Göbekli Tepe: Making us rethink our ancestors
Ruins from Göbekli Tepe
German archaeologist Professor Klaus Schmidt first came to Turkey in 1978 for research but it wasn’t until 1994 that he realized the importance of Göbekli Tepe, an early Neolithic site in the southeast of Turkey. He tells us about site’s discovery, its importance, what has been uncovered to date and also has a message for those who traffic in antiquities.
Nothing left to discover? Think again
In this high-tech era, how many of us really expect any more major archaeological finds to be made? Professor Schmidt has been fortunate enough to be involved in just that.
His interest in the Stone Age started when he was at elementary school and that eventually led him to Göbekli Tepe, some 15 kilometers northeast of Şanliurfa, in 1994. The press is calling the site the “oldest temple” in the world, as it dates back to the tenth millennium BC, predating Stonehenge, for example, by seven millenia. What does Dr. Schmidt think? “It would be better to call it the ‘oldest yet found and excavated’ place of cultic activity,” he underlines. “The constructions at Göbekli Tepe do not satisfy the concrete definition of a ‘temple,’ but the tag ‘oldest temple’ illustrates the site’s standing in human development quite well.”
So how did the site’s significance come to light? “I was in Turkey with a fellow archaeologist to visit some Neolithic sites and Göbekli Tepe was one of a number of destinations,” he explains, noting: “The site was marked and shortly described by American archaeologist Peter Benedict in the 1960s because some stone tools were found there. However, its real significance went unnoticed until we went there. Not only did we stumble upon fragments of large sculptures but we also realized that the mound is artificial; it was quite obvious that this couldn’t be a natural hill. The whole place was also covered in flint chunks and chips, stone tools and traces of human activity. Some small mounds of rock and debris show tool marks. One large piece of limestone looked very familiar -- it resembled the T-shaped head of pillars I knew from Nevali Çori, an Early Neolithic place some kilometers to the north, where I worked in an excavation project before. But unlike Nevalı Çorı, where they were found only in the context of several special buildings, those pillars seemed to appear everywhere at Göbekli Tepe, which made it stand out as something unique. Although there are other sites with T-shaped pillars in the region, Göbekli Tepe is totally unique in its monumentality. To date, none of the other sites in the area have been researched to the same extent as Gobekli Tepe. “
The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) supported him when he requested to start a dig at the site. “Fundraising is always the crucial part in every archaeological undertaking,” he underlines and adds, “The excavations at Göbekli Tepe have been financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft (German Research Society), a self-governed research funding society financed by the German states and the federal government, since 1995. We’ve been excavating at the site since then alongside Turkish archaeologists from the museum in Şanlıurfa, as well as international students and colleagues – archaeologists and colleagues from other disciplines. We do not work during summer, but in the cooler seasons, even though one gets used to the heat and we make sure to have large stocks of drinking water at the site: I now spend on average eight weeks there in spring and eight more in the autumn. “
Hunter-gatherers must have worked together
Göbekli Tepe has captured the public’s imagination and, on one website alone, theories such as a link to astronomy and astrology given the circular arrangement of the stones are being heatedly discussed. Others are a talking about how carved reliefs and pictograms on the pillars at Göbekli Tepe support Babylonian and Sumerian oral creation myth that suggest hunter-gatherers started god worship and temple building before agriculture. For Professor Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe allows us an insight into the organization of hunter-gatherer groups. “The major discoveries as a result of work at the site are the realization that there must have been a very complex degree of organization in hunter-gatherer societies and that non-sedentary groups like those were building such monumental constructions,” he explains. “To build those gigantic circular arrangements would have required a certain degree of cooperation between groups as well as some organization to coordinate work like this. Coordinating and supplying larger groups of people might also be the key to the early motivation behind sedentism.”
But could Göbekli Tepe have been a place of worship? “Since there are no finds hinting at regular living activity at the places, for example abattoir refuse, large conglomerations of ashes or fire places, it must have been used for different activities and among those, cultic and ritual practices have to be mentioned prominently,” he highlights. Another theory is that it could have been a burial ground but if so, where are the bones? “This cannot be excluded from current research,” he tells us, adding: “Work is still going on and of course a possible connection to burial ritual has to be considered. Bones could be situated in some of the areas not excavated yet, for example within the ‘banks’ between the pillars.”
Just the tip of the iceberg
Professor Schmidt compares the scale of work remaining to be done at Göbekli Tepe to other important archaeological sites such as Troy or Pergamon, where excavation work started over 100 years ago. “It’s hard to give a detailed schedule on how long further excavation will take,” he points out and notes,”There’s work for more than one generation of archaeologists at the place, without question.”
Since work began at the site no signs of residences or fortifications have been found. Göbekli Tepe is now known for the stone columns, each weighing tons, which were bound into a circle by segments of wall that enclosed them on the interior and the exterior. In the center, there was a single pair of pillars which have large-scale reliefs of wild beasts, such as lions and bulls, wild boars, foxes and snakes. On the upper levels at Göbekli Tepe there are smaller versions of these as well as others that are quadrilateral.
“Göbekli Tepe is approximately 300 meters wide and 15 meters high,” he explains, with only roughly five percent of the site being excavated thus far. Unlike 100 years ago, today’s archaeologists have access to a wide variety of technology to help them with their work. “The mound was examined in a geomagnetic survey which showed that there are many more circular arrangements of pillars buried there,” he explains. “Aerial photographs have also been taken of the site and a 3D-laser scan was also done recently to document the excavated areas in their current state. Several pillars have also been scanned and documented in detail. Judging by the dimensions of the whole mound and the results of the geomagnetic survey -- indicating that there are more enclosures waiting to be uncovered; only a small area of the whole complex has been excavated so far. Four enclosures, consisting of circles formed from standing pillars with a T-shaped head gathered around a central pair of noticeably larger pillars, have been uncovered close to each other. The floor consists of smooth rock. Another enclosure has been detected on the western plateau, a circular hollow in the rock. Although it lacks preserved pillars, it is apparently comparable to the other enclosures as there’s a foot mounting for the pillars. A sixth circular enclosure was also found and excavated recently.”
So how old is the site? “Finds at Göbekli Tepe and natural scientific age determination place the site in the 10th millennium B.C.,” he tells us, highlighting, “It appears that building activity at Göbekli Tepe ended at the end of the 9th millennium BC.”
Despite theft, site open to visitors
Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe hit the news late last year because a 40-centimeter-high, T-shaped stela with a human head above and animal figure below was stolen from the site. Professor Schmidt has no idea why anyone would want to take it. The site was briefly closed to the public but security has been improved: there’s now a gate to the site, which is opened in the morning and closed at night, and also a camera system in place. As a result of increasing interest in Göbekli Tepe, both local and foreign, there are plans for a visitor’s center and a presentation of the site for the general public.
Does Professor Schmidt have a message for those behind the theft or for people who traffic in antiquities? “Not really,” he tells us, adding, “Except, we’d like the stela back.”
(Updated January 31, 2011)