Man Holding His Penis Is Early Example of Ancient “Narrative” Art

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The Neolithic relief found in southeastern Turkey may illustrate humans’ changing relationship with animals. (photo by K. Akdemir, courtesy Cambridge University Press)

About 11,000 years ago, inhabitants of present-day Turkey were undergoing one of the most significant changes in the history of humankind: the “Neolithic Revolution,” a shift from a migratory hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a stationary agricultural one. In the southeastern historical site of Sayburç in Turkey, an archaeologist has discovered an artwork from that period that may reflect humans’ changing roles in the natural world — and it depicts a man holding his penis.

Archaeologist Eylem Özdoğan of Istanbul University believes the 12-foot relief panel constitutes the first example of narrative story-telling, as explained in an article for the academic journal Antiquity. Carved into a bench, the relief shows two human figures, both with exposed penises. In the first scene, one figure stands in a slight squat and faces a bull. In the second, a figure carved in high relief holds his penis as two leopards face him in profile (a penis is also carved onto one of the leopards).

The 12-foot panel (photo by B. Köşker)

The carvings were likely housed in a space used for special gatherings but more research is needed to determine the site’s exact function. Only half of the building has been excavated so far. Although a 1949 construction project covered much of the Sayburç archaeological site, the newer buildings will be demolished in order to conduct future research.

“The figures were undoubtedly characters worthy of description,” Özdoğan wrote in her paper. Although examples of storytelling have been identified in older cave drawings, the Sayburç relief shows one of the first examples of linear narration. (Özdoğan notes that unlike other Neolithic imagery from the region, this discovery depicts humans and animals side by side rather than vertically stacked.)

Though the specific story depicted has not been identified, the archaeologist says that the scenes can be viewed as a reflection of a “collective memory” that kept the values of its community alive.

A figure flanked by two cougars in the wall relief

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