Discovery of 12,000-Year-Old Temple Complex
Could Alter Theory of Human Development
7,000 years older than Stonehenge
NICOLAS BIRCH / Eurasianet 17apr2008
As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later, representing the German Archaeological Institute, he found something infinitely more important — a temple complex almost twice as old as anything comparable on the planet.
"This place is a supernova", says Schmidt, standing under a lone tree on a windswept hilltop 35 miles north of Turkey's border with Syria. "Within a minute of first seeing it I knew I had two choices: go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here."
Behind him are the first folds of the Anatolian plateau. Ahead, the Mesopotamian plain, like a dust-colored sea, stretches south hundreds of miles to Baghdad and beyond. The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe are just in front, hidden under the brow of the hill.
Compared to Stonehenge, Britain’s most famous prehistoric site, they are humble affairs. None of the circles excavated (four out of an estimated 20) are more than 30 meters across. What makes the discovery remarkable are the carvings of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions, and their age. Dated at around 9,500 BC, these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.
Never mind circular patterns or the stone-etchings, the people who erected this site did not even have pottery or cultivate wheat. They lived in villages. But they were hunters, not farmers.
"Everybody used to think only complex, hierarchical civilizations could build such monumental sites, and that they only came about with the invention of agriculture", says Ian Hodder, a Stanford University Professor of Anthropology, who, since 1993, has directed digs at Catalhoyuk, Turkey's most famous Neolithic site. "Gobekli changes everything. It's elaborate, it's complex and it is pre-agricultural. That fact alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time."
With only a fraction of the site opened up after a decade of excavations, Gobekli Tepe's significance to the people who built it remains unclear. Some think the site was the center of a fertility rite, with the two tall stones at the center of each circle representing a man and woman.
It's a theory the tourist board in the nearby city of Urfa has taken up with alacrity. Visit the Garden of Eden, its brochures trumpet, see Adam and Eve.
Schmidt is skeptical about the fertility theory. He agrees Gobekli Tepe may well be "the last flowering of a semi-nomadic world that farming was just about to destroy," and points out that if it is in near perfect condition today, it is because those who built it buried it soon after under tons of soil, as though its wild animal-rich world had lost all meaning.
But the site is devoid of the fertility symbols that have been found at other Neolithic sites, and the T-shaped columns, while clearly semi-human, are sexless. "I think here we are face to face with the earliest representation of gods", says Schmidt, patting one of the biggest stones. "They have no eyes, no mouths, no faces. But they have arms and they have hands. They are makers."
"In my opinion, the people who carved them were asking themselves the biggest questions of all,” Schmidt continued. “What is this universe? Why are we here?"
With no evidence of houses or graves near the stones, Schmidt believes the hill top was a site of pilgrimage for communities within a radius of roughly a hundred miles. He notes how the tallest stones all face southeast, as if scanning plains that are scattered with archeological sites in many ways no less remarkable than Gobekli Tepe.
Last year, for instance, French archaeologists working at Djade al-Mughara in northern Syria uncovered the oldest mural ever found. "Two square meters of geometric shapes, in red, black and white - a bit like a Paul Klee painting," explains Eric Coqueugniot, the University of Lyon archaeologist who is leading the excavation.
Coqueugniot describes Schmidt's hypothesis that Gobekli Tepe was meeting point for feasts, rituals and sharing ideas as "tempting," given the site's spectacular position. But he emphasizes that surveys of the region are still in their infancy. "Tomorrow, somebody might find somewhere even more dramatic."
Director of a dig at Korpiktepe, on the Tigris River about 120 miles east of Urfa, Vecihi Ozkaya doubts the thousands of stone pots he has found since 2001 in hundreds of 11,500 year-old graves quite qualify as that. But his excitement fills his austere office at Dicle University in Diyarbakir. "Look at this", he says, pointing at a photo of an exquisitely carved sculpture showing an animal, half-human, half-lion. "It's a sphinx, thousands of years before Egypt. Southeastern Turkey, northern Syria - this region saw the wedding night of our civilization."
Editor’s Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.
Digging for History in Turkey
An archaeological dig tells us more about the Garden of Eden
SEAN THOMAS / First Post 17oct06
I am standing above an archaeological dig, on a hillside in southern Turkey. Beneath me, workmen are unearthing a sculpture of some sort of reptile (right). It is delicate and breathtaking. It is also part of the world's oldest temple.
If this sounds remarkable, it gets better. The archaeologist in charge of the dig believes that this artwork has connections with the Eden story. The archaeologist is Klaus Schmidt; the site is called Gobekli Tepe.
In academic circles, the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have long been a talking point. Since the dig began in 1994, experts have made the journey to Kurdish Turkey to marvel at these 40-odd standing stones and their Neolithic carvings.
But what is new, and what makes this season's dig at Gobekli so climactic, is the quality of the latest finds - plus that mind-blowing thesis which links them to the Garden of Eden.
The thesis is this. Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure - literally picking fruit from the trees - to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.
And where did this change take place? Biologists now think the move to agriculture began in Kurdish Turkey. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of the world's cereal species, has been genetically linked to here. Similarly, it now seems that wild pigs were first domesticated in Cayonu, just 60 miles from Gobekli.
This region also has Biblical connections, tying it closer to the Eden narrative. Muslims believe that Sanliurfa, a nearby city, is the Old Testament city of Ur. Harran, a town down the road, is mentioned in Genesis twice.
Even the topography of Gobekli Tepe is 'correct'. The Bible describes rivers descending from Paradise. Gobekli Tepe sits in the 'fertile crescent' between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Bible also mentions mountains surrounding Eden. From the brow of Gobekli's hills you can see the Taurus range.
But how does this intoxicating notion link to the architecture of Gobekli, and those astonishing finds?
Klaus Schmidt says: "Gobekli Tepe is staggeringly old. It dates from 10,000BC, before pottery and the wheel. By comparison, Stonehenge dates from 2,000BC. Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious - the world's oldest temple. This site proves that hunter-gatherers were capable of complex art and organised religion, something no-one imagined before."
As for the temple's exact purpose, Schmidt gestures at a new discovery: a carving of a boar, and ducks flying into nets. "I think Gobekli Tepe celebrates the chase, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And why not? This life was rich and leisured, it gave them time enough to become accomplished sculptors."
So why did the hunters of Gobekli give up their agreeable existence? Schmidt indicates the arid brown hilltops. "Gathering together for religion meant that they needed to feed more people. So they started cultivating the wild grasses." But this switch to agriculture put pressure on the landscape; trees were cut down, the herds of game were dispersed. What was once a paradisaical land became a dustbowl.
Schmidt explains that this switch took place around 8,000BC. Coincidentally, the temple of Gobekli Tepe was deliberately covered with earth around this time.
We may never know why the hunter-gatherers buried their 'temple in Eden'. Perhaps they were grieving for their lost innocence. What is unquestionable is the discoveries made in Gobekli Tepe, in the last few weeks, are some of the most exciting made anywhere in half a century.
Schmidt shows me some workmen scraping earth from a rock relief. It is marvellously detailed: it shows scorpions, waterbirds, and river life. I suddenly realise I am the first person other than an archaeologist to see it in 10,000 years.