With “Religion, History, and Place in the Origin of Settled Life” (Boulder, Colorado 2018) [external link] recently a new volume edited by Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and best known for his groundbreaking research at Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey, has been published by University Press of Colorado on the role of religion and ritual in the Middle East, focusing on the repetitive construction of houses and cult buildings.
Göbekli Tepe research staff gladly provided some new insights into ongoing research on the site and its interpretation to this volume with a contribution on “Establishing Identities in the Proto-Neolithic: ‘History Making’ at Göbekli Tepe from the Late Tenth Millennium cal BCE” by Lee Clare, Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, and Devrim Sönmez (pp. 115-136):
“Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is a long recognized key site for the study of socio-ritual components of transitional Neolithic communities living in Upper Mesopotamia, a core zone of Neolithization, in the late tenth millennium cal bce. In addition to the construction of the large monumental buildings with their T-shaped monoliths, these groups can be credited with early domestication activities involving wild plant and animal species, which from the mid-ninth millennium cal BCE began to show characteristic morphological changes associated with the emergence of identifiable domesticated forms. Ritual practices and belief systems identified at Göbekli Tepe provide unprecedented insights into the worldview of these ‘proto-Neolithic’ communities at this important juncture in world history. Not only this, the site offers explanations as to how these groups could have overcome various challenges presented by ‘Neolithization’ processes, including demographic growth, increasing competition over biotic and abiotic resources, and a more pronounced vertical social differentiation, with division of labor and craft specialization. In this contribution, it is posited that ‘history making’ at Göbekli Tepe, as reflected, for example, through repititive building activities at the site, could have been used to encourage group identity and to promote a sense of belonging to a common ‘cultic community’, so important in the face of these challenges. Furthermore, it is proposed that these same ‘history making events’ might also have been harnessed by individuals and sub-groups in an attempt to legitimize social status and local, perhaps even regional political influence.”
Sadly, we have to pass the news that on August 2, Prof. em. Harald Hauptmann passed away. Professor Hauptmann was the former director of the Istanbul Department at the German Archaeological Institute, and, what many people may not be aware of, played a unique role in the initiation of excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe. For this reason, he remained a valuable friend and special mentor over the years.
Following the completion of his PhD in Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology (Ur- und Frühgeschichte) at Heidelberg University, which focused on the early Neolithic in Thessaly, Hauptmann was made research lecturer at the Istanbul Department of the German Archaeological Institute, a position that he held for five years, until 1971. During this time, he was involved in excavations at such renowned sites as Boğazköy and Norşuntepe. Subsequently, he accepted the call to Heidelberg University, where he held the chair for Pre- and Protohistory and Near Eastern Archaeology until 1994. In these years, he initiated field research at two notable sites in Southeastern Turkey, at Lidar Höyük and Nevali Çori. This latter site would not only be of major significance for Anatolian Neolithic research, but it was also the first site at which T-shaped limestone pillars were revealed in an architectural context.
Returning to the German Archaeological Institute as head of the Istanbul Department in 1994, Hauptmann continued to focus on the Neolithic in Southeastern Turkey. Together with his former student Klaus Schmidt, who already assisted at Nevali Çori, he initiated field research at Göbekli Tepe, which to this day remains a crucial site for the study of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and early monumental architecture. Over the first two decades of research at Göbekli Tepe, Hauptmann remained a prominent figure for the excavation project. A constant source of knowledge and inspiration, especially following the untimely death of Klaus Schmidt in 2014, he always had an open ear and was keen to discuss latest finds and new developments.
Hauptmann’s contributions to the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology of Anatolia are meanwhile considered essential and pioneering work. In particular, we at the Göbekli Tepe research project are thankful for the exchange with Harald Hauptmann. We have not only lost an esteemed colleague, but also a close friend.
(A longer and more extensive version of this text was originally published recently: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Dietrich, Masks and Masquerade in the Early Neolithic: A view from Upper Mesopotamia, Time and Mind 11:1, 2018, 3-21 [external link].)
Among early prehistoric masks, those from the Judean Hills and Desert [external link] can be considered the most prominent examples. These masks, made of stone and weighing up to approximately 2 kg, strike the modern observer with their almost expressionistic facial features – each is individual, as if depicting specific individuals or beings. Some have holes around the rim, probably to allow attaching them to something, or to actually wear them (although they are fairly heavy). Chronologically, the oldest of these Southern Levantine masks belong to the Pre-Pottery-Neolithic B, i.e. the mid 9th and 8th millennia BC. Since specimens excavated in the Nahal Hemar cave (Israel) in the early 1980s were found within an assemblage interpreted as ‘cultic’ a ritual use of these masks was assumed (Bar Yosef & Alon 1988). The Southern Levantine examples are special and important, but not unique in their period. Within the rich repertoire of sculpture from several contemporary sites in this region, a few artefacts with concave or flat rear backs stand out that could be interpreted as depitions of masks.
Figure 1: Miniature mask from Nevalı Çori (Drawing: K. Schmidt, courtesy of H. Hauptmann).
