Göbekli Tepe: Pillar

Göbekli Tepe: Pillar

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Prehistory Decoded

Significance: Gobekli Tepe (GT) probably represents the origin of civilisation for most of the world today. Most of us are connected to it in some way, through language and religion (proto-Nostratic), or genetics at least.

The Pillars: GT is famous for its anomalous megalithic pillars, and especially the symbols carved on them. Most people think these symbols are telling an important story - they are not just random pictures of animals. Klauss Schmidt, who discovered GT and led its excavation, until his death in 2014, certainly thought so. It follows that the only way we will ever be able to properly understand Gobekli Tepe, and therefore the origin of civilisation, is through reading its pillars.

Deutsche Archaeological Institute: the DAI operates the Gobekli Tepe dig. Despite the immense significance of the site, they continue to have a casual disregard for the information encoded on its pillars. Over 60 pillars have been uncovered, but only around 20 are documented by the DAI. Although many have no symbols, even 25 years after the site's discovery there is no single resource available that describes all its pillars. Good photos of some of the pillars can be found in journal papers, but these are often behind a paywall. Many other photos of the pillars can be found on social media platforms, but these often lack the details desired.

Aim: my aim here is to circumvent the DAI's ineptitude, and present as much information about the symbols on GT's pillars as I can find to create a public resource. Please let me know if I have missed anything.

The Younger Dryas impact: in Prehistory Decoded, I lay out the basis for an interpretation of GT's pillars based on the Younger Dryas (YD) impact, circa 10,785 - 10,885 BC, likely caused by our encounter with the fragments of a comet from the Taurid meteor stream. In essence, it seems our civilisation began with a bang!

Ancient Egypt: symbolic connections between GT and Ancient Egypt (AE) are also very strong, in addition to the obvious similarities in terms of megalithic architecture and astronomical religion. Klauss Schmidt thought so too - he pointed out several connections himself, despite their cultures being separated by nearly 5000 years and 500 miles. As GT represents the likely origin of civilisation for most of the world, connections between GT many ancient cultures, like the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, are to be expected. I therefore highlight further possible connections where they are likely.

Astronomical symbolism: throughout, I take it as given that GT's symbolism is astronomical. Apart from the self-evident sun and moon (eclipse?) symbols on Pillar 18, and the likely Pleiades symbols on the base of Pillar 18, it is extremely likely that the animal symbols represent star constellations (see here) and are connected to much more ancient Palaeolithic cave art. Many scholars today accept the primacy of astronomy in ancient myth and religion, although proving this is difficult before written texts. So the DAIs unwillingness to consider an astronomical interpretation for GT is actually quite odd, and shows how modern, fashionable archaeology is ill-equipped to study these ancient sites.

Maps: GT is huge, as the ground penetrating radar scan below shows. The excavated portion is detailed bottom-right on this scan, including Enclosures A to D shown in green. A larger map of these four enclosures and their pillars is shown after. Enclosure H is on the northern edge of the larger radar scan map.

Pillar 1: Central Pillar of Enclosure A, the snakes likely represent meteors, while the ram likely represents the constellation Aries. This pillar therefore likely depicts meteors from the direction of Aries, or approaching Aries, and therefore might represent an aspect of the Taurid meteor stream.

Connections to AE are likely in terms of the Uraeus symbol (Klauss Schmidt suggested this himself) as well as other serpent deities (such as Apep and Nehebkau), and with Amun in the New Kingdom who was often represented as a ram (Aries was the spring equinox constellation during the New Kingdom). Of course, we also have the Lamb of God, aka Jesus, in Christianity, which likely derives from the Jewish sacrificial lamb, which itself likely derives, again, from the spring equinox constellation Aries.

Serpent symbolism is seen across the world's religions (not least as Satan himself in Christianity), so the snakes seen here are probably not the earliest representation of meteors by snakes we will ever find. Since Klauss Schmidt's death, the site's archaeologists have taken a more 'fashionable' (in archaeological circles) view of the symbols - they think the snakes on this pillar depict a garment for example!

Pillar 2: The second central pillar of Enclosure A, likely depicts the sequence of constellations, Capricornus (bull), Aquarius (fox) and Pisces (tall bending bird), which would likely have been the path of the radiant of the northern Taurid meteor stream circa 10,000 BC. Possibly, this pillar represents the name of that meteor stream.

We know the Taurids exhibit longitudinal precession of roughly 30 degrees every 6,000 years, which equates to about 4 hours along the ecliptic from today's radiant path if translating to 10,000 BC). This means the current path of the Northern Taurids shown in Stellarium (mid-Pisces through Aries to the end of Taurus) would translate to mid-Capricornus through northern Aquarius to end-Pisces, as shown on Pillar 2. The fox, though, is facing the wrong way, so I have reversed Aquarius in the image below.

Similarities with the Cartouche writing convention of AE is clear - see an example in the middle below. See also a stone plaquette (below right) found at GT, which has a similar structure. Possibly, this stone plaquette tells the story of the comet god (trident symbol) who attacked and killed (explosion symbol) the cosmic serpent god (falling snake symbol) who fell to Earth, perhaps a mythical description of the Younger Dryas event. It is a myth, the 'chaoskampf', repeated in many religions, including by the Ancient Egyptians (Set vs Apep), Babylonians (Marduk vs Tiamat), and Christians (the fall of Satan). The site's archaeologists interpret this stone plaquette simply as the sequence (the other way up), snake, tree, bird, with no further meaning.

The Institute for Creation Research

"Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies," according to a National Geographic feature in June 2011. 1 But the exquisitely carved pillars of the world's oldest known temple, Gobekli Tepe, contradict that evolutionary version of ancient human history. 2

Standard evolutionary anthropology&mdashthe study of ancient man&mdashinsists that humans invented religious worship as they emerged from an ape-like ancestry. Religion supposedly emerged after the development of agriculture provided people with enough free time and close proximity to bicker, thus also providing them with an incentive to invent God and religion.

Evolutionary storytellers such as H. G. Wells provided possible reasons why early humans developed religion. In 1939, Wells speculated about Neolithic peoples:

Tabu, that is to say primitive moral control, and magic, which is primitive science, are now grouped about the directive priesthood, and an elaborate astronomy fraught with worship, links the plough and the labouring beast and the sacrifice upon the altar with then constellations. 3

Similarly speculative, the National Geographic's report on Gobekli Tepe asserted that "those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods." 2

But the idea that agricultural amenities spawned religion is making an about-face in light of the fully constructed temple complexes discovered at Gobekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-lee Teh-peh and roughly translated "potbelly hill") in southern Turkey. The remarkable findings there show that mankind was able to worship from the beginning of the human race.

Many mysteries surround the temple site. Nobody knows why the pillars at the complex were buried on purpose, perhaps centuries after their careful construction, or why they depict stylized ornamental patterns, as well as images of birds, snakes, a scorpion, bulls, foxes, reptiles, a man, and even possibly dinosaurs. And no one knows why the pillars were arranged in the four stone circles that excavators have uncovered so far, or why they were built at all. "In fact, nobody really knows how Neolithic man managed to hew these pillars," according to Elif Batuman, who described his visit to Gobekli Tepe in the December 2011 issue of The New Yorker. 4

These general questions may never find answers, but these fascinating ruins have clearly rebutted certain evolution-inspired claims about ancient humans. Batuman wrote, "The idea of a religious monument built by hunter-gatherers contradicts most of what we thought we knew about religious monuments and about hunter-gatherers." 4

Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, lead researcher of the excavations, has suggested that perhaps religious worship evolved first, and this development triggered the need for agriculture. But this reversal of the standard evolutionary story only shows that man-made histories are subjective, plastic, and unreliable.

Biblical history places the cradle of civilization geographically close to where Noah's Ark landed, near the Middle East's Fertile Crescent that includes parts of Turkey. So, it makes sense that Gobekli Tepe was one of the first building sites of post-Flood peoples.

This amazing find vindicates what the Bible has said about mankind all along. The earliest humans were every bit as smart and able as modern ones&mdashperhaps even more so. And according to Scripture, people were made on one day by God and in His image&mdashwith all the faculties necessary to imagine, build, farm, and worship.

  1. Mann, C. C. The Birth of Religion. National Geographic. Posted on ngm.nathionalgeographic.com June 2011.
  2. Cosner, L. and R. Carter. How does Göbekli Tepe fit with biblical history? Creation Ministries International. Posted on creation.com July 26, 2011, accessed January 3, 2012.
  3. Wells, H. G., J. E. Huxley and G. P. Wells. 1939. The Science of Life. New York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1458-1459.
  4. Batuman, E. The Sanctuary. The New Yorker. December 19 and 26, 2011: 72-83.

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.


Göbekli Tepe was built and occupied during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN)—the earliest division of the Neolithic period in Southwest Asia—which is dated to between 9600 and 7000 BCE. [10] Beginning at the end of the last Ice Age, the PPN marks "the beginnings of village life", [11] producing the earliest evidence for permanent human settlements in the world. [11] [12] Archaeologists have long associated the appearance of these settlements with the Neolithic Revolution—the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture—but disagree on whether the adoption of farming caused people to settle down, or settling down caused people to adopt farming. [13] Despite the name, the Neolithic Revolution in Southwest Asia was "drawn out and locally variable". [14] Elements of village life appeared as early as 10,000 years before the Neolithic in places, [15] [16] and the transition to agriculture took thousands of years, with different paces and trajectories in different regions. [17] [18] The Pre-Pottery Neolithic is divided into two subperiods: the PPNA, to which the early phases of Göbekli Tepe belong, is dated to between 9600 and 8800 BCE the PPNB, to which the late phases of Göbekli Tepe belong, is dated to between 8800 and 7000 BCE. [12] It was preceded by the Epipalaeolithic and succeeded by the Late Neolithic. [11]

Evidence indicates that the inhabitants were Hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet with early forms of domesticated cereal and lived in villages for at least part of the year. Tools such as grinding stones and mortar & pestle, found at Göbekli Tepe, were analyzed and suggest considerable cereal processing. Archaeozoological evidence hints at "large-scale hunting of gazelle between midsummer and autumn." [19]

PPN villages consisted of clusters of stone or mud brick houses, [11] and sometimes substantial monumental or 'communal' buildings. [12] The T-shaped pillar tradition seen at Göbekli Tepe is unique to the Urfa region, but is found at the majority of PPN sites there. [23] These include Nevalı Çori, Hamzan Tepe, [24] Karahan Tepe, [25] Harbetsuvan Tepesi, [22] Sefer Tepe, [23] and Taslı Tepe. [21] Other stone stelae—without the characteristic T shape—have been documented at contemporary sites further afield, including Çayönü, Qermez Dere, and Gusir Höyük. [26]

