[Left], Photo of the Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe. (Alistair Coombs). [Right], Archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey.

The Vulture Stone of Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Pictogram?

An article in the archeology section of the Hürriet Daily News published in July of this year announced the world’s earliest pictogram had been discovered at the archeological site of Göbekli Tepe, southeast Turkey. Though it was not specified what example was being referred to, it is clear that Müslüm Ercan, Director of the Șanliurfa Museum, was referencing a scene depicted on the west-facing side of Pillar 43 of Enclosure D. Pillar 43 is known more widely as the ‘vulture stone’. Not long after, the UK’s Daily Mail picked up the story and had me say that I thought the disk, or orb, seen above the vulture’s extended left wing showed the sun. While this is not untrue, the following remarks clarify why I believe this to be the case.

The Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe.

The Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe.

The vulture stone is one of the most graphically charged and complex reliefs so far excavated at the site. Technically speaking, however, it is not the world’s earliest pictogram, but it is an early, well-preserved and composite stone-cut pictogram by definition.  Müslüm Ercan describes the scene as a sky burial, in which the ‘soul’, sometimes symbolized as a head, is figuratively carried up to the sky world, basing his view, it appears, on painted examples found at the site of Çatalhöyük. Although there is outline of relationship between these separate patterns, the vulture stone conveys a more succinct amalgamation of depth.

Traditional Tibetan Sky Burial in which vultures pick clean the bones of the dead.

Traditional Tibetan Sky Burial in which vultures pick clean the bones of the dead.

The character of its central figures such as the headless man, the scorpion, and the vulture, resonantly propose a theme of death suggesting the scenario to reflect afterlife beliefs of the builders. While this might be the case, it does not imply these figures were based entirely on subjective visions. It would also be somewhat thin reasoning to conclude it picturing the soul of a departed ascending to the heaven world in the manner of a sky burial, purely in those terms.

The Scorpion

The Scorpion. In ancient legend it served as killer and guardian.

The Scorpion. In ancient legend it served as killer and guardian. ( CC BY 2.5 )

The scorpion occupies a timeless role in the history of medicine and magic. For millennia the animal has inspired images expressing human experiences of danger, pain, and desire. Although a creature of forbidding underworlds it can also be a guardian and counter to baleful forces. Its prominence on the vulture stone would therefore seem apposite and indicative that similar meanings were applied to this creature. The scorpion has also enjoyed an enduring career in astronomy. Scorpio is amongst the earliest recorded constellations and features in allegories based on astronomical movement.

In Greek mythology the hunter Orion was stung to death by a monstrous scorpion. Thereafter he rose and became the constellation of the same name in the opposite side of the sky to the scorpion to evade its venom. The Egyptian Osiris was also killed by a scorpion sent to him over the hottest part of the summer by the god Set. An example earlier than these involved the Sumerian strongman Gilgamesh being attacked by scorpion-men as the sun rose in Scorpio. In this myth, Scorpio combined with Sagittarius as scorpion-men armed with bows, given the proximity of these constellations.

Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Aquila have served as markers that divided space between corresponding constellations on the opposite side of the sky such as Orion, Taurus, and Gemini. Though they do not define a precise 180° opposition, from our platform on earth these two sets of constellations appear to group round the galactic-center and anti-center respectively, and play out a symmetric ‘seesaw’ effect of periodic rising and sinking. The ancient Peruvians and Barasana shamans of the Amazon divided the sky with stars from these two sets of constellations and the Greek poet Euripides expressed exactly the same partition using the Pleiades and the thunderbird Aquila. Otherwise known as the ‘living eye’, the Aquila constellation was identified as a vulture over the Euphrates and elsewhere. Perhaps significantly, in Babylonia Aquila was depicted carrying a dead man or departed spirit.

The constellations Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Aquila.

The constellations Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Aquila.