From Jerf el Ahmar, a PPNA A/transition to PPN B site in northern Syria (characterised by round and rectangular buildings with limestone foundations) two little stone heads are reported which show a conspicuous concave cavity on their backside (Jammous & Stordeur 1999; Stordeur & Abbès 2002). They are made from pebbles, only about 4 cm high and show eyes, a nose, and mouth. The backside of one of these objetcs is grooved, the other one concave. Another miniature stone mask of similar size is known from Nevalı Çori (Figure 1) in southeastern Turkey (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007, 292, nr. 110, Fig. 110; Hauptmann 2011, Fig. 17). Again eyes, nose, and mouth are depicted, the back is concave. From its find context, a middle-PPN B date can be assumed for this mask. Nevalı Çori furthermore has become well known as the first place there a characteristic element of PPN architecture of the region was discovered: T-shaped, apparently anthropomorphic, pillars which link it to another site nearby which also has produced a number of comparable masks: Göbekli Tepe.
Figure 2: Larger than life-sized mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).
A first, larger than life-sized (height: 42 cm) and complete human mask (Figure 2) made from limestone was found during clearance work before beginning of excavations in 1995 (Schmidt 1996: 2-3, Fig. 1). The depiction of the face is minimalistic, almost abstract. They eyes are very faint and the mouth is absent. Forehead and nose are carved in a geometrical manner, almost resembling a ‘T’. This manner of portraying the human face is characteristic also for three-dimensional anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe and thus a clear indicator that a human face is depicted here. Due to its height it seems too large to be actually worn, but could have been intended to be fixed to a wall or another kind of support.
Figure 3: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe (Photo: K. Schmidt, Drawing: Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, DAI).
The second example is another miniature (height: 5.7 cm), also made from limestone (Badisches Landesmuseum 2007: 275, No. 29, Fig. 29). It was found in the upper layers of the filling of Enclosure D in 2001 (Figure 3). With a concave rear like the specimen reported from Nevalı Çori, it follows the same minimalistic principle as the large mask from Göbekli Tepe. Again, it is clear that a human face is depicted, but individual characteristics are not given. The eyes are not even suggested here, a mouth is absent again.
Figure 4: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, made from a flint cortex (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
The third mask, a miniature again (height: 4.7 cm) is of a different type (Figure 4). Not only was it made from a flint cortex, it also is much more expressive, due to curved chevrons engraved into its forehead, not unlike the mask from Jerf el Ahmar discussed above. This may indicate a headdress, but the fairly low setting of the lines could also hint at tattooing or scarification. The back was not finished. This mask was found in 2010, high in the stratigraphy, during excavations in Enclosure H, next to (central) Pillar 51.
Figure 5: Miniature mask from Göbekli Tepe, engraved in a flint cortex (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI).
A fourth miniature (height: 4.5 cm high) of a mask was also engraved into a flint cortex (Figure 5). Its form follows the reduced depiction of the face of the first two examples again, with more pronounced eyes. It was found in 2008 next to the eastern central pillar of Enclosure C.
While the first mask can only broadly be dated to the PPN as a surface find, the second mask from the filling of Enclosure D could indicate a PPN A date, as could the miniature mask from Enclosure C, with its position nearby one of the central pillars. Enclosure C has been damaged and disturbed in prehistory by a large pit directed at the central pillars, but the mask seems to come from an untouched floor layer. The third mask was found next to a central pillar of Enclosure H. The stone circle was also damaged and disturbed in prehistory already.
Three of the masks found at Göbekli Tepe have undoubtedly a similar style to the example from Nevalı Çori. They show non-individualized faces. However, at Göbekli Tepe the mouth is not depicted, while the Nevalı Çori mask almost gives the impression of a screaming face. Together with the finds from other sites, a large repertoire of masks in different styles is suggested. All types, with and without mouth, more individualized or abstract, are also well attested for in the large repertoire of limestone sculpture found at Göbekli Tepe (Figure 6). Their treatment during the refilling events can shed some light on aspects of the use of masks during the PPN at this site.
Figure 6: Selection of limestone heads from Göbekli Tepe, not to scale (Photos: N. Becker, D. Johannes, K. Schmidt, DAI).
Burial rites at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been applied to a part of a hierarchical system of anthropomorphic depictions. The enclosures’ central pillars are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic. The surrounding pillars are also stylized, but smaller and contain zoomorphic decoration. They are orientated towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering. Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture, which may partly depict masked people, is smaller and intentionally fragmented. The stone masks are strongly related to this category through form and deposition treatment. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly (masked?) heads, and complete masks, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. If we assume that the stone masks are miniature or supra-sized representations of real organic masks actually worn, they could well attest that ritual activity at Göbekli Tepe and other sites included masquerade to the point where people became an active part within this complex mythology.
During the early Neolithic in the Near East, masks and masking possessed a significant role in rituals re-enacting mythological narratives closely related to death, taking place at sites with special purpose buildings and a noticeably rich iconography. This importance apparently justified the time-consuming and complicated manufacture of these praraphernalia as well as miniature and larger-than-life-sized representations of these items. A small amount of possible mask depictions in stone are all what remains of a presumably manifold Early Neolithic tradition of ritual masquerade.
Badisches Landesmuseum (ed.), Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die ältesten Monumente der Menschheit, Stuttgart 2007.
Bar Yosef, O. and Alon, D., Nahal Hemar Cave, ‘Atiqot 18, 1988, 1-81.
Hauptmann, H., The Urfa Region, in: Özdoğan, M., Başgelen, N., Kuniholm, P. (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey 2. The Euphrates Basin, Istanbul 2011, 85-138.
