By Sandra Scham, November- December 2008, http://www.archaeology.org/
Predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, Turkey's stunning Gobekli Tepe upends the conventional view of the rise of civilization
At first glance, the fox on the surface of the limestone pillar appears to be a trick of the bright sunlight. But as I move closer to the large, T-shaped megalith, I find it is carved with an improbable menagerie. A bull and a crane join the fox in an animal parade etched across the surface of the pillar, one of dozens erected by early Neolithic people at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. The press here is fond of calling the site "the Turkish Stonehenge," but the comparison hardly does justice to this 25-acre arrangement of at least seven stone circles. The first structures at Göbekli Tepe were built as early as 10,000 B.C., predating their famous British counterpart by about 7,000 years.
The oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered, Göbekli Tepe is "one of the most important monuments in the world," says Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the nearby Urfa Museum. He and archaeologist Zerrin Ekdogan of the Turkish Ministry of Culture guide me around the site. Their enthusiasm for the ancient temple is palpable.
By the time of my visit in late summer, the excavation team lead by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute has wrapped up work for the season. But there is still plenty to see, including three excavated circles now protected by a large metal shelter. The megaliths, which may have once supported roofs, are about nine feet tall.
Göbekli Tepe's circles range from 30 to 100 feet in diameter and are surrounded by rectangular stone walls about six feet high. Many of the pillars are carved with elaborate animal figure reliefs. In addition to bulls, foxes, and cranes, representations of lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes appear on the pillars. Freestanding sculptures depicting the animals have also been found within the circles. During the most recent excavation season, archaeologists uncovered a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture's head and a boar.
As we walk around the recently excavated pillars, the site seems at once familiar and exotic. I have seen stone circles before, but none like these.
Excavations have revealed that Göbekli Tepe was constructed in two stages. The oldest structures belong to what archaeologists call the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period, which ended around 9000 B.C. Strangely enough, the later remains, which date to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, or about 8000 B.C., are less elaborate. The earliest levels contain most of the T-shaped pillars and animal sculptures.
Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt downplays extravagant spiritual interpretations of Göbekli Tepe, such as the idea, made popular in the press, that the site is the inspiration for the Biblical Garden of Eden. But he does agree that it was a sanctuary of profound significance in the Neolithic world. He sees it as a key site in understanding the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and from tribal to regional religion.
Schmidt and his colleagues estimate that at least 500 people were required to hew the 10- to 50-ton stone pillars from local quarries, move them from as far as a quarter-mile away, and erect them. How did Stone Age people achieve the level of organization necessary to do this? Hauptmann speculates that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste--much earlier than when social distinctions became evident at other Near Eastern sites.
Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists believed that societies in the early Neolithic were organized into small bands of hunter-gatherers and that the first complex religious practices were developed by groups that had already mastered agriculture. Scholars thought that the earliest monumental architecture was possible only after agriculture provided Neolithic people with food surpluses, freeing them from a constant focus on day-to-day survival. A site of unbelievable artistry and intricate detail, Göbekli Tepe has turned this theory on its head.
Schmidt believes the people who created these massive and enigmatic structures came from great distances. It seems certain that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices. Schmidt and his team have found the bones of wild animals, including gazelles, red deer, boars, goats, sheep, and oxen, plus a dozen different bird species, such as vultures and ducks, scattered around the site. Most of these animals are depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.
There is still much that we don't understand about religious practices at Göbekli Tepe, Schmidt cautions. But broadly speaking, the animal images "probably illustrate stories of hunter-gatherer religion and beliefs," he says, "though we don't know at the moment." The sculptors of Göbekli Tepe may have simply wanted to depict the animals they saw, or perhaps create symbolic representations of the animals to use in rituals to ensure hunting success.
Schmidt has another theory about how Göbekli Tepe became a sacred place. Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann's team discovered graves at Nevali Cori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship. The T-shaped pillars, he points out, look like human bodies with the upper part of the "T" resembling a head in profile. Once, Schmidt says, they stood on the hillside "like a meeting of stone beings."
By Sean Thomas, October 2006, http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk
The astonishing discoveries at the world’s oldest temple may tell us more about the Garden of Eden.
I am standing above an archaeological dig, on a hillside in southern Turkey. Beneath me, workmen are unearthing a sculpture of some sort of reptile.......