Göbekli Tepe is located in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, overlooking the Harran plain [27] and the headwaters of the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates. [28] The site is a tell (artificial mound) situated on a flat limestone plateau. [29] In the north, the plateau is connected to the neighbouring mountains by a narrow promontory. In all other directions, the ridge descends steeply into slopes and steep cliffs. [30] On top of the ridge there is considerable evidence of human impact, in addition to the construction of the tell. [ clarification needed ] [ citation needed ]

Excavations have taken place at the southern slope of the tell, south and west of a mulberry that marks an Islamic pilgrimage, [8] but archaeological finds come from the entire plateau. The team has also found many remains of tools. At the western escarpment, a small cave has been discovered in which a small relief depicting a bovid was found. It is the only relief found in this cave. [31]

Like most PPN sites in the Urfa region, Göbekli Tepe was built on a high point on the edge of the mountains, giving it both a wide view over plain beneath, and good visibility from the plain. [20] This location also gave the builders good access to raw material: the soft limestone bedrock from which the complex was built, and the flint to make the tools to work the limestone. [20]

At the time when Göbekli Tepe was occupied, the climate of the area was warmer and wetter than it is today. [29] It was surrounded by an open steppe grassland, [29] with abundant wild cereals, including einkorn, wheat, and barley, [32] and herds of grazing animals such as wild sheep, wild goat, gazelle, and equids. [33] Large herds of goitered gazelle may have passed by the site in seasonal migrations. [34] There is no evidence of substantial woodlands nearby [29] 90% of the charcoal recovered at the site was from pistachio or almond trees. [32] Archaeologists disagree on whether the site provided ready access to drinking water. Schmidt maintained that there was "no access to water in the immediate vicinity", [35] based on the fact that, whilst there are many karstic springs and small streams in the Germuş, [36] [37] the closest today are several kilometres away. [38] However, in the wetter climate of the time, the local water table may have been higher, activating springs closer to the site that are dormant today. [39] Schmidt also noted the presence of several cisterns carved into the bedrock under the site, [38] holding at least 150 cubic metres (5,300 cu ft) of water, [40] and subsequent excavations have a possible rainwater harvesting system. [41]

Before being documented by archaeologists, the hill Göbekli Tepe stands on, known locally in Kurdish as Girê Mirazan or Xerabreşk, was considered a sacred place. [42] [43]

The archaeological site was first noted in a survey conducted by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago in 1963. [44] American archaeologist Peter Benedict identified lithics collected from the surface of the site as belonging to the Aceramic Neolithic, [45] but mistook stone slabs (the upper parts of the T-shaped pillars) for grave markers, postulating that the prehistoric phase was overlain by a Byzantine cemetery. [46] The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation, and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, which may have disturbed the upper layers of the site. At some point attempts had been made to break up some of the pillars, presumably by farmers who mistook them for ordinary large rocks. [4]

In October 1994, [47] German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who had previously been working at Nevalı Çori, was looking for evidence of similar sites in the area and decided to reexamine the location described by the Chicago researchers in 1963. [4] [47] Asking in nearby villages about hills with flint, [47] he was guided to Göbekli Tepe by Mahmut and İbrahim Yıldız, the farmers who owned the land the site was situated on. [43] Mahmut Yıldız and his father had previously discovered finds while plowing there, which they reported to the local museum. [43] Having found similar structures at Nevalı Çori, Schmidt recognized the possibility that the stone slabs were not Byzantine grave markers as supposed by Benedict, but the tops of prehistoric megaliths. He began excavations the following year and soon unearthed the first of the huge T-shaped pillars. [4] Yıldız went on to work on the excavations and serve as the site's guard. [43]

Schmidt continued to direct excavations at the site on behalf of the Şanlıurfa Museum and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) until his death in 2014. Since then, the DAI's research at the site has been coordinated by Lee Clare. [7] As of 2021 [update] , work on the site is conducted jointly by Istanbul University, the Şanlıurfa Museum, and the DAI, under the overall direction of Necmi Karul. [48] [49] Recent excavations have been more limited than Schmidt's, focusing on detailed documentation and conservation of the areas already exposed. [49]

The imposing stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe attests to many centuries of activity, beginning in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period, dated to the 10th millennium BCE. [50] Remains of smaller buildings identified as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) and dating from the 9th millennium BCE have also been unearthed. [5]

A number of radiocarbon dates have been published: [51]

Lab-Number Context cal BCE
Ua-19561 enclosure C 7560–7370
Ua-19562 enclosure B 8280–7970
Hd-20025 Layer III 9110–8620
Hd-20036 Layer III 9130–8800

The Hd samples are from charcoal in the fill of the lowest levels of the site and date the end of the active phase of the occupation of Level III – the actual structures may be older. The Ua samples come from pedogenic carbonate coatings on pillars and only indicate the time after the site was abandoned – the terminus ante quem. [52]

Göbekli Tepe follows a geometric pattern. The pattern is an equilateral triangle that connects enclosures A, B, and D. A 2020 study of "Geometry and Architectural Planning at Göbekli Tepe" suggests that enclosures A, B, and D are all one complex, and within this complex there is a "hierarchy" with enclosure D at the top, rejecting the idea that each enclosure was built and functioned individually as less likely. [53]


The plateau has been transformed by erosion and by quarrying, which took place not only in the Neolithic, but also in classical times. There are four 10-metre-long (33 ft) and 20-centimetre-wide (7.9 in) channels on the southern part of the plateau, interpreted as the remains of an ancient quarry from which rectangular blocks were taken. These possibly are related to a square building in the neighbourhood, of which only the foundation is preserved. Presumably this is the remains of a Roman watchtower that was part of the Limes Arabicus, though this is conjecture. [54]

Most structures on the plateau seem to be the result of Neolithic quarrying, with the quarries being used as sources for the huge, monolithic architectural elements. Their profiles were pecked into the rock, with the detached blocks then levered out of the rock bank. [54] Several quarries where round workpieces had been produced were identified. Their status as quarries was confirmed by the find of a 3-by-3 metre piece at the southeastern slope of the plateau. Unequivocally Neolithic are three T-shaped pillars that had not yet been levered out of the bedrock. The largest of them lies on the northern plateau. It has a length of 7 m (23 ft) and its head has a width of 3 m (10 ft). Its weight may be around 50 tons. The two other unfinished pillars lie on the southern Plateau.

At the western edge of the hill, a lionlike figure was found. In this area, flint and limestone fragments occur more frequently. It was therefore suggested that this could have been some kind of sculpture workshop. [55] It is unclear, on the other hand, how to classify three phallic depictions from the surface of the southern plateau. They are near the quarries of classical times, making their dating difficult. [31]

Apart from the tell, there is an incised platform with two sockets that could have held pillars, and a surrounding flat bench. This platform corresponds to the complexes from Layer III at the tell. Continuing the naming pattern, it is called "complex E". Owing to its similarity to the cult-buildings at Nevalı Çori it has also been called "Temple of the Rock". Its floor has been carefully hewn out of the bedrock and smoothed, reminiscent of the terrazzo floors of the younger complexes at Göbekli Tepe. Immediately northwest of this area are two cistern-like pits that are believed to be part of complex E. One of these pits has a table-high pin as well as a staircase with five steps. [56]

Layer III

At this early stage of the site's history, circular compounds or temene first appear. They range from 10 to 30 metres in diameter. Their most notable feature is the presence of T-shaped limestone pillars evenly set within thick interior walls composed of unworked stone. Four such circular structures have been unearthed so far. Geophysical surveys indicate that there are 16 more, enclosing up to eight pillars each, amounting to nearly 200 pillars in all. The slabs were transported from bedrock pits located approximately 100 metres (330 ft) from the hilltop, with workers using flint points to cut through the limestone bedrock. [58]

Two taller pillars stand facing one another at the centre of each circle. Whether the circles were provided with a roof is uncertain. Stone benches designed for sitting are found in the interior. [59] Many of the pillars are decorated with abstract, enigmatic pictograms and carved animal reliefs. The pictograms may represent commonly understood sacred symbols, as known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. The reliefs depict mammals such as lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, and donkeys snakes and other reptiles arthropods such as insects and arachnids and birds, particularly vultures. At the time the edifice was constructed, the surrounding country was likely to have been forested and capable of sustaining this variety of wildlife, before millennia of human settlement and cultivation led to the near–Dust Bowl conditions prevalent today. [4] Vultures also feature prominently in the iconography of Çatalhöyük and Jericho.

Few humanoid figures have appeared in the art at Göbekli Tepe. Some of the T-shaped pillars have human arms carved on their lower half, however, suggesting to site excavator Schmidt that they are intended to represent the bodies of stylized humans (or perhaps deities). Loincloths appear on the lower half of a few pillars. The horizontal stone slab on top is thought by Schmidt to symbolize shoulders, which suggests that the figures were left headless. [60] Whether they were intended to serve as surrogate worshippers, symbolize venerated ancestors, or represent supernatural, anthropomorphic beings is not known.

Some of the floors in this, the oldest, layer are made of terrazzo (burnt lime) others are bedrock from which pedestals to hold the large pair of central pillars were carved in high relief. [61] Radiocarbon dating places the construction of these early circles around 9000 BCE. Carbon dating suggests that (for reasons unknown) the enclosures were backfilled during the Stone Age.

Layer II

Creation of the circular enclosures in layer III later gave way to the construction of small rectangular rooms in layer II. Rectangular buildings make a more efficient use of space compared with circular structures. They often are associated with the emergence of the Neolithic, [62] but the T-shaped pillars, the main feature of the older enclosures, also are present here, indicating that the buildings of Layer II continued to serve the same function in the culture, presumably as sanctuaries. [63] Layer II is assigned to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). The several adjoining rectangular, doorless and windowless rooms have floors of polished lime reminiscent of Roman terrazzo floors. Carbon dating has yielded dates between 8800 and 8000 BCE. [64] Several T-pillars up to 1.5 meters tall occupy the center of the rooms. A pair decorated with fierce-looking lions is the rationale for the name "lion pillar building" by which their enclosure is known. [65]

A stone pillar resembling totem pole designs was discovered at Göbekli Tepe, Layer II in 2010. It is 1.92 metres high, and is superficially reminiscent of the totem poles in North America. The pole features three figures, the uppermost depicting a predator, probably a bear, and below it a human-like shape. Because the statue is damaged, the interpretation is not entirely clear. Fragments of a similar pole also were discovered about 20 years ago in another site in Turkey at Nevalı Çori. Also, an older layer at Gobekli features some related sculptures portraying animals on human heads. [66]

Layer I

Layer I is the uppermost part of the hill. It is the shallowest, but accounts for the longest stretch of time. It consists of loose sediments caused by erosion and the virtually-uninterrupted use of the hill for agricultural purposes since it ceased to operate as a ceremonial center.

