Neolithic carvings discovered in Turkey may represent the earliest-known narrative scene

The relief panels depict interactions between humans and the animal world.

Archaeologists have discovered two relief panels depicting humans and animals carved into a bench at the 11,000-year-old Neolithic site of Sayburç in south-eastern Turkey, which may represent the earliest-known narrative scene in the world.

One of the panels from the relief, which depicts a male figure holding their phallus whilst flanked by two leopards. IMAGE: K. Akdemir.

The discovery was made during excavations which began at Sayburç in 2021. The site, located 60km east of the Euphrates River in the Şanlıurfa Province of Turkey, comprises a Neolithic mound that was built over with houses in the mid-20th century.

Excavations revealed two early Neolithic occupation areas.

One area is located in the northern part of the village and consists of communal buildings dated to the 9th millennium BC. Just 70m south of here, archaeologists found a second area comprising residential buildings.

The relief was discovered in the remains of a communal building carved into the limestock bedrock and constructed with stone walls.

The communal building being uncovered between two buildings of the modern village. IMAGE: Sayburç project archive/Antiquity Ltd.

The narrative scenes consist of two panels engraved into the back rests of benches lining the walls.

One panel depicts a figure holding their phallus in their right hand, with two leopards – both baring their teeth – shown on either side.

The second panel features another human figure in a slightly squatted position, holding a snake or a rattle, facing a bull.

Though scenes depicting human and animal interactions have been identified at other Neolithic sites in the region, such as Göbeklitepe, the Sayburç reliefs are unique in that they are presented across two horizontally adjacent panels, and so appear to tell the progression of a story.

Full view of the the Sayburç relief. IMAGE: B. Kösķer/Antiquity Ltd

As Dr Eylem Özdoğan from Istanbul University, who reported the findings in the journal Antiquity, explains: ‘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.’

Dr Özdoğan has suggested that the figures depicted may have had some important historical or mythical significance for the Neolithic community.

He adds: ‘Sayburç has very clear evidence in this respect and has the potential to tell us a lot about the Neolithic society that we do not know, yet.’