A new National Geographic Channel[external link] documentary movie about current state of research and excavations at Göbekli Tepe, filmed last year and titled “Riddle of the Stone Age Giants” [external link] has premiered February 24th. The show is as an update to an earlier NatGeo documentary (“Cradle of the Gods” [external link] from 2011), but also collects enough new material to become a full feature special and can be viewed online on the channels website here [external link] (for viewers accessing the site from the US).
Update: A localized Turkish version of the documentary was just announced [external link] to be aired March 17 via National Geographic Türkiye. A German version is scheduled later this May.
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 again approached DAI’s Göbekli Tepe research staff with a couple of questions regarding the current state of research (for another interview in 2016 see here).
The interview was translated into Turkish and can be found on the Arkeofili website [external link], where an English version has been published as well [external link]. We are sharing the latter here with kind permission from the Arkeofili staff.
Building archaeological recording underway in the southeast hollow (main excavation area) at Göbeklitepe (September 2018). The new permanent shelter provides visitors not only with unprecedented views of the excavated monumental buildings but also allows them to get close to the archaeologists working at the site. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Archive)
Unknowns About Göbeklitepe
(Interview by Arkeofili staff with Lee Clare, DAI.)
1. What is Göbeklitepe? Is it a temple?
First and foremost, Göbeklitepe is a prehistoric site from the late 10th and 9th millennia BC (~9,500-8,000 BC). It is an artificial mound – or höyük – comprising archaeological deposits from a period lasting some 1500 years. These deposits include architectural structures, midden deposits and sediment accumulations. Excavations have produced large amounts of faunal and botanical remains, flint and groundstone artefacts, as well as animal and human depictions and sculptures.
Turning to the interpretation of the site, I have always stressed that the proposed function of Göbeklitepe as a “temple” is highly problematic. As it stands, this term would presuppose, for example, the existence of deities and a trained clergy. Furthermore, it would imply that the “temples” – in addition to being a place for divine worship – exercised some form of economic power. This interpretation is wholly unrealistic for the Stone Age communities living in the tenth and ninth millennia BC. Such “temple economies” do not appear until at least the late Chalcolithic / Bronze Age.
Certainly, this realization does not change the fact that the large T-pillar buildings discovered at Göbeklitepe are very special. Indeed, they are among the earliest monumental buildings known to us anywhere in the world. As to their function(s), of course, they would have played an important part in the ritual traditions of the community, as implied by their sheer monumentality and long biographies. However, the buildings would have had other crucial functions, not least as spaces for social gatherings and as physical expressions of local traditions and identity, as suggested by the numerous depictions of animals, humans and related symbolism.
Building D at Göbeklitepe is the best preserved of the monumental buildings so far excavated. The T-shaped pillars reach a height of approx. 5,5 metres and are carved from one piece of limestone. Interpreted as stylised representations of human-beings, the T-pillars appear to congregate (as if participating at a meeting) around the two taller central pillars. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Archive)
2. Is Göbeklitepe a meeting point?
Strictly, speaking, all settlements are “meeting points”. Göbeklitepe would certainly have attracted groups and individuals from other sites and regions. However, we should not ignore that Göbeklitepe is one settlement in a whole network of T-pillar sites which would have existed in the Şanlırfa region some 11,000 years ago. Not only this, there are many other contemporaneous sites known from along the Upper Euphrates in northern Syria, and further east in the upper Tigris region (Körtik Tepe, Gusir Höyük, Hasankeyf Höyük) and northern Iraq. Göbeklitepe was one cog in a whole early Neolithic mechanism, and we would do well to remember that. An archaeological site should ever be considered independent of its chronological and cultural context.
