithics from this site (“Die lithischen Kleinfunde vom Norşuntepe”). In the same year, he was awarded the travel scholarship of the German Archaeological Institute. Between 1986 and 1995, Klaus Schmidt was research associate at the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology (Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte) at the University of Heidelberg, and research fellow of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). Between 1983 and 1991 he became involved with research in an area that would later be inundated by the waters of the Ataturk reservoir, more specifically the Early Neolithic settlement of Nevalı Çori, again under the direction of Harald Hauptmann. It was the experience gained from working at this site which would influence the rest of his working life. For the first time, at Nevalı Çori, excavations revealed a cult building that was furnished with fantastic imagery which provided unprecedented insights into the mind of prehistoric peoples living in the 9th millennium BC.

In 1999, following completion of his habilitation thesis, entitled “Funktionsanalyse der frühneolithischen Siedlung von Nevalı Çori” (Functional analysis of the Early Neolithi Settlement of Nevalı Çori), Klaus Schmidt was awarded the status of associated professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. From 2001 he was advisor (Referent) for Prehistoric Archaeology of the Ancient Near East at the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. In 2007 he was appointed honorary professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. The stylized T-pillars and sculptures discovered at Nevalı Cori motivated Klaus Schmidt to search for other similar sites in the Southeast Turkish province of Şanlıurfa. In addition to the discovery of Early Neolithic sites in the plain, east of Şanlıurfa (Gürcütepe), he also visited the site of Göbekli Tepe, which had been detected many years previously in the southern foothills of the Taurus Mountains. His important impulses for the interpretation of this site number among his greatest scientific achievements.

In the last two decades of fieldwork, under the direction of Klaus Schmidt, excavations revealed buildings with richly adorned pillars and sculptures dating to the 10th and 9th millennia BC. Especially the earliest, monumental enclosures make this a site of unique importance for the study and evaluation of Neolithisation processes and associated symbolic worlds. Klaus Schmidt also directed research for the German Archaeological Institute in the ‘Aqaba region of Jordan, where he undertook excavations together with Jordanian colleagues at Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age tell sites. His excavation methods and archaeological astuteness culminated in important research results which have significantly improved our picture of prehistoric settlement in the Gulf of ‘Aqaba. Mention should also be made of his scientific contributions to the study of materials from Predynastic Egyptian sites in the Nile Delta.

With the passing of Klaus Schmidt, we have lost one of our most eminent archaeologists. Through his foresight and his openness for alternative ideas and approaches, he enriched and enhanced scientific debate. He has provided us with the foundations for many years of research to come. His time spent in Turkey led a close bond with the country and its people. We will always remember him with greatest gratitude and appreciation.

Boars in Göbekli Tepe´s Enclosure C: just a story of hunters and prey?

Depictions and sculptures of boars predominate the imagery of Enclosure C. Pillar 12 for example has a very nice depiction of a boar with pronounced canine teeth. Next to this depiction a sculpture of a boar was found, obviously deposited there during refilling. Another deposition of a boar sculpture, this time together with stone plates, was found next to one of Enclosure C´s central pillars. The list continues with many further examples, as most boar sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe are from Enclosure C. The richness of both  boar depictions  and sculptures hints at a special concern of the builders of that stone circle with wild boar. As other enclosures also feature a dominant animal species, there is the possibility that we are dealing with emblematic or totemic animals here. But not all of the depictions are just “emblematic” in character. It seems that some, or all, also tell a story.

In an earlier post [link], I have shortly reviewed the possibility of narrative elements in Göbekli Tepe´s iconography with regard to snake depictions. For example, on the front side of Pillar 20 in Enclosure D we see a snake moving towards an aurochs. The aurochs´ body is seen from the side, the head from above. The position of the head, lowered for attack, could be in futile defence to the snake. The aurochs´ legs are depicted oddly flexed, which could indicate his defeat and near death. As could the size of the snake which is depicted considerable larger than the aurochs.

