The Tepe Telegrams

News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff

Tag: research (page 1 of 2)

Communicating research: A short report on outreach and science communication

We started this weblog in 2016 as part of an (at least for us) new approach to the communication of our research in the frame of the Göbekli Tepe excavations. Since then this online presence has been constantly growing – with meanwhile 143 contributions, about 53,000 yearly visitors and 127,000 site impressions (thanks a lot!) even beyond a scale we would have hardly imagined when we came up with the idea originally. Science communication has become an important part of our daily work – in archaeology and science in general as a still increasing interest constantly proves. Therefore we were looking to exchange the experiences and impressions gained over the last years, engaging in a discussion with colleagues to larn about other approaches and strategies how to best present research and results to a broader public audience – and to consequently develop the contents provided here.

With the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists [external link] we found a great platform to reach out to and discuss with colleagues from all over the world. Together with our colleague Matt Knight from the University of Exeter we organised a session on “Communicating Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in a Post-Factual Age” (more details here) which was finally taking place in early September last year at the EAA’s conference on “Reflecting Futures” in Barcelona, Spain [external link]. We are very happy that many colleagues and active communicators joined us for this session, presenting their own work and experience in the field – and engaging in a really lively and producitve discussion.

Please find here a short report on session, individual presentations, the following discussion and outcome (originally published as: O. Dietrich and J. Notroff, Hashtag Scicomm: communicating archaeology in a post-factual age. Report on Session 371 at the 24th EAA Annual Meeting in Barcelona, Spain, TEA 59, 2019 [external link].)

 

Report on Session 371 at the 24th EAA Annual Meeting in Barcelona, Spain

Archaeology has been engaged in a constant dialogue with the public right from its beginnings as a scientific discipline. Spectacular discoveries have stirred large-scale interest and became positive icons associated with our field. Stories of search and discovery often glorify archaeology as adventure, and whether we like it or not many of us will have been associated with Indiana Jones once or twice.

On a much darker note, the 20th century has seen archaeology being misused to support political totalitarianism and extremist ideologies. And today, with archaeology enjoying a wide popularity, there still are attempts to exploit the past. Recent methodological developments like aDNA studies offer great opportunities, but also threaten bringing back these ghosts of the past by apparently offering possibilities to track ‘population continuity’ and migration back in time. There is one essential measure to counter and avoid misuse of our research and data, models and interpretations: active science communication – by archaeologists.

Traditional outreach methods, like museums, documentaries, and popular books or articles, have been complemented by digital tools. But whatever approach is chosen, one element remains of critical importance: Credible experts who can convey the essence of archaeological research to the public. This is the point, where science in general and archaeology are vulnerable, now probably more than a decade or two ago. Facts seem to have become negotiable, and ‘alternative facts’ can be proposed. Discussions on the past have found new platforms, detached from academia and academic discourse.

Our session at the 2018 annual meeting of the EAA in Barcelona set out to explore the following questions:

  • How can archaeologists keep their role as interpreters and communicators of the past, or should they keep that role at all?
  • In which ways can we credibly counter misuse of archaeological research, the past and cultural heritage? What is ‘misuse’, what is legitimate?
  • What are reasonable ways to reach out – and to engage with the public?
  • How may approaches be assessed to discontinue ineffective – and unethical – communication practices?

