History Files


Prehistoric Middle East

Gobekli Tepe Q&A

by Sean Thomas, The First Post, 30 October 2006

The report from an archaeological dig in Turkey has sparked interest worldwide, so Sean Thomas answers some frequently asked questions:

Q: How do they know Gobekli Tepe is so old?

A: The archaeological team at Gobekli, working under Klaus Schmidt, has used radiocarbon analysis on the soils adhering to the stones. The analysis shows that the main stones at Gobekli Tepe were erected between 10,000 and 9000 BC. The characteristics of flint arrowheads found here confirm these dates.

Q: How big is the site?

A: So far, forty-odd standing stones (two to four metres high) have been dug out. They are T-shaped and arranged in enclosed circles, which cover several hundred square metres.

However, a broken, half-quarried stone has been found in a limestone bed about a kilometre from the main site. It is nine metres long, and was obviously intended to join the pillars at Gobekli: so there may be other stones, as yet unearthed, that are this big. Geomagnetic surveys imply that there are at least 250 more standing stones buried at the site.

Dig site at Gobekli Tepe

The archaeological site at Gobekli Tepe

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Q: How could hunter-gatherers build something so complex?

A: Farming did not start in this area until 8000 BC. It is therefore certain that hunter-gatherers did build Gobekli: there was no one else around. Klaus Schmidt speculates that large bands of hunters congregated here during the construction. (Bones and arrowheads support this thesis.) They then dispersed, perhaps returning to Gobekli at specified times of the year.

In Depth

Q: Why was the site buried in 8,000 BC?

A: No one knows. But the way the dust is packed around the stones shows that Gobekli was entombed deliberately, and with some care.

Q: How do they know it's a temple?

A: Evidence of any domestic use is entirely lacking. No remains of settled human habitation have been found nearby. But human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters. It seems people brought the corpses of relatives here, and installed them in open niches by the stones. The many rock carvings on the stones also appear more ritualistic than domestic; likewise, the architectural arrangement of Gobekli prefigures much later Stone Age temples - like Avebury or Stonehenge.

  Schmidt speculates that large bands of hunters came here during construction

Sean Thomas  

Q: How do they know the recently uncovered sculpture is a 'reptile'?

A: They don't know. Schmidt thinks it may be a reptile but isn't sure. Gobekli Tepe is so bizarre - and the newest finds so mysterious - that no consensus has yet developed. Others believe the sculpture shows a wolf, a cat, or some other mammal. It possibly represents a kind of animal-spirit, watching over the dead.

Q: Is there really a link with the Garden of Eden?

A: The idea that the Eden story is a kind of allegorical folk memory - of the switch from hunter-gathering to farming - is not a new one: it's been canvassed by writer Hugh Brody, among others. What is new is the combination of data that links Genesis to this area of Turkey, and very early farming to this area: thus placing a 'metaphorical Eden' arguably in these environs. However, Klaus Schmidt emphasises that this is just a theory: "Gobekli Tepe is extraordinary enough, without speculation".

Q: How does the world of archaeology perceive Gobekli?

A: Academics agree on the site's revolutionary implications for our view of Stone Age civilisation and religion. No one knew Neolithic people were this artistic and leisured. Harald Hauptman at Heidelberg University believes the discoveries at Gobekli rank with the first uncovering of cave paintings in Lascaux, in France in the 1940s. South African expert in Palaeolithic art David Lewis Williams calls Gobekli Tepe "the most important archaeological dig anywhere in the world".



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