Another pair of animals to which that kind of metaphoric “reading” might apply is boars and snarling predators. Both are depicted frequently at Göbekli Tepe, and in a highly standardized way. One cannot help to note the emphasis the depictions put on the dangerous parts of these animals, especially their teeth. Of special interest for an understanding of at least one aspect of the meaning of this imagery is Pillar 27 in Enclosure C. On its shaft there is a high relief of a predator moving downwards. Both, animal and pillar are made of one piece. Below the predator, a much smaller depiction of a boar was added in flat relief. The choice of different techniques for the images may not be coincidental. The small boar appears to be lying on the side, the predator moving towards it. One possible interpretation would be – again – a hunting scene, with the boar possibly depicted already dead.

At this point, another aspect of Enclosure C has to be mentioned. It is the only enclosure so far, where at least for one building phase a clear entrance situation (later blocked by a wall) could be discovered. The supposed entrance way is formed by two walls branching off almost rectangularly towards the south and running nearly parallel to each other. The walls are made of conspicuously huge stones which are worked on all sides. Like a barrier, a huge stone slab protrudes into this passage. The slab has not been completely preserved, however it is safe to say that once it had been provided with a central opening closed by a stone setting, of which two layers are still preserved. At the southern side of the slab, looking away from Enclosure C and towards the visitor, there is a relief of a boar lying on its back below the opening of the door hole. The reliefed porthole stone is accompanied by another building element. At first, in front of the porthole stone, the plastically carved sculpture of a strong beast of prey with a wide open mouth could be recognized. Whether it is a lion or a bear cannot be decided. Only 80cm away, we found a similar counterpart whose probably sculptured head, however, had been severed and is lost. When the excavation went on it became obvious that the second, eastern column, together with the western counterpart, belonged to one gigantic, monolithic, U-shaped object. Obviously, together with the porthole slab, it marked the entrance of Enclosure C.

So the scenery of Pillar 27 is somehow repeated at the very entrance of the stone circle. Not only are a boar in flat relief and three dimensional predators shown, this time the boar also lies on its back. But what could be the meaning of this? Or, more directly put, why would you portray an animal presumably important to  your group’s identity in an unfortunate condition? Some explanation might come from the predators here. They are often also portrayed in unfavourable conditions with their ribs clearly sticking out, as also on Pillar 27. Images of that sort are known from other contexts and sites in the Near Eastern Neolithic and beyond. They could reflect a dual symbolism of life and death, the interaction and correlation of both principles. This would fit with the general character of the enclosures. Their use-lifes included burial, the treatment of human imagery found inside them shows close relations to death ritual [link], as do finds of skull fragments with cut marks inside the filling. Symbolic death and rebirth are important features of rites of passage, as for example initiation ceremonies. The imagery could thus open up a path towards a deeper understanding of the functions of Göbekli Tepe´s enclosures.

Food for future thought, definitely.

Further reading

Klaus Schmidt, Die steinzeitlichen Heiligtümer am Göbekli Tepe, in: Doğan-Alparslan, Meltem – Metin Alparslan – Hasan Peker – Y. Gürkan Ergin (Hrsg.), Institutum Turcicum Scientiae Antiquitatis – Türk Eskiçağ Bilimleri Enstitüsü. Colloquium Anatolicum – Anadolu Sohbetleeri VII, 2008. 59-85.

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

Joris Peters, Klaus Schmidt, Animals in the Symbolic World of Pre-pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey: a Preliminary Assessment, Anthropozoologica 39.1,2004, 179-218.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, Klaus Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: Colin Renfrew, Michael Boyd and Iain Morley (Hrsg.), Death shall have no Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – A Worldwide Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2016), 65-81.

Oliver Dietrich, Çiğdem Köksal-Schmidt, Cihat Kürkçüoğlu, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stairway to the circle of boars, Actual Archaeology Magazine Spring 2013, 30-31.

On half-skeletonized animals

Hodder, I. & L. Meskell, 2011. A “Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry”. Current Anthropology 52(2), 235-63.

Huth, C., 2008. Darstellungen halb skelettierter Menschen im Neolithikum und Chalkolithikum der Alten Welt. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 38, 493-504.