Seven oral contributions and two posters addressed these questions from very diverse points of view. Our own contribution (Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich) detailed experience from more than 10 years of communicating archaeological research from Göbekli Tepe, an excavation project of the German Archaeological Institute in cooperation with the Archaeological Museum Şanlıurfa (Turkey) funded by the German Research Foundation, that has seen particular public and media interest. Göbekli Tepe has produced very early monumental architecture in a hunter-gatherer milieu (10th/9th millennium BC) and has far-reaching implications for the history of the whole Neolithization process. The project has seen an ever-growing media interest right from the start, peaks in interest occurred with popular science publications or controversies, like a 2007 story on the location of the ‘Garden of Eden’ or diverse attempts to integrate it into the ‘Ancient Aliens’ narrative. In an era of quick and far spreading information through webpages, online discussion boards, blogs, and self-produced ‘documentary’ videos, traditional outreach media turned out to be too slow, with too little actual reach – and too distant from the spaces where ensuing discussions by an audience actively engaging with such narratives actually take place. The easiest and most simple solution was to carry our own outreach attempts to these places. This led to the creation of a research weblog to disseminate information often requested via e-mails before, but also to provide a platform for discussions with actual access to latest research – and researchers. Blog content helped to reduce the daily workload (caused by the public requests mentioned before), but also turned out an efficient way to comment on controversies regarding the site, like e.g. a recent claim linking the site’s complex iconography with an unproven fatal comet impact that supposedly may have triggered the Younger Dryas.

Hanna Pageau pointed out that science communication is often expected to be handled by the most vulnerable groups in academia. She promoted ‘allyship’ (in action, not only lip service) as integral part of good communication outreach to combat ‘fake news’ as propaganda tool and wider trends of abuse and miscommunication as well as making sure the communities affected by research and outreach benefit from the whole process as well.

Tine Schenck, Linn Marie Krogsrud, and Emily Wapshott started with the observation that not archaeologists, but other professions with different background and different agendas, e.g. journalists or movie directors, dominate the communication of archaeological research to a wider audience. To offer a communication network with alternative communication strategies, they launched ArchaeologistsEngage [external link], an organization with the aim to tear down the barrier between archaeologists and the public and to open up the discussion by enabling a direct and non-hierarchical exchange between scientists and audience through local events, blogs and social media.

Jana Anvari and Eva Rosenstock analyzed one particularly influential topos in contemporary popular scientific discussions about archaeology and the Stone Age: ‘Neolithic Doom’ – the hypothesis that the transition to agriculture had predominantly negative long-term effects. They collected the impressive number of 150 different negative outcomes, especially for human health, social structure, and environment, attributed to the Neolithization process in popular literature. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), archaeologists have nearly no voice in this discussion, which is dominated by authors with academic training (in other disciplines though) and non-archaeological sources. Apparently, archaeologists seem to be largely unaware of the public interest in one of their key research topics and fail to engage in the debate.

Kathrin Schmitt highlighted that issues of ‘post-factuality’ or ‘alternative’ narratives can only be addressed by developing a deep understanding of the concept of factuality and the production of facts through language. Therefore archaeologists should become aware of biases in their own way of writing history: colonialisms, eurocentrisms and androcentrisms are included in many narratives which are considered to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ presentations of history and are presented as facts to the public. Thus, awareness should be raised that language is not a neutral communication tool, neither within our field, nor in communicating research results to a public audience.

Carlo Baione presented two practical examples of digital outreach (at the Roman site of Poggio del Molino and the Museo Etrusco di Populonia), underlining how digitalization means accessibility. He showed how linking de-contextualized objects from Populonia back to their original find contexts (via 3D-models of the Etruscan graves they were taken from) can help raising awareness for the importance of context in archaeology (https://sketchfab.com/museopopulonia). At Poggio de Molino digital 3D-documentation is not only part of the archaeological workflow, but also shared with the public to directly communicate excavation results (www.archeodig.com/pages/poggio.html).

Zsanett Abonyi and Zoltán Havas talked about communication strategies and chances to attract visitors from the point of view of the Aquincum Museum in Budapest. The museum is not located in the city center where tourists naturally concentrate and had to cope with the increasing trend of visitors expecting interaction and entertainment, beyond traditional exhibitions. Aquincum is closely associated with the Roman emperor Hadrian. The museum successfully tried to use the acquaintance of younger adults with that fact (from school) and modern marketing strategies to create a brand surrounding the historical figure, a new trademark – also by organizing a thematic year surrounding the emperor with a diverse set of activities. The identification of a new target group and active outreach helped to significantly increase visitor numbers.