The two central T-pillars of Building D were inserted into carved pedestals. The building itself was constructed upon the natural limestone bedrock which had been carefully smoothed. The area between the two pillars has not yet been excavated. The fill of the monumental buildings typically comprises fist-sized limestone rubble, stone artefacts, and large amounts of animal (and occasional human) bones. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Archive)
3. What time of the year hunter gatherers were came together in Göbekli? Is there any information about that?
Of course, hunter-gatherers are highly mobile, they have to be; however, we also know that they can live in semi-sedentary and even sedentary settlements. This is something that we are currently investigating at Göbeklitepe. In other words, we desperately need to re-assess the paradigm that has emerged around the site over the last two decades: We were told that Göbeklitepe was a purely ritual site, lacking domestic activities; we were told that there was no water at the site to support (semi-)sedentary communities; and we were told that great feasts were held to coerce a workforce to construct the monumental buildings. It is time to scrutinize these (and other) conclusions, based not only on new archaeological evidence but also with a revised theoretical approach. Unfortunately, the present Göbeklitepe paradigm is proving difficult to tame. And let me be quite clear, it is not about forging a new version of the paradigm, and my statements here are not meant to be disrespectful to any of the colleagues who have worked at the site in the past. It is only natural that new discoveries and approaches lead to new interpretations. This is science.
Pillar 18 (P18) is the eastern of the two central pillars in Building D. The carved human attributes are clearly visible, including the arm (bent at the elbow) and the two hands resting on its stomach. On the narrow (front) side of the pillar a belt and loincloth can be made out. Under its arm P18 appears to be carrying a fox. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Archive)
4. What has Göbeklitepe changed about what we know about history?
Well, I suppose that Göbeklitepe has changed our perception of late hunter-gatherer societies in that we now know that these groups were capable of constructing monumental buildings with monolithic T-shaped pillars carved from local limestone. But again, why just Göbeklitepe? This was already known from Nevali Çori, and T-pillars are now known from numerous other contemporaneous sites in and around Şanlıurfa.
Another important point: It is frequently stated that demands on subsistence during the construction of the megalithic buildings at Göbeklitepe could have encouraged the domestication of wild resources, i.e. with the newly domesticated plants and animals providing a more reliable source of food for the hungry workforce. In line with this statement, it is argued that “religion” triggered the invention of agriculture and settled life… and that this happened at Göbeklitepe.
Personally, I would distance myself from all such statements. The emergence of Neolithic lifeways is a process which stretches over many millennia, starting well before Göbeklitepe. Indeed, there were sedentary hunter-gatherer groups living in the Near East and harvesting wild grasses and cereals long before the first monumental buildings were hewn from the limestone plateau at Göbeklitepe. Not only this, so far, there is absolutely no viable evidence for domesticated plants or animals at Göbeklitepe; everything is still wild. Once again, I feel that the bigger picture is being ignored in favour of just one archaeological site, no matter how impressive that site is.
Pillar 43 (P43) Building D features a vast array of different images, including animals, geometric patterns, and perhaps even depictions of the monumental buildings themselves. P43 also features one of the very few images of a human-being found carved onto a pillar (bottom right). The individual is male (phallus) and decaptitated. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Archive)
5. Last year, fragments of three carved human skulls have been uncovered in Göbeklitepe and researchers said that it could be a part of skull cult. Is there any other evidence about the skull cults in Göbekli?
Yes, these skull fragments featured deep incisions which suggest that they were decorated and perhaps even (publically?) displayed. As far as we know, skulls with such deep incisions (carvings) are unknown at other sites in Anatolia/Near East. Nevertheless, the obsession of 9th and 8thmillennium BC communities with the human head is nothing new. The removal of the skull from the dead and the their subsequent manipulation, including the recreation of facial features using plaster and other forms of decoration, as well as their deposition, also as skull caches, have been documented at numerous sites. In fact, I would have been surprised had Göbeklitepe not produced evidence for “skull cult”. Its existence was previously suggested, for example, by the depiction of a headless man on Pillar 43 (P43) in Building D, and numerous “decapitated” human sculptures found at the site.
6. What could depictions on the steles telling us? Is there any human depiction?
Well, this is the big question and there is no simple answer. You are perhaps aware that the T-shaped pillars themselves are depictions of the human form; this is especially evident if you take a look at the two central pillars in Building D with their carvings (in low-relief) of arms, hands, belts and loincloths. If we consider that all the T-pillars in the monumental buildings represent humans, then what we are witnessing in the monumental buildings at Göbeklitepe is a gathering or meeting: Numerous individuals are depicted sitting around two larger individuals who are standing in a central position within the structure.