If this sounds remarkable, it gets better. The archaeologist in charge of the dig believes that this artwork has connections with the Eden story. The archaeologist is Klaus Schmidt; the site is called Gobekli Tepe.
In academic circles, the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have long been a talking point. Since the dig began in 1994, experts have made the journey to Kurdish Turkey to marvel at these 40-odd standing stones and their Neolithic carvings.
But what is new, and what makes this season's dig at Gobekli so climactic, is the quality of the latest finds - plus that mind-blowing thesis which links them to the Garden of Eden.
The thesis is this. Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure - literally picking fruit from the trees - to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.
And where did this change take place? Biologists now think the move to agriculture began in Kurdish Turkey. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of the world's cereal species, has been genetically linked to here. Similarly, it now seems that wild pigs were first domesticated in Cayonu, just 60 miles from Gobekli.
This region also has Biblical connections, tying it closer to theEden narrative. Muslims believe that Sanliurfa, a nearby city, is the Old Testament city of Ur. Harran, a town down the road, is mentioned in Genesis twice.
Even the topography of Gobekli Tepe is 'correct'. The Bible describes rivers descending from Paradise. Gobekli Tepe sits in the 'fertile crescent' between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Bible also mentions mountains surrounding Eden. From the brow of Gobekli's hills you can see the Taurus range.
But how does this intoxicating notion link to the architecture of Gobekli, and those astonishing finds? Klaus Schmidt (left) says: "Gobekli Tepe is staggeringly old. It dates from 10,000BC, before pottery and the wheel. By comparison, Stonehenge dates from 2,000BC. Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious - the world's oldest temple. This site proves that hunter-gatherers were capable of complex art and organised religion, something no-one imagined before."
As for the temple's exact purpose, Schmidt gestures at a new discovery: a carving of a boar, and ducks flying into nets. "I think Gobekli Tepe celebrates the chase, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And why not? This life was rich and leisured, it gave them time enough to become accomplished sculptors."
So why did the hunters of Gobekli give up their agreeable existence? Schmidt indicates the arid brown hilltops. "Gathering together for religion meant that they needed to feed more people. So they started cultivating the wild grasses." But this switch to agriculture put pressure on the landscape; trees were cut down, the herds of game were dispersed. What was once a paradisaical land became a dustbowl.
Schmidt explains that this switchtook place around 8,000BC. Coincidentally, the temple of Gobekli Tepe was deliberately covered with earth around this time.
We may never know why the hunter-gatherers buried their 'temple in Eden'. Perhaps they were grieving for their lost innocence. What is unquestionable is the discoveries made in Gobekli Tepe, in the last few weeks, are some of the most exciting made anywhere in half a century.
Schmidt shows me some workmen scraping earth from a rock relief (left). It is marvellously detailed: it shows scorpions, waterbirds, and river life. I suddenly realise I am the first person other than an archaeologist to see it in 10,000 years.
By Patrick Symmes, February 2010, http://www.newsweek.com
A temple complex in Turkey that predates even the pyramids is rewriting the story of human evolution.
A pillar at the Gobekli Tepe temple near Sanliurfa, Turkey, the oldest known temple in the world
They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout
in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies
the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20
miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent,
the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to
archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spot—the exact spot—where
humans began that ascent.
Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn't just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.
Göbekli Tepe—the name in Turkish for "potbelly hill"—lays art and religion squarely
at the start of that journey. After a dozen years of patient work, Schmidt has uncovered
what he thinks is definitive proof that a huge ceremonial site flourished here,
a "Rome of the Ice Age," as he puts it, where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex
religious community. Across the hill, he has found carved and polished circles of
stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive
T-shaped pillars that evoke the monoliths of Easter Island.
Though not as large as Stonehenge—the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet high—the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt's German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of
archeology. Göbekli Tepe is "unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early
date," according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford's archeology program. Enthusing
over the "huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art" at Göbekli, Hodder—who
has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites—says: "Many people think that it changes
everything…It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."
Schmidt's thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.
This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive
man went through a "Neolithic revolution" 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old
model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages,
cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and—somewhere on the way to the
airplane—organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have
argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the "high" religions
with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.
Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that "the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture," and Göbekli may prove his case.
The builders of Göbekli Tepe could not write or leave other explanations of their work. Schmidt speculates that nomadic bands from hundreds of miles in every direction were already gathering here for rituals, feasting, and initiation rites before the first stones were cut. The religious purpose of the site is implicit in its size and location. "You don't move 10-ton stones for no reason," Schmidt observes. "Temples like to be on high sites," he adds, waving an arm over the stony, round hilltop. "Sanctuaries like to be away from the mundane world."