Around the beginning of the 8th millennium BCE Göbekli Tepe lost its importance. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry brought new realities to human life in the area, and the "Stone-age zoo" (Schmidt's phrase applied particularly to Layer III, Enclosure D) apparently lost whatever significance it had had for the region's older, foraging communities. However, the complex was not simply abandoned and forgotten to be gradually destroyed by the elements. Instead, each enclosure was deliberately buried under as much as 300 to 500 cubic meters (390 to 650 cu yd) of refuse, creating a tell consisting mainly of small limestone fragments, stone vessels, and stone tools. Many animal and even human bones have been identified in the fill. [67] The site was deliberately backfilled sometime after 8000 BCE: the buildings were buried under debris, mostly flint gravel, stone tools, and animal bones. [68] In addition to Byblos points (weapon heads, such as arrowheads etc.) and numerous Nemrik points, Helwan-points, and Aswad-points dominate the backfill's lithic inventory.

Estimated labour

Schmidt maintained that "the work of quarrying, transporting, and erecting tons of heavy, monolithic, and almost universally well-prepared limestone pillars [. ] was not within the capability of a few people". [69] Using Thor Heyerdahl's experiments with the moai of Rapa Nui as a reference, he estimated that moving the pillars alone must have involved hundreds of people. [39] Specifically, according to figures later cited by Dietrich and Notroff, carving one moai of similar size to a T-shaped pillar from Göbekli Tepe would haven taken 20 people a year of "spare time", and 50–75 people a week to transport of 15 km. [5] Schmidt, Dietrich and Nortroff also cited a 1917 account of the construction of a megalith on the Indonesian island of Nias, which took 525 people three days. [39] [5] These estimates underpin their interpretation that the site was built by a large, nonresident workforce, [70] coerced or enticed there by a small religious elite. [71] [72]

In contrast, based on studies of the construction of monuments such as Stonehenge, Banning calculated that 7–14 people could have moved the pillars using just ropes and water or another lubricant. [39] Putting aside the pillars, experiments conducted at the site have also shown that all the PPNB structures currently exposed could have been built by 12–24 people in less than four months, allowing for time spent quarrying stone and gathering, and preparing food. [73] These labour estimates are thought to be within the capability of a single extended family or village community in the Neolithic, [39] and also fits with the number of people that could have comfortably been inside one of the buildings at the same time. [74]

Klaus Schmidt's view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative stylistical analysis indicate that it contains the oldest known megaliths yet discovered anywhere, and that these ruins may constitute the remains of a temple. [4] [75] Schmidt believed that what he called this "cathedral on a hill" was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants. [76] Zooarchaeological analysis shows that gazelle were only seasonally present in the region, suggesting that events such as rituals and feasts were likely timed to occur during periods when game availability was at its peak. [34]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have yet been found, Schmidt believed that graves remain to be discovered in niches located behind the walls of the sacred circles. [4] In 2017, discovery of human crania with incisions was reported, interpreted as providing evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult. [10] Special preparation of human crania in the form of plastered human skulls is known from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period at sites such as 'Ain Mallaha, Tell es-Sultan (also known as Jericho), and Yiftahel.

Schmidt also interpreted the site in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. [4] It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area that geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. [77]

With its mountains catching the rain and a calcareous, porous bedrock creating many springs, creeks, and rivers, [21] the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris was a refuge during the dry and cold Younger Dryas climatic event (10,800–9,500 BCE). [ citation needed ]

Schmidt also engaged in speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He presumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in deities as not developing until later, in Mesopotamia, that was associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to humans from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient deities without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic. [78] It is apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favour of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions. [4] [79] [80] Expanding on Schmidt's interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu's semiotic interpretation reads the Göbekli Tepe iconography as a cosmogonic map that would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos. [81]

Göbekli Tepe is regarded by some as an archaeological discovery of great importance since it could profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society. [2] Some researchers believe that the construction of Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilization, or, as excavator Klaus Schmidt put it, "First came the temple, then the city." [82]

It remains unknown how a population large enough to construct, augment, and maintain such a substantial complex was mobilized and compensated or fed in the conditions of pre-sedentary society. Scholars have been unable to interpret the pictograms, and do not know what meaning the animal reliefs had for visitors to the site. The variety of fauna depicted – from lions and boars to birds and insects – makes any single explanation problematic. As there is little or no evidence of habitation, and many of the animals pictured are predators, the stones may have been intended to stave off evils through some form of magic representation. Alternatively, they could have served as totems. [83]

The assumption that the site was strictly cultic in purpose and not inhabited has been challenged as well by the suggestion that the structures served as large communal houses, "similar in some ways to the large plank houses of the Northwest Coast of North America with their impressive house posts and totem poles." [39] It is not known why every few decades the existing pillars were buried to be replaced by new stones as part of a smaller, concentric ring inside the older one. [84]

Future plans include construction of a museum and converting the environs into an archaeological park, in the hope that this will help preserve the site in the state in which it was discovered. [8]

In 2010, Global Heritage Fund (GHF) announced it will undertake a multi-year conservation program to preserve Göbekli Tepe. Partners include the German Archaeological Institute, German Research Foundation, Şanlıurfa Municipal Government, the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture and, formerly, Klaus Schmidt. [85]

The stated goals of the GHF Göbekli Tepe project are to support the preparation of a site management and conservation plan, construction of a shelter over the exposed archaeological features, training community members in guiding and conservation, and helping Turkish authorities secure UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for GT. [86]

The conservation work caused controversy in 2018, when Çiğdem Köksal Schmidt, an archaeologist and widow of Klaus Schmidt, said the site was being damaged by the use of concrete and "heavy equipment" during the construction of a new walkway. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism responded that no concrete was used and that no damage had occurred. [87] [88]

Göbekli Tepe: Pillar - History

High places such as Gobekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük had royal temples that would have been built by the "Mighty Men of Old" (Genesis 6:4). This image was found at Çatalhöyük (7000 BC). It shows a red skin priest wearing the leopard skin typical of the priests of antiquity who moved out of the Nile valley. Keep in mind that the dispersion of Y-DNA Haplogroup R1 began about 70,000 years ago, long before the time of Noah (4000-2800 BC).

The T-shape pillars at Gobekli Tepe probably represent the Sun's arc from east to west. This shape is a symbol of the High God, and later enters into scripts as the mark of the High God. An example is the oldest known word for the High God among the Chinese, which is s 天 Tiān. The word also means Heaven. I suspect it is closely related to T-An, suggesting that the priests of Anu/Ani (Sumerian and Akkadian) had moved from Bactria into China much earlier than generally assumed.

Göbekli Tepe predates the oldest temple known to have been built by Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors in Sudan at Nekhen by about 3000 years. It predates the Great Pyramids of Giza by about 7000 years. It is the oldest known temple, and it remains shrouded in mystery.

Göbekli Tepe is classified as a Pre-Pottery Neolithic site (PPN). It is designated PPNA (ca 10,500 to 9,500 BC) which puts it in the same class as Jericho, Netiv Hagdud, Nahul Oren, Gesher, Dhar', Jerf al Ahmar, Chogha Golan and Abu Hureyra.

This site is located in what is today Turkey. This "land between the rivers" was an ancient crossroads for peoples migrating between Africa and the ancient Near East.

It is a characteristic of archaic peoples to designate themselves as the people, humans, or first people. Many archaic populations called themselves names that mean the People or the Humans. The natives of the Aleutian islands call themselves "Anishinabe" which means "First Men" or "Original Men." The term "Ainu" means human. The Navajo call themselves the Dene, which means humans.

These clans represented themselves as various animals on the pillars at Gobekli Tepe. The animal reliefs indicate totemism similar to that of the Horite Hebrew clans. Totems can be used by anthropologists to trace ancestry, clan affiliations, and marriage ties. Most totems of biblical clans are representations of animals. To understand their symbolism we must place these animals in their natural habitats of Africa, Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula. Animal totems are evident in the names of the Horite Hebrew listed in Genesis 36 . These include Zibeon (hyena), who was the father of Anah (wild donkey), and Aiah (kite) Dishan (gazelle), who was the father of Aran (wild goat) and Akan (roe), who was the son of Ezer. Other Horite Hebrew names are Cheran (lamb) and Shobal (young lion). Such a large number of animal names among the Horite Hebrew suggests a totemic clan organization.

It is thought that the Hittites introduced iron work to Anatolia, but the term "Hittite" is an anachronism when we speak of populations as early as 7000 BC. Hittite is derived from the root HT which is the Hebrew and Arabic root for copper - nahas-het. Nahash means serpent. As an adjective it means shining bright, like burnished copper. The clans of HT were Bronze Age copper smiths who ranged from Timna to Anatolia. Their totem was the burnished serpent, just as it was for Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness.

One of the mysteries that archaeologists and anthropologists hope to unravel surrounds the T-shaped monoliths that stand at the perimeter of the sacred mounds at Göbekli Tepe, of which there are about 20. The pattern resembles Stone Hedge with rings of pillars. At the center are twin pillars. The twin pillars and most of the pillars at the periphery are carved to form bas-reliefs of various animals, anthropomorphic figures, and human-animal creatures.

The earliest pillars are the biggest and most sophisticated in construction and artistry. The later pillars are smaller, less intricate in design and mounted with less precision.

Nate Ramsayer has made a case for the view that the stone pillars might represent individual people. As he states, "This interpretation fits well with the emerging concept of social stratification that can be seen in Anatolia during the PPN at sites like Çayönü and Neval Çori."

If the T-shaped pillars represent humans, they were probably rulers, high ranked priests, or the heads of clans. It may be that clan leaders intended to have stone pillars with the clan's animal totem as a display of wealth or power. Or it may be that the 16-ton limestone pillars represent deified rulers who were venerated as ancestors. Each pillar served as the ruler's presence by which he also represented his clan, before the deity.

