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Göbekli Tepe

Oldest megalithic architecture
Neolithic religious sanctuary
Excavated by Klaus Schmidt

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Replica of the megaliths and megalithic art at Göbekli Tepe, excavated by Klaus Schmidt
Replica of the central pillars of Enclosure D from Göbekli Tepe, now on display in the Şanlıurfa museum. Göbekli Tepe was a Neolithic spiritual, social or cult centre, composed of monumental megalithic buildings built by hunter-gatherers for ceremonial purposes. Image by Cobija. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Summary

Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for 'pot-belly hill') is a key site of early Neolithic culture, located in Şanlıurfa Province, southern Turkey.

Over the past three decades, it has become world famous for its ancient megalithic architecture, featuring a series of ancient temples which date to between 9,500 and 8,000 BC.

This extraordinary Neolithic temple architecture predates most Ancient Egyptian temples by more than 6,500 years.

In all, Göbekli Tepe's megalithic structures include some twenty circular enclosures up to 30 metres in diameter, each made up of colossal T-shaped pillars (or stelae), up to 5.5 metres in height (18 feet) and weighing between seven and ten tons.

Relief sculpture of animals on megalith at Göbekli Tepe
Megalithic art, in the form of relief sculpture, depicting a feline hunting a young wild pig, from pillar 27, Enclosure C, Göbekli Tepe. Image by Dosseman. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many of the pillars at Göbekli Tepe are decorated with various forms of prehistoric art, including carvings of humanoid features, as well as sculptural reliefs of wild animals and other creatures.

The pillars form the oldest monumental stone structures ever created by mankind. In their day, these giant megaliths covered the entire hillside and would have been visible for miles around - a massive construction for a Stone Age population with no wheels, no beasts of burden, and no iron tools.

Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014), the German archaeologist who led the excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1996 until his accidental death in 2014, Göbekli Tepe was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018, in recognition of its unique ancient art created by hunter-gatherers.

But much more remains to be uncovered. Ground-penetrating radar studies indicate only five percent of the site has been excavated to date.

What was the Function of Göbekli Tepe?

Archaeologists believe Göbekli Tepe is the oldest and largest centre of worship in history.

According to Schmidt, the site functioned as a collection of temples - a sacred place, a monument or sanctuary. He called it a 'cathedral on a hill'.

It couldn't have been a village or a community, because there was no signs of daily life: no hearths or fire pits, no middens, and no water - the nearest stream was three miles away.

Who Built Göbekli Tepe?

It was late Cro-Magnons, the last species of modern humans, who built Göbekli Tepe. They were full-time hunters, as shown by the large collection of animal bones found on site.

What's more, there are no signs of animal husbandry or agriculture, to suggest this was an agricultural settlement of sorts.

Schmidt believed that local bands of hunter-gatherers had come together around 9,500 BC to create a sacred venue for gatherings and ceremonies - a view currently being revised by archaeologists.

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Location

Göbekli Tepe is situated 20 kilometres northeast of Urfa (Şanlıurfa), on a limestone plateau overlooking the Harran plain and the Balikh River, an offshoot of the Euphrates river.

The site (known as a 'Tell') is actually an artificial hill or mound, made up of the accumulated deposits from a succession of human occupations. Roughly 15 metres (50 ft) in height, the tell covers an area of about 22 acres.

Göbekli is a Pre-Pottery Neolithic site which sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent.

Genetic evidence shows that the first domestication of wheat took place in the surrounding area, a few centuries after Göbekli's founding. Also, the first animal husbandry began in the area - for example, the first domesticated pigs were raised here about 8,000 BC. Ancient pottery soon followed.

All these events, which are diagnostic of the Neolithic culture, occurred with the Urfa region, but only after the construction of Göbekli Tepe.

Ahead of its time

The Göbekli Tepe structures predate any known settlement, and were created more than 6,000 years before the urban ziggurats of Sumerian culture in southern Mesopotamia.

Because of all this, Schmidt disagreed with mainstream opinion, that humans quit hunter gathering and built settled communities, after which they built sacred sanctuaries.

Instead, he concluded that humans first built sacred sanctuaries, and then in due course settled in the surrounding area.

This novel view of the evolution of civilization is being challenged by new studies, and by archaeologists who maintain that organised religion was a luxury that hunter-gatherers could not afford. Only after humans settled and built up enough spare food, could they focus on lesser priorities like rituals and monuments.

Excavation

Göbekli Tepe was first examined in 1963, by prehistorians from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, who concluded in their report that the mound was merely an ancient cemetery.

In 1994, Schmidt visited the site after reading the report. He immediately saw that only humans could have created such a mound, and that he could be looking at a gigantic Stone Age site.

He returned to Göbekli Tepe the following year and continued excavating until he died.

Since then, roads and car parks and a brand new visitor's centre have sprung up around the site, while one of Turkey's largest museums - the Şanlıurfa Archaeology and Mosaic Museum - has been built in central Urfa, housing a full-scale replica of the site's largest enclosure.

Excavations continue at Göbekli Tepe where new finds and analysis are revising some of Schmidt's conclusions, while in the countryside around Urfa, Turkish archaeologists have identified at least a dozen other sites with similar – albeit smaller – T-shaped pillars, dating from the same Neolithic time period.

Other significant sites of Stone Age culture in the Urfa region, include: Nevalı Çori, Başaran Höyük, Hamzan Tepe, Harbetsuvan Tepesi, Herzo Tepe, Inanli Tepe, Karahan Tepe, Kocanizam Tepe, Sefer Tepe, Taşlı Tepe, and Urfa Yeni Yol.