Unlike most discoveries from the ancient world, Göbekli Tepe was found intact, the stones upright, the order and artistry of the work plain even to the un-trained eye. Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars Schmidt has unearthed. There are a few abstract symbols, but the site is almost covered in graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers. Wild boar and cattle are depicted, along with totems of power and intelligence, like lions, foxes, and leopards. Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers. The T shapes appear to be towering humanoids but have no faces, hinting at the worship of ancestors or humanlike deities. "In the Bible it talks about how God created man in his image," says Johns Hopkins archeologist Glenn Schwartz.
Göbekli Tepe "is the first time you can see humans with that idea, that they resemble gods." The temples thus offer unexpected proof that mankind emerged from the 140,000-year reign of hunter-gatherers with a ready vocabulary of spiritual imagery, and capable of huge logistical, economic, and political efforts. A Catholic born in Franconia, Germany, Schmidt wanders the site in a white turban, pointing out the evidence of that transition. "The people here invented agriculture. They were the inventors of cultivated plants, of domestic architecture," he says.
Göbekli sits at the Fertile Crescent's northernmost tip, a productive borderland
on the shoulder of forests and within sight of plains. The hill was ideally situated
for ancient hunters. Wild gazelles still migrate past twice a year as they did 11
millennia ago, and birds fly overhead in long skeins. Genetic mapping shows that
the first domestication of wheat was in this immediate area—perhaps at a mountain
visible in the distance—a few centuries after Göbekli's founding. Animal husbandry
also began near here—the first domesticated pigs came from the surrounding area
in about 8000 B.C., and cattle were domesticated in Turkey before 6500 B.C. Pottery
followed. Those discoveries then flowed out to places like Çatalhöyük, the oldest-known
Neolithic village, which is 300 miles to the west.
The artists of Göbekli Tepe depicted swarms of what Schmidt calls "scary, nasty" creatures: spiders, scorpions, snakes, triple-fanged monsters, and, most common of all, carrion birds. The single largest carving shows a vulture poised over a headless human. Schmidt theorizes that human corpses were ex-posed here on the hilltop for consumption by birds—what a Tibetan would call a sky burial. Sifting the tons of dirt removed from the site has produced very few human bones, however, perhaps because they were removed to distant homes for ancestor worship. Absence is the source of Schmidt's great theoretical claim. "There are no traces of daily life," he explains. "No fire pits. No trash heaps. There is no water here." Everything from food to flint had to be imported, so the site "was not a village," Schmidt says. Since the temples predate any known settlement anywhere, Schmidt concludes that man's first house was a house of worship: "First the temple, then the city," he insists.
Some archeologists, like Hodder, the Neolithic specialist, wonder if Schmidt has
simply missed evidence of a village or if his dating of the site is too precise.
But the real reason the ruins at Göbekli remain almost unknown, not yet incorporated
in textbooks, is that the evidence is too strong, not too weak. "The problem with
this discovery," as Schwartz of Johns Hopkins puts it, "is that it is unique." No
other monumental sites from the era have been found. Before Göbekli, humans drew
stick figures on cave walls, shaped clay into tiny dolls, and perhaps piled up small
stones for shelter or worship. Even after Göbekli, there is little evidence of sophisticated
building. Dating of ancient sites is highly contested, but Çatalhöyük is probably
about 1,500 years younger than Göbekli, and features no carvings or grand constructions.
The walls of Jericho, thought until now to be the oldest monumental construction
by man, were probably started more than a thousand years after Göbekli. Huge temples
did emerge again—but the next unambiguous example dates from 5,000 years later,
in southern Iraq.
The site is such an outlier that an American archeologist who stumbled on it in the 1960s simply walked away, unable to interpret what he saw. On a hunch, Schmidt followed the American's notes to the hilltop 15 years ago, a day he still recalls with a huge grin. He saw carved flint everywhere, and recognized a Neolithic quarry on an adjacent hill, with unfinished slabs of limestone hinting at some monument buried nearby. "In one minute—in one second—it was clear," the bearded, sun-browned archeologist recalls. He too considered walking away, he says, knowing that if he stayed, he would have to spend the rest of his life digging on the hill.