The T shape appears to be a very ancient symbol that represented a complex of ideas including heaven, the High God, mankind, and blood. These come together in the Tyet symbol of the Old Kingdom (show above). It consists of a solar orb above a human form (Hathor) and appears to be a variation of the ankh.

Mystery surrounds how the huge pillars were transported from the quarry. Were hundreds of beasts of burden used? If so, why do these animals not appear on the carvings? The animals carved on the pillars include bulls, cranes, ostriches, vultures, lions, serpents and crocodiles, all animals sacred to Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors.

Another mystery surrounds the twin pillars at the center of the shrine. They are superior in quality to the perimeter stones. Tatiana V. Kornienko (Cult Buildings of Northern Mesopotamia) sees the placement of pairs of stones as an important aspect of early cosmology:

The worship of pairs of central objects in ancient sanctuaries or temples is a characteristic feature of a number of early Near Eastern cultures. Such symbolism represents the binary basis and dualism of people’s mythological perception of natural phenomena.

(Note that Kornienko fails to make a distinction between the binary and dualistic worldviews, a distinction that needs to be clarified to correctly trace origins and antecedents.)


Clube, S.V.M. and Napier, W.M. 1984. The Microstructure of terrestrial catastrophism . Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Firestone, R.B. 2007. Evidence for an extraterrestrial impact 12,900 years ago that contributed to the megafaunal extinctions and the Younger Dryas cooling . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America .
Hancock, G. 2015. Magicians of the Gods . Coronet.
Sweatman, M.B. 2019. Prehistory Decoded . Matador.
Sweatman, M.B. and Coombs, A. 2019. Decoding European palaeolithic art: extremely ancient knowledge of precession of the equinoxes . Athens Journal of History.
Sweatman, M.B. and Tsikritsis D. 2017. Decoding Gobekli Tepe with Archaeoastronomy: What does the fox say? Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry.


Martin Sweatman is a scientist at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. His research, which involves statistical analysis of the motion of atoms and molecules to understand the properties of matter, has helped. Read More

Pilar 43 The Pre-Historic Rosetta Stone

Pillar 43 is like a pre-historic Rosetta Stone . It shows that the people who constructed Göbekli Tepe were, among other things, astronomers who understood how the position of the stars changed very slowly over many millennia, a process called ‘precession of the equinoxes’. Conventionally, Hipparchus of ancient Greece is credited with this discovery in the second century BC. Furthermore, the people of Göbekli Tepe used their astronomical knowledge to encode a date, very likely the date of the Younger Dryas impact, on the pillar. Essentially, Pillar 43 can be interpreted as a memorial to this catastrophic event which potentially sparked the origin of civilisation itself.

While this discovery is profound, by uncovering this ancient astronomical code one is able to decode much more than just Göbekli Tepe. This is because it appears it was used for many tens of thousands of years across Europe and the Near East, from extremely ancient pre-historic times right through to the first millennium AD Pictish Scotland. It seems to cover a quite incredible span of time and geography.

Indeed, it appears to be the key to understanding Palaeolithic cave art, Neolithic shrines, Bronze Age artworks, Egyptian Gods, and Iron Age symbolism. Amazingly, it seems this astronomical code uses the same set of star constellations, more-or-less, that is used today in the West, although most of the animal symbols corresponding to each constellation have changed. Because this system uses the zodiacal constellations to record dates, Dr Sweatman dubbed it ‘zodiacal dating’. In effect, it offers an alternative method for dating ancient artifacts to radiocarbon dating.

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Dr Martin Sweatman is a scientist at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is the author of the book Prehistory Decoded .

Top Image: Constellation Map. ( DarkWorkX/Pixabay)


Martin Sweatman is a scientist at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. His research, which involves statistical analysis of the motion of atoms and molecules to understand the properties of matter, has helped. Read More

Göbekli Tepe: Pillar - History

At the throats of the two monumental anthropomorphic paired central pillars of Enclosure D, the oldest Enclosure at Göbekli Tepe, are pictograms. It is here argued that these both identify their respective pillars and connect them with the archaeology of Neolithic southwest Asia. On one pillar is a bucranium on the other, at the throat and on the belt, are two differing images of the moon — ancient symbol of the female. The bucranium and, in varying iterations, the two putative moon/woman symbols populate special purpose structures erected over many hundreds of years throughout Göbekli Tepe. Together they comprise what are very likely the only pictograms of any sort among the vast number of stone carvings at the site. The specialized character of the pictograms, their ubiquity, and their linking the pillars as a pair, sets them apart as having been of central importance to their Neolithic builders. Taken as identifying markers for the pillars, the pictograms associate Göbekli Tepe with woman/bull iconography then extant in Upper Mesopotamia, and they afford a link in Jaques Cauvin’s theory of a psycho-cultural shift leading from them in a direct line to the ensuing Bronze Age Great Mother/Son-Lover religions.


The concept of a Mother Goddess at the dawn of humanity as we know it caught the popular mind, and it has some scholarly credentials. Its relation to the revolution in symbology in southwest Asia in the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic has had its ups and downs. Today it does not find a wide acceptance within the archaeological community. The author, in connection with work on a book on the evolution of mind has come upon discoveries at the famous archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in south central Turkey that puts this question in a new light. Much of what follows is taken from the author’s wider work, presently readying for publication.

The goddess and the bull

There have long been reservations among Middle East archaeologists in connection with the presence of a mother goddess at the inception of agriculture and all that followed in its wake. A comprehensive analysis of such a figure in the early Neolithic of the Levant and Anatolia was made by Jaques Cauvin in1994 (Cauvin, 1994/trans.2000). What he concluded constituted a challenge to the then orthodoxy established in the nineteen-twenties by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who believed that climatic, demographic, and economic factors in the face of the exigencies of theYounger Dryas were the source of what he named the “Neolithic Revolution” (Watkins,

2011, pp. 30-31). Cauvin led the excavation of Mureybet in northern Syria, and his emphasis on mother goddess imagery found there was consistent with findings of such a divine presence by James Mellaart at Çatalhöyük, and later by Claude Schmidt at Göbekli Tepe. The idea of a mother goddess, nevertheless, failed to gain credence, generally, among professionals in the field.

What Cauvin had found at Mureybet was the development of an art form entirely new to the Levant. And, as he pointed out, art is a very special cultural marker. Because it has least to do with practical utility, it can tell us most about the symbols that inform daily life it can speak to the present about images that moved an ancient culture in its bloom. Natufian art was essentially zoomorphic, whereas, beginning at about 10,000 BC human figures appear for the first time in the Levant, taking the form of female statuettes (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 22-25). The Mureybet archaeological site yielded eight such figures from about 9500, some in stone and some of baked clay, most with pronounced sexual markers. With the build-up over time of similar iconography, the female figure takes on the unmistakable stamp of a goddess. At Mureybet and environs she is found in association with another symbolic figure, the bucranium, the skeletal head and horns of the wild aurochs (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 28-29)

The subsequent proliferation and elaboration of these symbolic images, paired together in varying media, and their seeming centrality to the life of the societies that produced them suggest a predicate of a mythic sort. It was Cauvin’s idea that, just on the eve of agriculture’s birth, there was a momentous shift in the way the people of the Middle East looked at themselves and the world. He concluded that the motive force behind the Neolithic Revolution was not Childe’s economic determinism, but rather a psycho-cultural change. Instead of being at one with nature, the individual now stood in a worshipful attitude toward other-worldly beings.

The Mureybetian culture lasted from 9500 to 8700 BC. Evidence of a farming economy appears only after 9000 BC (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 39). Hence the agricultural economy was established, not at the beginning of, but rather during the course of, the cultural development of the Mureybetians, “as if, in a certain way, farming grew out of it” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 50). For Cauvin, the combined figures of the woman and the bull betoken a religion reigned over by a goddess, and a goddess who bore “all the traits of the Mother-Goddess who dominates the oriental pantheon right up to the time of the male-dominated monotheism of Israel” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 29-30)

Göbekli Tepe

In the several Neolithic settlements in the upper Euphrates region of south central Turkey uncovered to date, a particular form of architectural structure appears. Research over the last twenty years has identified these structures as being for the apparent purpose of communal or ritual activities. To avoid the bias of contemporary cultural labels they are called “special purpose” buildings. Central to a number of these are T-shaped monoliths or pillars, set in pairs (Dietrich, 2016, May 8). Far and away the most striking of these structures are those of Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human enterprise of its scope of which we have any knowledge. It is likely the work of nonresident hunter-gatherer groups assembling there

from various locations. Excavation is still ongoing, but indications are that there are up to twenty structures, each apparently designed for ceremonial purposes. They are placed at several levels in the tell, and represent, accordingly, construction in successive periods of time. Strikingly, a structure seems to have served for a time and then been intentionally covered over with debris, to be replaced by another. In the end all was covered over and the site abandoned.

Enclosure D, at the lowest and oldest level of the site, has been fully exposed. Its two central T-shaped pillars dominate the structure, there being smaller such pillars facing them in the surrounding circular walls. Stone benches spaced between these suggest, but possibly only suggest, a convocation of some sort. The late Klaus Schmidt, the initial director of the excavation, and colleagues, described the scene. The central pillars stand at the height of 18 feet. Hands and fingers and elements of clothing are indicated in both. “These abstracted, impersonal, but clearly anthropomorphic, Tshaped beings clearly belong to another, transcendent sphere” (Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., & Zarnkow, M., 2012, p. 679)Göbekli Tepe puts the sophistication of early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups at a very high level. There is plainly a symbolic meaning behind what transpired there, but it is not just the structures themselves or such ritualistic activities as may have been associated with them that are symbolic. The builders and craftsmen were at pains to fashion a multitude of iconic images — some of true beauty — that are themselves of symbolic significance. One can only be diffident in taking up the question of what these singular artifacts from so different a world might tell us today, but the quest is a worthy one, and there are reasons to believe it might bear fruit.

The life and death continuum

The quest begins with the earliest form of human thought. Probing the ethnological record for the sources of religion, venerated French archaeologist Marcel Mauss (1902/1972) and collaborator Henri Hubert came to the conclusion that initially — before there existed anything in the nature of religion — human mentation was cast in a spiritual realm of magic. They attribute to magic a force prior even to the souls, or spirits of animism that have been said, following nineteenth century philosopher Sir Edward Tylor, to have inhabited the world of the earliest human imagination (Mauss, 1902/1972, p. 131). In exploring the origins of religion Mauss and Hubert were initially led to the rite of sacrifice. They ended, however, by concluding that there first appeared magic, and that sacrifice was a later arrival, and more closely bound up with religion (Mauss, 1902/1972, p. 65).

