Gobekli Tepe: A Real Archaeological Treasure


Inspiration for fiction comes from many places. Reading about ancient civilizations gave me the idea for a series of adventures featuring a third-century Persian prince who discovers a highly advanced culture hidden from the rest of the world since prehistoric times. The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is the first book in that series. But unlike Dodrazeb, Gobleki Tepe is a real archaeological treasure.

Built 11,600 years ago, the site in Turkey predates Britain’s Stonehenge by 6,000 years and the Great Pyramid of Giza by 7,000 years. Archaeologists used to think the development of agriculture came first, leading to cities, writing, art, and then religion. Now an amazing discovery—once dismissed as an unimportant medieval cemetery—suggests civilization began with mankind’s urge to worship.

GoblekiTepe4A bit like Stonehenge, Gobekli Tepes’s massive stone pillars are arranged into a set of rings, but unlike Stonehenge’s rough blocks, the cleanly carved limestone pillars are decorated with bas-reliefs of animals such as gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and wild boars. It is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut.

At the time Gobekli Tepe (the name means “belly hill” in Turkish) was built, humans lived in small nomadic groups of hunter gatherers, foraging for edible plants and stalking wild game. Reliable agriculture, staying in one place to cultivate crops and care for domesticated animals, was yet to be developed. Construction of such a complex site would have brought together a larger number of people in one place and required more cooperation than wandering tribes had ever imagined. The people who built Gobekli Tepe had no writing, no metal, no beasts of burden, or even pottery, but they successfully cut, shaped, and transported massive stones weighing as much as 16 tons hundreds of feet. That’s like discovering someone had built a working jet airplane in their backyard with only a hammer and screwdriver.

Just a few decades ago, the Neolithic Revolution (the beginnings of agriculture leading to large settlements, technology, written language, social structure, and religion) was viewed as a single relatively sudden event. It was thought to have occurred in Mesopotamia in what is now southern Iraq, then spread outward across the earth. New research suggests that the “revolution” was vastly broader, happened over thousands of years, and that it was driven not by the environment but by the development of religion. The human sense of the sacred – religion – may have given rise to civilization.

GoblekiTepe3In 1994 German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt recognized that Gobekli Tepe was a much older site than previously believed, but he was stunned to find just how old it is. The way Schmidt saw it, the construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have predated the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. Recognizing the advantages of settling down in villages, foragers inevitably created a divide between the safer human realm and the land beyond the campfire that was filled with danger and deadly animals. The impulse to come together for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeing themselves as masters of it.

Schmidt speculated that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Gobekli Tepe created it as a temple, a place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. Over time, Schmidt believed, the need to provide enough food for those who participated in ceremonies at Gobekli Tepe may have led to the cultivation of wild grains. Scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—not far from Gobekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height.

GoblekiTepe5Erected in circles, the tallest of the limestone pillars are 18 feet in height, weigh 16 tons, and are covered in animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style. The circles follow a common design, each pillar shaped like giant spikes or capital T’s. They stand an arm span or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls. In the middle of each ring are two taller pillars, their thin ends mounted in shallow grooves cut into the floor, possibly propped up by wooden posts.

To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings. The stones face the center of the circle, perhaps a representation of a religious ritual. As for the carved animals, Schmidt noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.

For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Gobekli Tepe seem to have been replaced every few decades. People buried the pillars and put up new stones, a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole thing would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.

GoblekiTepe1Curiously, the researchers did not find signs of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the nearest source of water was a stream about three miles away. Those workers would have needed homes, but excavations have uncovered no sign of walls, hearths, or houses. They would have had to be fed, but there is also no trace of agriculture or cooking fires. It was purely a ceremonial center. If anyone ever lived at this site, they were less its residents than its staff. To judge by the thousands of gazelle and aurochs bones found at the site, the workers seem to have been fed by constant shipments of game, brought from faraway hunts. All of this complex endeavor must have had organizers and overseers, but there is as yet no good evidence of a social hierarchy—no living area reserved for richer people, no tombs filled with elite goods, no sign of some people having better diets than others.

Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—are as old as mankind, anthropologists have traditionally surmised that organized religion began as a way of easing the tensions that developed when hunter-gatherers settled in large groups, became farmers, and evolved into large societies. Communities of people sharing a common understanding of the world and their place in it were more cohesive than groups of competing people and tended to be more cooperative about long-term common goals of feeding and sheltering the group. Organized religion arose, it was assumed, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big groups of humans learning to live together. It could also have helped developed the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society when those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods.

The study of Gobekli Tepe may not only redefine the Neolithic Revolution, but continue to challenge the currently accepted views of archaeology and anthropology for generations.

Article by Andrew Curry in Smithsonian Magazine November 2008
Article by By Charles C. Mann National Geographic June 2011


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