Found in: Archaeological sites in Turkey
Gobekli Tepe (Turkish for "Hill with a Belly") is a hilltop sanctuary built on the highest point of an elongated mountain ridge about 15km northeast of the town of Sanliurfa (Urfa) in southeast Turkey. The site, currently undergoing excavation by German and Turkish archaeologists, was erected by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium BC , before the advent of sedentism. It is currently considered the oldest known shrine or temple complex in the world, and the planet's oldest known example of monumental architecture. Together with the site of Nevali Cori, it has revolutionised the understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic.
Gobekli Tepe had already been located in a survey in 1964, when the American archaeologist Peter Benedict mentioned the site as a possible location of stone age activity, but its importance was not recognised at that time. Excavations have been conducted since 1994 by the German Archaeological Institute (Istanbul branch) and Sanliurfa Museum, under the direction of the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (University of Heidelberg). Scholars from the Hochschule Karlsruhe are documenting the architectural remains. Before then, the hill had been under agricultural cultivation; generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles. Much archaeological evidence may have been destroyed in that process. The archaeologists recognised that the prominent rise could not represent a natural hill. Later, they discovered T-shaped pillars, some of which had apparently undergone attempts at smashing.
The massive sequence of stratification layers suggests several millennia of activity, perhaps reaching back to the Mesolithic. The oldest occupation layer (stratum III) contained monolithic pillars linked by coarsely built walls to form circular or oval structures. So far, four such buildings, with diameters between 10 and 30m have been uncovered. Geophysical studies suggest 16 further structures.
Stratum II, dated to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), revealed several adjacent rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime, reminiscent of Roman terrazzo floors.
The most recent layer consists of sediment deposited as the result of erosion and of agricultural activity.
The monoliths are decorated with carved relief of animals or of abstract pictograms. These signs cannot be classed as writing, but may represent commonly understood sacred symbols, as known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. Some of the pillars, namely the T-shaped ones, have carved arms, which may indicate that they represent stylised humans. The very carefully carved reliefs depict lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, snakes, other reptiles and birds. Whether their creators wanted to portray simply the local fauna or perhaps mythical beings remains unknown. The meaning of the pictograms is equally unclear.
The PPN A settlement has been dated to ca. 9000 BC. There are remains of smaller houses from the PPN B and a few epipalaeolithic finds as well.
There are a number of radiocarbon dates (presented with one standard deviation errors and calibrations to BCE):
|Lab-Number||Date BP||Cal BCE||Context|
The Hd samples are from charcoal in the lowest levels of the site and would date the active phase of occupation. The Ua samples come from pedogenic carbonate coatings on pillars and only indicate a time after the site was abandoned- the terminus ante quem.
The houses or temples are round megalithic buildings. The walls are made of unworked dry stone and include numerous T-shaped monolithic pillars of limestone that are up to 3 m high. Another, bigger pair of pillars is placed in the centre of the structure. The floors are made of terrazzo (burnt lime), and there is a low bench running along the whole of the exterior wall.
The reliefs on the pillars include foxes, lions, cattle, wild boars, herons, ducks, scorpions, ants and snakes. Some of the reliefs have been deliberately erased, maybe in preparation for new pictures.
There are freestanding sculptures as well that may represent wild boars or foxes. As they are heavily encrusted with lime, it is sometimes difficult to tell. Comparable statues have been discovered in Nevali Cori and Nahal Hemar.
The quarries for the statues are located on the plateau itself, some unfinished pillars have been found there in situ. The biggest unfinished pillar is still 6.9 m long, a length of 9m has been reconstructed. This is much larger than any of the finished pillars found so far. The stone was quarried with stone picks. Bowl-like depressions in the limestone-rocks have maybe been used as mortars in the epipalaeolithic already. There are some phalloi and geometric patterns cut into the rock as well, and their dating is uncertain.
The buildings are covered with settlement refuse that must have been brought from elsewhere. These deposits include flint tools like scrapers and arrowheads and animal bones. The lithic inventory is characterised by Byblos points and numerous Nemrik-points. There are Helwan-points and Aswad-points as well.
There is no evidence of habitation; the structures are interpreted as temples. After 8000 BC, the site was abandoned and purposely covered up with soil.
While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPN A), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants were hunters and gatherers. Schmidt speculates that the site played a key function in the transition to agriculture; he assumes that the necessary social organization needed for the creation of these structures went hand-in-hand with the organized exploitation of wild crops.
Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in structure to wild wheat found in a mountain (Karacadag) 20 miles away from the site, leading one to believe that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. Heun et al., Site of Einkorn Wheat Domestication Identified by DNA Fingerprinting, Science, 278 (1997) 1312-1314.
All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as only about 1.5% of the site's total area have been excavated as yet; floor levels have only been reached in the second complex (complex B), which also contained a terrazzo-like floor.
Excavations so far have revealed very little evidence for residential use. Through the radiocarbon method, the end of stratum III could be determined at circa 9,000 BC (see above); its beginnings are estimated to 11,000 BC or earlier. Stratum II dates to about 8,000 BC.
Thus, the complexes originated before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry, which is assumed to begin after 9,000 BC. But the construction of the Gobekli Tepe complex implies organisation of a degree of complexity not hitherto associated with pre-Neolithic societies. The archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the 10-20 ton pillars from local quarries and move them 100 to 500m to the site. For sustenance, wild cereals may have been used more intensely than so far; perhaps they were even deliberately cultivated. Residential buildings have not been discovered as yet, but there are some "special buildings" which may have served for ritual gatherings.
Around the beginning of the 8th millennium BC, "Navel Mountain" lost its importance. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry brought new circumstances to human life in the area. But the complex was not gradually abandoned and simply forgotten, to be obliterated by the forces of nature over time. Instead, it was deliberately covered with 300 to 500 cubic metres of soil. Why this happened is unknown, but it preserved the monuments for posterity.
At present, the complex raises more questions to archaeology and prehistory than it answers. For example, we cannot tell why more and more walls were gradually added to the interiors while the sanctuary was in use.
Interpretation and Importance
Gobekli Tepe can be seen as an archaeological discovery of the greatest possible importance, since it profoundly changes our understanding of a vital point in the development of human societies. Apparently, the erection of monumental cult complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been assumed hitherto. In other words, as Klaus Schmidt put it: "First came the temple, then the city". This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research. Schmidt considers Gobekli Tepe as a central place serving a cult of the dead. He suggests that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. However, no tombs or graves have been found so far. Schmidt sees the site in connection with the initial stages of an incipient Neolithic. It is one of several neolithic sites in the vicinity of Mount Karaca Dag, an area where geneticists suspect the origins of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e. the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt and others believe that mobile groups in the area were forced to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). This would have led to an early social organization of various groups in the area of Gobekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin at a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but started immediately as a large scale social organisation .
Not only its large dimensions, but the side-by-side existence of multiple pillar shrines makes the complex unique. There are no comparable monumental complexes from its time. Nevali Cori, a well-known Neolithic settlement also excavated by the German Archaeological Institute, and submerged by the Ataturk Dam since 1992, is 500 years later, 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 Catalhoyuk, perhaps the most famous of all Neolithic villages, is 2,000 years later.
The excavator, Klaus Schmidt, has engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Gobekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumes shamanic practices and suggests that the T-shaped pillars may represent mythical creatures, perhaps ancestors, whereas he sees a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with the Sumerian tradition of an old belief that agriculture, animal husbandry and weaving had been brought to humankind from the sacred mountain Du-Ku, which was inhabited by Annuna-deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Klaus Schmidt identifies this story as an oriental primeval myth that preserves a partial memory of the Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images are peaceful in character and give no indications of organised violence.
Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (ed.): Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die altesten Monumente der Menschheit. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung im Badischen Landesmuseum vom 20. Januar bis zum 17. Juni 2007. Theiss, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-8062-2072-8
* DVD-ROM: MediaCultura (Hrsg.): Vor 12.000 Jahren in Anatolien. Die altesten Monumente der Menschheit. Theiss, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-8062-2090-2
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Klaus Schmidt: Fruhneolithische Tempel. Ein Forschungsbericht zum prakeramischen Neolithikum Obermesopotamiens. In: Mitteilungen der deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 130, Berlin 1998, 1749,
K. Pustovoytov: Weathering rinds at exposed surfaces of limestone at Gobekli Tepe. In: Neo-lithics. Ex Oriente, Berlin 2000, 2426 (14C-Dates)
J. E. Walkowitz: Quantensprunge der Archaologie. In: Varia neolithica IV. Beier und Beran, Langenweissbach 2006, ISBN 3-937517-43-X