Göbekli Tepe is one of the most fascinating Neolithic sites in the world. It is a tell, an artificial mound dating
to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. It was not used for habitation; it consists of several sanctuaries in the
form of round megalithic enclosures. The site lies about 15km north-east of the Turkish city of Sanlıurfa,
at the highest point of an extended mountain range that can be seen for many kilometres around.
It is a landmark visible from far away. Its enormous deposition of layers, up to fifteen metres
high, have accumulated over several millennia over an area of about nine hectares. Even today, the place
has lost nothing of its magic appeal. For example, a wishing tree which stands on top of the ridge is still
sought out by the residents of the surrounding area.
Archaeologists found an important piece of the puzzle in the early history of humanity at the site, which
contributes to a completely new understanding of the process of sedentism and the beginning of agriculture.
The hill, which is strewn with countless stone implements and large-format, regular-shaped
ashlars, revealed its secret as a result of the excavations carried out since 1995 by the German Archaeological
Institute in cooperation with the Archaeological Museum in Sanlıurfa Remarkably, no residential buildings have been discovered. However, at least two phases of monumental religious architecture have been uncovered. Of these, the older layer is the most impressive. The main features are T-shaped monolithic pillars, each weighing several tons. They were erected to form large circular enclosures, at the centre of which a pair of these pillars towers over all (Fig. 2). The diameters of the circles are between 10 and 20 metres, and the ten to twelve pillars of the circle
are connected by walls of quarry stone. The enclosures have been designated A, B, C and D in a range according to the date
of their discovery in the first years of the excavations.
It has been a great advantage to archaeology that, after a period of unknown duration, the sanctuaries
of the older layer at Göbekli Tepe were intentionally and rapidly buried, a process which seems to have
been a certain part of their use from the beginning. The old surfaces that can be observed in the excavations
and the processes that occurred in the sediment have been subjected to pedological analyses, allowing the filling to be dated. Moreover, the circumstances in which the structure was filled are a matter for speculation: was the act of filling part of some ritual? Was this ritual carried out repeatedly? The origin of the filling material is unknown. The provenance of the material is not unimportant, as
some 500 cubic metres of debris would be required to backfill enclosure D alone. Moreover, the material
is not sterile soil. It consists mainly of chips and pieces of limestone – usually smaller than fist-size – and many artefacts, mainly of flint, but also fragments of stone vessels, grind stones and other ground stone tools. Beside the stone artefacts, there are many animal bones, mostly broken into small pieces as is usual for waste. The bones are primarily of gazelle, but in terms of weight of meat, wild cattle is the
most important species. Other species of importance are red deer, onager, wild pig, and wild caprovids
There are no domesticated animals or plants.
The transitional period of the late Pleistocene to the early Holocene in south-western
Asia saw the emergence of the first large, permanently settled communities. Permanent
settlements dating to 12 000–10 000 BP currently under excavation are producing
unexpected monumentality and extraordinarily rich symbolism that challenges
our ability to interpret. Especially in Upper Mesopotamia, in the centre of the so-called
Fertile Crescent, large sites with exciting finds have been unearthed in recent years.
The results of these recent and ongoing excavations have not turned our picture of
world history upside down, but they are adding a splendid and colourful new chapter
between the period of the hunters and cing and ‘reading’ symbolic material culture, that
enabled communities to formulate their shared identities, and their cosmos. There has been much progress in the investigation of the
earliest signs of symbolic behaviours (from 100 000 years ago), followed by the earliest figural representations
in European Upper Palaeolithic art from 30 000 years ago (Bosinski 1987). Now, the 12 000
year old sites in Upper Mesopotamia make us believe that something new and very important was happening.
We are finding our way back to a quite diffusionistic point of view, when we observe the success
of people in possession of the ‘Neolithic package’, which first occurred in its complete form in the
Northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, between the Upper Euphrates and the Upper Tigris. From
these regions, the new way of life was disseminated across the Old World from the 9th millennium calBC
onwards, reaching Europe and Africa in the late 7th millennium (for north-western Africa, especially
Egypt, comp. Shirai 2010). Göbekli Tepe opens a new perspective on the Early
Neolithic: specialisation on particular tasks must have been possible in order for members of the community
to be able to erect these monuments and decorate them so elaborately.
We can assume that
much older traces and constructions have yet to be found at Göbekli Tepe, and it can be guessed that
the place has a history stretching back over several thousand of years to the Old Stone Age. The people
must also have had a highly complicated mythology, including a capacity for abstraction (Morenz, Schmidt
2009). The question of who is being represented by the highly stylized T-shaped pillars remains open, as
we can not say with certitude if concepts of god existed at this time. So the general function of the enclosures
remains mysterious; but it is clear that the pillar statues in the centre of these enclosures represented
very powerful beings. If gods existed in the minds of Early Neolithic people, there is an overwhelming
probability that the T-shape is the first know monumental depiction of gods. Further investigations will certainly provide us with more detailed information. But to understand the new finds, archaeologists need to work closely with specialists in comparative religion, architectural and
art theory, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, sociologists using social network theory, and others.
It is the complex story of the earliest large, settled communities, their extensive networking, and their
communal understanding of their world, perhaps even the first organized religions and their symbolic
representations of the cosmos.
Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries.
New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus
on sculptures and high reliefs
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung, Berlin, DE