An essential orientation of the primitive mind seems from time immemorial to have been an implicit recognition of the interdependence of life and death: the elemental round of nature. In the face of nature’s round of life and death, the magical realm of thought was imbued with a spiritual awe and reverence. Death is essential to life inevitably, life must be extinguished: the sheaf must be cut, the fruit picked, the meat killed. Nonetheless, it would seem that in the magical realm the appropriation of nature’s usufructs constitutes a violation — an encroachment in the most fundamental sense, upon the sanctity of nature. This is confirmed in cultural practices of the earliest times, as they have been preserved in the ethnological record. Sir James George Frazer and, more recently, Joseph Campbell, among others, have recounted the

harrowing variety of forms of human sacrifice that have characterized expiatory rituals all over the world. In the calculus of nature’s round, the sacrifice of an individual life counted but as little.

It is hard to know how such a sense of the sanctity of nature might have come to register itself in this way. Nothing that we know about the figures of the woman and the bull at earlier stages seems obviously to portend sacrifice. There is no clear evidence of it among the hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe or even later, with an exception not directly relevant here, at Çatalhöyük, where agriculture had long been established. Human sacrifice would no doubt not have been congenial to the egalitarian life of hunter-gatherer groups, at least in respect of fellow group members, nor to settled groups, so long as they remained small in size. In any case, whenever it first emerged and whatever the sacrament it came to enshrine, at the heart of the sacrificial rite lay the interdependence of life and death. The rite often conjoined copulation — with its implication of new life — with sacrificial death.

In the two thousand years between Mureybet and Çatalhöyük we can trace a marked progression of culture — from the crude depictions of the woman and the bull at Mureybet to their considerably enhanced and refined iterations at Çatalhöyük. As might be expected in the course of the development of a culture over such a time, its conception of its deities and their relationship had taken on clearer definition, and what we find there affords further insight into the spiritual dimension of the life/death continuum of the magical realm. It is to be seen in the association of the goddess with the natural world, with fecundity, and with death. Depicted at Çatalhöyük is the allembracing goddess, mother, and lady of the beasts — her attendants, potent and lethal carnivores, both bird and beast. Her nourishing breasts are shown split open to reveal, harbored within them, dealers of death. Jaques Cauvin noted that James Mellaart, the initial excavator of Çatalhöyük, “quite rightly underlined the funerary association of this imagery, the Mistress of Life also ruling the dead” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 29). Cauvin proceeded further to develop the point:

We shall see that from the Neolithic onwards suffering and death are well represented in the attributes of the oriental Goddess. These are lions or panthers, vultures and other animals that are dangerous for man, which form the immediate retinue of the Goddess and specify her powers…. The ambiguity of the symbol, where birth and death are joined, is readily decipherable for us who bear the ‘terrible mother’ in the deepest strata of our unconscious (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 71).

In the course of their long history, the mythic pair, the woman and the bull, were to become honored in sacrifice and enshrined in religion as the Great Mother and Son-Lover of Bronze Age religions. Solid evidence of human and animal sacrifice is found in the Halaf culture (circa 6500 to 5500 BC) that was to emerge — within the time horizon of Çatalhöyük — in the Pottery Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia. Populations appear to have become hierarchically stratified. Ceramic remnants associated with sacrifice on a large scale plausibly reflect the presence of religion. Bucrania are a prominent device in Halaf clay pots, along with stylized female figures (Carter, 2012)

We are now positioned to frame the question before us in terms of what signs there may be, if any, that what transpired at Göbekli Tepe can be seen as expressive of a

transition from the world of magic to that of religion. However, further reflection may yet be warranted on where Middle East archaeological scholarship seems to stand today in respect of a mother goddess in the early Neolithic. As I have indicated, there have long been serious reservations among the professionals in field as to a connection between a mother goddess and the origins of agriculture and all that followed. This attitude reflects a healthy reticence respecting overarching approaches to complex and varied realities and, as well, a warranted scholarly reluctance to find gods of any sort front-and-center at crucial stages of human development. A great deal of recent archaeological discovery and scholarship has been accumulated, and, with it, this resistance persists, although taking on perhaps something of a new flavor. Beyond a reaction to the mother goddess idea as lodged in the popular mind, there is also a growing sense that agriculture was not a singular development of a particular time and place, but rather the outgrowth of cultural processes in respect of which its emergence was in some ways a secondary event. To be sure farming and herding shaped the future, but we are beginning better to understand forces afoot in the Upper Paleolithic that could be seen as making changes in the mode of subsistence all but a sidelight.

Two points of view

Ian Hodder is the now long-time director of excavation at Çatalhöyük and successor to James Mellaart. Hodder, is very respectful of Mellaart, but, nevertheless, working the site today with modern techniques and the benefit of thousands of artifacts uncovered since Mellaart’s time, he is dubious as to any pronounced role in Çatalhöyük society of a fertility goddess. In 2011, he and Lynn Meskell published an influential article, which included generally approving comments from a distinguished collection of other Middle East archaeological experts (Hodder and Meskell, 2011). The device of the piece is to compare the iconography of Çatalhöyük, the theretofore undisputed pinnacle of middleeastern archaeological discovery, with that of more recently discovered Göbekli Tepe. The conclusion of the authors was that there is very little at either site in the way of a mother goddess. Rather, Hodder and Meskell find three distinctive common threads in the imagery of the two sites. These they see, taken collectively, as foreign to notions of matriarchy and fertility (Hodder and Meskell, 2011, p. 236).

The themes are masculinity or phallocentrism dangerous wild animals and the cutting of flesh and the removal of heads. I will take up these three threads in reverse order. As to the last — the piercing of flesh and the severing and removal of heads — at both Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe images of vultures, carrion-eaters that tear the flesh of the dead, are prominently on display. They are an apt symbol of life thriving on death, feeding, as the vulture does, directly on the flesh of the dead. We saw at Çatalhöyük the vulture peering from torn, life-giving, breasts. Prominent vulture imagery at Göbekli Tepe has been seen by the excavation team there as illustrative of a preoccupation with the eternal round of life and death (Dietrich, 2016, July 15). On one pillar there, a vulture balances a severed head on its wing. This seems to connote the mediation of the soul between the realms of the living and the dead.

The presence here of the life/death motif brings on the question of whether the findings of Hodder and Meskell might not be taken from a different perspective. At Göbekli Tepe, there was a decided funerary cast to observances (Notroff, 2017, January 24). Burial practices may have been involved, and there seems to have been a studied

deposition in special places of sacred items associated with death. Most notable in this respect is evidence that the heads of life-sized, naturalistic human male statues were intentionally removed — severed — and deposited in special spots, such as at the foot of one of the central pillars. This appears to have been done in contemplation of the final covering over of the entire structure (Dietrich, 2016, May 5). Even this — the burial of one of these structures directly following its complex and energetic build-up — seems to replicate the cycle of life and death.

Hodder’s and Meskell’s second theme — dangerous wild animals — feeds likewise into the life/death milieu. It also affords a prime medium for the expression of the first thread — masculinity or phallocentrism. Animal iconography abounds at both sites. At Göbekli Tepe, depicted in etchings, reliefs, and sculptures, images of wild creatures are rendered in some cases schematically and in others with impressive naturalism. At first blush the profusion of the figures takes one away from life/death imagery as well as from the concept of a mother goddess. Frequently depicted are animals that are pointedly male, with penises erect. Moreover, at least one of the human male statues is likewise ithyphallic. There is no doubt, with all those erect phalluses on the scene, that it has much to do with masculinity. Underscoring the point is the glaring fact that no overt human female image of any sort has been found at the site, with the exception of a single carving on a stone slab, which was “not part of the original decoration, but is a later added . . . graffito” (Notroff, 2017, January 24), and is of a sort hardly to be seen as reverencing womanhood. Hodder and Meskell accordingly sense the thrust of what was going on — the whole feel of the place — to be one of overwhelming masculinity. This they take as being alien to a pervading maternal presence.

All those phalluses at Göbekli Tepe, however, obviously do relate directly to fertility. And behind the figure of the mother goddess is that of the bull, whose potent masculinity is beyond doubt. At the same time, the association of the goddess with the round of life and death has about it an implacable and remorseless aspect. Hence, the “animality and phallic masculinity that downplays female centrality” (2011, p. 236) found by Hodder and Meskell is a thing in no wise remote to her as embodiment of the equation: life equals death. The preponderance of creatures of the deadly sort at Göbekli Tepe, be they mammalian, avian, reptilian, or invertebrate, may be taken as in fact attesting to such a presence there. Ingenious portrayals display a very lively awareness of nature’s remorseless round. Carnivores are shown as in distress, with spine and ribs protruding, as of a predator searching for prey while itself at the point starvation, and wild boar — potential prey for large predators, yet themselves dangerous animals — are pointedly depicted as lying dead (Dietrich, 2016, July 15).

At Çatalhöyük the lethal and dangerous creatures identify themselves directly as the retinue of the mother goddess. The enthroned female figure of that site presides convincingly as goddess — but also as mistress of wild creatures and as psychopomp, intermediary between the realms of the living and the dead. Recall the killers and eaters of the dead peering from split-open breasts (Mithen, 2003, pp. 93-94). With her dangerous retinue the goddess is, in the equation balancing life and death, a symbol sine qua non of nature herself.

There is a possibility that Göbekli Tepe was simply a male bastion, a thing apart from the society as a whole. Perhaps the structures were for strictly male observances. It is quite plausible that, on a number of grounds, women might have been excluded from

entry or participation. The undertaking itself, however, would seem an enormous venture to have been brought off by just the men alone. More probably the enterprise involved the entirety of a number of hunter-gatherer groups, fully inclusive of both men and women. That the whole of the society was embraced was clearly the case at Çatalhöyük, where the notable symbolic features were embedded in everyday village life. And, while the nature of the two sites is different, the male-dominant orientation evidenced in both probably fairly reflects how the two societies were structured in terms of gender relationships.

This would not, in my view, in any way detract from the existence of a female deity at the culture’s core, nor deny the goddess a pronounced presence in ritual life. A female goddess can most certainly preside over an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. Were that not so, we would expect to find in the historical record only male deities. Put the other way around, the worship of a mother goddess does not imply a matriarchal society. There is, in fact, no sure instance of the existence any such society in the course of human history. There were the early egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, and there have been matrilineal societies, and also many cultures in which women may have ruled at home, but societal dominance writ large can reliably be counted on to have been male. There have been no female popes, no lady Genghis Khans. Joan of Arc was a religious anomaly. Female pharaohs and queens may usually be found to have served as place-holders — to secure the continuation of hereditary male lines. From the inception of complex, hierarchical societies men have predominantly held the power, in part because they were physically the more powerful. Even in the most civilized societies of today the patriarchy has been tardy to yield up any fair measure of its power. It should not be forgotten that, but a hundred years ago, women in the United States did not have the right to vote.