I believe strongly that the identity of the T-pillar individuals was well known to the communities who created and used these buildings. Again, this is suggested by the two aforementioned central T-pillars in Building D which are shown with different amulets about their “necks”. Additionally, the eastern of the two central pillars (Pillar 18/P18) appears to be shown carrying a fox beneath its right arm. What we are seeing here are clear elements of a longer and broader narrative. What that narrative is, we cannot say with certainty. What we observe, however, is that these narratives featured many of the animals which would have been sharing the landscapes with the hunter-gatherers at this time (snakes, wild boar, aurochs, to name but a few). Indeed, the lives of humans and animals would have been inextricably intertwined.
Therefore, in addition to the important role that (human) ancestors would have played for the Göbeklitepe communities (as implied by the skull cult) the special significance of wild animals should not be overlooked. The prehistoric populations would have known – far better than we do today – the very individual characteristics and behaviors of the depicted species. Without a doubt, each of these animals would have had its own special place in the oral narratives and traditions of the day. Particular species may have featured in foundation myths or were associated with very specific individuals or groups (and their respective traits). Especially the mighty aurochs could have played a special role at Göbeklitepe, as suggested by the frequent depictions of this animal and its bucrania on the some of the pillars. Notably, the tradition of bull-baiting (and with it the significance of this animal) continues throughout the subsequent centuries and millennia, and appears, for example, at the much younger Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük (~7th millennium BC).
Dr. Lee Clare working in Building D, September 2018. (Photo: DAI, Göbekli Tepe Project)
7. Currently, what are the primary research questions you’re seeking answers to?
Our research has many different foci, including lithic and groundstone analyses, building archaeology, stratigraphy, archaeo-zoology, absolute chronology, landscape archaeology… As mentioned previously, our scientific research is currently in what I would refer to as a “transitional phase”. Freed of its old paradigm, I believe that we will see Göbeklitepe in a completely different light. The primary research questions therefore remain the same: When and by whom were the monumental buildings constructed? How long were they used for and what do we know about their biographies? Was there a permanent settlement at Göbeklitepe? What does the symbolism tell us about the beliefs and traditions of prehistoric communities in the 10th and 9th millennia BC? What do we now about hunting practices during the ~1,500 year duration of the site? What were the environmental conditions around Göbeklitepe?
In spite of the many research questions, the coming years will not see large-scale excavations at Göbeklitepe as in the past. We will concentrate instead on excavating small areas in previously opened trenches, also beneath the new visitor shelter. We now have the special privilege to be working at a UNESCO World Heritage site, and all fieldwork must be carefully planned. Any excavations will not just serve to answer our research questions, but they will also contribute to the consolidation and conservation of the archaeology, and make a positive contribution to its improved presentation for visitors.
Thank you for your time 🙂
(Original interview published in Turkish and English at arkeofili.com January 28 2019; republished here by courtesy of arkeofili staff.)
(After the announcement of the forthcoming decision on the World Heritage status of the site, culturalheritage.news, the Archaeological Heritage Network’s (ArcHerNet) [external link] blog, has just published another article by Eva Götting [external link] on the final addition of the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. We are gladly sharing it here.)
View of Göbekli Tepe’s so-called main excavation area, Enclosure D in the front. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)
On July 1 the World Heritage Committee in Bahrain added the Stone Age site of Göbekli Tepe to the World Heritage List.
On the hill of Göbekli Tepe, stone pillars stand tall against the Turkish summer sky. People first came here more than 11.000 years ago. These men and women, who lived as hunters and gatherers, achieved a great deal with very little. Without metal tools, the highly skilled artisans of Göbekli Tepe carved the T-shaped pillars from the local limestone. These pillars – some of which were up to 5.5 metres high and weighed several tons – then found their way from the nearby quarry to the site, where the communities incorporated them into round-oval, semi-subterranean stone buildings. Fox, crane, boar, snake and scorpion arise from the light-coloured stone, leaving a vivid testimony of Neolithic art. For thousands of years, the monumental structures were forgotten, covered by a mound of earth and rubble. However, in 1994 researcher Klaus Schmidt recognised the importance of the place. A Turkish-German collaboration of archaeologists undertook first excavations at Göbekli Tepe. Today, the stone buildings still stand where they were once erected – in the hilly landscape of south-eastern Turkey.