Jammous, B. and Stordeur, D., Jerf el-Ahmar: un site Mureybetien du moyen Euphrate Syrien, horizon PPNA – Xe millénaire avant JC, in: del Olmo-Lete, G. and Montero Fenollós, J.-L. (eds.), Archaeology of the Upper Syrian Euphrates, the Tishrin Dam Areas, Barcelona 1999, 57-69.
Schmidt, K., The Urfa Project 1996, Neo-Lithics 2, 1996, 2-3.
Schmidt, K., Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in south-eastern Anatolia, Berlin 2012.
Stordeur, D. and Abbès, F., Du PPNA au PPNB: mise en lumière d´une phase transition à Jerf el Ahmar (Syrie), Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 99 (3), 2002, 563-595.
Earlier this year we organised a session at the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference which was held in Maastricht (Netherlands) this year. Already in this session’s title we asked contributors and audience the crucial question “What is so special about Neolithic special buildings?” – and we had quite a broad spectrum of approaches to this topic and discussed many possible charactersitics (alas, as often in research we just could not find the one all-embracing answer – but to be honest, no-one really expected this).
Dr Anna Fagan from the University of Melbourne, who did her PhD on “Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East” in 2016, was one of the colleagues presenting in our session and contributing to this discussion. She kindly agreed to recapitulate and sum up her PhD research published earlier in World Archaeology for a guest blogpost and we are pleased to share her contribution here:
Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe
The excavations of Göbekli Tepe by the German Archaeological Institute over the last two decades have unearthed an unprecedented and as yet unparalleled level of monumental art and architecture, constructed by hunting-and-gathering human groups prior to the full adoption of agriculture. The astonishing and unexpected nature of the finds has driven home the need for more suitable interpretative frameworks that can make sense of the diversity and unfamiliarity of the prehistoric past. Indeed, preceding discussions of the site have served only to further the distance between now and the Neolithic through strict reliance on modern Western concepts that in prehistory would surely have been unimaginable. Hence, in order to come closer to understanding other societies and archaeologies, we must turn to ways of thinking that do not replicate the dominant and historically specific Western ontology.
Engagement with non-Western thinkers and ethnographies reveals the conceptual potential of different modes of thought, metaphysics, and ways of being. Taking other systems of knowledge on equal intellectual terms is not only a matter of political exigency, but also constitutes a more holistic, reflexive, and critical archaeology. For instance, innumerable human groups around the globe describe realities wherein personhood and social relations are not exclusive to humans. Instead, animals, plants and material life can potentially act as subjects, with consciousness, agency and intentionality.
By liberating thought from Western metaphysical foundationalism, we become aware of the inadequacy of modern Western theories of matter to explain the prehistoric world fully. Paying attention to the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the Göbekli architecture reveals limestone to be an agentive materiality from which powerful entities were released and brought into being through the practices of carving. It was likely that highly volatile gods, spirits and animals occupied the socio-cosmic universe of prehistoric south-east Anatolia. Through depicting these powerful or threatening agencies, people set up channels of engagement through which they could interact with dangerous entities on their own terms, affording participants a rare degree of controlled interaction in the existentially risky realm of the spirit world.
However, this does not mean that T-pillars and statuary remained static entities; rather, they may have been capable of movement, absence or transformation. As demonstrated by finds of offering bowls and channels for libations, these beings might have been animated – or tempered – by consumption. Indeed, Göbekli challenges conventional conceptual commitments to permanence, fixity and finality. Practices of image-creation and monument construction at the site seem more committed to processes of making than finished production. Stelae are installed in incomplete states or are reworked into new forms and enclosures were subject to considerable modifications in structure and layout throughout their use-lives. In Enclosure C, for instance, walls with embedded pillars were later engulfed by additional internal walls, stelae and installations, shrinking the circumference of the building through time. With each building phase, artefacts, offerings, skeletal remains, and sculptures were ‘fed back’ into the structural fabric. These labour-intensive changes along with the cumulative wrapping of the space seem to articulate efforts to entrap, engulf, and contain. We might even consider the Göbekli enclosures to be mouths of a sort: cavernous cavities with enormous T-pillar teeth, teeming with statuary of ravenous predators.
The notion that the limestone from which Göbekli is built constituted a vital and even ‘hungry’ materiality may be further explored through practices pertaining to stone extraction. For instance, the infill for the enclosures appears to have been stored on site to be used later, suggesting that these remains retained a special quality separate from other types of settlement waste (Dietrich, Notroff and Schmidt 2017, 119). The fact that the infill consists primarily of animal remains and limestone rubble might indicate where it was stored prior to burial, and with the quarries in close proximity, they present a viable option. If we consider limestone as alive – and thus the process of stone extraction to have been existentially risky – depositing feasting deposits in extraction hollows may have served as ritual offerings for relocated stones. Hollows in the quarry presented metaphysical voids that needed to be addressed and recompensed. Thus, through feasting and depositional practices, the rock was duly ‘fed’.
