Figures carved on a bench discovered in Sayburç, south-eastern Turkey, in 2021 have been interpreted as a Neolithic narrative scene highlighting the relationship between humans and the animal world during this period, when communities were making the transition to a sedentary lifestyle.
The discovery was made during excavations that uncovered two separate clusters of Pre-Pottery Neolithic buildings at the site: one comprising residential buildings and one, to the north, communal buildings. The bench with the carvings was found in one of these communal buildings, dating to the 9th millennium BC and measuring 11m in diameter. Because of the size of the building and the presence of the carvings, Eylem Özdog˘an of Istanbul University suggests in a paper published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.125) ‘that this must have been a place for special gatherings’.
Depicted in high relief, the most prominent carving on the bench is a male human figure who appears to bend forward, holding its phallus in one hand and flanked by two open-mouthed leopards, with their teeth bared. The other figures, including these two leopards, are all executed in flat relief and face each other, while the high-relief human looks into the room.
Another scene consists of a second human figure, with a phallus, a raised six-fingered left hand, and a snake or rattle held in the right hand, next to a bull. The ancient carver, Özdog˘an observes, has distorted the perspective of the bull, whose body is shown from the side and head from above, in order to draw attention to the horns. Similar distortion of perspective and exaggeration of animals’ dangerous features – here, both the bull’s horns and the leopards’ teeth – can be seen at other prehistoric sites, perhaps reflecting a Neolithic preoccupation with the threats of the animal world.
According to Özdog˘an, the two individual scenes with similar subjects (human interacting with dangerous leopards, and human interacting with dangerous bull) appear to be linked, creating a horizontal progressing narrative in which ‘one or more related events or stories are being told’. Özdog˘an writes, ‘By being represented on the same level, the comparable stature of humans and animals at Sayburç suggests a newly recognised dimension in the narratives of Pre-Pottery Neolithic people.’ The reliefs represent ‘the reflection of a collective memory that kept the values of its community alive’.
Only part of the building has been excavated so far, and modern houses on top of the Neolithic structure will be demolished to provide access to the whole site in future work.