Magdalena Kozicka & Ewa Wielocha presented a poster on their work-experience with the participation in cultural events, touristic arrangements and historic reenactment activities as means of public outreach. The ‘Society of Archaeology Students’ associated with the Toruń University´s Institute of Archaeology is regularly participating in medieval everyday life reenactment – aimed at a public audience of diverse age and interest. They emphasized how interaction, i.e. talking with, not at people is the key to successful science communication.

Dragana Filipovic, Kristina Penezic, Milorad Ignjatović & Nenad Tasić presented their outreach efforts included in the most recent research phase at the site of Vinča, promoting the site itself and the archaeological research conducted there, as well as correcting frequent misinterpretations of the site in public perception. Between a wide range of indirect-passive (e.g. presentations, reconstructions), direct-active (gallery and open air exhibitions, public lectures) and interactive approaches (themed presentations organized for specific target groups, informal conversations with archaeologists), the most effective way, as turned out again, was inclusive interaction between presenters and audiences.

Summing up session results and lively debate afterwards, there are a couple of topics and issues raised in all contributions:

  1. Effective science communication can only take place when perceived and real hierarchical barriers are low or, preferably, non-existent. This can be achieved in different ways: one is the use of so-called social media or weblogs, where people can directly express own thoughts and questions and are enabled to actually interact with experts on the subject directly. The other one are specifically designed events, which grant access to archaeologists / specialists in person, creating a communication situation on eye-level.
  2. Efficient science communication is increasingly considered to be of importance, but mostly done by early career researchers – additionally to their daily workload. Institutions thus should include science communication into project planning (including funding relevant positions).
  3. Archaeology needs to critically revise a part of its own narratives and must increase presence and participation in public discourse directly touching our own fields of interest and research.

Current state of research: New arkeofili.com-interview with Göbekli Tepe-Project coordinator Lee Clare

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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 🙂

Thank you!

(Original interview published in Turkish and English at arkeofili.com January 28 2019; republished here by courtesy of arkeofili staff.)

In memory of Harald Hauptmann (1936-2018)

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.

Recap: #AskGT – ‘Q&A’ about recent research at Göbekli Tepe

A couple of weeks ago, in June, we thanked you, the esteemed readers of this blog, for your ongoing interest in the German Archaeological Institute’s Göbekli Tepe research project as it is impressively visible by the visitor numbers of this blog. Thanks again once more! Yet we also used the opportunity to offer a kind of questionnaire via twitter, giving you the chance to adress your questions regarding the excavations at early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.

Since we consider this little experiement in ‘science communication’ a success, we are not only discussing and planning to repeat something similar in the not too distant future, but also would like to share the outcome of this first Q&A here. Maybe you’ll find some of the answers and discussions which emerged from this question time of interest; some of the links provided are certainly worth a look. Thanks a lot to everyone participating.

Introduction

First of all we started of with some more general remarks, intoducing ourselves as moderators of this Q&A and the site of Göbekli Tepe itsels as well as the state of research so far.

Site & Monuments

Many of the questions coming up early in the discussion were in particular directed at the nature of the archaeological site itself and the monuments unearthed there.

 

 

 

 

 

Excavations and field research

Also, excavation methods applied at Göbekli Tepe and aspects of field research took an interest in the course of the session.

 

 

 

Analyses

Question for applied methods  of course also included analyses and research undertaken at desk and lab.

 

Iconography

One of the most important features of the Göbekli Tepe monuments is their complex iconography – which naturally also generated much interest during among questioners.

 

Interpretation

Next to obtaining material sources by excavation, one of the most important parts of archaeological research is to interpret the finds and features unearthed and collected. So this was another topic of many questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Environment

To properly understand how prehistoric people interacted with the world around them, it is of course inevitable to also have a look at this world they are living in, at environment and climate. Another point which also was picked up by some of the questions.

 

Culture

These PPN hunters certainly were not acting in a social vacuum, so questions to the cultural background of the Göbekli Tepe monuments and their builders are only logical.