Indeed, predation and consumption seem to be the key ontological principles driving social engagements at the site. Images of decapitated human heads in the clutches of raptors or predators are common at Göbekli, suggesting that the site may have functioned, amongst other things, as a mortuary sphere where raptors potentially defleshed and disposed of the dead (as in Tibetan sky burials, Zoroastrian funerals, the mortuary practices of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia and of the Chukchi of northern Kamchatka). It was conceivably through predatory consumption of the deceased that the human soul was released, flesh transmuted into spirit matter, and vitality redistributed from the consumed to the consumer. The possibility that Göbekli served as a necropolis is supported by the considerable number of human bone fragments with evidence of partial burning, along with cut-marks denoting defleshing and other post-mortem ritual treatments uncovered from the enclosure fills (Becker et al. 2012; Notroff et al. 2016, 78). Moreover, necrophagous animals are common in the osteoarchaeological and iconographic corpus. Corvids, for instance, make up more than 50 per cent of the avifauna from the site, a number significantly higher than at other contemporaneous settlements (Peters et al. 2005, 231; Notroff, Dietrich and Schmidt 2016, 77–8). Furthermore, the common practice of decapitating anthropomorphic sculpture at the site may even have served as a proxy for the cessation and transformation of human life. Just as vultures assisted in humans’ ontological metamorphosis, so too might practices of decapitation have released the deceased from the confines of the human corpse (Fig. 1).
Göbekli Tepe: the only example of a decapitated limestone head where a matching torso was found (photo: N. Becker, German Archaeological Institute).
However, while humans are commonly found in decapitated and diminutive forms, predatory animals are portrayed as frighteningly alive, voracious and present. The human face, too, remains schematic and tokenistic, while the animal face is highly detailed. One striking example of a ravenous predator comes from Pillar 27 in Enclosure C (Fig. 2), consisting of a three-dimensional high relief of a large, expertly crafted reptile, with unmistakably delineated ribs and bared teeth, descending the side of the stele.
Göbekli Tepe: Enclosure C. A snarling and hungry three-dimensional predator with clearly delineated ribs descends pillar 27 (photo: D. Johannes, German Archaeological Institute).
The images of predators holding dislocated human heads, in conjunction with the evidence of intensive feasting found at the site (Dietrich et al. 2012), the remains of human bone uncovered in the enclosures’ fill, along with the high number of corvids (crows and ravens) in the avifauna evince a co-productive relationship: of animals feeding on humans and vice versa. Finds of stone bowls and depressions, located next to the central pillars in the enclosures, demonstrate that the megalithic T-pillar beings, too, not only had demands, but were capable of consumption. However, themes of death and predation at Göbekli should not be perceived as destructive but rather, co-productive. Manifest is the network of relations upon which life itself depends: the cycle of death, consumption and reproduction.
Through feeding and bringing into being volatile agencies at Göbekli Tepe, people may have aided the transformation and metamorphosis of the dead and opened up channels of engagement through which the living could influence the spirit world. Convening with powerful beings in the confines of these spiritually fortified spaces afforded humans a degree of control and perhaps even the ability to harness their predatory perspectives (see: Fagan 2016, 2017). Similarly, it is new perspectives – ones that do not replicate the dominant Western ontology – that should travel to archaeological interpretation, so that we too, can engage a more sensitive relationship with the past.
For a longer and more detailed discussion of the phenomenal and ontological dimensions of the art, architecture, and osteoarchaeological finds from Göbekli Tepe, see Anna’s original article (and references therein) in World Archaeology 49.3, 2017 [external link].
You can learn more about Anna’s work and research through her profile at academia.edu [external link] or find her on twitter [external link].
Becker, N., O. Dietrich, T. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2012. “Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums.” Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie 5: 14–43.
Dietrich, O., M. Heun, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, and M. Zarnkow. 2012. “The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities: New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-Eastern Turkey.” Antiquity 86: 674–695. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00047840.
Dietrich, O., J. Notroff, and K. Schmidt. 2017.“Feasting, Social Complexity, and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe.” Feast, Famine, or Fighting?: Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity, edited by R. J. Chacon and R. G. Mendoza, 91–132. Cham: Springer International Publishing. (Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation 8).
Fagan, A. 2016. Relational Ontologies in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Middle East. PhD Diss. University of Melbourne.
Fagan, A. 2017. “Hungry Architecture: Spaces of Consumption and Predation at Göbekli Tepe,” World Archaeology 3:318-37.
Notroff, J., O. Dietrich, and K. Schmidt. 2016. “Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic Sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey.” In Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Archaeology of Mortality and Immortality – a Worldwide Perspective, edited by C. Renfrew, M. Boyd, and I. Morley, 65–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peters, J., A. Driesch, A. Von Den, and D. Helmer. 2005. “The Upper Euphrates: Tigris Basin, Cradle of Agropastoralism?” In The First Steps of Animal Domestication, edited by J. D. Vigne, J. Peters, and D. Helmer, 96–124. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
(Opinions and interpretations expressed in guest contributions on this blog do not necessarily need to reflect those of the research team or the German Archaeological Institute.)
‘Special buildings‘ has become an often-used label in Near Eastern Archaeology for constructions deviating in architecture, elaborate inner fittings, finds and often also treatment after the end of use (intentional destruction, burial) from domestic spaces. This peculiar type of building seems to start existing during the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region between the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. Well-known examples come inter alia from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el Ahmar, Nevalı Çori, or Çatalhöyük. As Kathleen Kenyon has once aptly put it “… archaeologists tend to call buildings, which do not conform to the usual plan of domestic houses, shrines or temples. ” But is it that simple? Or do we summarize very different phenomena under one label just because they deviate from a ‘norm’ defined by archaeologists?
