Archaeology is seen as an exciting and adventurous occupation by many. More often than not, mentioning my job will make people say things like „Oh, I always wanted to become an archaeologist, too!“. And of course there will be the inevitable Indiana Jones reference. I have long learned not to ask back why this dream didn´t become true – the answers mostly include getting a real job. But the glamour of childhood dreams is on my side.
And it´s so easy to fulfill everyone’s expectations, for example by talking about things experienced on excavations in more or less far away countries. I am involved in research in Romania (Rotbav, a Bronze Age settlement) and Turkey (Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic sanctuary) right now. The effect on the audience is of course much better, if you say Transylvania and explain that it is the rough landscapes of southeastern Turkey, largely unknown to western tourists. And some will even have heard of Göbekli Tepe. First monumental buildings (oh, let´s simply call them temples for the conversation´s sake), 12.000 years old. So, really important, really old sites, really interesting regions. You can go on and talk about all the travelling you have to do to attend conferences. For me, it´s Vienna, Göteborg and Vilnius this year. The summer will see me in Romania (yeah, alright, Transylvania) studying Bronze Age artefacts, the autumn maybe back in Turkey working with Neolithic finds.
So, a day in archaeology. Driving up dusty roads to an enigmatic site in a far away land, uncovering and writing new chapters in the history of mankind. There are these days, sure (and here is a great account of such a day by my colleague Jens). But at the moment, my usual workday starts around 9 o´clock and ends around 6. I am a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute. These days my work centers on writing up a monograph on the sculptures found at Göbekli Tepe. And then, there is another one scheduled on the iconic architectonic feature of this site, the richly decorated T-shaped pillars, and a third one on the features from the main excavation area. Dusty roads? At the moment rather dusty bookshelves. Surprised? Well, you watched the movie, didn’t you? Dr. Jones standing in front of the class, saying “Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Doctor Tyree’s Philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.” That much is true.
Actually, I love these seventy percent (let´s rather make it 80% by the way). Because that is where the real discoveries happen, where you write history. Let me explain. I have written up a lengthy catalogue of all the zoomorphic (animal-shaped) and anthropomorphic (human-shaped) sculpture from Göbekli Tepe. What I am doing right know is looking at the find contexts of the sculptures, their preservation and similar finds in other sites. Why the find context matters? Find context is everything in archaeology. Have a great find somewhere from a field? Still a great find, but without knowledge on the place it ended up hundreds or thousands of years ago, possibilities of interpretation are severely limited. Was it found in a domestic area, is it an object of everyday use? In a sanctuary, connected to ritual and belief? What was it used for exactly? Here is an example. Some of my sculptures portray rather nasty snarling predators. They also have long conical taps at one end. It´s obvious they were put in somewhere. But without some of them discovered in the original place of use (in situ, introducing some more fancy archaeological jargon) we wouldn´t know much more. A find from 2011 reveals that the snarling predators were set into the walls of Göbekli Tepe´s megalithic buildings. They were literally jumping at visitors, invoking awe and fear, setting the scene and mood for the rituals performed there. All of that would have been lost without find context. So, find context is everything to archaeologists, and it is what makes the difference between us and treasure hunters (and Mr. Jones).
The predator example of course is a very simple one. But if many clues are taken together, there really is the possibility to tell a fairly coherent story. That is what I love about archaeology, and what I am doing right now day by day. Want to know more? Below you find a longer text on the image of the use of sculptures at Göbekli Tepe that is right now emerging. And of course, we have to start with some context.
A few kilometres to the northeast of Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey lies the tell of Göbekli Tepe with a height of 15m, situated on a mountain range towering 750m above the Harran plain. The immense ruin hill formed of the debris of monumental constructions dating back into the 10th and 9th millenium BC is excavated systematically since 1995, until 2014 by its discoverer, the late Klaus Schmidt. The site dates to a phase that we call Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN). This is the period immediately after the last Ice Age, when people started to change the world by domesticating animals and plants. As the name implies, pottery was not known to them, their technology very much based on wood and stone. The date of the site is confirmed not only by characteristic flint tools, but also by C14-data.
Three layers could be distinguished up to now at the site. The oldest layer III (10th millenium BC) is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars weighing tons, which were positioned in circle-like structures. The pillars were interconnected by limestone walls and benches leaning at the inner side of the walls. In the center of these enclosures there are always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5m. The circles measure 10-20m. The T-shape of the pillars is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loinclothes on some of the pillars. Often the pillars bear further reliefs, mostly depictions of animals, but also of numerous abstract symbols. To the spectrum of finds adds a wide range of sculptures of humans and animals.
Layer III is supraposed by layer II, dating to the 9th millenium BC. This layer is not characterized by big round enclosures, but by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5m. Layer I consists of big accumulations of sediments at the hill flanks, which were produced partly by natural erosion, but mainly by modern farming activities at the ruin hill.
Göbekli Tepe is a special site in many respects: its location is hostile to settlement, no water sources are in vicinity; domestic building types missing; only a selection of material culture is present (very few bone tools, clay figurines absent); and there is a considerable investment of resources and work. This investment was not only made in building Göbekli Tepe. At the end of their uselifes, all buildings of layer III were intentionally and very rapidly backfilled. The filling consists of limestone rubble from the Neolithic quarry areas on the adjacent plateaus, mixed with large quantities of animal bones, flint debitage, artefacts and tools. Before backfilling started, it seems that the buildings were cleaned. If roofs should have existed, they were dismantled at that time, because absolutely no traces of them were found.