Schmidt, K, 2013. Von Knochenmännern und anderen Gerippen: Zur Ikonographie halb- und vollskelettierter Tiere und Menschen in der prähistorischen Kunst, in: Sven Feldmann – Thorsten Uthmeier (Hrsg.), Gedankenschleifen. Gedenkschrift für Wolfgang Weißmüller, Erlanger Studien zur prähistorischen Archäologie 1, 195-201.


How old is it? Dating Göbekli Tepe.

Dating sites and finds is the backbone of archaeology. Regarding Göbekli Tepe, we get lots and lots of questions about its chronology. These questions are absolutely legitimate (as actually really most of them are), and even more so with a site that claims to be the ‘first’ or ‘oldest’ (yet known) in many respects, the accuracy of dating becomes paramount. Of course we have a larger number of scientific publications on the topic, and more are under way as we type this. Yet academic publication sometimes needs its time and not everyone has access to a well-sorted research library. So, here we would like to provide a short summary of the story of Göbekli Tepe’s chronology.

Fig. 1

Table 1: List of radiocarbon data made on organic samples from Göbekli Tepe (DAI).

Fig. 2

Tabel 2: The main excavation area at Göbekli Tepe with origin of C14 samples (DAI).

Fig. 3

Table 3: Charts of radiocarbon data from Göbekli Tepe (DAI).

Fig. 4

Table 4: The calibrated radiocarbon data from Göbekli Tepe – single plots (DAI).

The period Göbekli Tepe was built in is addressed as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) after one of its main cultural traits, the absence of pottery vessels (there are clay figurines later in the PPN, however). The general chronological division for the Early Neolithic was developed in the Southern Levant, by Kathleen Kenyon on the basis of the stratigraphy of Jericho. She observed a fundamental distinction in the ground plans of buildings – round constructions in the earlier PPN A, rectangular buildings in the later PPN B. She further based her subdivision on differences in the material culture. These differences are most obvious in a certain find category: projectile points. Very detailed categorization schemes have been elaborated meanwhile, based on material from sites throughout the Near East. They serve as ‘guiding fossils’ for dating (yes, early archaeologists borrowed this term from geology).

At Göbekli Tepe, we can differentiate two layers which are completely different in the type of architecture appearing in them. Layer III, the lower and thus older layer, has the famous circular enclosures with the T-shaped pillars. Layer II is characterized by smaller buildings with rectangular groundplans. They sometimes also have pillars that are much smaller than the older ones however.

Göbekli Tepe

El-Khiam-, Helwan-, Nemrik- and Byblos-Points from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, DAI).

Projectile points from Göbekli Tepe include PPN A types like el-Khiam, Helwan and Aswad points; regarding the PPNB, Byblos and Nemrik points are very frequent, Nevalı Çori points are rare. They clearly show that the site was in use beginning from the PPN A and into the PPN B. A closer examination of the points reveals, however, that characteristic forms of the latest PPN B are missing. Göbekli Tepe was abandoned after the middle PPN B, i.e. around 8000 BC. That is the time when agriculture finally is fully established; the demise of a hunter-gatherer site would thus fit in this general picture. There are neither domesticated plants, nor animals at Göbekli Tepe. Radiocarbon data support the general archaeological dating (see below).


Filling material in Enclosure D (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).

So far so good, but there is a problem with this story. The enclosures of Layer III were treated in a special way at the end of their use lives. They were cleaned, part of their fittings dismantled, and refilled. During the refilling, objects that obviously had a great importance to PPN people were deposited in the filling [link]. However it seems that refilling was a relatively fast process. There are no intermediate sterile layers brought in by water or wind.

This refilling is fascinating in regard to the enclosure’s functions but poses severe problems for the dating of Layer III using the radiocarbon method, as organic remains from the fill-sediments could be older or younger than the enclosures, with younger samples becoming deposited at lower depths, thus producing an inverse stratigraphy. Another issue is the lack of carbonized organic material available for dating; only in the last campaigns have larger quantities been discovered.

