Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

The context surrounding the study of art from the Neolithic Near East, sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent, is almost as important as the artifacts themselves.

The way in which we study the Neolithic and Fertile Crescent has gone some monumental changes since the 1960s. The three major sites Gobekli Tepe, Jericho and Catal Huyuk (there are multiple spellings for these sites so don’t be surprised to see strange looking spellings of these.)  Jericho and Catal Huyuk are the ones that introduced us to the Neolithic ancient near East when mankind first became sedentary and started to develop agriculture. The picture we got in the 1960s was that there was a so-called, “Neolithic Revolution,” in which humankind settled down into communities because humans discovered agriculture. Much of the extrapolation of the artifacts of art from cultures was based on this supposition, however, there are different theories describe why mankind became sedentary, settled into communities, and began to farm.

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The “Neolithic Revolution” theory is being questioned now in the light of some discoveries made since 1990 at Catal Huyuk, Turkey and another site nearby called Gobekli Tepe, Turkey.  

Gobekli Tepe is important because the excavations done in 2008 show that the culture dates from around 10,000 BC is around 2,000 years earlier than historians and scientists have been able to show the beginnings of agriculture by humankind. Most scientists and historians agree that, at least in the Neolithic Fertile Crescent, agriculture didn’t begin until 8000 BCE and this is evidenced by scientific research of the different kinds of grains found in that region. Gobekli Tepe is a site in which a series of large stone megaliths were constructed around 10,000 BCE and a community which was fairly sedentary but not a farming settlement sprang up around this series of carved monumental stones. A civilization of 3,000 to 6,000 people lived there for at least 1,000 years if not to 2,000.

Gobekli Tepe is important because it shows evidence of a community of thousands of people living around a ceremonial center in a village even though mankind had not yet invented farming and also demonstrates a use of resources such as labor and skilled artisans to construct a large permanent monument(s) adorned with carvings by skilled artisans. This evidence has made scholars adjust or reexamine traditionally accepted theories that suggested Neolithic mankind settled into villages because of environmental factors such as the availability of food and climate.  The theory that seems most popular now to explain the shift from nomadic peoples to part time villagers has to do with the study of how the brain works called neuroscience.

Contemporary neuroscientific studies and theory suggest that human beings’ brains evolved to allow us to socialize and cooperate as a survival mechanism.  In effect, we are “hardwired” to network with each other to socialize and problem solve.  Furthermore, the brain is capable of tracking intricate relationships a little more over 100 other people and this is why were able to live in large communities before we developed agriculture.  It also appears that human beings found the creation of art important enough to devote considerable resources and labor to making it.

In the case of Gobekli Tepe the artifacts that support this are the remains of architecture such as dwellings and a ring of “T” shaped stones each one carved with images of people, insects, and animals.  There is no botanical imagery at the site but there are some geometric designs.  Some of the iconography seems to be very consistent with art created in the Paleolithic era.    

Another important find, probably found at the same site is a life size carving of a probably male figure. However, the provenance (circumstances of how and where the figure was found) indicates that it was found near the main site in Urfa.  This figure often referred to as the “Urfa Man” because Gobekli Tepe is located near the town of Urfa Turkey. 

It’s tempting to interpret or try to explain what these objects represent or mean however, the best place to begin with analyzing these artifacts is in a close physical inspection of the objects without too much interpretation or imagination. 

For example, the “Urfa Man,” is a carved single piece of stone.  It is carved in the subtractive process. In subtractive carving the sculpture would take a block of stone or work from a piece of stone that was roughly cut to the size and shape of the completed project and then using other stone tools the sculpture would be chipped and ground away through a process of grinding and friction with other stones to complete the form.  There is an element of relief carving in this sculpture in the be like forms that are around the neck. These bands in a V shape are in a higher or raised relief from the torso.

Although the shape is anthropomorphic (man shaped) the overall proportions of the figure’s anatomy is slightly unrealistic.  It looks roughly the size and shape of a human being and is probably a male figure because it does not have breasts.  The artifact is broken below the knee and missing legs. It doesn’t seem to have any traces of pigments (colors or paint.)  This does not mean it wasn’t painted at one time.  

Many of the features are generalized or stylized in some way.  The torso is based on rectangular or boxlike form, the arms and fingers are tube-like or based on cylinders and the head is oval or egg like in form.

The shoulders are too narrow and have an abrupt ninety-degree angle which gives the figures’ and shoulders a shape that is based on a square or “t” shape.  The elbows are generalized curves and don’t have elbows but the arms terminate in hands that are engaged over the figure’s stomach.  Each hand has five fingers and the hands may be holding a bird or another animal.