Working at Göbekli Tepe these are very important questions, and we are glad that we could gather some interesting approaches to this topic in the frame of a session at this year´s EAA Annual Meeting in Maastricht.
Our session (#s322) will be held on Saturday, September 2, between 14:00-16.45 in room 1.08.
01. Oliver Dietrich, Laura Dietrich, Deniz Erdem, Jens Notroff, Krisztián Oross, An Archaeology of ‘Special buildings‘? Introductory remarks
02. Eszter Banffy, Introduction – Special buildings in the European Neolithic?
03. Tatiana Kornienko, On the Problem of Interpreting Reliefs and Images in public structures of Northern Mesopotamia during the transition to the Neolithic
04. Anna Fagan, Special Spaces, Special Relations: An Ontological Approach to Pre-Pottery Neolithic Communal Buildings
05. Deniz Erdem, Plastering Rituals: Connecting Buildings and Bodies through Plaster
06. Theodor Aurelian Ignat, Catalin Lazar, Thoughts about special dwellings from tell settlement proximity. Sultana-Malu Rosu, a case study.
This is the English version of a text published by Oliver Dietrich and Jens Notroff in the latest issue of Aktüel Arkeoloji [external link].
Our knowledge of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia has undergone dramatic changes in the last three decades. The region long held a peripheral role in research on this period. Ever since the seminal work of K. Kenyon at Jericho, the roots of food producing were sought in the Southern Levant. Not only was the traditional differentiation of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in an earlier PPN A (c. 9600-8800 cal BC) and a later PPN B (c. 8800-7000 cal BC) devised at Jericho, but the existence of a wall and the famous tower seemed to be evidence for a strikingly early hierarchized society living in a ‘town’. The function of wall and tower have been heavily disputed later on, as has the attribution ‘town’, and the role of the Southern Levant as the core area of Neolithization.
With the influential research of L. and R. Braidwood at Jarmo, the focus of archaeological studies into the earliest Neolithic shifted to the northeast of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, or, as the Braidwoods put it, its ‘hilly flanks’. In recent years, it has become clear that the region encompassed between the middle and upper reaches of Euphrates and Tigris and the foothills of the Taurus Mountains has the potential to be a cradle of the new way of life that we call the Neolithic. The distribution areas of the wild forms of einkorn and emmer wheat, barley and the other ‘Neolithic founder crops’ overlap here, and the transition of the two wheat variants to domesticated crops has been pinpointed to this area. But it is especially one site in this region that has triggered paradigmatic changes in our views on early Neolithic society.
The tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated about 15 km northeast of the modern town of Şanlıurfa on the highest point of the Germuş mountain range. With a height of 15 m, the mound covers an area of about 9 ha, measuring 300 m in diameter. Neolithic artefacts were first recognized during a combined survey by the Universities of Chicago and Istanbul in the 1960s, but the architecture hidden by the mound remained unrecognized until its discovery in 1994 by Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute. Since then annual excavation work has been conducted.
Aerial view of Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, Photo M. Morsch).
During excavation work, a rough stratigraphical schema has been established. The older Layer III with monumental architecture consisting of 10-30 m wide circles formed by huge monolithic pillars in a distinct T-shape was dated tentatively to the PPN A /early PPN B. The pillars, reaching a height of up to 4 m, are interconnected by walls and benches which define the inner and outer spaces of the enclosures. They are always orientated towards a central pair of even larger pillars of the same shape. Depictions of arms and hands on some of them indicate their anthropomorphic character. The pillars are richly decorated with reliefs showing mainly animals, and there also is a large number of limestone sculptures depicting animals and humans from the enclosures. After the end of their use, the circular buildings of Layer III were backfilled intentionally.
A younger layer is superimposed on this monumental architecture in some parts of the mound. This Layer II was dated to the early and middle PPN B. Smaller rectangular buildings of about 3 x 4 m with terrazzo floors are characteristic for this phase. They may be understood as minimized versions of the older monumental enclosures, as they share a common element – the T-shaped pillars. However, number and height of the pillars are considerably reduced: now often only two small central pillars are present, the largest among them not exceeding a height of 2 m. There are even rooms without any pillars. As with the large enclosures, no traces of domestic activities, e.g. hearths or ovens, have been detected so far. Thereafter, building activity at Göbekli Tepe seems to have come to an end. The uppermost Layer I consists of the surface soil resulting from erosion processes as well as a plough horizon.
Göbekli Tepe, overview (copyright DAI, Photo E. Kücük).
The monumental enclosures are the most impressive part of Göbekli Tepe’s archaeology. A geophysical survey, including ground-penetrating radar confirmed that these enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the site. More than ten enclosures were located on the geophysical map in addition to the nine already under excavation – the latter designated A to I in order of their discovery. Five of these structures, A, B, C, D and G, were unearthed in the main excavation area at the mound’s southern depression; one, Enclosure F, at the southwestern hilltop; Enclosure H and I in the northwestern depression, and another one, Enclosure E, on the western plateau. Göbekli Tepe, at least in the older phase, is thus no domestic site with some special buildings, it is a site made up exclusively of special buildings and strongly connected to Neolithic (symbolic and most likely religious) beliefs.
View of Göbekli Tepe’s so-called main excavation area, Enclosure D in the front. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)
This symbolic world and Göbekli Tepe at its center clearly challenge conventional views on the organization, creative possibilities and potential of hunter-gatherers. This leads to the question how highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups were able to create a monumental site like Göbekli Tepe, and what repercussions this large-scale project may have had on their society.
