Göbekli Tepe (Turkish: [gœbecˈli teˈpe], "Potbelly Hill"; known as Girê Mirazan or Xirabreşkê in Kurdish) is a Neolithic archaeological site near the city of Şanlıurfa in Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey. It includes two phases of use, believed to be of a social or ritual nature by site discoverer and excavator Klaus Schmidt. Its oldest layer dates to around 9000 BCE, the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA). The younger phase, radiocarbon dated to between 8300 and 7400 BCE, belongs to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. During the early phase, circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were erected, classified as the world's oldest known megaliths, contemporary with other nearby settlements such as Nevalı Çori and Çayönü. In 2018, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Shown within Turkey
Göbekli Tepe (Near East)
Göbekli Tepe (Eastern Mediterranean)
|Location||Örencik, Şanlıurfa Province, Turkey|
|Founded||c. 9000 BCE|
|Abandoned||8th millennium BCE|
|Periods||Pre-Pottery Neolithic A to B|
|Official name||Göbekli Tepe|
|Criteria||(i), (ii), (iv)|
|Designated||2018 (42nd session)|
The tell or artificial mound has a height of 15 m (50 ft) and is about 300 m (1,000 ft) in diameter, approximately 760 m (2,500 ft) above sea level. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are known (as of May 2020) through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and weighs up to 10 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the local bedrock. In the second phase, belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), the erected pillars are smaller and stood in rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime. The site was abandoned after the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). Younger structures date to classical times.
The excavations have been ongoing since 1996 by the German Archaeological Institute, but large parts still remain unexcavated.
Göbekli Tepe was built and occupied during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN)—the earliest division of the Neolithic period in Southwest Asia—which is dated to between 9600 and 7000 BCE. Beginning at the end of the last Ice Age, the PPN marks "the beginnings of village life", producing the earliest evidence for permanent human settlements in the world. Archaeologists have long associated the appearance of these settlements with the Neolithic Revolution—the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture—but disagree on whether the adoption of farming caused people to settle down, or settling down caused people to adopt farming. Despite the name, the Neolithic Revolution in Southwest Asia was "drawn out and locally variable". Elements of village life appeared as early as 10,000 years before the Neolithic in places, and the transition to agriculture took thousands of years, with different paces and trajectories in different regions. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic is divided into two subperiods: the PPNA, to which the early phases of Göbekli Tepe belong, is dated to between 9600 and 8800 BCE; the PPNB, to which the late phases of Göbekli Tepe belong, is dated to between 8800 and 7000 BCE. It was preceded by the Epipalaeolithic and succeeded by the Late Neolithic.
Evidence indicates that the inhabitants were Hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet with early forms of domesticated cereal and lived in villages for at least part of the year. Tools such as grinding stones and mortar & pestle, found at Göbekli Tepe, were analyzed and suggest considerable cereal processing. Archaeozoological evidence hints at "large-scale hunting of gazelle between midsummer and autumn."
PPN villages consisted of clusters of stone or mud brick houses, and sometimes substantial monumental or 'communal' buildings. The T-shaped pillar tradition seen at Göbekli Tepe is unique to the Urfa region, but is found at the majority of PPN sites there. These include Nevalı Çori, Hamzan Tepe, Karahan Tepe, Harbetsuvan Tepesi, Sefer Tepe, and Taslı Tepe. Other stone stelae—without the characteristic T shape—have been documented at contemporary sites further afield, including Çayönü, Qermez Dere, and Gusir Höyük.
Location and environment
Göbekli Tepe is located in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, overlooking the Harran plain and the headwaters of the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates. The site is a tell (artificial mound) situated on a flat limestone plateau. In the north, the plateau is connected to the neighbouring mountains by a narrow promontory. In all other directions, the ridge descends steeply into slopes and steep cliffs. On top of the ridge there is considerable evidence of human impact, in addition to the construction of the tell.
Excavations have taken place at the southern slope of the tell, south and west of a mulberry that marks an Islamic pilgrimage, but archaeological finds come from the entire plateau. The team has also found many remains of tools. At the western escarpment, a small cave has been discovered in which a small relief depicting a bovid was found. It is the only relief found in this cave.
Like most PPN sites in the Urfa region, Göbekli Tepe was built on a high point on the edge of the mountains, giving it both a wide view over plain beneath, and good visibility from the plain. This location also gave the builders good access to raw material: the soft limestone bedrock from which the complex was built, and the flint to make the tools to work the limestone.
At the time when Göbekli Tepe was occupied, the climate of the area was warmer and wetter than it is today. It was surrounded by an open steppe grassland, with abundant wild cereals, including einkorn, wheat, and barley, and herds of grazing animals such as wild sheep, wild goat, gazelle, and equids. Large herds of goitered gazelle may have passed by the site in seasonal migrations. There is no evidence of substantial woodlands nearby; 90% of the charcoal recovered at the site was from pistachio or almond trees. Archaeologists disagree on whether the site provided ready access to drinking water. Schmidt maintained that there was "no access to water in the immediate vicinity", based on the fact that, whilst there are many karstic springs and small streams in the Germuş, the closest today are several kilometres away. However, in the wetter climate of the time, the local water table may have been higher, activating springs closer to the site that are dormant today. Schmidt also noted the presence of several cisterns carved into the bedrock under the site, holding at least 150 cubic metres (5,300 cu ft) of water, and subsequent excavations have a possible rainwater harvesting system.
Discovery and research history
The archaeological site was first noted in a survey conducted by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago in 1963. American archaeologist Peter Benedict identified lithics collected from the surface of the site as belonging to the Aceramic Neolithic, but mistook stone slabs (the upper parts of the T-shaped pillars) for grave markers, postulating that the prehistoric phase was overlain by a Byzantine cemetery. The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation, and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, which may have disturbed the upper layers of the site. At some point attempts had been made to break up some of the pillars, presumably by farmers who mistook them for ordinary large rocks.
In October 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who had previously been working at Nevalı Çori, was looking for evidence of similar sites in the area and decided to reexamine the location described by the Chicago researchers in 1963. Asking in nearby villages about hills with flint, he was guided to Göbekli Tepe by Mahmut and İbrahim Yıldız, the farmers who owned the land the site was situated on. Mahmut Yıldız and his father had previously discovered finds while plowing there, which they reported to the local museum. Having found similar structures at Nevalı Çori, Schmidt recognized the possibility that the stone slabs were not Byzantine grave markers as supposed by Benedict, but the tops of prehistoric megaliths. He began excavations the following year and soon unearthed the first of the huge T-shaped pillars. Yıldız went on to work on the excavations and serve as the site's guard.
Schmidt continued to direct excavations at the site on behalf of the Şanlıurfa Museum and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) until his death in 2014. Since then, the DAI's research at the site has been coordinated by Lee Clare. As of 2021, work on the site is conducted jointly by Istanbul University, the Şanlıurfa Museum, and the DAI, under the overall direction of Necmi Karul. Recent excavations have been more limited than Schmidt's, focusing on detailed documentation and conservation of the areas already exposed.
The imposing stratigraphy of Göbekli Tepe attests to many centuries of activity, beginning in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period, dated to the 10th millennium BCE. Remains of smaller buildings identified as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) and dating from the 9th millennium BCE have also been unearthed.
A number of radiocarbon dates have been published:
The Hd samples are from charcoal in the fill of the lowest levels of the site and date the end of the active phase of the occupation of Level III – the actual structures may be older. The Ua samples come from pedogenic carbonate coatings on pillars and only indicate the time after the site was abandoned – the terminus ante quem.
Göbekli Tepe follows a geometric pattern. The pattern is an equilateral triangle that connects enclosures A, B, and D. A 2020 study of "Geometry and Architectural Planning at Göbekli Tepe" suggests that enclosures A, B, and D are all one complex, and within this complex there is a "hierarchy" with enclosure D at the top, rejecting the idea that each enclosure was built and functioned individually as less likely.
The plateau has been transformed by erosion and by quarrying, which took place not only in the Neolithic, but also in classical times. There are four 10-metre-long (33 ft) and 20-centimetre-wide (7.9 in) channels on the southern part of the plateau, interpreted as the remains of an ancient quarry from which rectangular blocks were taken. These possibly are related to a square building in the neighbourhood, of which only the foundation is preserved. Presumably this is the remains of a Roman watchtower that was part of the Limes Arabicus, though this is conjecture.
Most structures on the plateau seem to be the result of Neolithic quarrying, with the quarries being used as sources for the huge, monolithic architectural elements. Their profiles were pecked into the rock, with the detached blocks then levered out of the rock bank. Several quarries where round workpieces had been produced were identified. Their status as quarries was confirmed by the find of a 3-by-3 metre piece at the southeastern slope of the plateau. Unequivocally Neolithic are three T-shaped pillars that had not yet been levered out of the bedrock. The largest of them lies on the northern plateau. It has a length of 7 m (23 ft) and its head has a width of 3 m (10 ft). Its weight may be around 50 tons. The two other unfinished pillars lie on the southern Plateau.
At the western edge of the hill, a lionlike figure was found. In this area, flint and limestone fragments occur more frequently. It was therefore suggested that this could have been some kind of sculpture workshop. It is unclear, on the other hand, how to classify three phallic depictions from the surface of the southern plateau. They are near the quarries of classical times, making their dating difficult.
