Art and Society
The Neolithic Temple at Göbekli Tepe
One of the most important archaeological discoveries of the past few decades is the Anatolian Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey near Sanliurfa. Excavated since 1995 by the German Archaeological Institute in cooperation with the Sanliurfa Museum, the hilltop site appears to have been a religious, or at least a ceremonial, center rather than a habitation site.The excavated area consists of about 20 circular structures with monolithic T-shaped stone pillars ( FIG. 1-12 ) set at right angles into the walls. At the center of the rooms are two additional similarly shaped pillars. The pillars served as roof supports. There are no doorways, and visitors to the site probably entered the circular rooms through the roof.Many of the pillars are covered with shallow reliefs depicting a wide array of animals, birds, and insects. Some of the reliefs include human arms and hands. The interpretation of the representations is uncertain, but the animals and other forms must be connected to the rituals that took place at the site.If the German archaeologists’ dating and interpretation are correct, Göbekli Tepe overturns one of the most basic assumptions about prehistoric societies. It now appears possible, even likely, that hunter-gatherers erected stone temples long before farmers established permanent village communities. The history of art and architecture—and of civilization—must now be rewritten. end sidebar.
By 7000 bce, agriculture was well established from Anatolia to ancient Palestine and Iran. Its advanced state by this date presupposes a long development. Indeed, the very existence of a major settlement such as Jericho gives strong support to this assumption. Jericho, situated on a plateau in the Jordan River Valley with an unfailing spring, was the site of a small village as early as the ninth millennium bce. This village underwent spectacular development around 8000 bce, when the inhabitants established a new Neolithic settlement ( FIG. 1-13 ) covering about 10 acres. Its mud-brick houses sat on round or oval stone foundations and had roofs of branches covered with earth.As Jericho’s wealth grew, the need for protection against marauding nomads resulted in the first known permanent stone fortifications. By 7500 bce, a wide rock-cut ditch and a 5-foot-thick wall surrounded the town, which probably had a population exceeding 2,000. Set into the circuit wall, which has been preserved to a height of almost 13 feet, was a 30-foot-tall circular tower ( FIG. 1-13 , bottom center) constructed of roughly shaped stones laid without mortar ( dry masonry ). Almost 33 feet in diameter at the base, the tower has an inner stairway leading to its summit. Not enough of the site has been excavated to determine whether this tower was solitary or one of several similar towers forming a complete defense system. In either case, a stone structure as large as the Jericho tower was a tremendous technological achievement and a testimony to the Neolithic builders’ ability to organize a significant workforce.Sometime around 7000 bce, Jericho’s inhabitants abandoned their fortified site, but new settlers arrived in the early seventh millennium and established a farming community of rectangular mud-brick houses on stone foundations with plastered and painted floors and walls. Several of the excavated buildings contained statuettes of animals and women and seem to have served as shrines. The new villagers buried their dead beneath the floors of their houses with the craniums detached from their skeletons and their features reconstructed in plaster. Subtly modeled with inlaid seashells for eyes and painted hair, these reconstructed heads appear strikingly lifelike. One head ( FIG. 1-14 ) features a painted mustache, distinguishing it from the others. The Jericho skulls constitute the world’s earliest known “portrait gallery,” but the artists’ intention was certainly not portraiture in the modern sense. The plastered skulls must have served a ritualistic purpose. The community of several hundred Neolithic farmers who occupied Jericho at this time honored and perhaps worshiped their ancestors as intercessors between the living and the world beyond. They may have believed that the dead could exert power over the living and that they had to offer sacrifices to their ancestors to receive favorable treatment. These skulls were probably the focus of rites in honor of those ancestors.
A second important Neolithic settlement in ancient Palestine was Ain Ghazal, near the modern Jordanian capital of Amman. Occupied from around 7200 to 5000 bce, the site featured houses of irregularly shaped stones with plastered floors and walls painted red. The most striking finds, however, are two caches containing three dozen plaster statuettes ( FIG. 1-15 ) and busts, some with two heads, datable to ca. 6500 bce. The sculptures, which appear to have been ritually buried, are white plaster built up over a core of reeds and twine, with black bitumen, a tarlike substance, for the pupils of the eyes. Some of the figures have painted clothing. Only rarely did the sculptors indicate the gender of the figures. Whatever their purpose, the size (as much as 3 feet tall) and sophisticated technique of the Ain Ghazal statuettes and busts sharply differentiate the Neolithic figurines from tiny and often faceless Paleolithic sculptures such as the Willendorf woman ( FIG. 1-4 ) and even the foot-tall Hohlenstein-Stadel ivory feline-headed human ( FIG. 1-3 ). The Ain Ghazal statues mark the beginning of the long history of large-scale sculpture in Mesopotamia.
During the past half century, archaeologists also have made remarkable discoveries in Turkey, not only at Göbekli Tepe ( FIG. 1-12 ) but also at Hacilar and especially Çatal Höyük ( FIG. 1-15A ), the site of a flourishing Neolithic culture on the central Anatolian plain between ca. 7500 and 6000 bce. Although animal husbandry was well established, hunting continued to play an important part in the early Neolithic economy of Çatal Höyük. The importance of hunting as a food source is reflected in the wall paintings of the site’s older decorated rooms, where hunting scenes predominate. In style and concept, however, the deer hunt mural ( FIG. 1-16 ) at Çatal Höyük is worlds apart from the wall paintings that the hunters of the Paleolithic period produced. Perhaps what is most strikingly new about the Çatal Höyük painting and similar Neolithic examples is the regular appearance of the human figure—not only singly but also in large, coherent groups with a wide variety of poses, subjects, and settings. As noted earlier, humans rarely figured in Paleolithic cave paintings, and pictorial narratives are almost unknown. Even the “hunting scene” ( FIG. 1-10 ) in the well at Lascaux is questionable as a narrative. By contrast, human themes and concerns and action scenes with humans dominating animals are central subjects of Neolithic paintings.In the Çatal Höyük mural, the painter depicted an organized hunting party, not a series of individual figures. The representation of the hunters is a rhythmic repetition of basic shapes, but the painter took care to distinguish important descriptive details (bows, arrows, and garments), and the heads have clearly defined noses, mouths, chins, and hair. The Neolithic painter placed all the heads in profile for the same reason that Paleolithic painters universally chose the profile view for representations of animals (see “ How to Represent an Animal ”). Only the side view of the human head shows all its shapes clearly. However, at Çatal Höyük the painter presented the torsos from the front—again, the most informative viewpoint—whereas the profile view was the choice for the legs and arms. This composite view of the human body is highly artificial—the human body cannot make an abrupt 90-degree shift at the hips—but it well describes the parts of a human body, as opposed to how a body appears from a particular viewpoint. In fact, the head of each hunter is also shown in a composite view, because the eyes are frontal, not profile. If the painter had placed a profile eye in the profile head, the eye would not “read” as an eye at all, because it would not have its distinctive oval shape. Art historians call this characteristic early approach to representation conceptual representation (as opposed to optical representation —the portrayal of people, animals, and objects seen from a fixed point) because the artists who painted and carved figures in this manner did not seek to record the immediate, fleeting aspects of the human body. Instead, they rendered the human form’s distinguishing and fixed properties. The fundamental shapes of the head, arms, torso, and legs, not their accidental appearance, dictated the artists’ selection of the composite view as the best way to represent the human body, just as Paleolithic painters represented bulls’ bodies from the side but their horns from the front ( FIG. 1-1 ). This conceptual approach to depicting the human form would become the rule for the next 6,000 years.The technique of painting also changed dramatically from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic Age. The Çatal Höyük painters used brushes to apply their pigments to a background of dry white plaster. The careful preparation of the wall surface contrasts sharply with the typical direct application of pigment to the irregularly shaped walls and ceilings of Old Stone Age caves.