Indicators for social differentiation
At Göbekli Tepe the enclosures of Layer III consist of several large megalithic elements cut from the surrounding limestone plateaus. The setting of the Neolithic quarries is demonstrated by numerous traces, between them an unfinished T pillar with a size of about 7 m and volume of 20 m³. The central pillars of Enclosure D weigh 10 metric tons each, and the pillars in the circle are only slightly smaller. Cutting, decorating, and transporting them is not a small task. There would of course also be the possibility that the enclosures were erected and constructed in the course of a longer period, but research into their building history does not seem to indicate this. On the other hand there is ample evidence for revisited work in already existing enclosures, for ongoing rearrangement, repair, depletion and re-use of some pillars in other enclosures. Consistent and intense work at thus seems very probable there.
Unfinished T-pillar in the quarries of Göbekli Tepe, tell in background. (Copyright German Archaeological Institute, Nico Becker)
There is some evidence for more than one group of people involved in construction activity. The image range of the different enclosures is far from random. In Enclosure A snakes are the dominating species, in Enclosure B foxes are frequent, in Enclosure C many boars are represented, while Enclosure D is more varied, with birds playing an important role. A possible connection of these animals to totems of different clans working at Göbekli Tepe is a possible line of interpretation which should be explored in future research.
To sum up, there is reason to believe that larger groups of people were active at Göbekli Tepe. Planning, organization and coordination of construction work were obviously necessary, as well as a mode to gather the needed workforce which most probably outnumbers the members of a single band or even a local group of hunter-gatherers. Some clues to the reasons people gathered at Göbekli Tepe come from the filing material of the enclosures. The fill material consists of limestone rubble, bones, fragments of stone artifacts and flint debitage (tools are rarer); its quite homogenous character makes the whole process of backfilling almost resembling a burial. Enclosure D alone comprised nearly 500 cubic meters of debris. With traces of permanent settlement absent, this readily leads to the idea of large, ritualized ‘work feasts’ rooted in the belief systems of the people congregating there. Large amounts of wild game were hunted and consumed. Feasting, respectively the organization of large feasts, is known ethnographically as a method to accumulate influence, to create hierarchies, and ultimately to exercise power over others. Yet there are even further indicators for social inequality in the early Neolithic archaeological record.
Limestone head from Göbekli Tepe, supposedly part of a sculpture similar to ‘Urfa Man’ (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).
A general impression of the existence of hierarchical concepts within the groups constructing the Göbekli Tepe enclosures is conferred by the layout of these structures already. The smaller pillars in the circle walls are looking towards the larger central pair of pillars. Whatever gathering is depicted here, it does not seem to be one of equals. Another differentiation seems to exist between the clearly anthropomorphic, but abstract pillars and more natural human depictions in the style of the PPN sculpture of a man from Urfa-Yeni Mahalle. The ‘Urfa statue’, regarded as the oldest naturalistic life-sized sculpture of a human, has a face, and its eyes are depicted by deep holes with inset blade segments of black obsidian, but it lacks a mouth. The statue seems to be naked with the exception of a V-shaped necklace or collar. It is not entirely clear, but it seems that its hands are holding a phallus. Legs are not depicted; below the body there is a conical tap, which allows the statue to be set into the ground. From Göbekli Tepe there are several life-sized human heads made of limestone, which probably have been part of similar sculptures originally. The heads seem to have been intentionally broken off the statues and were in many cases deposited next to the T-shaped pillars in the course of refilling the enclosures. While their exact relation to the pillars remains unclear, it seems quite possible to assume that they represent another hierarchical level or another sphere compared to these abstracted pillar-beings. This would be a strong lead to assume a concept of hierarchy in the spiritual realm. The question at hand is, if real life was structured accordingly.
One symptom, and maybe a prerequisite for the evolution of social hierarchy is specialization and division of labor. Göbekli Tepe stands witness to the existence of both. It is hard to imagine that the reliefs on these pillars and the elaborated sculptures were made by inexperienced people. The uniformity of types, the coherent style, the exactness of realization all speak in favor of a fixed canon of motifs and techniques that had to be learned. While transport and erection of the monoliths may have been accomplished in a short time span by a large work force, the artistry seems to hint at highly specialized craft(s). It seems possible that a part of the population had to be set free from subsistence activities and were cared for at least for some time of the year by the others while learning and executing work at Göbekli Tepe. Of course, the intensity and duration of such work periods is hard to apprehend, and their effect may not have been decisive in restructuring a complete society in the short term.
Greenstone buttons from Göbekli Tepe (Copyright DAI, Photos I. Wagner, K. Schmidt).