Now 55 and a staff member at the German Archaeological Institute, Schmidt has joined a long line of his countrymen here, reaching back to Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy. He has settled in, marrying a Turkish woman and making a home in a modest "dig house" in the narrow streets of old Urfa. Decades of work lie ahead.
Disputes are normal at the site—the workers, Schmidt laments, are divided into three separate clans who feud constantly. ("Three groups," the archeologist says, exasperated. "Not two. Three!") So far Schmidt has uncovered less than 5 percent of the site, and he plans to leave some temples untouched so that future researchers can examine them with more sophisticated tools.
Whatever mysterious rituals were conducted in the temples, they ended abruptly before 8000 B.C., when the entire site was buried, deliberately and all at once, Schmidt believes. The temples had been in decline for a thousand years—later circles are less than half the size of the early ones, indicating a lack of resources or motivation among the worshipers. This "clear digression" followed by a sudden burial marks "the end of a very strange culture," Schmidt says. But it was also the birth of a new, settled civilization, humanity having now exchanged the hilltops of hunters for the valleys of farmers and shepherds. New ways of life demand new religious practices, Schmidt suggests, and "when you have new gods, you have to get rid of the old ones. © 2010 "
By Nicholas Birch , April 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk
Circles of elaborately carved stones from about 9,500BC predate even agriculture.
As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later..........
As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later, a member of the German Archaeological Institute, he found something infinitely more important: a temple complex almost twice as old as anything comparable on the planet.
"This place is a supernova," said Schmidt, standing under a lone tree on a windswept hilltop 35 miles north of Turkey's border with Syria. "Within a minute of first seeing it I knew I had two choices: go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here."
Behind him are the first folds of the Anatolian plateau. Ahead, the Mesopotamian plain, like a dust-coloured sea, stretches south hundreds of miles. The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe are just in front, hidden under the brow of the hill.
Compared with Stonehenge, they are humble affairs. None of the circles excavated (four out of an estimated 20) are more than 30 metres across. T-shaped pillars like the rest, two five-metre stones tower at least a metre above their peers. What makes them remarkable are their carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions, and their age. Dated at around 9,500BC, these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.
Never mind wheels or writing, the people who erected them did not even have pottery or domesticated wheat. They lived in villages. But they were hunters, not farmers.
"Everybody used to think only complex, hierarchical civilisations could build such monumental sites, and that they only came about with the invention of agriculture", said Ian Hodder, a Stanford University professor of anthropology who has directed digs at Catalhoyuk, Turkey's best known neolithic site, since 1993. "Gobekli changes everything. It's elaborate, it's complex and it is pre-agricultural. That alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time."
With only a fraction of the site opened up after a decade of excavation, Gobekli Tepe's significance to the people who built it remains unclear. Some think it was the centre of a fertility rite, with the two tall stones at the centre of each circle representing a man and woman. It is a theory the tourist board in nearby Urfa has taken up with alacrity. Visit the Garden of Eden, its brochures trumpet; see Adam and Eve.
Schmidt is sceptical. He agrees Gobekli Tepe may well be "the last flowering of a semi-nomadic world that farming was just about to destroy", and points out that if it is in near perfect condition today, it is because those who built it buried it soon after under tons of soil, as though its wild animal-rich world had lost all meaning.
But the site is devoid of the fertility symbols found at other neolithic sites, and the T-shaped columns, while clearly semi-human, are sexless.
"I think here we are face to face with the earliest representation of gods," said Schmidt, patting one of the biggest stones. "They have no eyes, no mouths, no faces. But they have arms and they have hands. They are makers.
"In my opinion, the people who carved them were asking themselves the biggest questions of all. What is this universe? Why are we here?"
With no evidence of houses or graves near the stones, Schmidt believes the hilltop was a site of pilgrimage for communities within a radius of roughly a hundred miles. The tallest stones all face south-east, as if scanning plains that are scattered with contemporary sites in many ways no less remarkable than Gobekli Tepe.
Last year, for instance, French archaeologists working at Djade al-Mughara in northern Syria uncovered the oldest mural ever found. "Two square metres of geometric shapes, in red, black and white - like a Paul Klee painting", said Eric Coqueugniot, of the University of Lyon, who is leading the excavation.
Coqueugniot describes Schmidt's hypothesis that Gobekli Tepe was a meeting point for rituals as "tempting", given its spectacular position. But surveys of the region were still in their infancy. "Tomorrow, somebody might find somewhere even more dramatic."
