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Göbekli Tepe

South-eastern Turkey, 1994. German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, while working in Şanlıurfa, comes across a hill known to the locals as Göbekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill”. The region had been surveyed before in the 1960’s, but researchers had deemed it of very little interest. Schmidt, however, saw that the site wasn’t a Byzantine cemetery, as had been suggested, but something much older.

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Göbekli Tepe lies some eight miles from Şanlıurfa, in the north area of the Fertile Crescent, and rears up about 50 feet above the landscape. Schmidt and his team have been excavating here since ’94, and have unearthed quite the sight: on the hill, various circles of limestone pillars were erected. These pillars vary in height, with the highest being around 16 feet and weighing anywhere between seven and ten tons. The circles all have more or less the same layout: two T-shaped pillars in the middle, surrounded by smaller, inward facing stones. They all carry bas-reliefs of animals, in greater or lesser detail.

Carbon-dating has shown that the limestone circles in Göbekli Tepe have been raised approximately 11,500 years ago - seven millennia before Stonehenge was built -, and has continued to be expanded upon until approximately 8,000 BC. The particular layout of the hill, more than 90% of which is still under the sand, has grown out of this expansion. There is evidence that the circles each at one point had been buried by the builders themselves, to be replaced by a new, smaller circle of stones. Strikingly enough, they seemed to have developed backwards: the earliest, larger circles show a remarkable sophistication of carving and construction not met by the newer ones.

Underneath the rings, deep pit tests have revealed, are floors of hardened limestone. Many tools were found, which seems to suggest that the pillars were carved, if not directly on the hill, at least not far away from it. Another feature of the area is the presence of tens of thousands of animal bones. These bones seem to belong to animals slaughtered on site or close-by for food, and include gazelle bones and other game such as boars and deer, as well as various birds. There is no evidence, however, of a settlement on the hill, and it has therefore been suggested that Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic religious centre: the earliest temple found to date.

This would be supported by the appearance of the pillars, which might depict deities. The T-shape is reminiscent of a stylized human, and the animals that have been depicted are almost exclusively dangerous, deadly creatures: from scorpions to lions and vultures. The latter was in some cultures considered a vehicle that transported the dead towards heaven, which, together with the fragments of human bone that have been discovered, seems to suggest a cemetery.

The culture which is responsible for the construction of this site, is likely to have started out as a hunter-gatherer’s society, turned agricultural community some five centuries after. Why they choose to depict these particular animals instead of those they would hunt themselves, or even what the actual purpose of Göbekli Tepe was, is unknown. Six millennia before writing had been invented, the prehistoric context of the symbolism leaves us with no evidence to do anything but take wild stabs in the dark as to their meaning.

Archaeologists, however, have their theories, one of which is the temple/burial ground theory Schmidt himself adheres. Other suggestions pertain to the idea that the builders depicted these dangerous animals in order to conquer their own fears, for example. For now, much remains uncertain, though when Schmidt and his team can penetrate the hill deeper and find out what lies underneath the limestone slabs, we might find out more about this peculiar site.

Images courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine