An ancient statue

The fish pond at Sanli Urfa in the southeast of Turkey draws many pilgrims and tourists. Because of this, an underground parking garage was constructed in the 1990s. A number of restaurants and souvenir shops were also added to the place. And a traffic tunnel, if I recall correctly. During these works, archaeologists discovered the statue shown here. Initially, they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

It was very old; that much was clear. But there were no parallels to help in interpreting it. It’s a man, standing, a little more than life-size, who appears to be masturbating. The eyes were probably once inlaid with obsidian. He wears a piece of clothing with a V-neck. But nothing more could really be said. The statue was put into the garden of the local archaeological museum.

In 1994 followed the discovery of Göbleki Tepe (‘Belly Hill’), about 20km northeast of Sanli Urfa. The site is one of the most important prehistoric discoveries of the past quarter century or so: a vast complex of stone structures, built in the earliest stages of the Neolithic (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A), more or less the eighth millennium BC. Archaeologists discovered beautiful reliefs there of wild boar, ostriches, lizards, snakes, bulls, foxes. It’s probably a temple, but again we have no parallels for this site: one place must be the oldest-known example of monumental architecture and that makes interpretation exceedingly difficult.

This was the age in which agriculture arose and humanity slowly abandoned its traditional life ways as hunter-gatherers. It was a time of dramatic cultural shifts, but even archaeologists who were prepared to find the unusual hadn’t foreseen the discovery of Göbleki Tepe. However, the hype that would follow could be easily predicted: one ancient complex and the ancient place name Bit Adini led to headlines that archaeologists had found the garden of Eden. If you want a more down-to-earth approach to the discovery, read Klaus Schmidt’s Sie bauten die ersten Tempel: Das rätselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjäger. Die archäologische Entdeckung am Göbleki Tepe (2007).

The statue discovered near the fish pond at Sanli Urfa now does have some context, but as far as I know not enough yet to determine if it’s older or younger than Göbleki Tepe. For now, I would – keeping in mind the First Law of Archaeology – avoid the simple interpretation of a ‘fertility deity’. What is clear, however, is that this is world’s oldest monumental statue of a human being. 

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