Rewriting pre-history: Excavations at Göbekli Tepe have unearthed some spectacular finds


An unassuming, 20-metre hill, some 15 km north-east of Şanl›urfain South-east Turkey, seems a rather unusual place to be sending the archaeological world into a spin. Yet Göbekli Tepe, located at the northern end of what the ancients called the Fertile Crescent, is currently doing just that.

In the process, it is also raising important questions about the development of civilisation itself – an impressive achievement for a site that was once dismissed as nothing more than a medieval cemetery.

OLDER THAN THE PYRAMIDS: Since a more recent excavation of the site, starting in 1995, archaeologists have come to the conclusion that Göbekli Tepe dates back long before the Middle Ages. This is most likely the world’s oldest known human-built ceremonial site, trumping the Egyptian pyramids and Wall of Jericho in both significance and age. The assemblage of circular standing stones that makes up the site, which means “pot-belly hill” in Turkish, was built during what archaeologists call the Pre-Pottery Neolithic era, some 11,600 years ago. That was seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. “In 10 or 15 years, Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge,” Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who is excavating the site in collaboration with the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanl›urfa Museum, told National Geographic in June 2011. “And for good reason,” he added.

MANY CIRCLES: The layout of each of the circles is similar: two T-shaped megalithic limestone pillars are enclosed by smaller, inward-facing stones and giant spikes. Geomagnetic surveys have revealed that the site comprises about 20 of these rings, with the tallest pillars reaching three to six metres in height and weighing up to 40 tonnes. The excavation has revealed that every few decades the pillars were buried and new stones erected, creating a second, and sometimes even a third ring inside the first. The whole grouping would eventually be filled with debris and a new circle erected nearby. This burying and rebuilding continued for centuries, but seems to have ended by 8200 BC.

The tallest T-shaped pillars are carved with human arms and hands. Other surfaces are decorated with scorpions, snakes, gazelles, lions and vultures in high- and bas-relief. The vulture carvings in particular could offer a clue to one of the site’s purposes. Some belief systems, such as those of the Zoroastrians – who still exist in small pockets in nearby Iraq and Iran – practise sky burial, in which the deceased are placed on a raised open-air platform. Carrion birds such as vultures are believed to transport the flesh of these dead up to the heavens. Archaeologists speculate this may have been one of the functions of Göbekli Tepe.

REVOLUTION: Archaeological theory has long held that the Neolithic Revolution, which heralded the beginning of agricultural cultivation and settled human communities, was driven by a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended. This allowed prehistoric humans to begin cultivating crops and herding animals, and in time to build places of worship. But evidence uncovered at Göbekli Tepe could turn this theory on its head. Some believe that it was not human settlements that heralded civilisation, but the innate human drive to worship.

If researchers are right, and hunter-gatherers constructed Göbekli Tepe, then this represents a sea change for archaeologists. This is because such foragers have traditionally been depicted as small groups constantly on the move to follow their food resources – wild animals and seasonally available plants.

With such a peripatetic life, the theory goes, they would have lacked the time and the resources to construct large, permanent structures, as well as to sustain a distinct caste of craft workers and clergy. But at Göbekli Tepe, this is exactly what some believe happened.

So far, the site has revealed no sign of habitation, which points to it being purely used as a ceremonial centre. The question remains though: how and why did these hunter-gatherers build such a massive monument? With less than 5% of the site excavated so far, the answer may still lie out there, buried beneath the crumbling soil and rock to the north-east of Şanl›urfa.

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