Historically speaking, an exclusion of a goddess presence in keeping with the Hodder/Meskell findings would amount to the absence of a central divinity altogether. It would indicate that at the time of Göbekli Tepe or even at the later time of Çatalhöyük the concept of a central deity had not been born. Polytheistic notions might have surfaced as an outgrowth of the magical world of spirit indeed the Great Mother, when she arrived, was quite congenial to coexistence with lesser divinities. It was not until the much later emergence of unrivaled male deities in Egypt and Palestine that the concept of monotheism arose. Before that time there is no evidence of such a male god, and it seems that male gods, when they arrived, insisted on being the sole deity. It could very well have been the case that no central deity ever materialized at Göbekli Tepe or Çatalhöyük. I have made much of the evidences of the magical realm in both places, and magic may well have remained the suffusing cast of thought throughout in those societies. As we know, however, that religion did in time develop in Anatolia, the interesting point is whether at the time of Göbekli Tepe or, indeed, of Çatalhöyük a religious factor had come to exist. I turn now to specific findings at Göbekli Tepe.

Were the woman and the bull there?

Given that there is only one overt reference to woman at Göbekli Tepe and that the bull appears there in company with a host of other animals, establishing a connection between the symbology at Göbekli Tepe and the palpable symbolism of the woman and the bull at Mureybet and Çatalhöyük would seem an unpromising prospect. The

evidence about to unfold, however, argues that the woman and the bull were not a mere presence at Göbekli Tepe — they were the abiding presence there, and everything else turned upon them. If this is so, we would find there also intimations of the transition to myth and religion.

How might this be? To begin with, the ground was fully prepared. If, as one may suppose, all who approached one of the structures at Göbekli Tepe were thoroughly conversant with its meaning, a presiding presence could hardly have been more imposingly invoked. A person of faith entering the cathedral at Chartres does not need a depiction of Christ or the Virgin Mary to know what lies at the heart of the edifice. It is quite likely, further, that the want of specific definition peculiar to the central pillars at Göbekli Tepe reflects a reluctance of a religious sort. All Bible-based religions, for example, display a reflexive reticence toward the physical depiction of the divinity. Issues of iconoclasm have fostered internecine divisions in Christianity, Islam tends to be more iconoclastic, and a Jewish tradition goes so far as to avoid even the pronunciation of the name of God — either aloud or to oneself.

Why two?

Against this background must be considered the central pillars themselves. There does not seem to have been found a predicate for scientific analysis as to why there should have been two such figures in each enclosure — and not just at Göbekli Tepe but also in other special purpose structures located in the vicinity. Yet it cannot be ignored that what was at the center of things seems to have had a dual aspect. In an apparently otherwise vacant field of coupled candidates for this pairing, the woman and the bull would seem an obvious explanatory recourse, assuming there were supporting evidence for them. Such evidence is in place, but there are also some concrete obstacles to it. The pillars are broadly anthropomorphic in shape, and, in the fully exposed Enclosure D both central pillars have rudimentary or stylized hands and arms carved in low relief, and, as well, a belt and fox skin loincloth. Such a pillar could, without gender-specific markings, stand for a woman, but certainly not for a bull. It is true that in the subsequent mythology the bull was ultimately to take the form of a man as the masculine element of the pair. However, the bull did not morph into a human in the mythology until much later. There is, therefore, no basis on which to suppose that either the bull or the woman might be represented as embodied in the pillars save in an abstract, purely symbolic, way.

On the other hand, the pillars stand amidst scores of highly naturalistic and precisely rendered animal and human depictions, yet they, themselves, are only vaguely anthropomorphic. It may therefore indeed be that they represent divinities — else, why so ill-defined? If they were to represent divinities, they might take a generalized human form simply because that is the way gods tend to be visualized. God does not make man in his own image man conceives God in the image of man

A decisive factor

There are a number of bucrania at Göbekli Tepe. Recall the aforementioned bucranium in its iterations it came to be the skeletal head and widespread horns of the wild bull aurochs. A bas-relief bucranium is carved into one of the two central pillars of Enclosure D at Göbekli Tepe, the earliest enclosure. This, in and of itself, would not seem of special significance. However, the corresponding figure on the partnering pillar is identifiable as female, and that has far-reaching implications.

The figure there appears to combine basic forms that are mimicked in three letters as shown in Figure 1. The uppermost is the shape of an “H”. Directly below it is a circle “O” figure, and directly below that, a “C”, lying on its back. I suggest that the latter two images, the “O” and the recumbent “C” represent, respectively, the full and crescent phases of the moon. As they are carved, they fit this interpretation cleanly. The moon, by reason of the facts that the lunar cycle parallels the menstrual cycle and that lunar rhythms imply birth and renewal, and hence motherhood, is associated with the feminine at the deepest levels of the human imagination. I venture that, as with the “O” and the “C,” the “H” also represents a celestial figure, and furthermore that a likely candidate would be Orion — a highly visible and widely recognized constellation. Orion can be visualized as an “H.” A row of three bright stars, the readily identifiable “Orion’s belt,” would constitute the crosspiece, with the four most brilliant stars in the constellation serving in pairs as the uprights, forming, roughly in parallel, two imaginary straight lines.

There have been a number of technical interpretations of celestial configurations having to do with Göbekli Tepe, many with respect to the positioning of the structures

themselves in relation to heavenly events. These have support in the orientation of Stonehenge and other Stone Age monuments in respect to the solstices. My finding the “H” of the moon emblem to stand for Orion is of a different sort, but it does present a perplexity having to do with the time and place of the observer. As it happens, owing to the precession of the equinoxes, in 9000 BC Orion would have been visible in the southern sky at Göbekli Tepe only from the belt up. This, need not necessarily, however, stand in the way of the interpretation. The constellation would have been visible in full in southern Mesopotamia. And there had come into play in the late Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic high levels of intergroup communication and interchange over the whole of the region: “This was a highly connected world. There were multiple channels of communication along which a symbolic repertoire could have spread and been renewed” (Hodder and Meskell, 2011, p. 259). It is therefore by no means implausible that the constellation in full might have become a fixture in the human imagination throughout the region, even though Orion was visible in full in only part of it. Moreover, such a bright and distinctive figure in the night sky as Orion would invite interpretation. Consider that someone today, looking up at Orion, would not, without its being in some way explained, readily conjure up the image of a mighty hunter. That the constellation is seen as such, however, supplies a further ground for the idea of Orion here: Orion is portrayed in myth as a hunting companion of the Great other goddess Artemis — whose emblem was the crescent moon — and who was also goddess of the hunt. Another notably bright star, Sirius, is directly associated with Orion, appearing in a straight line from Orion’s distinctive belt. Called the “Dog Star,” it is linked in legend with Orion as one of his hunting dogs. All taken, these connections should warrant a provisional treatment of the “H” as a symbol for Orion, at least until a surer explanation might present itself.

The crescent of the moon newly rising before dawn is oriented toward the eastern horizon from which it arises, as might be a bow bent to send an arrow back in that direction. By contrast, the bow of the crescent of the waxing moon seen after sunset points in the opposite direction, toward the western horizon into which it sinks. The two “C’s” framing the “H” figure on the belt of the moon pillar would replicate, therefore, the positioning of an astral figure such as Orion — or another, the Milky Way, for instance — as standing between the opposed crescents as they might be pondered at break of day and after sunset by ancient scanners of the sky.

One today, looking up at the constellation Orion would not, without its being in some way explained, readily conjure up the image of a mighty hunter. That the constellation is seen as such, however, supplies a further ground for hanging onto the idea of Orion: Orion is portrayed in myth as a hunting companion of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, whose emblem was the crescent moon. Another notably bright star, Sirius, is directly associated with Orion, appearing in a straight line from Orion’s belt. Called the “Dog Star”, it is linked in legend with Orion, as one of his hunting dogs. As I view it, all taken, these connections warrant a provisional treatment of the “H” as a symbol for Orion, at least until a surer explanation might present itself.

The crescent of the moon newly rising before dawn is oriented toward the eastern horizon from which it arises, as might be a bow bent to send an arrow back in that direction. By contrast, the bow of the crescent of the waxing moon seen before sunset points in the opposite direction, toward the western horizon into which it sinks. The two “C’s” framing the “H” figure on the belt of the moon pillar would accurately replicate, therefore, the positioning of an astral figure such as Orion — or another, the Milky Way, for instance — as standing between the opposed crescents as they might be pondered at break of day and at dusk by ancient scanners of the night sky.


The positioning of the markings at the neck of the figures in the two pillars suggests emblems or insignia of some sort. It seems improbable that, matching each other in size and placement as they do, they might have been arbitrarily placed. They could be positioned as they are for purely symbolic reasons or, from their location, possibly as representing pendants, or, perhaps pins holding together a garment closed at the neck. Even if serving as ornaments, however, it is unlikely that the designs for such a strategic position would have been randomly selected. Accepting therefore that their selection was a calculated one, the two devices can be taken as emblematic, and, if emblems, then identifying markers for their respective pillars. Jens Notroff of the excavation team characterizes the significance of the placement of the two devices on the central pillars:

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 (Notroff, 2016, June 10).

Figures such as the “O”,”C”, and “H” are pictograms or ideograms: pictorial signs for something of broader import they might more recognizably be called, in the digital age, icons. There seem to have been but few pictograms deployed at Göbekli Tepe. Taking the bucranium as one such — something other than a literal animal representation — puts it as a part of an exclusive, and quite definitive, set: corresponding symbols of a sort rare at the site strategically placed on the paired pillars dominating the scene. A straightforward interpretation of such symbols would be that they identify the personae of the pillars as the bull and the woman, respectively: the bucranium pillar as the bull, and the pillar with the moon-like symbols as the woman.

Curious about bucrania at Göbekli Tepe, I had an illuminating discussion on the staff’s blog with Oliver Dietrich, another senior member of the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff. I can think of no way of conveying the burden of that and succeeding blog conversations more succinctly than by introducing them here, verbatim as reproduced from the blog — with my further observations intervening as called for. Also unfolding here is the course of my arriving at the conclusion I am now putting forward. The actual online conversations are in italics (Lawson, 2017, February 16).