 

Links & connections to other sites

Comparisons with other monuments or thoughts about a possible connection to such are quite often put forward then discussing Göbekli Tepe (in fact, we had a whole blog post dedicated to this topic just recently).

Prospects

Some questions were interested in future work at the site and pending research results.

 

 

Thanks, and goodbye

With some closing remarks we finally had to bring this most interesting hour to an end, definitely overhelmed by the number of participants and questions and really glad to see so much interest in the work of the Göbekli Tepe research project. Thanks a lot!

Since the great and very encouraging feedback this Q&A received and the interesting discussions it triggered, we can only thank everyone who participated again and repeat what’s already mirrored in this last tweet above: That we definitely repeat this in due time. So, have your questions ready – see you then.

Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production

A few kilometres northeast of modern Şanlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey, the tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Rising 15 metres and with an area of about 9 hectares, the completely man-made mound covers the earliest known monumental cult architecture in the ancient Near East. Constructed by hunter-gatherers right after the end of the last Ice Age, they also intentionally buried it about 10,000 years ago.

Göbekli Tepe has been known to archaeologists since the 1960s, when a joint survey team from the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago under the direction of Halet Çambel and Robert Braidwood observed numerous flint artefacts littering the surface of the mound. However, the monumental architecture remained undetected, and was eventually discovered by Klaus Schmidt on a grand tour of important south-eastern Turkish Neolithic sites in 1994. In addition to the high density of flint tools and flakes, his eye was caught by large limestone blocks which reminded him of another nearby Neolithic site where he had worked several years before: Nevalı Çori – where, among others, a building with monolithic T- pillars was discovered for the first time. These peculiar T-shapes reminded Schmidt of the worked stone peeking out of the surface at Göbekli Tepe. Excavations at this site began the next year.

In about 22 years of ongoing fieldwork, the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanlıurfa Museum have revealed a totally unexpected monumental architecture at Göbekli Tepe, dating to the earliest Neolithic period. No typical domestic structures have yet been found, leading to the interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as a ritual centre for gathering and feasting. The people creating these megalithic monuments were still highly mobile hunter-foragers and the site’s material culture corroborates this: substantial amounts of bones exclusively from hunted wild animals, and a stone tool inventory comprising a wide range of projectile points. Osteological investigations and botanical studies show that animal husbandry was not practiced at Göbekli Tepe and domesticated plants were unknown.

It is currently possible to distinguish two different phases at Göbekli Tepe although this will undoubtedly change with continued research. The site is characterised by an older layer dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A period (ca. 9,600-8,800 calBC) which produced monumental circular huge T-shaped pillars arranged in circle-like enclosures around two even taller central pillars and a younger layer, early and middle PPN B (c. 8,800-7,000 calBC) in date. It consists of smaller rectangular buildings containing often only two small central pillars or even none at all. These may be reduced variations (or later adaptations) of the older and considerably larger monuments, of which four were excavated in the main excavation area in the mound’s southern depression. Notably these structures, labelled Enclosures A, B, C, and D, were apparently backfilled intentionally at the end of their use-lives. Enclosure D, the best preserved of the circular buildings, serves to give an impression of the general layout and set-up of these enclosures.

In the centre two colossal pillars, measuring about 5.5 m, are founded in shallow pedestals carved out of the carefully smoothed bedrock. This central pair of pillars is surrounded by a circle formed of similar, but slightly smaller pillars which are connected by stone walls and benches. While these surrounding pillars often are decorated with depictions of animals like foxes, aurochs, birds, snakes, and spiders, the central pair in particular illustrates the anthropomorphic character of the T-pillars. They clearly display arms depicted in relief on the pillars’ shafts, with hands brought together above the abdomen, pointing to the middle of the waist. Belts and loincloths underline this impression and emphasize the human-like appearance of these pillars. Their larger-than-life and highly abstracted representation is intentionally chosen and not owed to deficient craftsmanship, as other finds like the much more naturalistic animal and human sculptures clearly demonstrate. This suggests that whatever the larger-than-life T-pillars are meant to depict and embody is on a different level than the life-sized sculptures in the iconography of Göbekli Tepe and the Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia.

