Text #9355"Göbekli Tepe", in .
Göbekli Tepe (Turkish “Potbelly Hill”) is an archaeological site at the top of a mountain ridge in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, approximately 12 km (7 mi) northeast of the city of Şanlıurfa. The tell has a height of 15 m (49 ft) and is about 300 m (984 ft) in diameter. It is approximately 760 m (2,493 ft) above sea level. It was excavated by a German archaeological team under the direction of Klaus Schmidt from 1996 until his death in 2014.
The tell includes two phases of ritual use dating back to the 10th – 8th millennium BCE. During the first phase, pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were erected. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and a weight of up to 20 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. In the second phase, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), the erected pillars are smaller and stood in rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime. The site was abandoned after the PPNB-period. Younger structures date to classical times.
The purpose of the structures is not yet clear. Excavator Klaus Schmidt believed that they had been early neolithic sanctuaries.
The imposing stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe attests to many centuries of activity, beginning at least as early as the epipaleolithic period. Structures identified with the succeeding period, Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), have been dated to the 10th millennium BCE. Remains of smaller buildings identified as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) and dating from the 9th millennium BCE have also been unearthed.
A number of radiocarbon dates have been published. They are reproduced below with errors of one standard deviation, calibrated to the BCE:
Lab-Number Date BP Cal BCE Context Ua-19561 8430 ± 80 7560–7370 enclosure C Ua-19562 8960 ± 85 8280–7970 enclosure B Hd-20025 9452 ± 73 9110–8620 Layer III Hd-20036 9559 ± 53 9130–8800 Layer III
Göbekli Tepe is situated on a flat and barren plateau, with buildings fanning in all directions. In the north, the plateau is connected to a neighbouring mountain range by a narrow promontory. In all other directions, the ridge descends steeply into slopes and steep cliffs. On top of the ridge, there is considerable evidence of human impact in addition to the actual tell. Excavations have taken place at the southern slope of the tell, south and west of a mulberry that marks an Islamic pilgrimage, but archaeological finds come from the entire plateau. The team has also found many remains of tools.
The plateau has been transformed by erosion and by quarrying, which took place not only in the Neolithic, but also in classical times. There are four 10 m (33 ft) long and 20 cm (8 in) wide channels on the southern part of the plateau, interpreted as the remains of an ancient quarry from which rectangular blocks were taken. These are possibly related to a square building in the neighbourhood, of which only the foundation is preserved. Presumably, this is the remains of a Roman watchtower which belonged to the Limes Arabicus. However, this is not known with certainty.
Most structures on the plateau seem to be the result of Neolithic quarrying, with the quarries being used as sources for the huge, monolithic architectural elements. Their profiles were pecked into the rock, with the detached blocks then levered out of the rock bank. Several quarries where round workpieces had been produced were identified. Their status as quarries was confirmed by the find of a 3-by-3-metre piece at the southeastern slope of the plateau. Unequivocally Neolithic are three T-shaped pillars that have not been levered out of the bedrock. The biggest of them lies on the northern plateau. It has a length of 7 m (23 ft) and its head has a width of 3 m (10 ft). Its weight may be around 50 tons. The two other unfinished pillars lie on the southern Plateau.
At the western edge of the hill, a lion-like figure was found. In this area, flint and limestone fragments occur more frequently. It was therefore suggested that this could have been some kind of sculpture workshop. It is unclear, on the other hand, how to classify three phallic depictions from the surface of the southern plateau. They are near the quarries from classical times, making their dating difficult.
Apart from the tell, there is an incised platform with two sockets that could have held pillars, and a surrounding flat bench. This platform corresponds to the complexes from Layer III at the actual tell. Continuing the naming pattern, it is called “complex E.” Owing to its similarity to the cult-buildings at Nevalı Çori it has also been called “Temple of the Rock.” Its floor has been carefully hewn out of the bedrock and smoothed, reminiscent of the terrazzo floors of the younger complexes at Göbekli Tepe. Immediately northwest of this area are two cistern-like pits, believed to be part of complex E. One of these pits has a table-high pin as well as a staircase with five steps.
At the western escarpment, a small cave has been discovered in which a small relief depicting a bovine was found. It is the only relief found in this cave.
At this early stage of the site’s history, circular compounds or temene first appear. They range from 10 to 30 metres in diameter. Their most notable feature is the presence of T-shaped limestone pillars evenly set within thick interior walls composed of unworked stone. Four such circular structures have been unearthed so far. Geophysical surveys indicate that there are 16 more, enclosing up to eight pillars each, amounting to nearly 200 pillars in all. The slabs were transported from bedrock pits located approximately 100 metres (330 ft) from the hilltop, with workers using flint points to cut through the limestone bedrock.
Two taller pillars stand facing one another at the centre of each circle. Whether the circles were provided with a roof is uncertain. Stone benches designed for sitting are found in the interior. Many of the pillars are decorated with abstract, enigmatic pictograms and carved animal reliefs. The pictograms may represent commonly understood sacred symbols, as known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. The reliefs depict mammals such as lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles and donkeys; snakes and other reptiles, arthropods such as insects and arachnids; and birds, particularly vultures. At the time the edifice was constructed, the surrounding country was likely to have been forested and capable of sustaining this variety of wildlife, before millennia of settlement and cultivation led to the near–Dust Bowl conditions prevalent today. Vultures also feature prominently in the iconography of Çatalhöyük and Jericho. Professor of Archaeology Steven Mithen, suggests that in the early Neolithic culture of Anatolia and the Near East the deceased were deliberately exposed in order to be excarnated by vultures and other carrion birds. (The head of the deceased was sometimes removed and preserved — possibly a sign of ancestor worship.) This, then, would represent an early form of sky burial, as still practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and by Zoroastrians in Iran and India.