Apart from the tell, there is an incised platform with two sockets that could have held pillars, and a surrounding flat bench. This platform corresponds to the complexes from Layer III at the tell. Continuing the naming pattern, it is called "complex E". Owing to its similarity to the cult-buildings at Nevalı Çori it has also been called "Temple of the Rock". Its floor has been carefully hewn out of the bedrock and smoothed, reminiscent of the terrazzo floors of the younger complexes at Göbekli Tepe. Immediately northwest of this area are two cistern-like pits that are believed to be part of complex E. One of these pits has a table-high pin as well as a staircase with five steps.
At this early stage of the site's history, circular compounds or temene first appear. They range from 10 to 30 metres in diameter. Their most notable feature is the presence of T-shaped limestone pillars evenly set within thick interior walls composed of unworked stone. Four such circular structures have been unearthed so far. Geophysical surveys indicate that there are 16 more, enclosing up to eight pillars each, amounting to nearly 200 pillars in all. The slabs were transported from bedrock pits located approximately 100 metres (330 ft) from the hilltop, with workers using flint points to cut through the limestone bedrock.
Two taller pillars stand facing one another at the centre of each circle. Whether the circles were provided with a roof is uncertain. Stone benches designed for sitting are found in the interior. Many of the pillars are decorated with abstract, enigmatic pictograms and carved animal reliefs. The pictograms may represent commonly understood sacred symbols, as known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. The reliefs depict mammals such as lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, and donkeys; snakes and other reptiles; arthropods such as insects and arachnids; and birds, particularly vultures. At the time the edifice was constructed, the surrounding country was likely to have been forested and capable of sustaining this variety of wildlife, before millennia of human settlement and cultivation led to the near–Dust Bowl conditions prevalent today. Vultures also feature prominently in the iconography of Çatalhöyük and Jericho.
Few humanoid figures have appeared in the art at Göbekli Tepe. Some of the T-shaped pillars have human arms carved on their lower half, however, suggesting to site excavator Schmidt that they are intended to represent the bodies of stylized humans (or perhaps deities). Loincloths appear on the lower half of a few pillars. The horizontal stone slab on top is thought by Schmidt to symbolize shoulders, which suggests that the figures were left headless. Whether they were intended to serve as surrogate worshippers, symbolize venerated ancestors, or represent supernatural, anthropomorphic beings is not known.
Some of the floors in this, the oldest, layer are made of terrazzo (burnt lime); others are bedrock from which pedestals to hold the large pair of central pillars were carved in high relief. Radiocarbon dating places the construction of these early circles around 9000 BCE. Carbon dating suggests that (for reasons unknown) the enclosures were backfilled during the Stone Age.
Creation of the circular enclosures in layer III later gave way to the construction of small rectangular rooms in layer II. Rectangular buildings make a more efficient use of space compared with circular structures. They often are associated with the emergence of the Neolithic, but the T-shaped pillars, the main feature of the older enclosures, also are present here, indicating that the buildings of Layer II continued to serve the same function in the culture, presumably as sanctuaries. Layer II is assigned to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). The several adjoining rectangular, doorless and windowless rooms have floors of polished lime reminiscent of Roman terrazzo floors. Carbon dating has yielded dates between 8800 and 8000 BCE. Several T-pillars up to 1.5 meters tall occupy the center of the rooms. A pair decorated with fierce-looking lions is the rationale for the name "lion pillar building" by which their enclosure is known.
A stone pillar resembling totem pole designs was discovered at Göbekli Tepe, Layer II in 2010. It is 1.92 metres high, and is superficially reminiscent of the totem poles in North America. The pole features three figures, the uppermost depicting a predator, probably a bear, and below it a human-like shape. Because the statue is damaged, the interpretation is not entirely clear. Fragments of a similar pole also were discovered about 20 years ago in another site in Turkey at Nevalı Çori. Also, an older layer at Gobekli features some related sculptures portraying animals on human heads.
Layer I is the uppermost part of the hill. It is the shallowest, but accounts for the longest stretch of time. It consists of loose sediments caused by erosion and the virtually-uninterrupted use of the hill for agricultural purposes since it ceased to operate as a ceremonial center.
Around the beginning of the 8th millennium BCE Göbekli Tepe lost its importance. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry brought new realities to human life in the area, and the "Stone-age zoo" (Schmidt's phrase applied particularly to Layer III, Enclosure D) apparently lost whatever significance it had had for the region's older, foraging communities. However, the complex was not simply abandoned and forgotten to be gradually destroyed by the elements. Instead, each enclosure was deliberately buried under as much as 300 to 500 cubic meters (390 to 650 cu yd) of refuse, creating a tell consisting mainly of small limestone fragments, stone vessels, and stone tools. Many animal and even human bones have been identified in the fill. The site was deliberately backfilled sometime after 8000 BCE: the buildings were buried under debris, mostly flint gravel, stone tools, and animal bones. In addition to Byblos points (weapon heads, such as arrowheads etc.) and numerous Nemrik points, Helwan-points, and Aswad-points dominate the backfill's lithic inventory.