While naturalistic and abstract depictions find their most monumental manifestation on the T-shaped pillars, there are others. Similar and clearly related iconography also occurs on functional objects like so-called shaft straighteners, on stone bowls and cups, as well as on small stone tablets which apparently do not have any other function than to bear these signs. Furthermore, these objects are not restricted to Göbekli Tepe and the few other sites with T-shaped pillars in its closer vicinity, but are known from places up to 200 km around the site. A spiritual concept seems to have linked these sites to each other, suggesting a larger cultic community among PPN mobile groups in Upper Mesopotamia, tied in a network of communication and exchange.

Ethnologic and historic analogies emphasize the importance of regular gatherings and collective activities as means of maintaining social cohesion in hunter-gatherer communities. Gatherings also serve other purposes like the exchange of information, goods, and marriage partners. Such large-scale gatherings naturally need to be established in locations that are known and easily accessible for the participating groups.

The topographical situation of Göbekli Tepe as a landmark overlooking the surrounding plains, seem a perfectly suitable central space for these groups and people inhabiting the wider region. Large communal tasks executed as collective work events, reflected in the apparently continuous construction activity at Göbekli Tepe, provided a unifying reason for people to come together. Additionally ethnographic studies provide more examples demonstrating that work forces necessary for such collaborative projects can be gathered with the prospect of lavish feasts.

That this may have been the case at Göbekli Tepe is further corroborated by a closer look at the massive amount of filling material of the enclosures, which consists of limestone rubble, flint artefacts, fragments of stone vessels, other ground stone tools, and in particular an impressively large numbers of animal bones – above all gazelle and aurochs. These remains hint at the consumption of enormous amounts of meat, most likely during feasts framing these large-scale meetings and communal activities, including monument construction.

T_Karte_neu

Current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars and with simple limestone stelae (modified after Schmidt 2006; Copyright DAI).

Repetitive feasting at Göbekli Tepe may have played an essential role not only in creating and strengthening social bonds among the individuals and groups meeting there, but must also have stressed the economic potential of these hunter-gatherers to repeatedly feed such large crowds. In response to this pressure, new food resources and processing techniques may have been explored, subsequently paving the way for a complete change in subsistence strategy. In this scenario, the early appearance of monumental religious architecture motivating work feasts to draw as many hands as possible for the execution of complex, collective tasks is changing our understanding of one of the key moments in human history: the emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry – and the onset of food production and the Neolithic way of live.

This text was originally written by Jens Notroff & Oliver Dietrich for and published at the weblog of Boston University’s American School of Oriental Research: The Ancient Near East Today – Current News About The Ancient Past [external link], July 2017: Vol. V, No. 7 under the title “Göbekli Tepe: Neolithic Gathering and Feasting at the Beginning of Food Production” [external link].

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Introducing: Enclosure H – Welcoming a new member to the Göbekli Tepe-family.

The most notable feature of Göbekli Tepe are, of course, the monumental circular enclosures formed of T-shaped pillars dating back to the 10th millennium BC. The first of these structures were discovered early druring excavations from 1995 onwards in the mound’s southwestern depression which meanwhile became known as ‘main excavation area’. To clarify if this peculiar type of architecture was limited to this part of the site and discovered by pure chance, geophysical surveys were undertaken – indeed demonstrating that similar features could be found in other parts of the mound as well. Renewed excavations in particular in the northwestern depression (Fig. 1) started in 2011 produced a number of interesting related features of which one, Enclosure H, should be in the focus of this short report.

overview

Fig. 1: Aerial of Göbekli Tepe and the excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)

Georadar results already indicated a large, cloverleaf-shaped agglomeration of what seemed to be one or even more circular enclosures (Fig. 2). Excavations started in that area in 2011 soon revealed first T-pillars, confirming the existence of more monuments in this section of the tall as well. The structure which later would have been labelled ‘Enclosure H’ (in order of their discovery) could have been indeed located on the geophysical plan already as circular feature in the western part of the examined area (K10-24 and -25 as well as (partly) K10-35 and -35).

