Farmers have been here for as long as anyone can remember, thousands of years in fact. As a local farmer near Urfa, southeastern Turkey, you've dragged your plow across this hill hundreds of times. Each time you do, you hit a large rock right beneath the surface. With each bump you straighten your plow and continue on. There is a job to be done, your family to be fed. This land is thought to have been a Byzantine-turned-Islamic cemetery. People have always found chunks of rock here, but they must only be gravestones.
This view turned out to be wrong...spectacularly wrong. In 1994 Klaus Schimdt, an archeologist working on a nearby Neolithic settlement of Nevali Cori (Nevalı Çori), saw some of the stones found at Gobekli Tepe (Göbekli Tepe) and thought there might be a connection. The next year he started excavations, and what his team found has radically overturned our understanding of the Neolithic era.
|A map showing the location of Gobekli Tepe within Turkey
Now that phrase sounds quite boring...why would anyone alive today care about the Neolithic period? This time was already ancient history to the first Pharaoh of Egypt, how is it relevant to us at all? It is extremely relevant – these people are us. They are the first farmers, the first house builders. Their story of farming and architecture culminates with our story. The civilization we inherited by birth began with these people – so the questions of how and why they started such a thing are of great importance. If us moderns want to know more about what constitutes a civilization, then our first step is to look back at its birth – the Neolithic era.
|An illustration by Zdenek Burian from 1958, "Prehistoric Man"
That stone, once marked by the edge of a plow, was slowly uncovered. It quickly became obvious that it was not put there by nature, but by man. It was carved with precision and craftsmanship. It was huge – a megalith – and it was a central pillar of a larger structure. This central pillar was a centerpiece, surrounded by a ring of smaller pillars. Stones fitted between these smaller pillars formed a wall. The central pillars and the surrounding wall of smaller pillars together form a large megalithic enclosure. Klaus Schmidt continued digging, and found more of these structures. This was not one building, but a series of buildings. Klaus Schmidt then conducted a geophysical survey of the whole site, and what he found astounded him – there are over 20 of these giant structures, and in total about 200 pillars. These structures were built on top of each other, forming a site with thousands of years of human construction and activity.
|Detail of a central T pillar, showing its hands and a loincloth
The history of the site can be classified into two phases. The first phase of buildings consisted of circular structures. At the center of these large rooms, were two giant T shaped pillars. The top bar of the T shape was left unmarked, but the body of the T pillar was carved to resemble the human form. Stretching from the top of the pillar are arms, coming to the hips of the pillar, ending in fingers. Around the waist of the pillar is a loin cloth made of a fox pelt. Surrounding the central pillars in a circle are the smaller T shaped pillars, which are built into the wall of the structure. The smaller T pillars have intricate carvings of local animals on them. The floor of these structures are made of either limestone terrazzo or of the natural bedrock flatted to make a smooth surface. It is still up in the air whether these structures had roofs or not.
This was a huge undertaking – the tallest of the central pillars reach up to about 20 feet, and the heaviest up to about 20 tons. While difficult, prehistoric peoples have done this before. What makes this site different from the rest of those prehistoric sites is its date. When dated, Klaus Schmidt found that the first phase of construction took place during the PPNA (pre-pottery Neolithic A) period – about 9500 BCE to 8800 BCE!
|A reconstruction of Phase 1 Gobekli Tepe
The second phase of buildings showed a changed attitude towards the hilltop site. This was during the PPNB (pre-pottery Neolithic B) period, from about 8800 BCE to 8000 BCE. The structures became rectangular shaped instead of circular, and instead of two central pillars they started only erecting one. The size of the buildings and pillars themselves grew smaller. Every couple of decades people would come together and bury the structure, then building a smaller version on top of it. Eventually, between 8000 BCE and 7500 BCE the last structure was filled in and a new one was never rebuilt. The site was abandoned.
