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Prehistoric Near East

Gobekli Tepe Q&A

by Sean Thomas, 30 October 2006. Updated 10 May 2017

The report from an archaeological dig in Turkey in 2006 sparked interest worldwide, so Sean Thomas answered some of the more frequently asked questions:

Q: How did they know Gobekli Tepe was so old?

A: The archaeological team at Gobekli, working under Klaus Schmidt, used radiocarbon analysis on the soils adhering to the stones. The analysis showed 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, a late example of Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture.

Q: How big is the site?

A: By 2006, forty-odd standing stones (each between two to four metres high) had been dug out. They were T-shaped and arranged in enclosed circles, which covered several hundred square metres.

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

Gobeki Tepe
The archaeological site at Gobekli Tepe during the 2006 season of digs by Klaus Schmidt, which saw the latest discoveries uncovered

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

A: Farming did not start in this area until about 8000 BC. It is therefore certain that hunter-gatherers did build Gobekli: there was no one else around. Klaus Schmidt speculated 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.

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 did they know it was 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 which 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 - such as Avebury or Stonehenge.

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

  Schmidt speculates that large bands of hunters came here during construction

Sean Thomas  

A: They didn't know. Schmidt thought it may be a reptile but wasn't sure. Gobekli Tepe is so bizarre - and the newest finds at this time were so mysterious - that no consensus had yet been developed. Others believed the sculpture showed a wolf, a cat, or some other mammal. It possibly represented 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 has been canvassed by writer Hugh Brody, among others. What is new is the combination of data which links the Old Testament's Genesis to this area of Turkey, and very early farming to this area: thereby 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 was the world of archaeology perceiving Gobekli?

A: Academics agreed on the site's revolutionary implications for our view of Stone Age civilisation and religion. Until now no one had known that Neolithic people were this artistic and leisured. Harald Hauptman at Heidelberg University believed that the discoveries at Gobekli ranked with the first uncovering of cave paintings in Lascaux, in France in the 1940s. South African expert in Palaeolithic art, David Lewis Williams, called Gobekli Tepe 'the most important archaeological dig anywhere in the world'.



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