Given these inherent difficulties, in a first approach the attempt was made to date the architecture directly using pedogenic carbonates. These begin to form on limestone surfaces as soon as they are buried with sediment. Unfortunately the pedogenic carbonate layers accumulate at a variable rate over long time periods, so a sample comprising a whole layer will yield only an average value. This problem can be avoided by sampling only the oldest calcium carbonate layer in a thin section: the result should be a date near the beginning of soil formation around the stone, i.e. near the time of its burial. Radiocarbon data are available from both the architecture of Layers III and II. Although the observed archaeological stratigraphy is confirmed by the relative sequence of the data, absolute ages are clearly too young, with Layer III being pushed into the 9th millennium, and Layer II producing ages from the 8th or even 7th millennia calBC. Therefore, the data fail to provide absolute chronological points of reference for architecture and strata. At most they serve as a terminus ante quem for the backfilling of the enclosures (Layer III) and the abandonment of the site (Layer II).

A far better source of organic remains for the direct dating of architectural structures is the wall plaster used in the enclosures. This wall plaster comprises loam, which also contains small amounts of organic material. A sample (KIA-44149, cf. Tables 1-4) taken from the wall plaster of Enclosure D gives a date of 9984 ± 42 14C-BP (9745-9314 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level), thus placing the circle in the PPNA. This approach will be pursued in more detail in the future. A series of 80 samples has already been dated and will be published soon.

Concerning the filling material from the enclosures, two approaches have been pursued, the first dedicated to the dating of animal bones and a second to ages made on charcoal. The archaeological appraisal of a recently acquired series of 20 data made on bone samples is quite complicated as they pose some methodological problems. At least within the group of samples chosen, collagen conservation is poor, and the carbonate-rich sediments at Göbekli Tepe may be the cause for problems with the dating of apatite fractions.

Carbonized plant remains have been very scarce at the site, thus limiting the possibilities for dating charcoal. Nevertheless, three charcoal samples are available for Enclosure A. While two samples (Hd-20025 and Hd-20036, cf. Tables 1-4) stem from back-fill and have been dated to the late 10th / earliest 9th millennium calBC, a third charcoal sample (KIA-28407, cf. Tables 1-4) was taken from beneath a fallen fragment of a pillar. This sample has provided a date for a possible final filling event around the mid-9th millennium calBC. It is confirmed by a measurement (IGAS-2658, cf. Tables 1-4) made on humic acids from a buried humus horizon that provides a terminus ante quem for Layer II in area L9-68, dating to the late 9th / early 8th millennium calBC.

Larger amounts of carbonized material have been discovered in deep soundings excavated in preparaiton of the construction of permanent shelter structures over the site in recent years. Two deep soundings were excavated directly adjacent to the ring wall belonging to Enclosure D, with three new ages obtained from charcoal recovered from the sounding in area L9-78. These samples were collected close to the bedrock, which in its interior forms the floor of this enclosure. Calibrated ages cluster between 9664 to 9311 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level (UGAMS-10795, 10796, 10799, cf. Tables 1-4), a time-span which is in good agreement with the earlier measurement made on clay mortar from the ring wall of Enclosure D between Pillars 41 and 42 (KIA-44149, 9984 ± 42 14C-BP, 9745-9314 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Tables 1-4). Based on these data, we now have a much clearer picture of the chronological frame within which construction activities took place in the area of Enclosure D. It is only regrettable that these four data all correspond to a period with a slight plateau in the calibration curve, thus resulting in larger probability ranges. Additional excavation work is needed to clarify the exact stratigraphical correlation of the three new charcoal dates with Enclosure D.

