From the Göbekli Tepe Research Project

Tag: religion (Page 2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for future thought, definitely.

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

On half-skeletonized animals

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

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

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

 

Could we really call it a ‘temple’?

Of course, magazines have to sell stories – and superlatives always are a good argument in this case. People just love to hear about the biggest, oldest, and most spectacular. And what could be more spectecular than a headline like “The Oldest Temples in the World”? That’s how you sell a find, don’t you? Yet, as scientists we need to show some healthy reservation – in particular when dealing with such phrases and terms which obviously have developed a certain history on their own. It’s all too easy to make up a good story or ‘hypothesis’, but substantiating such proposition is where real research actually starts.

Against the background of the historical definition of ancient Roman or Greek or Near Eastern temples for instance, this peculiar type of building implicitly forms places to worship a deity or deities in our language use – the existence of this concept of ‘divinity’ is crucial to the temple as home of a god or goddesses in antiquity. It is a futile task trying to answer this complex question based on the archaeological record exclusively. We know to identify the temples of ancient Rome and Greece and the Near East and to name the gods these were housing due to the written record those cultures have left to us. Delving deep into the prehistory of the Anatolian Neolithic, however, confronts us with a sudden lack of any sources other than the material record. The challenge in relying to physically tangible sources solely to grasp rather spiritual concepts is obvious. Yet, the material culture of Göbekli Tepe and related sites and the elements of monumental architecture in particular may offer a lead worth following.

Main excavation area with monumental PPN A enclosures (Photo: N. Becker, DAI).

The T-shaped pillars forming the major and most prominent feature of Göbekli Tepe’s architecture need to play a crucial role in our observations here. While large and highly abstracted, they also clearly own human characteristics: some of these pillars show arms on their sides and hands brought together above the abdomen. There are elements of clothing depicted in relief as well: stola-like garments draped around pillars’ shoulders and fox-skin loincloths depicted dangling from belts. This emphasizes quite impressively that the T-pillars apparently have to be understood as monumental anthropomorphic sculptures. Most interestingly, however, is that they are always depicted faceless. There are no eyes, no nose or mouth present, these pillar-statues remain bereft of individuality on first glance – only to be distinguished, at least in the case of the central pillars of Enclosure D for example, by peculiar symbols below their heads – not unlike where one would wear necklaces. So, while still nameless to us, the Neolithic people may well have recognized who it was depicted here towering above them.

With a height of about 5.5 m it is particularly the T-pillars’ larger-than-life appearance which seems so remarkable – especially given that their highly abstract character is intentional and not to the result of deficient craftsmanship. Apart from the numerous animal sculptures uncovered at Göbekli Tepe, the so called ‘Urfa Man’ gives witness to Neolithic sculptors’ ability to portray the human body naturalistically. This oldest known statue of a man, about life-size, was found during construction work in the area of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Urfa-Yeni Yol.  In contrast to the cubic and faceless T-pillars, whose identity and meaning apparently seems to a different one, ‘Urfa Man’ has a face, his eyes depicted by segments of black obsidian sunk into deep holes (a mouth, however, is missing). From Göbekli Tepe there are known several limestone-heads, too. They have a breaking edge in the neck area indicating that they originally were part of larger statues much like ‘Urfa Man’ himself.

So-called Urfa Man is considered the oldest known life-sized sculpture of a man (Photo: J. Notroff, DAI).

As already noted in the beginning, we know little of the beliefs these people might have followed, so it would seem rather bold to denote these monumental pillar-statues as personifications of ‘deities’. But faceless, larger than life and highly abstract, they clearly seem to be set on a quite different level than the naturalistic life-sized sculptures like ‘Urfa Man’ and the Göbekli Tepe stone heads. They seem to represent something more, supposedly something beyond the self-referential depiction of human beings. Together with the obviously narrative character of other depcitions on these T-pillars which clearly exceed simple decorative purposes, this perception feeds the impression that we are confronted here with a complex iconography – with mythological narrations probably even.

It is these T-pillars in particular which form the centre and most important element of the site of Göbekli Tepe, so they naturally become a strong argument in the interpretation of these enclosures as well. If we after all would like to call them ‘temples’ or still hesitate to use this term finally comes down to the definition one applies. But differing so noticeably from the well-known general types of contemporary settlement patterns (and also apparently lacking most of the material culture which is so typically for clearly domestic contexts), we confidently name these structures ‘communal’ or ‘special purpose buildings’ with all due scientifical propriety. This is even more compelling since apparently almost every settlement site of the period and region seems to have produced at least one comparable communal structure of similar design and layout. Only at Göbekli Tepe there is a noticeable cumulation of this peculiar building type – but this should be topic of another contribution.

Further reading
N. Becker, O. Dietrich, Th. Götzelt, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, J. Notroff, K. Schmidt, Materialien zur Deutung der zentralen Pfeilerpaare des Göbekli Tepe und weiterer Orte des obermesopotamischen Frühneolithikums, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 5, 2012, 14-43.

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, in: N. Lanerie (ed.), Defining the Sacred. Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford & Philadelphia 2015, 75-89.

J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, K. Schmidt, Gathering of the Dead? The Early Neolithic sanctuaries of Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey, in: C. Renfrew, M. J. Boyd and Iain Morley (eds.), Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World. “Death Shall Have no Dominion”, Cambridge 2016, 65-81.

On Air: National Geographic’s “Story of God” (now in German too)

“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.

On Air: National Geographic’s “The Story of God”

In a current documentary series produced for and aired at the National Geographic Channel [external link], Hollywood-actor Morgan Freeman embarks on a journey to find out how religion connects people and where the power of belief actually comes from. The show is named “The Story of God” [external link] (and Freeman seems the obvious choice for hosting this, after all he once was God – on the big screen) and explores several chapters of the history of religion, ancient and modern.

In the upcoming episode “Creation” [external link], belief and myth are traced back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East. A couple of fascinating archaeological sites and excavations are featured in that episode, among those our’s at Göbekli Tepe as well.

The episode will be airing this Sunday, April 24th 2016 at 9:00 pm EST / 8 pm CST on National Geographic Channel in the US, and later this week in 170 countries globally.

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