We are a storytelling species. Some of the grimmer fairy tales told to this day may stem from the Bronze Age, if not earlier. There is a theory that aborigines in Australia are still telling the tale of a volcano that erupted 37,000 years ago. And now a carving found in southeast Turkey, dating to the cusp of the Neolithic age, is being reported as the earliest known narrative wall relief in the Near East. Or, at least, the earliest known horizontal one.
Sometime around the transition to the Neolithic, an extraordinary culture emerged in southeast Turkey. Starting around 12,000 years ago, this pre-pottery culture settled down in villages before the advent of agriculture. On the hilltops in their region of Sanliurfa, they built monumental compounds so extraordinary and labor-intensive that archaeologists didn’t believe, at first, that they had been created by mere hunter-gatherers, who were assumed to be nomadic.
Call them the earliest temples in the world, call them gathering places with possible ritual aspects: their purpose remains unknown, but they changed the paradigm of how civilization as we know it evolved. The first such site to be discovered was Gobekli Tepe, followed by the identification of at least 15 more, including the newly famed Karahan Tepe. These sites are now collectively known as the Tas Tepeler (stone hills), and are characterized by gathering places featuring monumental stylized depictions of people and animals, as well as pillars with a decidedly phallic aspect.
And in 2021, yet another of these enigmatic sites was discovered in the village of Sayburc, after villagers were reported to have been repurposing ancient obelisks to build walls around their gardens. Staff from the stunning Sanliurfa Archaeology Museum confirmed that these wall components are indeed Neolithic artifacts.
And it was in this village that what may be the earliest narrative wall relief in the Near East was discovered, created around 11,000 years ago, Prof. Eylem Ozdogan reported Thursday in the Journal of Antiquity.
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Carved into the bedrock
The Neolithic (or just-pre-Neolithic) tel of Sayburc is at the foot of the eastern Taurus Mountains and lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Euphrates River. Most of the mound is hidden by the modern village of Sayburc, which began to arise in 1949, but we may consider this place to have been occupied for over 11,000 years.
Following the discovery of the Neolithic artifacts in the modern structures, orderly excavation starting in 2021 found two pre-pottery Neolithic occupation zones, Ozdogan explains. The first consisted of public buildings, southeast of which are the ruins of a much-later Roman settlement. The second area is the ancient residential area.
The narrative relief was found in a large communal building measuring 11 meters in diameter, detected among the public buildings in the first area, Özdoğan says. The archaeological investigation of this building is hampered to no small degree by the modern housing built on top of it. Even so, from what has been cleared up so far, they found that this whole structure was carved into the limestone bedrock – similar to finds from that period at the other tepes, she confirms. Note that the hunter-gatherer residents would certainly have been using stone tools to carve into the bedrock; this was a massive effort.
Like at the other tepes, benches were carved into the rock along the walls, and it was on the face of a bench 60 to 80 centimeters high (about two to two-and-a-half feet) that the relief was discovered. Moreover, the bench displays a number of cavities about 40 centimeters (15 inches) wide along the wall, which may have been niches for pillars, now missing.
As said, some think of the tepes, such as Gobekli, as the earliest temples in the world. There are hallmarks of ritual aplenty, but we cannot say more. Prof. Necmi Karul of Istanbul University, now excavating Karahan and other sites, prefers to refer to them as “gathering places,” because that they surely were. They were typically built on hilltops, and Sayburc was too, though not as high as the Gobekli and Karahan hilltops from which the revelers had a nice breeze and a terrific view of the Mesopotamian plain around them.
Big cats and wild bulls
As for the relief on the bench, Özdoğan suggests it embodies the essentials of narrative: it has a theme and a story, in contrast to other contemporaneous images in the area, which may come in bunches but are self-contained.
What does it show? Five figures of humans and animals, or six, depending on interpretation.
The relief consists of two parts. One shows a man holding his penis in his right hand, his left folded above that lot, flanked by leopards with open mouths, facing him. He is shown frontally and the big cats in profile. Their long tails are curled up towards the body and one of the leopards is shown with a phallus. The other isn’t.
The second set shows a human, apparently a man, because it seems the artisan depicted or meant to depict a penis, and a bovine, seemingly a bull. This male is shown half-squatting with his back turned to the man with the leopards. In one hand he is either shaking a rattle (making the total five figures) or holding a snake, as one does (six).