The mound of Göbekli Tepe. View from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)
In a climatised hall in Bahrain, archaeologist Dr Lee Clare of the German Archaeological Institute [external link] awaits the verdict of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee [external link]. Every year the Committee selects the sites to be included in the World Heritage List. In 2018 the representatives from 21 State Parties meet for the 42nd time. Dr Clare coordinates the international team of archaeologists that investigate Göbekli Tepe and has worked together with the State Party of Turkey on the application process. Over the past two decades, research at Göbekli Tepe has seen the successful collaboration of German archaeologists with the Turkish authorities, first and foremost the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey and the Şanlıurfa Museum. Current research at the site is undertaken in the frame of a DFG [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft] long-term funding project.
“We’re extremely pleased that we can make an active contribution to the Turkish UNESCO nomination of Göbekli Tepe. The significance of the site for our understanding of the Neolithic transition in this key area of the Fertile Crescent can’t be stressed enough,” says Lee Clare.
Göbekli Tepe – A site of Outstanding Universal Value
Dr Clare knows that it is a long process to build a good case that stands up to scrutiny. The ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of a cultural heritage site must be recognisable. A convincing management plan is also one of the criteria of the UNESCO [external link]. World Heritage Committee. During the last 20 years, the team of archaeologists has carefully uncovered just enough of Göbekli Tepe to gain an insight into the possible functions of the site and its significance for contemporaneous hunter-gatherer communities. Two permanent shelters now protect the Neolithic T-pillars, walls and terrazzo floors from wind and weather. The aim of the archaeologists is not only to gain a better understanding of the past but to preserve the site for future generations.
Pillar 56 from Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure H. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)
Detail of Pillar 27 in Enclosure C: high relief of a snarling predator.(Photo: Dieter Johannes, DAI)
The efforts first paid out in 2011, when UNESCO included Göbekli Tepe in the World Heritage Tentative List. Now it will be decided if the application of the Turkish State Party is successful. A site benefits from the World Heritage status in various ways. The prestige often helps raise awareness for heritage preservation, resulting in a higher level of protection and conservation at the site. The State Party of Turkey might also receive financial and consulting assistance from UNESCO to support activities for the preservation of Göbekli Tepe.
Göbekli Tepe is a World Heritage Site
Finally, it is announced: Göbekli Tepe is added to the World Heritage List! The representatives of the Turkish State Party and Lee Clare are pleased. The UNESCO acknowledges that Göbekli Tepe “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius”. The site “exhibits an important interchange of human values” and “is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”
“When Klaus Schmidt initiated excavations at Göbekli Tepe in the mid-1990s, there was practically no indication of the significance that this site held for us and future generations. The OUV [outstanding universal value] of Göbekli Tepe is undisputed. But it’s not only an important site for us archaeologists. It’s a crucial site in World history, and its inscription on the World Heritage List will underline this fact”.
What has been evident to archaeologists and thousands of visitors to the site for a long time is now official: Göbekli Tepe is of outstanding universal value to the shared cultural heritage of all people.
(CulturalHeritage.news is connected to the Archaeological Heritage Network’s (ArcHerNet) which brings together German expertise in the field of cultural preservation and heritage protection. ArcHerNet is coordinated by the German Archaeological Institute and promoted by the Federal Foreign Office.)
Recently we got a couple of notes and comments regarding a number of finds supposedly attributed to the early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe. Finds we surprisingly never addressed or mentioned or published anyway. Of course this raised questions. Not only among our readers, but also in the research team. So, I picked three of these mysterious objects and tried to follow their path all the way back. A lesson in ‘alternative facts’, their easy creation – and quick multiplication on the world wide web.
The first of these items we’re having a look into is this detailed and rather ‘life-like’ sphinx-sculpture – linked to a caption saying “The oldest known sphinx was found in Göbekli Tepe …”.