Enclosure H_geo

Fig. 2: Geomagnetic survey results in the NW depression, excavation areas superimposed. (Geomagnetics: GGH- Solutions in Geoscience, Plan: J. Notroff, DAI)

Enclosure H

Fig. 3: Aerial of Enclosure H at current state of excavations, including pillar numbers. (Photos: N. Becker, compilation: J. Notroff, DAI)

Although excavations are not completed yet, it can already be noted that it follows the general scheme and layout of the other known PPN A enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. In the course of following excavations eight pillars were discovered and excavated to this date (Fig. 3).

P51

Fig. 4: Pillar 51, the eastern (and so far only discovered) central pillar of Enclosure H. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

The eastern central pillar of Enclosure H, Pillar 51 (Fig. 4), was found close to the surface. While still in situ, the massive pillar was toppled over, its head heavily damaged (all fragments could be found and documented in immediate vicinity, however). The front side shows the characteristic stola-like depcition, the western broad side features the relief of a big cat which somehow resembles those animals known from the younger (Layer II) rectangular ‘lion pillars building’ in the main excavation area.

Pillars 54 and 55 in the enclosure’s northern respectively southern wall are partly excavated, also showing the ‘stola’-relief. The latter’s head being damaged as well (most likely due to frost weathering).

beitrag-gobekli-tepe_abb-10

Fig. 5: The extensively decorated Pillar 56. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 56 (Fig. 5) is particularly notworthy due to its extensively decorated southwestern broadside – more than 55 animals are depicted so closely packed, that the outline of one merges with the contour of the next image. On the narrow front side a bucranium framed by two snaked can be seen. The northeastern broad side shows two very low lines which might indicate further reliefs here, but need to be clarified in the course of future excavations.

P57

Fig. 6: Pillar 57 in the southern wall of Enclosure H (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 57 (Fig. 6) is situated in the southern wall of Enclosure H. Its head is, probably due to frost weathering again, damaged. The front side shows the reliefs of two snakes (whose bodies seem to wind around the pillar) are facing each other and a round object. Underneath another carving can be seen; hardly identifiable it could be another snake’s head.

Of Pillar 64 there is only the basis left in situ, while another limestone fragment from its head was found nearby.

gt14_k1025_p66_7209

Fig. 7: Pillar 66 with the depcition of an apparently dying or dead horned animal. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 66 (Fig. 7) is situated to the west of P54 in the northern part of the enclosure wall, but deviates from the expected radial orientation since it stands almost parallel to the wall. This unusual position may have to do with a possible secondary use of the pillar here; something which was also already brought up for Enclosures B and C in the main excvation area. The pillar’s head depicts a large horned animal (maybe an aurochs or stag) with bent legs and hanging out tongue, maybe indicating the death of this animal.

P69

Fig. 8: Pillar 69 with the relief of a jumping cat of prey. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Pillar 69 (Fig. 8) in the northeastern enclosure wall shares the unusual orientation with P66, also standing parallel to the wall. Not completely excavated yet, it shows the relief of a jumping cat of prey on the shaft; the pillar’s head is smashed.

The enclosure wall, which was unearthed in the southern and eastern as well, to some degree, documented in the northern parts, already can give an idea of the dimension of Enclosure H which probably was more of elliptic rather than circular shape and probably had an inner diameter of about 10 m. After a not yet determined period of use, the enclosure was finally backfilled and buried much like this could have been observed with the main excavation area’s enclosures already. However, the excavated southern section of Enclosure H shows very clear that there must have been at least one additional later intervention after this backfilling took place. The alltogether rather ‘chaotic’ discovery situation of the southern enclosure wall, with broken stone benches and pillar fragments obviously not in their original position anymore, gives witness of this intrusion which can be also seen quite clearly in the northern profile of this excavation trench (Fig. 9).

