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Sayburç relief in Turkey shows men in combat with animals and is the oldest narrative scene on record. Source: K. Akdemir/Antiquity Publications Ltd

Oldest Narrative Scene: A Man, Holding His Penis, and Fighting Leopards!

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An 11,000-year-old carving from a Neolithic bench in south-eastern Turkey maybe the world’s oldest narrative scene. It depicts menacing leopards, amongst other animals, flanking two men, one of whom is holding his genitalia as he is being attacked.

The other man is shown squatting and shaking a rattle (or snake, or weapon) at a ferocious bull. The leopard’s teeth and the bull’s horns have been accentuated, to highlight the danger of the situation. With both engaged in some form of self-defense or combat, it forms the oldest narrative scene on record.

What makes this relief unique is that it spans two panels horizontally adjacent to each other, creating a progressing scene.

The relief at Sayburç was revealed during digs last year .

The entire Sayburç stone relief, with the man holding his phallus on the right. (B. Köşker/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )

First Ever Narrative: A Bull, a Leopard, and a Lot of Phallus

The carvings were on built-in stone benches within a Neolithic building and measure 0.7-0.9 meters (2.5 – 3 feet) tall, and 3.7 meters (12 feet) long.

The man fighting the bull is depicted with a "phallus-shaped extension on the abdomen," and his "raised, open left hand has six fingers, while the right holds a snake or rattle," wrote Dr. Eylem Özdoğan, study author and archaeologist from Istanbul University. The study has been published in the latest issue of Antiquity.

The second scene involves two leopards. Their mouths are open, teeth visible, with long tails curled up towards the body. From each side they face a man who is carved in three-dimensions, the only figure in high relief. He is also the only figure facing into the room. He is holding his phallus with his right hand, and his stomach with his left, perhaps attempting to protect those delicate parts.

It is a most intriguing situation.

“These figures, engraved together to depict a narrative, are the first known examples of such a holistic scene. This was a picture of the stories that formed the ideology of the people of that period”, explained Dr. Özdoğan.

The male figure situated between two leopards (K. Akdemir/Antiquity Publications Ltd).

The male figure situated between two leopards (K. Akdemir/ Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

"In terms of technique and craftsmanship," Özdoğan wrote, "the flat relief figures are also comparable to other Pre-Pottery Neolithic images in the region" like Gobekli Tepe , a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the world’s oldest megaliths that depict animals and people together. What makes the Sayburç reliefs unique is "reflection of a collective memory that kept the values of its community alive” through the emergence of seemingly complex scenes.

Sayburç: A Communal Building and A Site Where Hunter-Gatherers Start Settling

Under excavation since 2021, Sayburç is a Neolithic mound site 56 kilometers (35 miles) east of the Euphrates river and 32 kilometers (20 miles) north of the Syrian border. The settlement is from the 9th millennium BC, when the transition from hunting-gathering to long-term settled farming was occurring in human history.

The bench and the scenes have been found in a large communal structure, which likely served as a space for celebrations and other gatherings. The benches were arranged in such a manner that they faced a singular center, while the images were carved onto them. The building is yet to be fully excavated, so more is to be learned from this space soon.

The position of the communal building, located between two buildings in the northern part of the village of Sayburç (Courtesy of the Sayburç project archive/Antiquity Publications Ltd).

The position of the communal building, located between two buildings in the northern part of the village of Sayburç (Courtesy of the Sayburç project archive/ Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

“This building has all the characteristic features of the communal structures in the region. In this structure, as in other similar ones, animal and human images were found. However, here the characteristic figures of the period coexist and form a scene,” said Dr Özdoğan.

Who these figures represent still remains a mystery, though Dr. Özdoğan posits that these were likely mythical figures or a person from a historical tale, and thereby important individuals in a larger sense. It is also likely that they were revered by the newly formed settled agricultural communities of the region, and could have played a role in the harvest perhaps.

With all these figures depicted, it is clear that there is an attempt to show the complex relationship between humans, the natural world and the animal life surrounding them. This is as the transition to a sedentary lifestyle was being made, with the ensuing conflicts that emerge out of this radical shift. It is also worth mentioning that there is a performative masculinity being depicted in all these images, with the focus being wild animals, men, and their phalluses.

“Archaeological evidence can provide some insight into the traditions of past societies, but clearer evidence rarely survives, so this discovery is exciting. Sayburç has very clear evidence in this respect and has the potential to tell us a lot about the Neolithic,” concludes Dr. Özdoğan.

Top image: Sayburç relief in Turkey shows men in combat with animals and is the oldest narrative scene on record. Source: K. Akdemir/ Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Sahir Pandey

References

Hale, T. 2022. Man Waggling His Willy At Leopards Found On World's Earliest Narrative Art . Available at: https://www.iflscience.com/man-waggling-his-willy-at-leopards-found-on-world-s-earliest-narrative-art-66554.

Heritage Daily. 2022. ARCHAEOLOGISTS DISCOVER OLDEST KNOWN NARRATIVE SCENE DATING FROM 11,000-YEARS-AGO . Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2022/12/archaeologists-discover-oldest-known-narrative-scene-dating-from-11000-years-ago/145452.

Killgrove, K. 2022. Man holding penis and flanked by leopards is world's oldest narrative carving . Available at: https://www.livescience.com/oldest-narrative-scene-neolithic-turkey.

Özdoğan, E. 2022. The Sayburç reliefs: a narrative scene from the Neolithic . Antiquity, 96 (390). Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.125.

Comments

Looks to me, the man facing the bull is a hunter with a sling in his hand.

Pete Wagner's picture

IMPOSSIBLE that it would be the oldest.  Here’s a better photo: https://img.haarets.co.il/bs/00000184-edc3-d085-afc4-efc30bf60002/b2/09/...
As you can tell there, somebody very crudely carved in/over what had been there, particulary the cat teeth, and the other deep grooves.  I’m sure the original was a lot more beautiful in comparison.  You can also see where the nose and lips are smashed off, which suggests a cultural hate for whoever carved the original, probably pre-Ice Age/Atlantean-era.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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