Every detail about this site raises questions which have never been asked. How did people circa 9500 BCE raise megalithic structures? Why would people make such intricate carvings, and what were they trying to symbolize? How did people develop the skills to make such carvings at such an early time? Why were these structures intentionally buried? Unanswerable questions spill out of this site, but with nearly 20 years of archeological digs at Gobekli Tepe, and a great deal of context, we can come closer to understanding this truly out of place artifact.
|An artist's conception of the builders of Gobekli Tepe, by John G. Swogger
|The spread of Natufian cultural sites in the Middle East
We should begin with describing the people who built these structures. They are called the Natufians, and their artifacts are found around the Levant region from around 12,000 BCE to 9500 BCE. These people lived an amalgam of sedentary and nomadic lifestyles. For some parts of the year, they lived in small villages, yet for the other parts of the year they would roam following the herds they hunted. Their houses were made of bones and hides, existing before mud bricks. They lived as family groups, and combined these groups formed communities which maxed out at around 100-150 people. They lived a hunter gatherer lifestyle, eating a balanced diet of meat (mostly gazelle), fish, berries, fruits, and grains.
|10,000-13,000 BCE Natufian houses. Made from wood and animal hides, set into the ground with a stone foundation
|A Natufian necklace, circa 8,000-10,000 BCE
They are called the first farmers because they invented the sickle – made of bone with flint shards to cut the grasses they found. Some sickles are even found with dual rows of flint for extra cutting power. They found these grasses growing naturally, and an early farmer could collect enough food in three weeks to feed a family of four for a year. The Natufians did not have bread, yet they were able to cook a simple form of flat-bread biscuit with their grains. The Natufians, after thousands of years of collecting natural grass, noticed that larger tastier plants were growing from their communal refuse piles. In time, they turned from natural collection to intentional seeding, and started a revolution.
|A Natufian bone and flint sickle
|A Natufian period archaeological fragment, circa 10,000 BCE
Around 10,000 BCE, there were no more than about 1000 family groups of these Natufians in the Levant. There wasn't much competition – before animal husbandry and intentional plot farming groups of Natufians remained spread out and isolated. At least, this was the view of their society before Gobekli Tepe. In order to carve and transport these gigantic pillars, it would require up to 500 people – possibly also requiring a priestly class to co-ordinate and plan the design of these structures. The earliest structures at Gobekli Tepe were created before the Neolithic revolution (the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry at around 8800 BCE in the fertile crescent), yet through the entirety of the site's history its builders did not even have pottery. Klaus Schmidt thinks that the builders would have lived near the site for some part of the year, slowly building a structure over the course of decades – yet this still does not explain how these people got together to carve out and move the giant T pillars.
|A Natufian burial of a man and a puppy, the man's hand is resting on the puppy. This burial is the first evidence of the domestication of dogs, circa 10,000 BCE. Dogs were the only animals which the builders of Gobekli Tepe had domesticated
The location of Gobekli Tepe might be a clue as to how these people were able to band together. It's located in a small highly fertile area nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When humans did start farming in the region they were extremely lucky, about 20 miles away from Gobekli Tepe is the area where a strain of modern wheat was first domesticated (Einkorn). This proto-wheat naturally growing in the region was so productive and abundant that groups of Natufians did not have to compete and fight. Possibly they banded together to ward off herds of gazelle and wild donkeys which would've eaten their precious grains. This unusually productive area would've become a meeting place, sparking trade and community between the local Natufian family groups. Eventually, the bountiful nature of this place would have become revered, leading to monumental veneration.
|An overview of the site at Gobekli Tepe
Klaus Schmidt has called this place, “the first cathedral on a hill”. It is quite literally on a hill, sitting at the rich boundary of mountainous Anatolia and the fertile crescent. Yet to truly understand this place, we must look at this cathedral's stained glass windows. The art of Gobekli Tepe is astounding, coming in multiple forms. Much of the art is made up of petroglyphs, carved reliefs in the larger and smaller T pillars. Yet that is not the only type of art found here, small stones with intentional symbolic carvings have been found, as well as a magnificent animal statue – carved straight out of a pillar. While the area around Gobekli Tepe is now a dust bowl, it was not always so. The objects represented in reliefs show knowledge of their diverse fauna: lions, bulls, aurochs, boars, foxes, gazelles, donkeys, snakes, spiders, birds, hyenas, and vultures. Most of the animals represented are vicious or dangerous, and severely underrepresented are the common game animals of the local Natufians.