Finally, from the filling material of Enclosure D there is one new 14C-age made on collagen from an animal tooth found north of Pillar 33 (KIA-44701, 9800 ± 120 14C-BP, 9746-8818 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Tables 1-4). Taken together with another new measurement made on charcoal extracted from the same fill (Layer III) in area L9-69 (UGAMS-10798, 9540 ± 30 14C-BP, 9127-8763 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, cf. Table 1-4) there can still be no consensus regarding the time of abandonment and burial of this enclosure. Further radiocarbon measurements will be needed to clarify this process. Indeed, the animal tooth used to produce sample KIA-44701 (cf. Table 1) might even come from the enclosue’s use-life which, as we know, would have included the celebration of large feasts [link]. This line of thought would then allow for a considerable time (i.e. several hundred years) of use of the enclosure prior to its burial sometime in the late 10th or early 9th millennium calBC (UGAMS-10798, cf. Tables 1-4). But at the moment a rather short life-span of the enclosure remains possible too. At this point, reference should again be made to sample IGAS-2658 (8880 ± 60 14C-BP, 8241-7795 calBC at the 95.4% confidence level, Table 1-4) taken from a humus layer in area L9-68. This date marks the last PPN activities in this area and provides a terminus ante quem for Layer II.

To present, only one date is available for Enclosure C (UGAMS-10797, 9700 ± 30 14C-BP, 9261-9139 calBC at the 91.6% probability level, cf. Table 1-4). This sample was taken from a deep sounding in area L9-97 between the outermost ring walls of the enclosure and close to the bedrock. This could indicate that building activities at the outer ring walls of this enclosure were underway during the backfilling of Enclosure D. However, a larger series of data and a close inspection of Enclosure C´s building history will be necessary to confirm such far-reaching conclusions.

As a preliminary conclusion, the still limited series of radiocarbon data seems to suggest that the Layer III enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were not exactly contemporaneous. Earliest radiocarbon dates stem from Enclosure D, for which the relative sequence of construction (ca. mid-10th millennium calBC), usage, and burial (late 10th millennium calBC) are documented. The outer ring wall of Enclosure C could be younger than Enclosure D. However, more data are needed to confirm this interpretation. Finally, Enclosure A seems younger than Enclosures C and D. With only eleven radiocarbon dates, many questions remain for the moment that our new series of data will hopefully answer.

Further Reading
B. Kromer, K. Schmidt, Two Radiocarbon Dates from Göbekli Tepe, South Eastern Turkey, Neo-Lithics 3/98, 1998, 8–9.

O. Dietrich, C. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data, Neo-Lithics 1/2013, 36-41.

Göbekli Tepe´s material culture
K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/2001, 45-54.

Dating of animal bone
O. Dietrich, Radiocarbon dating the first temples of mankind. Comments on 14C-Dates from Göbekli Tepe. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 4, 2011, 12-25.

Dating of pedogenic carbonates
K. Pustovoytov, 14C Dating of Pedogenic Carbonate Coatings on Wall Stones at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-Lithics 2/2002, 3-4.

K. Pustovoytov, H. Taubald, Stable Carbon and Oxygen Isotope Composition of Pedogenic Carbonate at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey) and its Potential for Reconstructing Late Quaternary Paleoenviroments in Upper Mesopotamia. Neo-Lithics 2/2003, 25-32.

K. Pustovoytov, K. Schmidt, H. Parzinger, Radiocarbon dating of thin pedogenic carbonate laminae from Holocene archaeological sites. The Holocene 17. 6, 2007, 835-843.

Dating of mud plaster
O. Dietrich, K. Schmidt, A radiocarbon date from the wall plaster of enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe, Neo-Lithics 2/2010, 82-83.

Entering a new Project Phase

The coming weeks will herald in a new phase of research for the Göbekli Tepe project. Not only are we looking forward to the arrival of new staff members, proven experts in many different fields, we are also launching new sub-projects with internationally renowned scientists and institutions on important topics like stratigraphy and chronology, building research, and the detailed analysis of a broad range of find groups together with the site’s archaeozoology and geography.

This new multi-disciplinary team will turn its attention to the scientific evaluation and publication of earlier excavation results, combined with entirely new areas of study, certainly culminating in new insights of Göbekli Tepe in its cultural, economic, and environmental landscape. More information will follow in due course. Stay tuned!


View upon the most recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe’s northwestern depression. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

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