When trying to infer social hierarchization, archaeologists frequently turn to special treatment of individuals in funerary ritual or to ‚prestige’ items of material culture. At Göbekli Tepe, burials are missing so far, but it is not hard to find ‘special’ items. Looking at the portable material culture, there are spacer beads and buttons, often made of greenstone, zoomorphic pestles or ‚scepters’ of the so-called Nemrik type, elaborately decorated thin walled stone bowls, and, of course, decorated shaft straighteners and small stone tablets. The decorated tablets and shaft straighteners also pose an argument for specialization. In can be assumed that the signs on them were readable, because they repeat images and, more importantly, combinations of images known as well from the pillars, as from objects discovered at other sites in vicinity. They most likely represent a way to fix memories and knowledge of the society creating them in a form intelligible at least to initiated specialists. The challenge addressing these items as individual signs of social distinction at Göbekli Tepe lies in the fact that they come from the enclosures’ filling. They are not found in the contexts of their primary use, and there thus is no possibility to determine whether e.g. the stone bowls, the ‚scepters’ (if this determination is right), or the tablets were the individual property of persons, or part of the paraphernalia of cultic ceremonies. There are some leads though. The buttons and spacer beads, often made from greenstone and most likely part of the personal adornment, do appear frequently in Göbekli Tepe and in settlements with ‚special buildings’ like Nevalı Çori or Çayönü. They seem to be bound to such peculiar contexts and maybe to a group of religious specialists present there.
Nemrik type ‘scepters’ from Göbekli Tepe (copyright DAI, photos N. Becker, T. Goldschmidt, K. Schmidt).
A look at other sites may strengthen this image a little more. The richly furnished burials found at Körtik Tepe [external link], a site partly contemporary with Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III (but apparently starting much earlier) and sharing much of its material culture, situated more to the East in the Tigris region, are very important for understanding early Neolithic social hierarchy. Besides the settlement, at Körtik Tepe more than 450 graves have been discovered. The amount of grave goods differs considerably, there is also a large number of graves without any. Some skeletons show evidence for complex rites prior and posterior to burial, including the decoration of bones with ochre and lime-plaster. Of course, a simple relationship between burial gifts, elaborate grave rites and the social status of the deceased cannot be drawn, as the furnishing of graves also (and sometimes predominantly) is determined by the belief system and values of society or the views of the bereaved on the deceased. The broken objects at Körtik Tepe, in many cases stone bowls, could very well hint at a ritual deposition of equipment used in celebrations at the graves more than at the personal belongings of the dead. Such celebrations may implicitly and in the first place have served the purpose of handling the loss produced by the death for the social group. However, not all individuals seem to have received equal attention, and the excavators also observed that grave goods generally got more elaborated and numerous over time, which they take as a sign of increasing social hierarchization. The graves of Körtik Tepe thus seem to offer tentative evidence for social distinction among groups contemporary with Göbekli Tepe.
Plaquette with depiction of a snake, a human (?) and a bird (Photo: Irmgard Wagner, Copyright DAI).
Fragment of a decorated stone bowl from Göbekli Tepe (Photo. Schmidt, Copyright DAI).
Fragment of a decorated stone bowl from Göbekli Tepe (Photo N. Becker, Copyright DAI).
Most interestingly, also decorated stone plaquettes are part of burials at Körtik Tepe, marking them as possible individual property or signs of the social function of some of the deceased. The exact number of decorated plaquettes from Körtik is not clear, but it seems to be a restricted find group. It is possible that the possession of plaquettes themselves and – probably more important – the knowledge stored on them in abstract and symbolic form was restricted to a certain group of people. This would again hint at specialists in memory, ritual and maybe religion, drawing their importance to the group from memorizing, saving and reproducing crucial knowledge.
Restriction of the access to knowledge and participation in rituals seems to be attestable also 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 Tepe. 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. Clay and stone sculptures may thus well form two different functional groups, one connected to domestic space (and domestic 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 seems to be exclusively represented at the site.
Another element of restriction is posed by the enclosures. 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 religious specialists had access to the enclosures.
As mentioned above, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence for constant construction activity. In Addition to the erection of new monuments, activities took also place in already existing enclosures. New circle walls were added, and the re-use of pillars from other, dismantled enclosures is a frequent phenomenon. The general impression is that working at Göbekli Tepe in itself was of central importance to PPN people. One reason for this may lie in the strengthening of social cohesion such activities in combination with feasting (maybe preluded by communal hunts) bring about, but building and rebuilding Göbekli Tepe – and maybe other sites like it – may also have been a way to gain and maintain social power and influence by those possessing the knowledge necessary to construct and meaningfully decorate the ‘special buildings’.
Complementing the element of cohesion, there may also be signs of competition at Göbekli Tepe. The enclosures vary in size, in the density of iconography, and ultimately in the amount of labor invested. Also, as mentioned above, different species of animals dominate in different enclosures. That observation opens up the possibility of the circles being constructed by different groups. The possibility of competitive behavior among those groups, or individuals leading them, can thus not be ruled out.
The large-scale feasting at Göbekli Tepe seems partly to have had the character of work feasts to accomplish a common, supposedly religiously motivated task. The enclosures erected there convey the impression of gatherings through their layout, and, while signs for social stratification exist, this aspect – the gathering of people for a collective aim – should not be lost from sight completely in favor of competition and power acquisition by individuals. In any case it would seem that competition for influence, at least at Göbekli Tepe, was not open to everyone who was able to throw a large feast. Access to and command of knowledge crucial to society’s identity and well-being may have served as a social barrier hindering individuals to step outside of the given limits, while being the basis for power over the work-force of others for a restricted group of people. In conclusion, the notion of a ‘transegalitarian society’ with beginning social hierarchization on several levels brought forward by Brian Hayden seems to fit the image emerging from sites like Göbekli Tepe and Körtik Tepe.