Few humanoid figures have appeared in the art at Göbekli Tepe. However, some of the T-shaped pillars have human arms carved on their lower half, suggesting that they are intended to represent the bodies of stylized humans (or perhaps gods). Loincloths also appear on the lower half of a few pillars. The horizontal stone member on top is thought to symbolize a human head. The pillars as a whole therefore have an anthropomorphic identity. Whether they were intended to serve as surrogate worshippers, symbolize venerated ancestors, or represent supernatural, anthropomorphic beings is not clear.
At Pillar 27, Enclosure 2, Layer III, the discovery of a predator—perhaps a leopard—has excited particular interest for being carved almost in the round, hinting at a degree of artistic training and division of labor that is again surprising in a hunter-gatherer society.
Some of the floors in this, the oldest, layer are made of terrazzo (burnt lime), others are bedrock from which pedestals to hold the large pair of central pillars were carved in high relief. Radiocarbon dating places the construction of these early circles in the range of 9600 to 8800 BC. Carbon dating suggests that (for reasons unknown) the enclosures were backfilled during the Stone Age.
Creation of the circular enclosures in layer III later gave way to the construction of small rectangular rooms in layer II. Rectangular buildings make a more efficient use of space compared with circular structures. They are often associated with the emergence of the Neolithic. But the T-shaped pillars, the main feature of the older enclosures, are also present here, indicating that the buildings of Layer II continued to serve as sanctuaries. Layer II is assigned to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). The several adjoining rectangular, doorless and windowless rooms have floors of polished lime reminiscent of Roman terrazzo floors. Carbon dating has yielded dates between 8800 and 8000 BCE. Several T-pillars up to 1.5 meters tall occupy the center of the rooms. A pair decorated with fierce-looking lions is responsible for the name “lion pillar building” by which their enclosure is known.
Layer I is the uppermost part of the hill. It is the shallowest, but accounts for the longest stretch of time. It consists of loose sediments caused by erosion and the virtually uninterrupted use of the hill for agricultural purposes since it ceased to operate as a cult center.
The site was deliberately backfilled sometime after 8000 BCE: the buildings were buried under debris, mostly flint gravel, stone tools, and animal bones that must have been imported from elsewhere. In addition to Byblos points (weapon heads, i.e. arrowheads etc.) and numerous Nemrik points, Helwan-points and Aswad-points dominate the backfill’s lithic inventory.
All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as less than 5% of the site has been excavated, and Schmidt planned to leave much of it untouched to be explored by future generations (when archaeological techniques will presumably have improved). While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year. So far, very little evidence for residential use has been found. Through the radiocarbon method, the end of Layer III can be fixed at about 9000 BCE (see above) but it is believed that the elevated location may have functioned as a spiritual center by 11,000 BCE or even earlier.
The surviving structures, then, not only predate pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel, they were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, i.e., the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 BCE. But the construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPNA, or PPNB societies. Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters (330–1,640 ft) to the site. The pillars weigh 10–20 metric tons (10–20 long tons; 11–22 short tons), with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons. …
Schmidt’s view is that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistic analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere. Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 100 miles (160 km) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.
Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls. Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 20 miles (32 km) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”
Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society mainly depended, like deer, in favor of formidable creatures like lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.
Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it could profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society. Ian Hodder of Stanford University said, “Göbekli Tepe changes everything”. It shows that the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been previously assumed. As excavator Klaus Schmidt put it, “First came the temple, then the city.”
Not only its large dimensions, but the side-by-side existence of multiple pillar shrines makes the location unique. There are no comparable monumental complexes from its time. Nevalı Çori, a Neolithic settlement also excavated by the German Archaeological Institute and submerged by the Atatürk Dam since 1992, is 500 years younger. Its T-shaped pillars are considerably smaller, and its shrine was located inside a village. The roughly contemporary architecture at Jericho is devoid of artistic merit or large-scale sculpture, and Çatalhöyük, perhaps the most famous Anatolian Neolithic village, is 2,000 years later.
At present Göbekli Tepe raises more questions for archaeology and prehistory than it answers. It remains unknown how a force large enough to construct, augment, and maintain such a substantial complex was mobilized and compensated or fed in the conditions of pre-sedentary society. Scholars cannot interpret the pictograms, and do not know for certain what meaning the animal reliefs had for visitors to the site; the variety of fauna depicted, from lions and boars to birds and insects, makes any single explanation problematic. As there is little or no evidence of habitation, and the animals pictured are mainly predators, the stones may have been intended to stave off evils through some form of magic representation. Alternatively, they could have served as totems. The assumption that the site was strictly cultic in purpose and not inhabited has also been challenged by the suggestion that the structures served as large communal houses, “similar in some ways to the large plank houses of the Northwest Coast of North America with their impressive house posts and totem poles.” It is not known why every few decades the existing pillars were buried to be replaced by new stones as part of a smaller, concentric ring inside the older one. Human burial may or may not have occurred at the site. The reason the complex was carefully backfilled remains unexplained. Until more evidence is gathered, it is difficult to deduce anything certain about the originating culture or the site’s significance.