Vecihi Ozkaya, the director of a dig at Kortiktepe, 120 miles east of Urfa, doubts the thousands of stone pots he has found since 2001 in hundreds of 11,500-year-old graves quite qualify as that. But his excitement fills his austere office at Dicle University in Diyarbakir.
"Look at this", he said, pointing at a photo of an exquisitely carved sculpture showing an animal, half-human, half-lion. "It's a sphinx, thousands of years before Egypt. South-eastern Turkey, northern Syria - this region saw the wedding night of our civilisation."
By Jesse Rhodes , November 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com
Circles of elaborately carved stones from about 9,500BC predate even agriculture.
Since I'm based in Berlin, I talk a lot with German archaeologists. There was a lot of buzz over here about Gobekli Tepe, and this story had been reported in Germany, but not in the English language media. Because it's such an incredible find, Schmidt's under a lot of pressure, so it took me about........
Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. The place is called Gobekli Tepe, and Schmidt, a German archaeologist who has been working here more than a decade, is convinced it's the site of the world's oldest temple.
"Guten Morgen," he says at 5:20 a.m. when his van picks me up at my hotel in Urfa. Thirty minutes later, the van reaches the foot of a grassy hill and parks next to strands of barbed wire. We follow a knot of workmen up the hill to rectangular pits shaded by a corrugated steel roof—the main excavation site. In the pits, standing stones, or pillars, are arranged in circles. Beyond, on the hillside, are four other rings of partially excavated pillars. Each ring has a roughly similar layout: in the center are two large stone T-shaped pillars encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars tower 16 feet and, Schmidt says, weigh between seven and ten tons. As we walk among them, I see that some are blank, while others are elaborately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures abound, twisting and crawling on the pillars' broad sides.
Schmidt points to the great stone rings, one of them 65 feet across. "This is the first human-built holy place," he says.
From this perch 1,000 feet above the valley, we can see to the horizon in nearly every direction. Schmidt, 53, asks me to imagine what the landscape would have looked like 11,000 years ago, before centuries of intensive farming and settlement turned it into the nearly featureless brown expanse it is today.
Prehistoric people would have gazed upon herds of gazelle and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers, which attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit and nut trees; and rippling fields of wild barley and wild wheat varieties such as emmer and einkorn. "This area was like a paradise," says Schmidt, a member of the German Archaeological Institute. Indeed, Gobekli Tepe sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent—an arc of mild climate and arable land from the Persian Gulf to present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt—and would have attracted hunter-gatherers from Africa and the Levant. And partly because Schmidt has found no evidence that people permanently resided on the summit of Gobekli Tepe itself, he believes this was a place of worship on an unprecedented scale—humanity's first "cathedral on a hill."
With the sun higher in the sky, Schmidt ties a white scarf around his balding head, turban-style, and deftly picks his way down the hill among the relics. In rapid-fire German he explains that he has mapped the entire summit using ground-penetrating radar and geomagnetic surveys, charting where at least 16 other megalith rings remain buried across 22 acres. The one-acre excavation covers less than 5 percent of the site. He says archaeologists could dig here for another 50 years and barely scratch the surface.
Gobekli Tepe was first examined—and dismissed—by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers' report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.
Unlike the stark plateaus nearby, Gobekli Tepe (the name means "belly hill" in Turkish) has a gently rounded top that rises 50 feet above the surrounding landscape. To Schmidt's eye, the shape stood out. "Only man could have created something like this," he says. "It was clear right away this was a gigantic Stone Age site." The broken pieces of limestone that earlier surveyors had mistaken for gravestones suddenly took on a different meaning.
Schmidt returned a year later with five colleagues and they uncovered the first megaliths, a few buried so close to the surface they were scarred by plows. As the archaeologists dug deeper, they unearthed pillars arranged in circles. Schmidt's team, however, found none of the telltale signs of a settlement: no cooking hearths, houses or trash pits, and none of the clay fertility figurines that litter nearby sites of about the same age. The archaeologists did find evidence of tool use, including stone hammers and blades. And because those artifacts closely resemble others from nearby sites previously carbon-dated to about 9000 B.C., Schmidt and co-workers estimate that Gobekli Tepe's stone structures are the same age. Limited carbon dating undertaken by Schmidt at the site confirms this assessment.