MindTap Bonus Image
Restored View of Çatal Höyük
Between 1961 and 1965, at Çatal Höyük in central Anatolia, archaeologists excavated 12 successive building levels dating from around 7500 to 6000 bce. During that period, the most important source of Çatal Höyük’s wealth was trade in obsidian, a glasslike volcanic stone highly valued by Neolithic toolmakers and weapon makers because it could be chipped into fine cutting edges. Along with Jericho ( FIG. 1-12 ), Çatal Höyük seems to have been one of the first experiments in urban living. The regularity of its plan ( FIG. 1-15A ) suggests that the town was built according to some predetermined scheme. A peculiar feature is the settlement’s complete lack of streets. Openings in the roofs provided access to the interiors, as in the much later kivas of the Ancestral Puebloans of the American Southwest ( FIG. 18-36 ). The openings also served as chimneys to ventilate the hearth in the combination living room and kitchen that formed the core of the house. Impractical as such an arrangement may appear today, it did offer some advantages. The attached buildings were more stable than freestanding structures and, at the limits of the town site, formed a defensive perimeter wall. If enemies managed to breach the exterior wall, they would find themselves not inside the town but above the houses, with the defenders waiting there on the roof.The houses, constructed of mud brick strengthened by sturdy timber frames, varied in size but repeated the same basic plan. The builders plastered and painted the walls and floors. Platforms along the walls served as sites for sleeping, working, and eating. The living buried their dead beneath the same platforms. Archaeologists have uncovered many decorated rooms at Çatal Höyük. The excavators called these rooms “shrines,”but their function is uncertain. Their number suggests that they played an important role in the life of Çatal Höyük’s inhabitants.The “shrines” are distinguished from the house structures by the greater richness of their interior decoration, which consisted of wall paintings, plaster reliefs, animal heads, and bucrania (bovine skulls). Bulls’ horns, widely thought to be symbols of masculine potency, are the most common motif in these rooms. In some cases, they are displayed next to plaster breasts, symbols of female fertility, projecting from the walls. The excavators also found many statuettes of stone or baked clay. Most are quite small (2 to 8 inches high) and primarily depict female figures. A few reach 12 inches.end sidebar
In Europe, where Paleolithic paintings and sculptures abound, no evidence exists for comparably developed early Neolithic towns. However, in succeeding millennia, perhaps as early as 4000 bce, the local populations of several European regions constructed imposing monuments employing massive rough-cut stones. The very dimensions of the stones, some as high as 17 feet and weighing as much as 50 tons, have prompted historians to call them megaliths (great stones) and to designate Neolithic architecture employing them as megalithic.
One of the most impressive megalithic monuments in Europe is also one of the oldest. The megalithic tomb at Newgrange in Ireland, north of Dublin, may date to as early as 3200 bce and is one of the oldest funerary monuments in Europe. It takes the form of a passage grave —that is, a tomb with a long stone corridor leading to a burial chamber beneath a great tumulus (earthen burial mound). Some mounds contain more than one passage grave. Similar graves have been found also in England, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. All attest to the importance of honoring the dead in Neolithic society. The Newgrange tumulus is 280 feet in diameter and 44 feet tall. Its passageway is 62 feet long, and it and the primitive dome over the main chamber ( FIG. 1-17 ) are early examples of corbeled vaulting (see “ Corbeled Arches, Vaults, and Domes ”, and FIG. 4-18 ). At Newgrange, the huge megaliths forming the vaulted passage and the dome are held in place by their own weight without mortar, each stone countering the thrust of neighboring stones. Decorating some of the megaliths are incised spirals and other motifs (not visible in FIG. 1-17 ). A special feature of the Newgrange tomb is that at the winter solstice, the sun illuminates the passageway and the burial chamber.
By the end of the fourth millennium bce, Neolithic civilization had spread to the most remote parts of Europe, including, in the far north, Skara Brae ( FIG. 1-17A ) in the Orkney Islands, and, in the far south, Malta. The megalithic temple ( FIG. 1-18 ) of Hagar Qim is one of many constructed on Malta between 3200 and 2500 bce. The Maltese builders erected their temples by piling carefully cut stone blocks in courses (stacked horizontal rows). To construct the doorways at Hagar Qim, the builders employed the post-and-lintel system ( FIG. 1-19 ) in which two upright stones (posts) support a horizontal block ( lintel or beam ). The layout of this and other Neolithic Maltese temples is especially noteworthy for the combination of rectilinear and curved forms, including multiple apse (semicircular recesses). Inside the Hagar Qim temple, archaeologists found altars (hence the identification of the structure as a religious shrine) and several stone statues of headless nude women—one standing, the others seated. The level of architectural and sculptural sophistication seen on this isolated island at so early a date is extraordinary.