The backfilling obviously is a limiting factor for our understanding of the function of the enclosures, as very few in situ deposits connected to the use-time of the buildings remain. However, it seems that the backfilling was a very structured process that included certain deliberate acts. Between them, the deposition of artefacts and sculptures inside the filling, often next to the pillars, is most striking. So, at Göbekli Tepe we do not know very much about the actual usetime of the buildings. We have however the enclosures themselves, their layout, and the richly decorated pillars as starting points. And we know a lot of the things people did with these enclosures at the end of their uselife. It seems that they tried to highlight certain aspects of the enclosures´ meaning through their actions.
There are several different categories of human imagery at Göbekli Tepe. Most impressive are the T-shaped pillars. The T-shape is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loincloths on some of the central pillars. There is a clear hierarchy of pillars inside the enclosures. The central pillars are up to 5,5 m high, they have the already described anthropomorphic elements. The surrounding pillars are smaller, but more richly decorated with animal reliefs than the central ones. They are always „looking“ towards the central pillars, and the benches between them further amplify the impression of a gathering of some sort. Whether we are dealing with depictions of ancestors of different importance, or even of gods, would be a topic for itself and an answer is hard to find at the moment. What is clear however is that both central and surrounding pillars share the abstracted form. This abstraction is not due to the limited skills of Neolithic people in depicting the human body. It is a deliberate choice that has a meaning.
The other important category of depictions are more naturalistic sculptures. A total of 143 sculptures was found so far at Göbekli Tepe. Of those, 84 depict animals, 43 humans, 3 phalli and 5 are human-animal composite sculptures. It is striking that most anthropomorphic sculpture at Göbekli Tepe is fragmented. Of the 43 human-shaped depictions, only 9 can be regarded as complete, if we do not take smaller damages into account. What is also striking is that – in spite of large-scale excavations – there is only one case in which fitting fragments were found. If we have a closer look at the fragments preserved, a pattern emerges. The fragments preserved in the highest numbers are heads, not the often bigger torsi. The large number of broken off heads, and the regulated fractures, speak in favor of intentional fragmentation.
Further, the heads were not discarded randomly. They were deposited carefully in the enclosure fillings, often next to pillars. Their treatment is similar to zoomorphic sculpture in this respect. However, zoomorphic depictions are most often complete, there is no indication of intentional damage. So while deposition patterns are similar, pre-deposition treatment is not. Human heads seem to have had a special role in the beliefs connected with the enclosures.
The special role of separated human heads is also visible in Göbekli Tepe´s reliefs. Immediately behind the eastern central pillar of Enclosure D the fragment of a relief was found. It shows a human head among several animals – a vulture and a hyena can be clearly identified. Another example is Pillar 43, also in Enclosure D. There, a headless ithyphallic body is depicted among several birds, snakes and a large scorpion. The interaction of animals with human heads is even clearer from several composite sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. They show birds, but also quadrupeds sitting on top of human heads or carrying them away. A relation of this kind of iconography with early Neolithic death rite and cult is evident. At Göbekli Tepe, no formal burials have been discovered so far. However, there is a larger amount of human bones, often skull fragments with cut marks, from the enclosure fillings. Therefore, it seems probable that a connection between the enclosures and death rites existed – in real life, and in the iconography.
The special treatment and the removal of skulls is well-attested for the PPN. One of the most remarkable examples is the skull building from Cayönü. At this site, the situation is very much opposed to Göbekli Tepe however. There are lots of burials, but only a few anthropomorphic depictions. At Nevali Cori, burials with separated skulls, in one case with a flint dagger still in place, were discovered, but also an imagery that is very similar to Göbekli Tepe. For example, the so-called totem pole shows a bird sitting on a human head. There is also a larger number of limestone heads from Nevali Cori, mirroring the situation at Göbekli Tepe to some degree. Of course, one could also add the special treatment of human heads in many southern Levantine sites, but also at Köşk Höyük and Catalhöyük here. At Catalhöyük, we find many of the elements observable at Göbekli Tepe still in place in a much later context. This includes iconography of birds carrying away human heads, special treatment of heads in burials and figurines with intentionally broken off heads, or with heads designed from the start to be taken off.
To sum up, at Göbekli Tepe there is evidence of a hierarchy of anthropomorphic depictions. The central pillars of the enclosures are abstracted and clearly characterized as anthropomorphic by arms hands, and items of clothing. The surrounding pillars are also abstracted, but smaller, and show mainly zoomorphic decorations. They are looking towards the central pillars and evoke the association of a gathering. Naturalistic anthropomorphic sculpture is smaller and intentionally fragmented. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly heads, was placed inside the filling, most often near the central pillars. This practise is highly evocative of elements of neolithic death cult that also reflects in Göbekli´s iconography. It seems that the abstracted pillar-beings represent another sphere than the naturalistic sculptures. Zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculpture is placed next to them. The connection to death rites could indicate that the pillars belong to that sphere. Whether we are dealing with depictions of important ancestors here, and whether the deposition practice of fragmented sculpture, and, during the use-time of the enclosures, possibly human heads- vizualizes that new members are added to this group, remains a question for further studies.
So, that is what we can learn from context, and what I am doing currently (not all on one day admittedly). The possibility of piecing together an image of the past is what I love about archaeology. Even if it means many more days in dusty libraries than in the field.