The way Schmidt sees it, Gobekli Tepe's sloping, rocky ground is a stonecutter's dream. Even without metal chisels or hammers, prehistoric masons wielding flint tools could have chipped away at softer limestone outcrops, shaping them into pillars on the spot before carrying them a few hundred yards to the summit and lifting them upright. Then, Schmidt says, once the stone rings were finished, the ancient builders covered them over with dirt. Eventually, they placed another ring nearby or on top of the old one. Over centuries, these layers created the hilltop.
Today, Schmidt oversees a team of more than a dozen German archaeologists, 50 local laborers and a steady stream of enthusiastic students. He typically excavates at the site for two months in the spring and two in the fall. (Summer temperatures reach 115 degrees, too hot to dig; in the winter the area is deluged by rain.) In 1995, he bought a traditional Ottoman house with a courtyard in Urfa, a city of nearly a half-million people, to use as a base of operations.
On the day I visit, a bespectacled Belgian man sits at one end of a long table in front of a pile of bones. Joris Peters, an archaeozoologist from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, specializes in the analysis of animal remains. Since 1998, he has examined more than 100,000 bone fragments from Gobekli Tepe. Peters has often found cut marks and splintered edges on them—signs that the animals from which they came were butchered and cooked. The bones, stored in dozens of plastic crates stacked in a storeroom at the house, are the best clue to how people who created Gobekli Tepe lived. Peters has identified tens of thousands of gazelle bones, which make up more than 60 percent of the total, plus those of other wild game such as boar, sheep and red deer. He's also found bones of a dozen different bird species, including vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. "The first year, we went through 15,000 pieces of animal bone, all of them wild. It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site," Peters says. "It's been the same every year since." The abundant remnants of wild game indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.
But, Peters and Schmidt say, Gobekli Tepe's builders were on the verge of a major change in how they lived, thanks to an environment that held the raw materials for farming. "They had wild sheep, wild grains that could be domesticated—and the people with the potential to do it," Schmidt says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe's construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world's oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe's construction.
To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces that view. Schmidt says the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of seven-ton stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. "This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later," says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. "You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies."
What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean. Schmidt agrees. "We're 6,000 years before the invention of writing here," he says.
"There's more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today," says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who is familiar with Schmidt's work. "Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility."
Still, archaeologists have their theories—evidence, perhaps, of the irresistible human urge to explain the unexplainable. The surprising lack of evidence that people lived right there, researchers say, argues against its use as a settlement or even a place where, for instance, clan leaders gathered. Hodder is fascinated that Gobekli Tepe's pillar carvings are dominated not by edible prey like deer and cattle but by menacing creatures such as lions, spiders, snakes and scorpions. "It's a scary, fantastic world of nasty-looking beasts," he muses. While later cultures were more concerned with farming and fertility, he suggests, perhaps these hunters were trying to master their fears by building this complex, which is a good distance from where they lived.
Danielle Stordeur, an archaeologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, emphasizes the significance of the vulture carvings. Some cultures have long believed the high-flying carrion birds transported the flesh of the dead up to the heavens. Stordeur has found similar symbols at sites from the same era as Gobekli Tepe just 50 miles away in Syria. "You can really see it's the same culture," she says. "All the most important symbols are the same."
For his part, Schmidt is certain the secret is right beneath his feet. Over the years, his team has found fragments of human bone in the layers of dirt that filled the complex. Deep test pits have shown that the floors of the rings are made of hardened limestone. Schmidt is betting that beneath the floors he'll find the structures' true purpose: a final resting place for a society of hunters.
Perhaps, Schmidt says, the site was a burial ground or the center of a death cult, the dead laid out on the hillside among the stylized gods and spirits of the afterlife. If so, Gobekli Tepe's location was no accident. "From here the dead are looking out at the ideal view," Schmidt says as the sun casts long shadows over the half-buried pillars. "They're looking out over a hunter's dream."
The World’s First Temple?
Predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, Turkey's stunning Gobekli Tepe upends the conventional view of the rise of civilization.
Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling ...Read more >>
Digging for history at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey
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I am standing above an archaeological dig, on a hillside in southern Turkey. Beneath me, workmen are unearthing a sculpture of some sort of reptile.
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History in the Remaking
A temple complex in Turkey that predates even the pyramids is rewriting the story of human evolution.
They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and ....Read more >>
7,000 years older than Stonehenge: the site that
Circles of elaborately carved stones from about 9,500BC predate even agriculture.
As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later...
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