|Reliefs of animals at Gobekli Tepe
|Drawings of more animal reliefs
|Called the "Snake, Tree, and Eagle" stone, the true meaning of these markings are completely unknown
|An impressive carving of a lion or panther
The most important representations are those of vultures and of a man. The human shown in relief is headless, which in combination with vultures points to the practice of sky burial. In this practice the body of the recently deceased is laid out at a sacred place and given to the will of the local carnivorous wildlife (mostly vultures and wolves). In later Neolithic settlements which practiced sky burial, such as Catalhoyuk (Çatalhöyük), the person's bones were later buried. At Catalhoyuk, before offering the body to the vultures, the head was removed. These heads were kept and sometimes plastered and painted as a shrine to their ancestor. The headless human at Gobekli Tepe may point to the birth of this death ritual, Gobekli Tepe itself may be where associated rituals were practiced. These carvings, as well as contemporaneous sky burial practices at nearby Jericho, begin to shed light on the early religion of these Natufians.
|The vulture and headless man relief on a smaller T pillar
|A decorated early Natufian skull from the burial at El-Wad
|A plastered Natufian skull from the PPNB period, from Jericho
|An artist's conception of the Natufian burial at El-Wad, by John G. Swogger
The most impressive art of this site are the central T pillars themselves. Each pillar is designed as a human, shown without facial features but with arms and a fox pelt loincloth. The sex of these statues is undetermined, although in comparison to other local art, they are most likely male. These statues are humanoid – but who are they? Are they the gods which these structures have been dedicated to? Are they the great ancestors of the builders' tribe? Are they representations of worshipers, standing forever in place of their mortal counterparts? The inner conceptual world of our Natufian ancestors eludes us. Whoever they were intended to be, they are imposingly huge. They are the centerpiece of the structures' design and the focus of its corresponding Zeitgeist.
|A central T pillar at night. Reliefs of ducks line the base of the pillar
|An artist's representation of the T pillars, actual pelts may have been hung on the pillars as offerings
Humans show up in the central T pillars and in relief, but that is not all. Multiple life sized (up to 2 meter/6.5 feet) human statues have been found as well. One in particular, called “The Urfa Man” is the first statue of its kind – it is meant to be displayed and permanent instead of small and portable. Klaus Schmidt thinks that the Urfa Man was meant to be a guard or a worshiper. This human figure is a more literal depiction of a human, in opposition to the faceless pillar humans. This may show the piece's more literal meaning to the people who built it. Smallish holes of differing sizes have been found near Gobekli Tepe, the larger of which may have held human statues and the smaller of which may have held ceremonial fires. It is not known where exactly the human statues were placed in reference to the rest of the structure.
|The Urfa Man, it is about 6.5 feet tall
|One theory of how the Urfa Man and other humanoid statues were used at Gobekli Tepe
The strangest statue of them all is a large totem depicting multiple figures, possibly a scene of giving birth. Found along the wall of an enclosure, the top of the totem is a large creature with arms outstretched holding the head of a second figure. The second figure then holds their stomach and beneath is a child. The child holds some portable circular object, and is flanked by two large snakes. Does this totem represent Gobekli Tepe's cosmology? Sadly it is damaged – certainly the main figure had a face at some point but without that subsequently determining its identity becomes nigh impossible. Understanding the scene as a whole would be even more impossible, it represents multiple humans and must have held a story or great significance. Beyond that, its meaning is as lost to our minds as the name of its carver.