Enclosure H_N-profile

Fig. 9: The northern profile of excavation area K10-24, the later pit dug into the already backfilled enclosure is clearly visible to the left. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

Interestingly, this somehow mirrors a similar situation already met in Enclosure C, where also a later dug pit which only purpose seems to have been locating and breaking the enclosure’s central pillars (whose smashed pieces could be retrieved nearby), for reasons still remaining in the dark as of yet. Another noteworthy feature (which again reminds of the general situation of Enclosure C) is the discovery of some steps apparently forming a stairway in the intersection of two walls in Enclosure H’s southern boundaries. If this really could be interpreted as some kind of entrance situation into the enclosure has to remain topic of future investigations here.

Further reading:

O. Dietrich, J. Notroff, L. Clare, Ch. Hübner, Ç. Köksal-Schmidt, K. Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe, Anlage H. Ein Vorbericht beim Ausgrabungsstand von 2014, in: Ü. Yalcin (ed.) Anatolian Metal VII – Anatolien und seine Nachbarn vor 10.000 Jahren / Anatolia and Neighbours 10.000 years ago. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 31, Bochum 2016, 53-69.

Just don’t call it the Garden of Eden …

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.

As we already noted in our FAQ here:

“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.”

Enclosure A, a short overview

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

Anlage A

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

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

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

grafik1

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

A Brief Report on Fieldwork at Göbekli Tepe in 2016

In 2016 construction work commenced on two permanent shelters at Göbekli Tepe. These structures will provide additional protection from the elements (wind, sun and rain) to archaeological features in excavation areas in the south-eastern and north-western parts of the site. Fieldwork in spring and autumn of this year concentrated on the documentation of prehistoric architecture in areas affected by building activities. Additional time was spent in the site find-depots, including sorting and inventory work of stored archaeological materials. These measures were essential in preparation for pending analyses and studies taking place in the frame of the recently initiated research phase.

In the course of our excavations at one of the positions assigned to shelter support constructions in the so-called main excavation area in the south-eastern hollow, work was concentrated on the previously unexcavated part of a rectangular stone structure (‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56) of the type commonly assigned to Layer 2 (attributed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period).

1

Plan of the western parts of the ‘southeast hollow’ (main excavation area). The location of ‘Room 38’ in trench L9-56 is marked with a black frame.

In the northwest quarter of the room fill deposits were left untouched in order to provide additional support for the T-pillar (PXIII) located (still in-situ) at a central position at the western end of the room. The base of this T-pillar was found to be embedded in a raised platform at the western end of the building. In the northeast corner of the room a stone feature was revealed. This feature is comprised of three low (c. 50 cm high) walls (to the north, east and west). Two of the walls (to the north and east) are constructed of limestone blocks and were built up against the main walls of the room. The southern wall of the feature is made of a large worked limestone slab, perhaps a fragment of a T-pillar or similar object. The feature is open to the west. A lack of evidence for burning would speak against its function as an oven. Excavations within the building yielded numerous finds, including chipped stone and animal bone remains. A large stone vessel was found in-situ on the floor of the building.

Full research ahead!

Last week about two dozen colleagues, specialists of several disciplines from archaeology, geography, zoology and botany to anthropology, building research, and beyond were gathering in the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute here in Berlin to discuss the many new facets, challenges, and opportunities the Göbekli Tepe research project will encounter now with the new 3-year project phase just launched a couple of weeks ago.

workshop

Current and future Göbekli Tepe research project staff. (Photo: J. Notroff)

Future research will shed more light on, among others, the site’s stratigraphy and the complex building history of the enclosures, the interesting treatment of human and animal bones found there and what this would mean in the wider context of Pre-Ptottery Neolithic subsistence adnd society. Together with the colleagues we will gain new information on the variety of sculptures and reliefs, on prehistoric climate and environment, and much, much more.

We look forward to an interesting and productive research phase ahead and to present these colleagues and their fascinating work, just like Laura who lead off here recently with her research into preparation of vegetable meals at Göbekli Tepe, in the coming weeks. Watch this space.

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