There are two “v” shaped bands across the neck that are raised from the surface of the torso.  The bands correspond to wear a necklace or collar are.

The eyes have pieces of obsidian in the sockets.  The size and placement of the features of the head are consistent with people however the sizes and shapes are slightly unrealistic and a bit disproportionate.  For example, the ears or a “c” shaped tube-like form. The nose is a wedge or a triangle.  The head appears to lack hair and the size of the head is also larger than is natural. 

We are lacking a firm knowledge of where this was found and how it was found, but, since most scholars seem to agree that it comes from Gobekli Tepe, we can make the assumption that it is from their and therefore it may allow us to do some interpretation of what this thing means. Another way of describing this is to describe the iconography of the figure. 

For example, it is reasonable to assume that this sculpture is a life-size representation of a human being and probably a male. At the site, there are various carvings and incisions on some of the megaliths that look very similar to this sculpture. The hands of the sculpture look very similar to what look like the hands on the front of one of these large megaliths. It’s also possible to conclude that the figure is holding an animal like one of the carvings from Gobekli Tepe and is possible that this figure represents the same kind of figured that some of the megaliths represent.

Some of the evidence about Gobekli Tepe suggests that the site is a type of Temple that contains large megalithic sculptures that represent human beings and are adorned with animal like forms. You can apply this same logic to this figure and it’s possible, although it’s still very speculative to believe so, this figure may represent one of the same figures that the megaliths represent.

If we compare figures like this to several other cultures that we know a little bit more about, for example can compare figures that look like this from the place in the Fertile Crescent from several thousand years later, found in a similar context, and we’ve been able to conclude fairly confidently that those figures are sculptures that represent worshipers. Perhaps this sculpture represents a worshiper or a hero or a God or a priest or an important person. There isn’t enough evidence to confidently conclude that this sculpture represents any of those things specifically.  One possible idea about using this sculpture as a point of departure to interpret other artworks found at the site is that this sculpture might be a smaller version of the megalithic sculptures that exist at the site. 

The megaliths are tall possibly anthropomorphically shaped figures that have relief carvings on the services that could represent, tattoos, clothing, body paint, or a type of compound imagery that is similar to the Native Americans of the northwest coasts of the American continent. It’s hard to determine what these are relief sculptures that decorate the surfaces of the megaliths represent.  Taken as individual images one can see a variety of creatures, designs, and possibly even anatomical features represented such as hands and loincloths.

Dr. Ian Hodder has suggested that these megaliths are T-shaped figures that represent male human forms. He goes on to further state that many of the features such as the loincloth and hands carved in an engaged bass relief, on the front of these megaliths further support that these are anthropomorphic sculptures.

Hodder has also suggested that these figures are also mailed because they are adorned with many animals that are male and exhibit erect penises.

Given what we know about the life-size figure and its shape and form please are reasonable interpretations. It’s also possible that the megaliths originally had hands on them that were removed. One of the things that is important is that these megaliths were preserved because the people who lived at the site around 9000 or 8000 BCE carefully buried the figures in the ground and that is why they are so well preserved. Perhaps they had heads that were removed at that time?

As in the case of Paleolithic culture and some of the cave paintings that we looked at from places like Chauvet and Lascaux, we see a number of dangerous wild animals such as wild pigs, felines, and wild cattle. There are also some images of scorpions and carrion birds such as vultures. Many of these are the wild game that Neolithic hunter gatherers would hunt. Some of the figures are composite creatures that are made of animals and have some human features. This is also common in some of the sculptures from the Paleolithic period and in a painting that we studied of a bird headed man possibly hunting a disemboweled bison.

The standard interpretation of including animals like this in actual contexts often is explained that these figures are an attempt through some sort of sympathetic magic or religion to control the animals and/or affect the natural world. Another possible explanation for the depiction of these kinds of animals and creatures aside from a religious or magical one is possibly to document or record some sort of history in visual form.

As in the case of several of the Paleolithic caves we have studied, the creation of images and sculptures like this is not something that could be casually accomplished. The conventions and forms that depict the animals and creatures would’ve taken some sort of training or sophistication that would have been multigenerational. Artist would have been trained in a kind of style and would have learned different ways of depicting animals. These are not clearly childish or childlike drawings that are crude these are sophisticated and would’ve taken time to learn how to make. The same is also true about the construction of the megaliths and the ability and training it would’ve taken to be able to carve such sophisticated and complex images and shapes. Carving is something that takes a lot of practice and so does drawing and these incised relief carvings are the result of several generations of training.

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