Schmidt maintained that "the work of quarrying, transporting, and erecting tons of heavy, monolithic, and almost universally well-prepared limestone pillars [...] was not within the capability of a few people". Using Thor Heyerdahl's experiments with the moai of Rapa Nui as a reference, he estimated that moving the pillars alone must have involved hundreds of people. Specifically, according to figures later cited by Dietrich and Notroff, carving one moai of similar size to a T-shaped pillar from Göbekli Tepe would have taken 20 people a year of "spare time", and 50–75 people a week to transport of 15 km. Schmidt, Dietrich and Nortroff also cited a 1917 account of the construction of a megalith on the Indonesian island of Nias, which took 525 people three days. These estimates underpin their interpretation that the site was built by a large, nonresident workforce, coerced or enticed there by a small religious elite.
In contrast, based on studies of the construction of monuments such as Stonehenge, Banning calculated that 7–14 people could have moved the pillars using just ropes and water or another lubricant. Putting aside the pillars, experiments conducted at the site have also shown that all the PPNB structures currently exposed could have been built by 12–24 people in less than four months, allowing for time spent quarrying stone and gathering, and preparing food. These labour estimates are thought to be within the capability of a single extended family or village community in the Neolithic, and also fits with the number of people that could have comfortably been inside one of the buildings at the same time.
Klaus Schmidt's view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative stylistical analysis indicate that it contains the oldest known megaliths yet discovered anywhere, and that these ruins may constitute the remains of a temple. Schmidt believed that what he called this "cathedral on a hill" was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants. Zooarchaeological analysis shows that gazelle were only seasonally present in the region, suggesting that events such as rituals and feasts were likely timed to occur during periods when game availability was at its peak.
Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have yet been found, Schmidt believed that graves remain to be discovered in niches located behind the walls of the sacred circles. In 2017, discovery of human crania with incisions was reported, interpreted as providing evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult. Special preparation of human crania in the form of plastered human skulls is known from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period at sites such as 'Ain Mallaha, Tell es-Sultan (also known as Jericho), and Yiftahel.
Schmidt also interpreted the site in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area that geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.
With its mountains catching the rain and a calcareous, porous bedrock creating many springs, creeks, and rivers, the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris was a refuge during the dry and cold Younger Dryas climatic event (10,800–9,500 BCE).
Schmidt also engaged in speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He presumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in deities as not developing until later, in Mesopotamia, that was associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to humans from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient deities without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic. It is apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favour of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Expanding on Schmidt's interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu's semiotic interpretation reads the Göbekli Tepe iconography as a cosmogonic map that would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.
Göbekli Tepe is regarded by some as an archaeological discovery of great importance since it could profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society. Some researchers believe that the construction of Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilization, or, as excavator Klaus Schmidt put it, "First came the temple, then the city."
It remains unknown how a population large enough to construct, augment, and maintain such a substantial complex was mobilized and compensated or fed in the conditions of pre-sedentary society. Scholars have been unable to interpret the pictograms, and do not know what meaning the animal reliefs had for visitors to the site. The variety of fauna depicted – from lions and boars to birds and insects – makes any single explanation problematic. As there is little or no evidence of habitation, and many of the animals pictured are predators, the stones may have been intended to stave off evils through some form of magic representation. Alternatively, they could have served as totems.
The assumption that the site was strictly cultic in purpose and not inhabited has been challenged as well by the suggestion that the structures served as large communal houses, "similar in some ways to the large plank houses of the Northwest Coast of North America with their impressive house posts and totem poles." It is not known why every few decades the existing pillars were buried to be replaced by new stones as part of a smaller, concentric ring inside the older one.
Future plans include construction of a museum and converting the environs into an archaeological park, in the hope that this will help preserve the site in the state in which it was discovered.
In 2010, Global Heritage Fund (GHF) announced it will undertake a multi-year conservation program to preserve Göbekli Tepe. Partners include the German Archaeological Institute, German Research Foundation, Şanlıurfa Municipal Government, the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture and, formerly, Klaus Schmidt.
The stated goals of the GHF Göbekli Tepe project are to support the preparation of a site management and conservation plan, construction of a shelter over the exposed archaeological features, training community members in guiding and conservation, and helping Turkish authorities secure UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for GT.
The conservation work caused controversy in 2018, when Çiğdem Köksal Schmidt, an archaeologist and widow of Klaus Schmidt, said the site was being damaged by the use of concrete and "heavy equipment" during the construction of a new walkway. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism responded that no concrete was used and that no damage had occurred.
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