|The totem of Gobekli Tepe, at the Gobekli Tepe museum in Urfa
|Detail of the totem
The expressive reliefs, gargantuan pillars, and many free standing statues point to a very strange conclusion – the artists who made these were masters of their craft. These are not the Natufians of your grandparent's anthropology textbook. Each relief carving took hundreds of hours, pointing to an artisan who put many hundreds more into developing their skill. These skills did not appear out of thin air, but point to specialization of labor. The idea of making such intricate stonework was not invented by these individual artists, detailed statues show that they were true masters of their craft. These master craftsmen must have learned this skill from previous generations – pointing to a history of masonry stretching back into the end of the last Ice Age. The earliest buildings at Gobekli Tepe, earlier than Phase 1 and still buried, are presumed by Klaus Schmidt to stretch into 10-12,000 BCE. This “Phase 0” of Gobekli Tepe (corresponding to early Natufian) may hold the secrets of this lost tradition of masonry.
When you arrive at Gobekli Tepe, the first symbolic item you encounter is the door. The doorways to enclosures here are not the typical stone arch you'll find at most megalithic structures – it is a rectangular hole carved into one solid rock. Called “porthole doors”, they are sometimes found with guard-like animals carved on them. Double doors have been found, a solid rock with two rectangular doors cut into it (possibly one an entrance and the other an exit). What the significant of these doors are is anyone's guess. Klaus Schmidt hypothesizes that they represent the barrier into the underworld.
|A porthole door which was placed in the center of an enclosure. Why was it placed there before the structure was buried? We have no answer
|A double porthole door. The doors are a part of the larger slab, which includes those small animal carvings on the left. Porthole doors were intentionally made to be small, and you would have had to crouch to get through one
Whatever may be said about the symbolism at Gobekli Tepe, the ideas it represents spread like wildfire across the Neolithic middle east. Around 9000 BCE, about 500 years after initial large scale construction, you find sites like Nevali Cori (Nevalı Çori). Nevali Cori is not a “cathedral on a hill” it is a village, but it does have its own cathedral. Within the village is a rectangular building different from the surrounding houses. Inside this building you'll find two T shaped pillars. Although smaller than Gobekli Tepe's pillars, these structures have been found at many Neolithic sites in the region and have all been dated to after the founding of Gobekli Tepe. Thousands of years later these ideas continue and flourish. Around 7000 BCE at places like Catalhoyuk (Çatalhöyük) in Anatolia you find these rectangular non-dormitory buildings. By this point the structures are much smaller and only ever have one pillar. These structures are no longer isolated hilltops, but are one of the many buildings in a much larger city. The iconography of Gobekli Tepe has moved from isolated seclusion, to inside the houses. Whatever was the cultural meaning of Gobekli Tepe, it survived and prospered throughout future generations.
|A central T pillar from Nevali Cori
|The layout of the rectangular building at Nevali Cori
The importance of Gobekli Tepe cannot be understated. These structures are the earliest buildings in stone, the first megaliths on earth. They are the first structures humans built which were not small bone/hide huts. These structures were built by hunter gatherers predating: cities, farming, pottery, metallurgy, animal domestification, and the wheel. Gobekli Tepe rudely juts out of the normal arc of pre-history – it was thought to be impossible. Those simple hunter gatherer Natufians could never do that...yet they did. Why they built such a thing is speculative: possibly it was cultural, possibly religious, possibly there is no difference between those two answers. How they built such a thing is also speculative: these people were hunter gatherers in small family groups...how did hundreds come together to build and carve this? How did a hunter gatherer society have such high specialization of labor? Anthropologists had assumed that city building came first, then a cultural unifier like religion (and religious buildings) formed out of that. As it turns out, it is the exact opposite. In the words of Klaus Schmidt, “first came the temple, then the city”.