It may be premature however to move beyond the simple observation of the early evolution of social hierarchy. We should take the limits of the momentarily available archaeological evidence into account. Göbekli Tepe is a very special site in the context of cult, the perpetuation of cultural knowledge and, maybe, ultimately religion. This is an important aspect of a society, but it is just one facet of many. Feasting in a cultic context away from settlements may have been a way to gain influence in the early Neolithic world, but at the moment it is hard to integrate into a complete picture. Complementary evidence from settlements is needed to understand how far social differentiation already influenced all aspects of life in the earlier PPN, how stable power aggregated by an individual might have been and how far his authority over others may have reached. At Göbekli Tepe, the collective aspect of accomplishing work through feasting generally seems to hint at a more indirect and maybe fragile form of power connected to a certain task.
We are grateful the General Directorate of Antiquities of Turkey for kind permission to excavate this important site. Research at Göbekli Tepe is funded by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). This text is partly based upon the following work: O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt. 2017. Feasting, social complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe. In: R. J. Chacon, R. Mendoza (eds.), Feast, Famine or Fighting? Multiple Pathways to Social Complexity. New York: Springer, 91-132.
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].
During the first field season at Göbekli Tepe in 1995 one of the landowners had started to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar with a sledgehammer. Fortunately he could be persuaded to stop, and in the 1996 work started in this area. What came to light here was the first of the monumental buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer (Layer III), later called Enclosure A.
Enclosure A in 1997 (Photo: M. Morsch, copyright DAI).
The ground plan of Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. First radiocarbon data suggest that it may be a little younger than other Enclosures, C and D, and maybe the rectangular shape already could indicate the transition to the later, rectangular, Layer II building type. The existence of different outer walls may as well hint at a longer building history and possible alteration over toime. However, Enclosure A is still not entirely excavated, so any description must remain preliminary as of yet.
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).
Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench leaning against the inner walls of the building. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the south-western side of Pillar 1. The front side of this pillar carries a central groove running vertically from below the head to its base, covering about one third of its width. This groove and the raised bands to either side are decorated with five snakes in bas-relief. Maybe this is a depiction of a stola-like garment which is similarly known from other pillars as well. Pillar 2 carries on its right side a vertical sequence of three motifs: bull, fox, and crane. Its narrower back side is adorned with a bucranium between the vertical bands of another stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 was not found in its original position, but was at some time moved to this, secondary, location. In the course of this action, the original back side of the pillar became its front and vice versa.
Göbekli Tepe, detail of the main excavation area with Enclosure A (Plan: K. Schmidt, copyright DAI).
Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four, though it is expected that this number will rise once excavations are continued in this area. Pillar 5 shows a snake again, Pillars 3 and 4 are without reliefs. Pillar 17 was heavily destroyed already in prehistory, and is without reliefs so far, too. As with all the buildings of Göbekli Tepe’s older layer, one animal species seems to dominate the imagery of Enclosure A. In this case, it is the snake which appears noteworthy often.
Klaus Schmidt, The Urfa-Project 1996, Neo-Lithics. A Newsletter of Southwest Asian Lithics Research 2/96,2–3.
Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations, Paléorient 26/1, 2001, 45-54.
This is Jonas and in this short contribution I would like to introduce myself and the research I am conducting. In the frame of the Göbekli Tepe project I will be responsible for the documentation and anlysis of lithic materials. Previously my focus has been on lithics from sites dated to the earliest Neoltihic in Central Europe. Upon my first visit to the site, I was astonished by the large amounts of flint. The analysis of this exceptional material will provide unique insights into lithic technologies, for example, châine opératiore, as well as cultural preferences, including diverse knapping techniques. Due to the extraordinarily large numbers of flint recovered from the site, I will be focusing on materials recovered from carefully chosen areas/archaeological features. Drop back soon for updates and new insights.
Collection of projectile points from Göbekli Tepe. Just a small example of the lithic industry present at site. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)
This short post is meant to introduce myself, Laura, as a new member of the Göbekli Tepe project team. I am an archaeologist doing research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age from the Levant to the Carpathian Basin with a focus on the archaeology of food and conflict. Exploring the preparation of vegetable meals in Göbekli Tepe and inferring the social dimensions of vegetable food is part of my project during the next three years.
Göbekli Tepe has a big potential for such studies. Not only is there a vast material culture related to food processing (grinding stones, pestles, mortars, sickles etc.), but food, and also vegetable food, seems to have had a special place in the worldview of its builders. Here is a little teaser.
In 2008, during the excavation of the final layers of Enclosure C, a special discovery was made. A wild boar and two stone platters lie in front of one of the central pillars of Enclosure C. The sculpture is around 30 cm high; its length is almost 50 cm. Both platters are similarly large, with diameters of 47 and 50 cm. They have been intentionally perforated in the middle; other similar finds from the site are usually unperforated. Strike marks are obvious around the perforation. Their surface is very well smoothed, although the northern platter is better worked than the southern one. Both platters are round with slightly convex surfaces down to the perforation. The wild boar is sitting with his mouth on the platters, somehow slightly oblique, its neck oriented to the hole.The platters don’t sit directly on the ground, but suprapose other stone vessels. Several more wild boar sculptures and reliefs are known from Enclosure C. All of them are part of one bigger ensemble surrounding the central pillars – and this ensemble clearly shows strong links to the preparation of food.
We are only at the start of deciphering the multiple layers of meaning inherent in the buildings of Göbekli Tepe. So stay tuned for more as I start as we begin to unveil the site’s secrets.