Stylistically, this sculpture already looks quite different from any other prehistoric piece of art we know of, yet those coming from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe in particular. The carefully sculpted face and body are more reminiscent of ‘classic’ ancient Greek or Roman sculptures – or those of the 18th and 19th century ‘romanticising’ sculptures. Also, the material does not really look like the yellowish-worn limestone so characteristic for Göbekli Tepe’s sculptures.
The statement connected to this depiction is even more surprising – since actually there is no single sphinx known from Göbekli Tepe (or any other related PPN-site of the region) reported. In fact, composite – hybrid – creatures are generelly very rare in prehistoric art. With a few excepetions, the concept of chimaeras seems to have become a more common (or at least more often depicted) mythological trope at a later time in human history.
Finally, with a little bit of research the sculpture in question here can be identified as being part of the garden decoration of the Royal Palace of La Granja [external link] in the Spanish town of San Ildefonso – dating to the 18th century. AD.
The second object on this list is a bit trickier. Indeed it seems to be a rather large stele showing the relief of some upright standing person. Stone and setting somehow look similar to what we would expect from Göbekli Tepe – although the style of depiction and the building visible to the right suspiciously do not really look familiar from an Anatolian early Neolithic point of view.
Again, a closer look at the actual depiction makes it clear that we are dealing with something different here. The person shows characteristical features we would expect from an ape. In particular the head, face, and tail give it away: this is a depiction of Hanuman, a Hindu god in the shape of a monkey. With this information at hand it is only a question of further reading to identify the stele as one of the monuments at the Virupakasha Temple in Hampi [external link], a World Heritage Site in southern India – dating back as much as the 7th century AD, but definitely not the Neolithic period.
Finally, the last find examined here is this standard-like object of which the caption claims it is a “G[ö]bekli Tepe god of the constellation of Orion.” Besides the challenges to project modern (or at least historical) star constellations into prehistory and even more prehsitoric art (as we already discussed here) and the terminological issues surrounding lables like ‘god’, ‘gods’, and even ‘temple’ (discussed here earlier), this piece, again, does look like nothing we know from the site of Göbekli Tepe or any other Neolithic find spot in the region.
In fact, a stylistic comparison eventually offers a lead to modern Iran. A couple of elaborate objects dating to the Bronze Age period (i.e. the 3rd millennium BC) from this region show quite some parallels. They are linked to the so-called Jiroft culture which, unfortunately, still remains raher obscure since the majority of finds associated with Jiroft are coming from illegal excavations and we do not know much about them. But again, they’re neither related to the Anatolian Neolithic nor the site of Göbekli Tepe.
These three examples should be sufficient and representative for the point we would like to make with this blog post: it’s easy to come up with an idea, it’s easy to form hypotheses. Honestly, we as scientists do it too, all the time. But every hypothesis needs to be checked, material needs to be compared, sources reviewed. We’re living in times where facts can be made up as ‘alternatives’. Stay curious, but stay suspicious. Check the facts, check the sources. And when in doubt … ask an archaeologist (or any other expert).
We already expressed a couple of thoughts and remarks on a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in which Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis have suggested (original article accessible here: [external link]) that the early Neolithic monumental enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were space observatories and the site’s complex iconography the commemoration of a catastrophic astronomical event (‘Younger Dryas Comet Impact’).
Meanwhile we were putting together a more elaborate reply with further arguments and references which, in our opinion, challenge the interpretation and add more context to the paper’s discussion of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography in the light of the early Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. The editors of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry kindly agreed to publish our response in the same journal as the original article by Sweatman and Tsikritsis.
The paper (J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, L. Clare, L. Dietrich, J. Schlindwein, M. Kinzel, C. Lelek-Tvetmarken, D. Sönmez: More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(2), 2017, 57-63.) can be accessed online: [external link].
