Modified Skulls from Gobekli Tepe Provide Evidence of Neolithic ‘Skull Cult’

Three carved skull fragments uncovered at Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site in southeast Turkey known for its impressive megalithic architecture with characteristic T-shaped pillars, feature modifications not seen before among human remains of the time. The finds could indicate a new, previously undocumented variation of ‘skull cult’ in the Early Neolithic of Anatolia and the Levant.

Monumental round-oval buildings with their characteristic T-shaped monolithic pillars at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. Image credit: Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute.

Göbekli Tepe (‘Potbelly Hill’ in Turkish) is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in recent decades.

Its impressive monumental architecture, which features large monolithic T-shaped pillars carved from limestone, numbers among the earliest known examples of man-made megalithic buildings constructed specifically for the ritual requirements of their prehistoric builders.

Göbekli Tepe lies some 15 km east of Şanliurfa in the Germus mountains. It is a large artificial hill (tell) with higher-lying mounds interrupted by lower-lying hollows.

The tell is composed of archaeological deposits, which accumulated on a natural limestone plateau over a period of about 1,600 years (9600-8000 BC).

Two centrally positioned monolithic limestone pillars (up to 5.5 m high) are common to all monumental buildings at Göbekli Tepe.

Three of the megalithic buildings were erected directly upon the natural limestone plateau, which had been carefully smoothed, and the two central monolithic T-shaped pillars were found at the site, that is, slotted into platforms painstakingly carved from the natural plateau.

The two central pillars are surrounded by one or multiple stone walls. The enclosing walls, which can be attributed to different phases of the buildings, were interrupted at regular intervals by inserted T-shaped limestone pillars, although these did not reach the same heights as the two central monoliths.

In addition, Göbekli Tepe is unique because of its rich and distinct collection of artistic representations, primarily images of animals.

The T-shaped pillars themselves are anthropomorphic, as testified in some cases by carvings of low reliefs showing arms, hands, and clothing. The artistic repertoire also includes numerous stone statues and figurines of animals and humans, as well as small finds adorned with manifold depictions and symbols.

Archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe is conducted by German Archaeological Institute researchers in collaboration with the Şanliurfa Museum.

Although excavations have so far failed to reveal any complete human burials, 691 human bone fragments have been recovered from the fill of prehistoric buildings and adjacent areas.

Göbekli Tepe pillars. Image credit: Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute / Alex Wang / Klaus-Peter Simon / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Recently, German Archaeological Institute researcher Dr. Julia Gresky and co-authors observed a previously unknown type of modification in three partially preserved human skulls uncovered at Göbekli Tepe.

“Throughout history, people have valued skulls for different reasons, from ancestor worship to the belief that human skulls transmit protective properties,” the archaeologists said.

“This focus on the skull has led to the establishment of the term skull cult in anthropology, and various such cults — each with characteristic modifications to skull bones — have been catalogued.”

Each of the three skulls had intentional deep incisions along its sagittal axes and one of those skulls also displayed a drilled hole in the left parietal bone, as well as red ochre remnants.

“Carvings can be described as deep, mainly sagittally oriented grooves, resulting from multiple cutting activities that run across the forehead, and in one case continuing onto the back of the skull and onto the mandible,” the scientists said.

“In two cases, there are additional carvings oriented at an angle of 43° to 90 degrees to sagittal.”

“Carvings are the result of multiple cutting actions, which reached depths and widths of 0.2 to 4 mm. Minimal lengths of carvings on the three skulls vary between 6 and 45.5 mm, a range imposed by the fragmented and incomplete state of the skulls.”

By using different microscopic techniques to analyze the fragments, the team verified that the carvings were executed using lithic tools, thus ruling out natural causes, like animal gnawing.

In addition, the authors were able to discount scalping as a source of the marks, due to the depth of the carvings; however, other minor cut-marks on the skulls show signs of possible defleshing.

More likely, the skulls were carved to venerate ancestors not long after their death, or to put recently ‘dispatched’ enemies on display.

“Ochre traces were detected on fragments of one of the skulls. The placement of this most complete skull, found in a concentration of ochre, indicates the special significance of this object,” Dr. Gresky and her colleagues said.

“Another outstanding feature of the skull is the drilled perforation in the left parietal, the position of which was carefully chosen so that the skull might hang vertically and face forward when suspended.”

“Alternatively, the perforation could have been a fixing point for a mask or other decorative elements,” the archaeologists said.

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