Several of these Neolithic sites have T-shaped pillars (stelae, or obelisks), similar to those at Göbekli Tepe, including Karahan Tepe, Nevalı Çori, Sefer Tepe, and Hamzan Tepe.

See also, Çatalhöyük proto-city in south-central Turkey.

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Megalithic Structures at Göbekli Tepe

Excavations have uncovered three separate archaeological layers, dating to between 9,500 and 8,000 BC.

Lowest Layer: 9,500-8,800

The key feature of this layer (also called Layer 3) is the series of circular structures or enclosures, each made up of a series of massive T-shaped limestone pillars (or obelisks), standing a metre or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls, lined on the inside with stone benches. In the middle of each circle are two taller obelisks.

All the megaliths were cut and shaped with stone tools, using the limestone bedrock beneath their feet as a quarry. Schmidt described the hill as being littered with the greatest store of ancient flint tools he had ever seen. See also: History of Stone Tools.

The slabs were cut from shallow seams in the limestone bedrock, about 100 metres from the hill.

Many of the pillars at Göbekli Tepe are ornamented with various forms of megalithic art, including abstract petroglyphs (symbols in the shape of crescents, disks and H-motifs) and prehistoric sculpture in low and high relief.

The carvings depict mostly foxes, boars, snakes and other reptiles, but also include lions, bulls, wild sheep, gazelles, and donkeys, as well as spiders and birds, notably vultures.

They are the oldest sculptures known to Mesopotamian art of the ancient world.

All the animals depicted would have been present at the time, in the forests and grasslands of the region.

Some of the T-shaped pillars have human features carved onto them, such as human arms, shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers, as well as loincloths, making them resemble upright, but headless humans. Who are they meant to be? Are they Gods? Are they important ancestors? No one knows.

Middle Layer: 8,800-8,000

In the Middle Layer (Layer 2) at Göbekli Tepe, the builders continued erecting enclosures complete with the familiar T-shaped pillars. But these later circles are less than half the size of the early ones, indicating a lack of resources or a lessening of interest among the faithful.

Instead, builders focused on making small rectangular rooms, with polished lime floors but without doors or windows. Construction seems to peter out completely around 8,200 BC.

Top Layer: from 8,000

This top layer is the shallowest but longest-lived layer. It is made up of normal surface debris accumulated after the closure of the sanctuary around 8,000 BC.

Burial of Göbekli Tepe

The megalithic circles at Göbekli Tepe appear to have been replaced at intervals throughout the site's history.

The standing pillars would be buried and new ones erected in their place. Then the whole enclosure would be filled in with soil, small limestone fragments, bones, old flints and other debris, and an entirely new enclosure constructed nearby, or sometimes on top of the old circle.

This process continued for centuries, until about 8,000 BC when, for some unknown reason, the entire site lost its importance and ceased functioning as sanctuary.

Perhaps the advent of farming and the need to build settlements caused the sanctuary to lose its appeal.

Whatever the reason, the complex was not simply abandoned. Instead, each enclosure was deliberately buried under as much as 800 tons of debris.

Interpretation of Göbekli Tepe

Mainstream archaeology supports the view that only after humans became farmers and lived in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to build temples and develop complex social structures. (In other words, disorganized semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers couldn't build large structures like temple complexes.)

But Schmidt believed that Göbekli Tepe proved it was the other way around. It was the organized, sustained and coordinated work of hunter-gatherers in cutting and erecting their megaliths at Göbekli Tepe, that laid the groundwork for the settlement and agricultural development that followed, across the surrounding area.

Schmidt cited Thor Heyerdahl's 1986 experiments with 5-tonne and 9-tonne moai (monolithic human figures) constructed by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island between the years 1250 and 1500. See also: Archaeology Glossary.

He argued that carving, constructing and burying large rings of massive stone pillars, needed hundreds of workers, all of whom had to be fed and housed. Which, he said, also explained the rapid evolution of farming settlements in the area after Göbekli Tepe was built.

Although excavations have uncovered no sign of 'residential refuse' indicating cooking or feeding, a huge quantity of butchered bones has been found, which indicates a lot of people were doing a lot of eating.

It's also worth remembering that large hunter-gatherer communities had invented and produced large quantities of ceramic sculpture (see Venus of Dolní Věstonice, 29,000 BC), as well as extensive programs of cave painting (see Lascaux Cave or La Pasiega) which - while not exactly the same as cutting and hauling huge megaliths - nonetheless requires considerable organization.

But did Göbekli Tepe really take that much effort to build? Some new studies say not.

They estimate that between 7 and 14 people could have moved the pillars using ropes and a lubricant, using technologies used in the building of Stonehenge and other monuments.

Other estimates even suggest that the site's labour requirements could be met by the resources of a single extended family.

NEXT: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "The Pre-Natufian Epipaleolithic: Long-term Behavioral Trends in the Levant". Maher, Lisa A.; Richter, Tobias; Stock, Jay T. (2012). Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews. 21 (2): 69–81.
(2) "Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. A brief summary of research at a new World Heritage Site (2015–2019)". Clare, Lee (2020). E-Forschungsberichte. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. 2020 (2): 81–88.
(3) "So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East". Banning, Edward B. (2011). Current Anthropology. 52 (5 – October 2011): 619–60.
(4) "Monumental – compared to what? A perspective from Göbekli Tepe". Kinzel, Moritz; Clare, Lee (2020). In Gebauer, Anne Birgitte; Sørensen, Lasse; Teather, Anne; Valera, António Carlos (eds.). Monumentalising Life in the Neolithic: Narratives of Change and Continuity. Oxford: Oxbow. ISBN 978-1-78925-495-2.

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