Aerial view of the mound of Göbekli Tepe with excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)
Our reservations, which are not meant to silence any further archaeoastronomic discussion for Göbekli Tepe at all but rather comment on a number of discrepances we see in the interpretation, are summed up here:
1. The original layout of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round-oval buildings is still subject of ongoing research (none of these structures are completely excavated as of yet). One should be aware that many of the T-pillars incorporated into the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe are not standing in their original positions and the buildings underwent significant modification during their life-cycles. Building archaeology studies have revealed that in many cases pillars were ‘recycled’, i.e. pulled out and used elsewhere. The monuments as we see them today are the culmination of multi-phase building and rebuilding events. Additionally, there is the significant possibility that we are dealing with roofed structures; this fact alone would pose limitations to a function as sky observatories.
2. The chronological frame Sweatman and Tsikritsis suggest for Pillar 43 (10950 BC +/- 250 years) is still 700-1000 years older than the oldest radiocarbon date so far available for Enclosure D (which stems from organic material retrieved from a wall plaster matrix). While there is evidence for later re-use of pillars (see above), assuming such a long tradition of knowledge relating to an unconfirmed (ancient) cosmic event appears extremely far-fetched. So far, any available date for Göbekli Tepe rather marks the end than the beginning of the Younger Dryas.
3. The assumption that asterisms are stable across time and cultures is not convincing. It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.
4. Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ contribution appears incredibly arbitrary, considering images adorning just a few selected pillars. Meanwhile more than 60 monumental limestone T-pillars are known from Göbekli Tepe – among these many feature similar carved low reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (e.g. Pillar 56 in Enclosure H). Furthermore, the iconographic programme is not restricted to the limestone pillars; it is known from other find groups (including stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes) not only from Göbekli Tepe but also from numerous contemporary sites in the wider region.
Pillar 56 from Enclosure H is another example for the rich and often complex iconography of Göbekli Tepe. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)
5. Göbekli Tepe’s iconography is actually even more complex than the paper suggests. The animals depicted on the pillars seem to follow an intentional pattern, whereby each building has a different emphasis, i.e. with one animal or more being especially prominent. If we interpret these differences as an expression of community and belonging, this could hint at different groups having been responsible for the construction of particular enclosures. In other words, specific enclosures may have served the needs of different social entities. For this reason, it is extremely problematic to pick out any one pillar and draw far-reaching but isolated interpretations while leaving out its context. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these subtler but significant details. Details like the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as a symbol of death, catastrophe and extinction by Sweatman and Tsikritsis, silently omits the clearly emphasised phallus which must contradict the lifeless notion; rather, this image implies a more versatile narrative behind these depictions. It should also be noted that there are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which apparently went unnoticed in the study at hand.
Distribution of the appearance of figurative representations in the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe. Note: The different state of excavation as well as chronological depth of construction periods have to be considered; later added graffiti as well as symbolically reduced icons were not included. (Graphic: J. Notroff & N. Becker, DAI)
Pillar 43 from Enclosure D and its particularly rich relief-decoration – actually extending not only on the pillar’s western broadside (left), but also the southern (middle) and northern (right) narrow sides. (Photos: K. Schmidt, N. Becker, DAI)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic iconography, by far exceeding the realms of Göbekli Tepe, is often especially concerned with articulation and disarticulation of the human body. Particularly the depiction of severed human heads or headless bodies in combination with necrophagous animals (preferably but not exclusively vultures) is a well-known theme and may be rooted in a complex multiphase Pre-Pottery Neolithic mortuary ritual. Similar depictions of a bird grasping a human head are known from Göbekli Tepe as well as life-sized human sculpture heads which were deposited within the buildings.
Fragmented sculpture from Göbekli Tepe showing a bird of prey crouched on a human head. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
Meanwhile both authors of the orginal study replied to our response (same issue of MAA, see link above), stressing that “… given the statistical basis o[f] [their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.” (Sweatman and Tsikritsis, Comment, MAA 17(2), 66). Admittedly though, we still would like to express our doubt that human creativity really can be treated as a statistical case solely.
Episode 8 of the current 4th season of Smithsonian Channel‘s [external link] documentary series “Secrets” [external link] will center on the excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe and its early Neolithic monuments.
(Courtesy of blink films & MA Productions)
The upcoming episode, provocatively titled “Garden of Eden” [external link] (and yes, admittedly we were a bit uncomfortable about that title – for certain reasons) is exploring the question why hunter-gatherers started to engage in large-scale communal projects, and the peculiar role early monument-construction played for emerging Neolithic societies.