Cross-cultural resemblance between the identity of clusters about Scorpio suggest these constellations were subsidiary to a common theme connected to that geography of space despite their forms scattershot against luminous mists and bulging gas clouds. There is yet another reason for the artisans possibly recording this region of sky at the time of the Enclosure’s construction which unites Scorpio with our local star.

Suns, Heads and Vultures

It would be misleading to perceive the activity on the vulture stone as an “iconography of horror” as some have, as if the head of the decapitated man was the playing of an infernal spirit in some diabolical charade.  A notion of ascent is present but there is clearly more going on than a sky burial. (Ascent to a sky world above or descent to an underworld below are synonymous in terms of the otherworldly wisdom acquired.) The scene expresses a timeless genre of human experience defined by death, dismemberment, and ascent which adheres within mystery rites of initiation of all eras. The death involved, however, is mystical and involves a voyage to the threshold of death without dying. The initiate shaman, priest, or magician thereby returns to the world revived and spiritualized or, so to speak, shamanized. 

Such experiences not only expand the consciousness of an individual, they also become meaningful for groups who mythologize the initiates and their experiences. However, over time both fade from memory unless integrated within observable megalithic statements and/or aligned to recurring phenomena which re-enact them. In regards to the vulture stone it is significant that during circa 9,600 BC the sun rose in Scorpio at the summer solstice, as can be determined from sequencing software. Despite the central gnomon-like pillars of Enclosure D orientating south for good reasons, from the ritual station (rather than observatory) of the vulture stone, the sun would soar overhead on the longest day of the year. But would it be incongruous that the vulture’s ‘ball’ was the sun and a severed head at the same time? It would not.

As the head houses the organ of sight, or in the case of a voyaging shaman, the faculty of seeing worlds beyond the physical, the head has symbolized the microcosmic counterpart of the sun. Correspondingly, the sun is conceived as the cosmic homologue of the eye. As organs of visual perception, the head, the eye, and the sun are often interlinked via the medium of sun rays. In the age of metallurgy solar-fire-head imagery continued whereby a shaman’s head was forged in a blacksmith’s furnace before being reconstituted and the initiate sanctified as a shaman. This is not to suggest the figure on the vulture stone is undergoing a shamanic initiation marked by dismemberment and ascent as we know it, rather the experience having been graphically reproduced has strong shamanic parallels.

Egyptian Solar-Headed Entity.

Egyptian Solar-Headed Entity.

Like other examples of mystic death from the ancient world, a condition of headlessness is temporary and this idea can be advanced in sexual symbolism. Clearly, the remaining man is elated, indicating a link between the living and the dead or influence from realms unseen. As psychopomp between the interface of the psychic and physical worlds and as the symbolic representative of death and renewed life, the Egyptian Osiris appears to embody this scene to large degree. Despite his famed genital mutilation, Osiris was often portrayed as headless while his death and resurrection could also reflect astronomical events. Indeed, the concept of Osiris was by no means confined to ancient Egypt.

Concerning the jubilant vulture, or post-mortem initiator, it too bears solar affiliations attested elsewhere. While its presence complements the scorching ‘summer-sting’ of the scorpion, it unfolds a wider import. Though a menacing bird, vultures generally do not attack and kill. Vultures and the sun therefore not only personify wide-ranging powers of vision from their stations in the sky like Grim Reapers, both can also signify the irreversible effect of time which unaggressively, though inevitably, destroys life.  Similarly, although the summer solstice is a festival of celebration, it is yet a tipping point in the cycle of nature and reminder of the gradual ebb of days and the season’s displacement by an expansion of night.

Göbekli Tepe, mysterious prehistoric site.

Göbekli Tepe, mysterious prehistoric site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Featured image: [Left], Photo of the Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe. (Alistair Coombs). [Right], Archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy author, Alistair Coombs.

By: Alistair Coombs


Anadolu Agency. “Signs of world’s first pictograph found in Göbeklitepe.” 2015. [Online] Available here.

Richard Gray. “Is this the oldest evidence of written language? Pictograms found in ancient Turkish city could be 12,000-years-old.” 2015. [Online] Available here.

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