Is that a bucranium top center on the porthole stone?

If you are referring to the image in the post about Enclosure B, yes, it is a bucranium.

The object in question is a large stone block fitted into a wall with a rectangular opening at the bottom, possibly an entry portal. It is clearly an important element of Enclosure B. Vertically aligned on the two sides of the opening are opposed foxes in low relief. Centered above the opening, much larger, and dominating the block in more pronounced relief, is the bucranium (Dietrich February 3, 2017). The whole set-up of the porthole stone points to the bucranium as of special significance, at least for Enclosure B.

Thanks. I’ve noted three. Do they seem to abound?

There are around ten on pillars and stone slabs.

Thank you. This is very instructive. It strikes me that the bucrania(?) may serve as emblems or insignia of a sort. In the photographs I don’t see other figures of such a character, where the part stands for the whole. For example, there are naturalistic depictions of bulls in addition to the bucrania. Am I on the wrong track here?

We have several more pictograms at GT, most notable are “H” and “C” shaped
symbols. Their meaning is open to discussion. It is interesting to note that naturalistic depictions of aurochs show the animals’ bodies from the side, while the head is shown in frontal view, similar to the bucrania. Obviously the head with the dangerous horns was of importance for the artists.

Dietrich treats the “H” and “C” pictograms as being of the same order as the bucranium, recognizing therefore that the bucranium is present on the pillar as a pictogram or icon. This view is reinforced by what would appear to be a decidedly symbolic deployment of the bucranium as the dominating feature of the porthole stone in Enclosure B, with which we began the discussion. In a later post, made after our conversation, Dietrich elaborates:

Notably, the cattle head is one of the few depictions also transformed into a possible ideogram at Göbekli Tepe. Bucrania can be found on several pillars and other elements of architecture (like so-called porthole stones). It is obvious that the mode of representing animals in Neolithic art is far from arbitrary (Dietrich O. 2017, April 3).

I return to the earlier conversation.

Oliver, that is a nice observation respecting the orientation of the head and horns of the naturalistically depicted aurochs. This is a bit early for bull-leaping, so I hope the artists didn’t too often encounter one head-on. It does seem clear, though, that the frontal aspect is an object of fascination. I am grateful for your prompt and apt responses.
Keep up the good work. Tom

Unfortunately for them these encounters seem to have been very frequent indeed. Aurochs comes second in the hunted fauna at Göbekli after gazelle.

Hearty fellows. Beef fed. Now I see your point about being galvanized by the face-on view.

I had assumed that the hunters of Göbekli Tepe did not normally venture to take on the bull aurochs. Jaques Cauvin had noted that the villagers at Mureybet but rarely included local cattle in their diet (Cauvin, 1994/ trans. 2000, p. 28). If one were to face down a bull in the act of trying to kill it, the image would tend to stick with one. Ask any bullfighter. The riveting effect of this view no doubt added punch to the bucranium as a symbol.

Going back to pictographs: Jens in his 6/10/16, “Temples”, post suggests that the symbols at the neck of the apparent garments on the central pillars of Enclosure D might have served to identify the figures to Neolithic viewers. On one is a bucranium. On the other there appears to be an H and something like an S just below it. Is that correct?

Thanks for clearing that up for me.

Sorry I’m so slow to come to this: possible full and crescent moon?

That is definitely a possibility. However there is a clear danger of misinterpretation. These shapes may have that meaning in our cultural background, they could have meant something completely different in the Neolithic (Lawson, 2017, February 16).

There is little doubt that the bucrania at Göbekli Tepe are symbols, if not of the bull, then nevertheless bull symbols in some sense. Let’s focus therefore on the “H,” the “O,” and the “C.” They appear as a set at the throat of the pillar paired with the bull pillar in enclosure D. On the belt of that pillar the “C” and “H” motif also appears. I have found

both configurations to be drawn from the night sky and to represent the moon. By contrast to this pillar, the belt of the bucranium pillar is blank.

As it happens, the “H” cupped by “C’s” replicates itself across the site. Here is a later conversation from the Göbekli Tepe blog, this time with excavation team member

Notroff about a photograph on the blog of a pillar in Enclosure C (Lawson, 2017,
November 29)

Jens, might the figure on Pillar 28 be a different configuration of the pictograms “C” and “H” on the belt of one of the central pillars of Enclosure D? These “letter” pictograms also appear at the throat of that pillar. I note that there is also an inverted “H” at the base of Pillar 28. Are there other instances where these pictograms appear in association with each other?

This seems absolutely possible. There seem to be several variations of the “C”- and “H”-like symbols repeatedly appearing in the site’s iconography. While they

of course cannot be really associated with the corresponding Latin letters, they certainly may carry peculiar meaning in the contexts they are displayed. We are currently looking into this question in the course of ongoing research.

On pillar 28 in Enclosure C, the “H” and the “C” pictograms appear in a new alignment. The pillar is one of the smaller, circumferential pillars. The figure of an “H, with the crosspiece straddled above and below by opposing “C’s,” as shown in Figure 2, appears on the leading edge of the pillar at its midpoint. Below it, at the base of the pillar, the “H” appears alone, this time on its side.

To pull all this together, there are bucrania along with what I am confident in calling moon symbols spread across the site at Göbekli Tepe. We have discussed those in Enclosures B, C, and D, and it would seem that they are to be found elsewhere as well. They occur in varying contexts. The bucranium by itself holds a special position at Enclosure B, and it crops up in as many as nine other places. I see it and moon symbols to be the identifying devices for the central pillars of Enclosure D. The moon symbol appears in two different forms on the mate to the bucranium pillar there. At the throat of that pillar, it takes the form of the full and crescent phases of the moon, in association with the “H” figure. And, on the belt of that pillar, what I see as the waxing and waning stages of the crescent moon are carved, embracing the “H.” As noted, there is no corresponding marking on the belt of the bucranium pillar. Finally, the crescent moon symbol appears in conjunction with the “H” on one of the smaller pillars of Enclosure C, and there the “H” also appears separately.

One fact is particularly striking. These four figures, the circle “O” with the “C” and the “H” the paired “C’s” with the “H” the “H” alone, and the bucranium are quite possibly the only pictograms on the entire site. And they are replicated throughout the site, and in several configurations. This makes the pictogram a unique feature among the thousands of stone engravings, reliefs, statues, and monuments peopling the structures at Göbekli Tepe. The specialized character of the pictograms, their ubiquity, in various structures erected over a wide span of years, and the fact that they identify the pillars and relate them to each other as a pair leaves no doubt as to their signal cultural import for those assembled at Göbekli Tepe.

The iconography of the woman and the bull in combination was well established in the northern Levant at the time of Göbekli Tepe. Its relevance to Göbekli Tepe in the mythology can be broadly sketched out as follows. The moon is symbolically associated with the feminine at the deepest level. We have linked moon symbolism to the Great Mother goddess, Artemis, whose emblem is the crescent moon. She is one of many Great Mothers of Middle East Bronze Age myth. Fundamental to the myth is the figure of the Son-Lover, who stands proud, but is cut down — later to be born again. Campbell treated the Son-Lover extensively, taking note of the comparison between the paired horns of the bull and those of the crescent, or horned moon. He related the dying and resurrected Son-Lover to the crescent moon as seen at the point of disappearing from the night sky and then reappearing at dawn following the interval of

the dark of the moon (Campbell, 1959, p. 143). Marija Gimbutas in turn recorded in her The Language of the Goddess the extensive iconography of bucrania and bull symbolism that attended the mother goddess (Gimbutas, 1989, pp. 265-271).

Cultural dispersions

Göbekli Tepe and Mureybet are roughly contemporary. The focus of Göbekli Tepe seems to have been as a gathering place, while Mureybet was a village of permanent habitation. Cultivated grains appear to have been transported to Göbekli Tepe, whereas farming came into practice at Mureybet. Cauvin traces a migration of the culture of the goddess and the bull from Mureybet northward into Anatolia and then, with its special character, back again into the whole of the Levant:

Wherever it extended, the PPNB brought with it the legacy of the religion of the PPNA in its specifically Mureybetian version it consists of not only the female divinity, who appeared simultaneously throughout the Levantine corridor, but also a masculine principle represented in animal form, the Bull, whose presence had not previously been indicated in the southern Levant…. The new religion seems to arrive [there] precisely with the middle PPNB, at a later stage therefore than in Anatolia, where it had arrived rather earlier through the influences from northern Syria (Cauvin, 1994/ trans. 2000, p, 105).

Goddess figures had been in evidence in northern Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, coextensively with the Franco-Cantabrian cave paintings in the south. Justly celebrated for their sophistication and elegance, the latter do not of themselves speak to a religious belief system. Goddess and bull imagery became coupled in Europe only later, as sedentary societies took hold (Gimbutas, 1989, p 265), presumably with the arrival of agriculture spreading from the Middle East.


No one thought up the goddess or the bull, or thought to put them together in a singularly strange pairing the two simply materialized in the evolutionary play of chance and circumstance that brought about the miracle of the human mind. One begins with the earliest evidenced milieu of thought — a magical realm of spirit, rooted in life’s implicit interplay between life and death. From that emerged the figure of a goddess, associated with both birth and death and balancing the two. An affront to her sanctity meant death to the living. The bull, her masculine counterpart, was also her sacrificial victim.

The complementary emblems strategically placed at the necks of Göbekli Tepe’s paired central pillars all but of necessity specify the pillars’ respective identities. One pictogram, the bucranium, is unmistakably the symbol of a bull. The symbol at the neck of the other depicts the full and crescent stages of the moon. The moon, owing to the correspondence between the cycles of women and the moon, vouches a feminine aspect for this pillar. As if to underscore the point, the artisans added crescent moon symbols on the belt of the pillar and elsewhere. The evidence is perforce circumstantial — one cannot look into the Neolithic mind — but, taken all together, the circumstances fit into a coherent whole warranting the conclusion that behind the ritual activities of Göbekli Tepe lay the woman and the bull — the divine pair that carried forward into the Bronze Age religions of Mesopotamia.


Boyd, Robert. and Peter J. Richerson. 2005. The origin and evolution of cultures. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Carter, Elizabeth. 2012. On human and animal sacrifice in the Late Neolithic at Domuztepe. In Sacred killing: the archaeology of sacrifice in the ancient Near East. Ann M. Porter and Glenn M. Schwartz, eds., Pp, 97-124. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Cauvin, Jacques. 2000 (1994). The birth of the gods and the origins of agriculture. Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 1959. The masks of god: primitive mythology. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Dietrich, Oliver, Manfred Heun, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, and Martin Zarnkow. 2012. The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. Antiquity 86: 674-695.