The importance of Gobekli Tepe can also be overblown, it has sometimes been compared to the garden of Eden and other mystical paradises. In 2006 a story in the German magazine Der Spiegel related Gobekli Tepe to the garden of Eden...this link was soon picked up by Turkish papers and a furious debate was sparked. Was Gobekli Tepe the actual garden of Eden? If this was the case then it was also the birthplace of Adam, and thus a sacred site to Islam. The local government considered halting further excavation on religious grounds, but when the furor blew over all parties continued on.
After continual use for thousands of years, the hill at Gobekli Tepe was abandoned. Every couple of decades the Natufians would intentionally bury the current enclosure and build another on top. Around 8000-7500 BCE the final structure was filled in, never to be rebuilt. The debris which was used to fill in these enclosures varies heavily but it is mostly: dirt, debris, flint gravel, stone tools, animal bones, and some human bones. Occasionally there are larger finds in this debris, like a piece of a pillar with a striking hyena relief. We have to thank these Natufians, their act of burying these structures helped preserve them for posterity. It is harrowing to think of the Neolithic structures which may have existed which were not buried, and forever lost.
|A pillar fragment found in the debris used to bury an enclosure. It shows a hyena, which at the time was common in the region
Why Gobekli Tepe was buried and forgotten remains a mystery. The main theories are that these early agriculturalists did not rotate crops, fertilize fields, or prevent topsoil erosion. This would've created the dust bowl environment we see today, leading the locals away from their old gods. Another theory is that their future farmer ideology developed gods which emphasized fertility and these farmers rejected the hunter-gatherer ideology of their ancestors. What is known is that the symbols and ideas which Gobekli Tepe represented were spread across the fertile crescent. Once these ideas took root in every locality, and the centers of religious life moved to village-specific buildings, it is possible that the original sites of veneration fell out of use.
What has been found at Gobekli Tepe so far is only the first step. According to Klaus Schmidt's geophysical surveys “less than 5%” has been excavated. While slow and steady excavations continue every year, his goal is to preserve as much as he can for future generations with better technology. “The idea is not to excavate the entire settlement. The idea is to excavate as little as possible, we just have to have enough to understand what was really going on at the site.” His views encapsulate a wonderful idea in archeology – learn the most while doing the least amount of harm. The objective in exploring a site is to understand it, yet we must be mindful of our limitations. Many thousands of artifacts uncovered in the 19th century have been destroyed, sold on the black market, or generally gone missing. Not that long ago, it was normal procedure to wash stone points to prepare them for presentation, permanently destroying microscopic evidence. Even today with an obsessive detail towards creating a paper trail, digging can still be damaging – and the antiquities black market continues unabated.
But for now, we must still dig and uncover. While doing this, we must always recognize that the past is not ours alone. It is the property of the whole of the human race. Gobekli Tepe is not the property of any one current human culture, and in that regard it is the property of all cultures. Our future generations will want to know about Gobekli Tepe as much as we do now. The only difference between their knowing and our knowing is that we will cause more damage. We must understand what happened at Gobekli Tepe for the sake of uncovering our own history, but this will come at a price. Klaus Schmidt is there to make sure this price is as low as it can possibly be – and we should thank him for that forethought.
It is astounding to consider what has been found at Gobekli Tepe. Our knowledge of the Neolithic era and the first farmers of the middle east has been forever changed for the better. Gobekli Tepe points to a history of religious observation, megalithic construction, and high masonry...all of which were previously unknown. Gobekli Tepe was used for thousands of years, then buried, and 9000 years after its entombment humanity has rediscovered this long lost part of its past. The culture represented here is utterly foreign to every living society. The gods worshiped here have died out thousands of years ago, their names forgotten. What is left of this site are a series of mysteries. Few questions are answered by this site, yet thousands are opened. The complete significance of what these people left for us will take decades to fully understand. Gobekli Tepe has been excavated for only 19 years (as of 2014) – all of these carvings are from only four of the 20+ enclosures. There is truly a new world to be discovered here, a magnificent puzzle jumbled over the course of thousands of years. Every person who could have known the answer to this puzzle has been dead for eons. Now, it is the job of modern historians to start to put these pieces back together.