MindTap Bonus Image
House 1, Skara Brae
The site of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, less than 10 miles off the northern coast of Scotland on the Bay of Skaill, vividly documents the spread of Neolithic civilization to one of the most remote parts of Europe as early as the fourth millennium bce. Archaeologists discovered the site in 1850 after a severe storm washed away the sand dunes that for thousands of years had concealed the Neolithic village. Because trees are rare on these islands, the Neolithic farmers constructed their houses as well as their tombs of local stone, which accounts for the preservation of the site today.Still visible are the remains of 10 structures of approximately the same date as the passage grave at Newgrange ( FIG. 1-17 ) and the shrines of Hagar Qim ( FIG. 1-18 ). Most are single-room windowless houses ( FIG. 1-17A ), roughly square in plan with round corners, ranging from 13 to 21 feet on each side. The builders constructed the walls by laying dry masonry courses of wide stone slabs a few inches thick. The roofs probably consisted of turf resting on timber beams. At the center of each house was a square hearth with a border of stones. Above, there must have been an opening in the roof for smoke to escape. On the back wall, opposite the main door, was an open cupboard, also constructed of stone slabs, for storing household goods on shelves and perhaps also for the display of precious possessions. In front of the cupboard was a stone seat, undoubtedly for the head of the household, who from his seated position could greet visitors entering through the door. Against the side walls were stone beds consisting of upright slabs forming a rectangular box, which likely contained mattresses of straw.end sidebar
The most famous megalithic monument in Europe is Stonehenge ( FIG. 1-20 ) on the Salisbury Plain in southern England. A henge is an arrangement of megalithic stones in a circle, often surrounded by a ditch. The type is almost exclusively limited to Britain. Stonehenge is a complex of rough-cut sarsen (a form of sandstone) stones and smaller “bluestones” (various volcanic rocks) built in several stages over at least several hundred years. The final henge consists of concentric post-and-lintel circles. Huge sarsen megaliths form the outer ring, which is almost 100 feet in diameter. Inside is a ring of bluestones encircling a horseshoe (open end facing east) of trilithons (three-stone constructions)—five lintel-topped pairs of the largest sarsens, each weighing 45 to 50 tons. Standing apart and to the east (outside the view in FIG. 1-20 ) is the “heel stone,” which, for a person looking outward from the center of the complex, would have marked the point where the sun rose at the summer solstice. Stonehenge, perhaps originally a funerary site where Neolithic peoples cremated their dead, seems in its latest phase to have been a kind of astronomical observatory. According to a recent theory, it also served as a center of healing that attracted the sick and dying from throughout the region. In any case, the henge itself is now known to be just one part of a much larger ritual complex.Whatever role they played in society, the megalithic tombs, temples, houses, and henges of Europe are enduring testaments to the rapidly developing intellectual powers of Neolithic humans as well as to their capacity for heroic physical effort.
The Big Picture
Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) Art ca. 40,000–9000 bce
· The first sculptures and paintings antedate the invention of writing by tens of thousands of years. Paleolithic humans’ decision to represent the world around them initiated an intellectual revolution of enormous consequences.
· Scholars debate why humans began to paint and carve images and what role those images played in the lives of Paleolithic peoples. All that is certain is that animals, not humans, dominate Paleolithic art, and that women were far more common subjects than men.
· Some archaeologists believe that Stone Age hunters performed rituals in front of the animal images, which aided them in killing their prey. By contrast, other scholars think that the purpose of the images was to ensure the fertility of the species on which humans depended for food and clothing. Many researchers now believe that the Paleolithic cave paintings record the visions seen by shamans during trances.
· The works created by Paleolithic sculptors and painters range in size from tiny portable figurines, such as the stone image of a woman from Willendorf, to large, sometimes over-life-size, carved and painted representations of animals on the walls of the caves of Lascaux, Pech-Merle, Altamira, and elsewhere in southern France and northern Spain. Sometimes, the choice of subject was inspired by irregularities in natural rock formations that seemed to resemble animals or humans.
· The earliest known sculptures, such as the feline-human from Hohlenstein-Stadel, date to 40,000 to 35,000 bce. The oldest paintings known, established by radiocarbon dating, are in the Chauvet Cave at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.
· Paleolithic artists regularly depicted animals in profile in order to present a complete picture of each beast, including its head, body, tail, and all four legs. This format persisted for millennia.
Neolithic (New Stone Age) Art ca. 9000–2300 bce
· Around 9000 bce, the ice that had covered much of northern Europe for millennia receded. The Neolithic Age emerged first in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, roughly corresponding to present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
· The Neolithic Age revolutionized human life with the beginning of agriculture and the formation of the first settled communities, such as that at Çatal Höyük in Anatolia, where archaeologists have uncovered an extensive town with numerous shrines.
· Some Neolithic towns—for example, Jericho in the Jordan River Valley—also had fortified stone circuit walls.
· The excavation of a religious complex with decorated stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia indicates that Neolithic people constructed stone temples long before they established permanent village communities.
· In art, the Neolithic period brought the birth of large-scale sculpture, notably the painted plaster figurines from Ain Ghazal and the restored life-size skulls from Jericho.
· In painting, coherent narratives became common, and artists began to represent human figures as composites of frontal and profile views—a formula that would remain universal for millennia.
· Neolithic technology spread gradually from Anatolia and Mesopotamia to Europe, where it continued longer in remote places—for example, Stonehenge in England.