Dietrich, Oliver, May 8, 2016. The current distribution of sites with T-shaped pillars. https://tepetelegrams.wordpress.com,2016/05/08/the-current-distribution-of-sites-with-tshaped-pillars/.

Dietrich, Oliver. July 15, 2016. Boars in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure C: just a story of hunters and prey? https://tepetelegrams.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/boars-in-gobeklitepes-

Dietrich Oliver. February 3, 2017. Enclosure B, a short overview. Enclosure B, a short overview. https://tepetelegrams.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/enclosure-b-a-short-overview/.

Dietrich, Oliver. April, 3, 2017. Two foxes and a bucranium: the first in situ porthole stone from Göbekli Tepe. http://www.dainst.blog/the-tepe-telegrams/2017/04/03/twofoxes-and-a-bucranium-the-first-in-situ-porthole-stone-from-gobekli-tepe/.

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complexity and the emergence of the early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: a view from Göbekli Tepe’” [Web blog exchange]. Retrieved from https://
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Routledge, London (2015): 153-160.

Göbekli Tepe

Ruins of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. Image: Wikipedia

Göbekli Tepe (means “Potbelly Hill” in Turkish) is an archaeological site atop a mountain ridge in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey. It contains the world’s oldest known megaliths – erected circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were dated back to the 10th-8th millennium BCE.

While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), to date no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are presumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year.

Göbekli Tepe is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world – if not the most important. First noted in a survey conducted by Istanbul University (Turkey) and the University of Chicago in 1963, it could “profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society”. According to the radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistic analysis, it is the oldest religious site yet discovered.

Ian Hodder, the British archaeologist of Stanford University said, “Göbekli Tepe changes everything”. If, as some researchers believe, the site was built by hunter-gatherers, then it would mean that the ability to erect monumental complexes was within the capacities of these sorts of groups which would overturn previous assumptions. Some researchers believe that the construction of Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilization: Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist, and pre-historian who led the excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1996 to 2014, put it, “First came the temple, then the city.”

Today, as less than 5% of the site has been excavated, and Schmidt planned to leave much of it untouched to be explored by future generations when archaeological techniques will presumably have improved.

The Tepe Telegrams

Part 1: A (Re-) Discovery (1994-1996)

Göbekli Tepe before the start of excavations in 1995 (Photo O. Durgut, copyright DAI).

Göbekli Tepe was for the first time recognized as an archaeological site during a large-scale survey project conducted by the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago in 1963. In his account of work in the Urfa province, Peter Benedict describes the site as a cluster of mounds of reddish soil separated by depressions. The slopes were clustered with flint, and he described what he thought to be two small islamic cemeteries. The impressions of the survey team are mirrored in early aerial photographs of the site, taken before excavations started. The reddish-brown tell with its hight of up to 15m and a diameter of 300 m is the only colourful spot on the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Situated on the highest point of this geological feature, Göbekli Tepe is a prominent landmark at the edge of the Harran plain. The surveyors identified the materials at Göbekli Tepe as Neolithic, but missed the importance of the site. Further research may also not have seemed possible because of the assumed islamic graveyards.

Between 1983 and 1991 large-scale excavations, in fact rescue excavations in advance of the construction of the Atatürk barrage, were under way at another important Neolithic site in the Urfa region, Nevalı Çori. Under the direction of Harald Hauptmann, a Neolithic settlement was excavated that had large rectangular domestic buildings often similar to Cayönü´s channeled buildings. However, excavations revealed also one building (with three construction phases) that was completely different from anything known before in the Neolithic of the Near East. Not only was a large number of monumental stone sculptures discovered, but the rectangular building itself had T-or Gamma-shaped pillars running along the walls, interconnected by a bench, and a pair of T-shaped pillars in the centre. Due to the representation of arms and hands, these pillars could be understood as highly abstracted depictions of the human body.

The “wishing tree” at the highest point of Göbekli Tepe in 1995. The slopes of the tell are littered with finds (Photo M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

Nevalı Çori was finally flooded by the Atatürk Barrage in 1991. But one of the members of the excavation team, Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014), wanted to find out whether there were more settlements like Nevalı Çori hidden in the Urfa region, with special buildings and elaborated stone sculpture. In 1994 he visited all Neolithic sites mentioned in the literature. Drawing on the experience gained at Nevalı Çori, Schmidt was able to identify the ‘tombstones’ at Göbekli Tepe as Neolithic work-pieces and T-shaped pillars. The moment of discovery is best described in his own words [author’s translation based on Schmidt 2006]:

“October 1994, the land colored by the evening sun. We walked through slopy, rather difficult and confusing terrain, littered with large basalt blocks. No traces of prehistoric people visible, no walls, pottery sherds, stone tools. Doubts regarding the sense of this trip, like many before with the aim to survey prehistoric, in particular Stone Age sites, were growing slowly but inexorably. Back in the village, an old man had answered our questions whether there was a hill with çakmaktaşı, flint, in vicinity, with a surprisingly clear „Yes!“. And he had sent a boy to guide us to that place […]. We could drive only a small part of the way, at the edge of the basalt field we had to start walking […]. Our small group was made up of a taxi driver from the town, our young guide, Michael Morsch, a colleague from Heidelberg, and me. Finally we reached a small hill at the border of the basalt field, offering a panoramic view of a wide horizon. Still no archaeological traces, just those of sheep and goat flocks brought here to graze. But we had finally reached the end of the basalt field now the barren limestone plateau lay in front of us. […] On the opposed hill a large mound towered above the flat plateau, divided by depressions into several hilltops. […] Was that the mound we were looking for? The ‘knocks’ of red soil Peter Benedict had described in his survey report, Göbekli Tepe, or to be more precise, Göbekli Tepe ziyaret? […] When we approached the flanks of the mound, the so far gray and bare limestone plateau suddenly began to glitter. A carpet of flint covered the bedrock, and sparkled in the afternoon sun, not unlike a snow cover in the winter sun. But this spectacular sight was not only caused by nature, humans had assisted in staging it. We assured ourselves several times: These were not flint nodules fragmented by the forces of nature, but flakes, blades and fragments of cores, in short artifacts. […] Other finds, in particular pottery, were absent. On the flanks of the mound the density of flint became lower. We reached the first long-stretched stone heaps, obviously accumulated here over decades by farmers clearing their fields […]. One of those heaps held a particularly large boulder. It was clearly worked and had a form that was easily recognizable: it was the T-shaped head of a pillar of the Nevalı Çori type…”.

S1, the first test trench at Göbekli Tepe (Photo M. Morsch, copyright DAI).

At the moment of its re-discovery in 1994, Göbekli Tepe was nearly untouched by modern activities. The tell could be reached only by foot or horse. The only use, agriculture without deep ploughing, was documented by the extensive ‘walls’ of stones cleared from the fields. Due to heavy winter rains, the possibilities for agriculture are good throughout the region, but Göbekli Tepe is the only spot of arable land in the wider area.

Systematic survey preceded fieldwork. It resulted in a wide range of finds, including sculptures not unlike the ones already known from Nevalı Çori. Excavation work was initiated by Klaus Schmidt the following year, as a cooperative project with the Museum of Şanlıurfa under the direction of Adnan Mısır and the Istanbul branch of the German Archaeological Institute under the direction of Harald Hauptmann.

A first test trench was opened at the base of the southeastern slope, where a modern pit had been cut through a terrazzo floor. Already in this first excavation area a peculiarity of the site was recognized: the tell is not formed mainly of earth and loam. Göbekli Tepe’s sediments are largely made up of limestone cobbles, bones and flints, mixed with relatively little earth. The trench further revealed rectangular buildings characteristic for what was later determined as Layer II, dating to the early and middle PPN B. Two rests of pillars further confirmed the similarities between Göbekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori.

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

Excavation work did not continue in this area in the next year. During the first field season one of the landowners had started work to clear his field in the southeastern depression of stones that hindered ploughing. He had dug out the heads of two large T-shaped pillars and had already started to smash one pillar head 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 enclosures of Göbekli Tepe´s older layer (Layer III).

The ground plan of what was later called Enclosure A appears more rectangular than round. Pillars 1 and 2, the central pillars of Enclosure A nearly destroyed by the farmer, were excavated down to the level of the stone bench of the enclosure. Both pillars are richly adorned with reliefs. Particularly striking is a net-like pattern, possibly of snakes, on the left 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. It is most likely that they represent a real object, some kind of stola-like garment.

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 a stola-like garment. Insights and experience gained in the last years, particularly with regard to typical motif-arrangement, suggests that Pillar 2 is not 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. Currently, the number of pillars surrounding the two central figures in Enclosure A lies at four.

The following field seasons have revealed astonishing features and finds at Göbekli Tepe that considerably have changed our image of complexity, creativity and organization of the last hunter-gatherers of southwest Asia.

To be continued – stay tuned for future posts on the fascinating history of research at Göbekli Tepe!

Read the full story here:
Klaus Schmidt, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel. Das rätselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjäger. Die archäologische Entdeckung am Göbekli Tepe. C.H. Beck: München (2006).

Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. ex oriente e.V.: Berlin (2012).

The original survey report by Peter Benedict:
Benedict, Peter. 1980. “Survey Work in Southeastern Anatolia.” In İstanbul ve Chicago Üniversiteleri karma projesi güneydoğu anadolu tarihöncesi araştırmaları – The Joint Istanbul – Chicago Universities Prehistoric Research in Southeastern Anatolia, edited by Halet Çambel and Robert J. Braidwood, 150-91. Istanbul: University of Istanbul, Faculty of Letters Press.

On Nevalı Çori:
Hauptmann, Harald. 1988. “Nevalı Cori: Architektur.” Anatolica XV: 99-110.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1993. “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori.” In Between the Rivers and over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamica Alba Palmieri dedicata, edited by Marcella Frangipane, Harald Hauptmann, Mario Liverani, Paolo Matthiae and Machteld J. Mellink: 37-69. Rom: Gruppo Editoriale Internazionale-Roma.

Hauptmann, Harald. 1999. “The Urfa Region.” In Neolithic in Turkey, edited by Mehmet Özdoğan and Nezih Başgelen, 65-86. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları.

Watch the video: This is the Oldest Temple on Earth. 10,000 BC. Gobekli Tepe, Turkey


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