Snakes do appear in other depictions in the various tepes; there is even a strange pool-like structure at Karahan Tepe that appears to have a snake carved into the rock along one wall. Note the carved human head standing proud of the bedrock.
But back to Sayburc: The bull is shown from the side, but we see his head as though from above, with prominent horns. This stylized depiction is, again, similar to that of the other settlements of this culture in southeast Turkey.
There seems to be an artistic emphasis on the wildness: the teeth of the leopards and the horns of the bull.
About that bull. “All the sites investigated within the scope of Sanliurfa Neolithic Research Project – Tastepeler Project are dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. Including Gobekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe. In the beginning of this period, the settled societies were completely hunters and gatherers, and towards the end of the period, the pre-domestication process began,” Ozdogan says – which means that this picture shows a wild bull, not a domestic one. The leopards, it should go without saying, are also not domestic.
The art of this culture delighted in depicting dangerous animals and stressing their dangerous appendages, she adds.
Of all the images on the bench, only the man between the leopards is shown in high relief. The other human and the animals are regular flat relief. As for the leopards man, he’s either sitting down or very short, Ozdogan points out. “I think it’s a sitting figure. This may be the reason for the disproportion in the body,” she says.
To the modern eye, the man’s face looks positively gargoylish. Asked if he could potentially depict not a human at all but perhaps a demonic or supernatural figure, Ozdogan suggests more pragmatically that the sharp angles on his face and the line on his forehead may be a mask. (Stone masks have been found in Neolithic contexts throughout the Near East, not that they look like that.)
“The human figures of this period, of which there are many in Karahan Tepe, depict the face in all details. Eyes, mouth, nose and ears are always depicted. All faces look different, but most are men,” she adds.
The fact that the man, seated or otherwise, is holding his penis is very on brand with Neolithic Near Eastern artistry. “It’s quite common,” Özdoğan says. “Penises are always made to indicate masculine identity, as it expresses the state of being a man, and most of the time, it is shown erect.” There is nothing new under the sun. Animals too were often shown with penises, she observes.
“There are also small female figurines in Nevali Cori,” the archaeologist says; an unusual crude etching of a female form found in Gobekli shows her with legs akimbo, apparently giving birth. Perhaps female figures were made of raw organic materials, which would have rotted. “Maybe there was such a distinction, and that’s why we don’t see women,” Ozdogan says.
The revolution of ‘social art’
So what have we? Five figures: two humans, one facing us and one not, one holding his penis and the other holding a rattle (or snake); and three dangerous animals – all depicted along the plane of the bench. How is this a narrative, and does it differ conceptually from the humans and animals carved onto monumental pillars and walls of the other tepes?
“We are used to horizontal scenes in the modern world. There is a flow of horizontal scenes for us,” Ozdogan explains – but this does not always have to be the case. “Pillars can create vertical scenes, or disorder can create a narrative unity.”
So the narrative is in the eye of the beholder. Karul also speculates that a key role of the gathering places in cusp-of-Neolithic Turkey was storytelling, possibly with the help of the images carved into the towering stones. In Gobekli, the most thoroughly excavated of the lot thus far, some of those carved pillars are six meters (over 19 feet) high.
Now about the innovation. It bears saying that the earliest narrative art in the world is believed to be a series of rock drawings in Sulawesi, Indonesia drawn more than 44,000 years ago.
Even while suggesting that Sayburc has the earliest narrative art in the Near East, Ozdogan helps put this into proportion. “There is magnificent cave art in the world, especially in Europe. These, too, are products of a narrative. We can’t ignore them: Nothing starts all of a sudden in one place,” she says. And then she makes the case for the narrative: “Paleolithic art is often located in the most hidden corners of caves, not for sharing with the community, but for places that they cannot see. Neolithic art, on the other hand, is more social, made to see and possibly to portray myths.”
Nor is the Sayburc art really on its own: There are other narrative scenes in the Near East, she adds, such as human and animal figures on a vessel in Nevali Coride, figures on shafting stones. But in his view, Sayburc presents has a “very visual and very expressive narrative: known and very familiar figures are depicted in a way to depict an event/story.” Which would be in keeping with Karul’s theory for the deeper purpose of the gathering places: to perpetuate the culture’s myths.
What does the future hold? Demolishing the modern houses to enable the Neolithic structure where the relief was found to be exposed in its entirety, Ozdogan says. And maybe then we will learn more about this mysterious culture that arose at the cusp of the Neolithic in southeastern Turkey, in a place that had once been paradise.