“On a hilltop in southeastern Turkey, archaeologists have unearthed a complex of standing stones that pre-dates Stonehenge by more than 6,000 years. This monument has rewritten prehistoric archaeology and fascinated some theologians, who have linked the site to the Garden of Eden. Take an up-close look at Gobekli Tepe and its intricate carvings, which feature a landscape with wildlife, birds, and serpents. Then see how this 11,000-year-old wonder has forced archaeologists to rethink their understanding of the beginnings of human civilization.”
The episode will be on cable TV (Smithsonian Channel) i.a. Monday, June 12 to Saturday, June 17. For more details see Smithsonian Channel‘s schedule [external link].
Sensations are making stories. And archaeology-stories apparently are no exception to this rule. That’s why even the most interesting sites and finds often are further dramatised and spiced up in public discourse. Somehow ‘interesting’ isn’t satisfying enough to everybody.
The early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe has it all: far reaching implications about prehistoric hunter-gatherer social group structures, the beginning of our very own modern sedentary lifestyle, and (some of the) oldest yet known monumental architecture ever built. However, this still doesn’t seem to be enough. People love a good mystery and apparently social structures of early hunters are (noted without any complaint here) not exactly enigmatic enough to be entertaining.
The mound of Göbekli Tepe. view from south. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)
In 2006 German magazine DER SPIEGEL came up with a cover story on the Göbekli Tepe excavations (“Die Suche nach dem Garten Eden. Archäologen auf den Spuren des biblischen Paradieses” [external link]), suggesting it was the (pre-)historical basis for the Biblical narrative about the ‘Garden of Eden’. Ever since this story multiplied and was picked up then and again, actually emphasising the great interest in our research on one hand, but also the pitfalls of all too simplifying analogies on the other. Only recently Discovery’s Science Channel (which features, among others, a segment about our research at Göbekli Tepe) was digging up the story again (excuse the pun) for an episode of “What on Earth” called “Gateway to Eden” [external link].
To be honest, it’s not even hard to actually see where this fascination is coming from. A mythical garden, ‘paradise’ par excellence, is quite an archetypical narrative and a metaphor deeply rooted in our collective memory. The story of that ‘Garden of Eden’ seems to have great potential to fuel our imagination. Yet actually looking beyond that metaphor for a real place and location would mean to somehow misconceive the whole narrative’s elucidating intention.
Since there are a number of peculiar elements brought up repeatedly in support of an assumed link between the Göbekli Tepe findings and the Eden myth, it seems worth the time having a closer look into and a short evaluation of these arguments in the course of this blog post.
The landscape surrounding Göbekli Tepe. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)
The topographical situation of this idyllic garden delivered in the Old Testament (which, as probably most people would agree, is not exactly and specifically a proper historical source) tells of a river flowing from Eden, dividing into four streams: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Genesis 2, 10-14). While the latter two are well-known toponyms in the region to this day, the other two however don’t really fit into the picture, somehow raising the suspicion they might be as figuratively as the mythical gold-land of Havilah through which the Pishon is said to wind. Besides, there are no water sources at Göbekli Tepe at all (actually one of the arguments against an ideal settlement situation, cf. this discussion). Göbekli Tepe hardly ever was a flourishing garden in the literal sense.
Pillar 30 in Enclosure D depicting snakes. (Photo: Klaus Schmidt, DAI)
“But what about the snakes?” is an argument often put forward in favour of the Eden narrative. Yes, there are depictions of snakes at Göbekli Tepe. A lot, actually. Quite a lot. It almost is a snake pit rather than the single seducer trying to sell forbidden fruits. And what about all those other animal reliefs? There are spiders and scorpions, foxes and vultures, cranes, ducks, and boars. And more. In numbers certainly equalling those of snake reliefs. So, this sole focus on the serpent seems a bit unfair towards the other animals. Are we going to ignore all these many additional animals (and few human depictions) – or how do these fit into the story?
Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, DAI)
Another small find produced by the Göbekli Tepe excavations, a so-called plaquette, is also often referred to as a clue in the ‘Garden of Eden’ line of argument. The small stone tablet is showing three carved symbols among which some recognise a snake and a tree (and we all can see where this would be heading). However, with a view to the recent discussion of the ambiguity of prehistoric art and the challenge to properly ‘read’ (let alone understand) it here, this particular find seems a weak advocate. Upon closer inspection of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography and its analogies from other sites, it becomes much more likely that the ‘tree’ actually might depict a person and the third object to its right may be understood as a bird – somehow changing the whole narrative of this object quite a bit.
Returning to that recent “What on Earth” episode, one could find the idea attractive that the remarkable pair of central pillars in each enclosure somehow could be interpreted as a mythical couple (even without the all too obvious ‘Adam and Eve’ analogy), some male and female ancestor. The show seems to suggest this, prominently quoting myself in this context. But – and this is the important point here, I would like to make (and actually made in “What on Earth”, which somehow may have got lost on the cutting floor) – there are convincing leads showing that this is not the most favourable interpretation. The fact that both central pillars of Enclosure D are shown wearing belts and loincloths, for instance, seems to hint at two male individuals here – in analogy to contemporary clay figurines.
Belt and loincloth at one of the central pillars of Enclosure D underline the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. (Photo: Nico Becker, DAI)
Projecting a much younger and much later mythology onto archaeological material predating it for millennia leaves any secure grounds for substantial conclusions. Linking the early Neolithic, 10th millennium BC, structures of Göbekli Tepe with a narrative written down not earlier then the 11th or 10th century BC (thus about 9,000 years later – after these enclosures were long abandoned and backfilled) would seem more than just a bit far-fetched.
“We disagree wholeheartedly with any parallels drawn between Göbekli Tepe and the ‘Garden of Eden’, for which there is absolutely no archaeological evidence. Certainly, Göbekli Tepe lies in a chain of hills north of the Harran plain, the scene of numerous biblical narratives, though this is where any associations with the Bible end. Anything more is pure conjecture.”
Or, as Klaus Schmidt once put it in an interview [external link]: “Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden.”
The cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s [external link] February issue is an interesting culture-historical excursus on the social and ritual role of alcohol from early cultures to modern drinking habits, the technical processes of producing alcoholic beverages, and the challenges to actually track down and verify these in the archaeological record.
Titled “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze” [external link], the text by author Andrew Curry (with photos by Brian Finke) follows the work of Martin Zarnkow for instance, a scientist at TUZ Munich’s Weihenstephan research center for brewing and food-grade. We also had the pleasure to work together with him when he was analysing a couple of samples coming from large stationary stone vessels at Göbekli Tepe. While still preliminary and inconclusive, these analyses initially hinted at the likely brewing – and consumption – of beer-like beverages in the context of large gatherings which seem to have taken place at Neolithic Göbekli Tepe (read more about this observation here). National Geographic’s article also features a short insight into this part of our research and puts it into a quite fascinating (pre-)historical context.
Large limestone vessels at Göbekli Tepe which might have been used for the production of early alcoholic beverages based on cereals. (Photos: N. Becker, DAI)
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.)
(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.
Pillar 1 in Enclosure A shows a net-like pattern formed of snakes and a ram (Photo: C. Gerber, coopyright DAI).
Pillar 2 in Enclosure A with a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox and crane (Photo: C. Gerber, copyright DAI).
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.
(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.
Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Photo D. Johannes, copyright DAI).
Pillar 27 in Enclosure C, detail of predator in high relief and boar in low relief (Photo D. Johannes, copyright DAI).
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.
(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.
(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).
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.
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.)
“The Story of God” [external link], a documentary series hosted by actor Morgan Freeman and produced by the National Geographic Channel [external link] on the question how religion connects people and where the power of belief actually comes from, is now also aired in German.
In Episode 3 “Das Rätsel der Schöpfung” [external link] the roots of ritual and religion are traced back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East – and among the sites discussed and featured, Göbekli Tepe plays a role as well.
Broadcast dates and reruns can be found on National Geographic Channel’s German website [external link] regarding the show.