The carving of a man holding his penis surrounded by leopards is the oldest known depiction of a narrative scene, archaeologists say

A panel carved into a Neolithic bench in Turkey depicting a series of human-animal interactions may be the earliest known depiction of a narrative scene. The discovery of the relief, believed to be 11,000 years old, was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity. According to archaeologist Eylem Özdoğan, author of the study, the scene may shed light on how ancient communities kept their values ​​alive.

“We can think that more holistic narratives are starting to form here — that this [scene] is decisive in shaping the life ideology of the community and is passed on to new generations,” says Özdoğan The Art Paper. She notes in her research that the panel has “the narrative integrity of both a theme and a story.”

Older examples of narrative art have been found around the world, the most famous of which are the Lascaux cave paintings, estimated to be about 17,000 years old. In 2017, archaeologists on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi found what is widely recognized as the “oldest illustrated record of storytelling.””: a panel in a remote cave of eight figures hunting pigs and anoas that is about 44,000 years old.

The ancient carved bench was excavated in 2021 at the Sayburç site in southeastern Turkey. Photo: Yelam Ozdogan

But the engravings in Turkey differ from these older images because the scenes on the panel are related yet distinguishable – they progress, similar to frames on a filmstrip. Their location in a communal building of an ancient settlement also suggests that they were intended for a large audience.

“The main difference is that cave paintings are made in places that are not accessible to everyone – they are hidden and not visible to everyone,” says Özdoğan. “But the Neolithic images must have served in the gathering places so that everyone can learn the story. Therefore, they can be seen as the first ontological stories.”

The ancient carved bench was excavated in 2021 at the Sayburç site in southeastern Turkey, which was largely covered by the construction of a modern village in 1949. It was found in the remains of a communal building, excavated under two houses, its size and structural features suggesting it was a place for special gatherings.

The 0.6 m wide bench shows a bull on the left facing a human with a phallus-like shape on the belly, who rings a rattle at the animal and whose backs are turned to three other figures. These consist of two leopards with teeth flanking a figure holding his phallus. The image reflects well-known styles and themes of the Neolithic Age, Özdoğan writes in the newspaper, focusing “placed on predatory and aggressive aspects of the animal world”. She adds that the technique and craftsmanship are reminiscent of other human-animal representations found in Turkey, including a sculpture of a human figure carrying a leopard on their back at Karahan Tepe, T-shaped pillars at Göbekl Tepe.and sculptures by Nevali Çori of stacked man and animal.

The carving of a man holding his penis surrounded by leopards is the oldest known depiction of a narrative scene, archaeologists say

According to Özdoğan, the Sayburç panel is distinguished by the horizontal orientation of such simultaneous images, in which people and animals are shown at equal levels, creating a different effect. “The direction and posture of the figures imply that two related scenes are present,” she writes. “While the other figures [on the left] face each other, only the male figure – in high relief – looks into the room and stares in.”

Özdoğan has not shared a specific interpretation of the image, but believes it preserves one or more related events. More generally, the scene reflects human-animal relationships as the former transitioned to a more sedentary lifestyle in the Neolithic period.

There may be more answers in the future, as archaeologists have only excavated half of the communal building so far. They plan to demolish the modern homes that covered the site in future field seasons.

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