Friday, 19 July 2013

Preview: Gobekli Tepe

Roll over Stonehenge, there's a new kid on the block.

Or old kid, rather. Very old. Stonehenge is a pretty impressive 4500 years but when its giant stones were first being put upright, Gobekli Tepe was already 7000 years of age and long dead and buried. It's almost three times older than the Pyramids. It's older, seemingly, than actual human settlement, or indeed the age of the Earth as far as Creationists are concerned. In terms of human civilisation, Gobekli Tepe is too old - it just doesn't make sense. Alien conspiracists, Atlantis fantasists, ancient psychic mystic specialists, gather round - I've found you a new (very old) baby.

Well, a German archaeologist called Klaus Schmidt has, rather. Despite Gobekli Tepe being preposterously ancient, it was only discovered very recently, in 1994. That was when Schmidt had been taking a wander in south-east Turkey looking for a nice spot to excavate. About 9 miles out from Sanliurfa, the area's largest city, there was a small hill the locals called Gobekli Tepe, or "Potbelly Hill". It wasn't anything immediately terribly notable, just 15 metres high and 300 metres in diameter - my own developing potbelly, if translated into geological form, would make a far greater impact on the landscape. In 1964, some archaeologists from Chicago University had given the shallow mound (Gobekli Tepe, not mine) a little prod and recognised that it was man-made, not natural. However, they'd dismissed it as a Byzantine graveyard of around 1000 years old. Schmidt checked out their notes and took a look at the site - he immediately realised that it was much, much older than that.

Schmidt thought the hill was Neolithic, a period in human development roughly from 10,000 BC to 4000 BC. The term simply means "New Stone Age." Subsequent excavation confirmed this, taking some of the site right back to around 9500 BC, right at the start of this era. Quickly, Schmidt began making discoveries - just below the surface he found a ring of standing pillars. It wasn't the only ring. Below that was another ring, and below that, yet more. By 2003, surveys had revealed 20 or more stone rings buried in Potbelly Hill, all many thousands of years old. Something unprecedented had been discovered.

What we have are at least 20 rings, or temples, or whatever they are, buried on top of or next to each other in a spread out but contained site of around 22 acres. Let's call them temples, as that seems to be the general opinion, but they could be something else entirely. They range from around 10 to 30 metres in diameter (the main stone circle of Stonehenge is 33 metres); mostly this is circular stone walls, with a walled passageway leading off at one point, but inside these walls is what has grabbed most of the headlines. T-shaped, or spiked, limestone pillars are arranged evenly in a ring, and in the centre of the ring are two taller T-shaped pillars. These pillars are not rough blocks of stone, but carefully carved and shaped. The tallest are 6 metres high, weighing up to 16 tons. On some of the pillars are carvings of animals, not just vague shapes that hint at them but very clear, refined and distinct images carved onto and out of the rock: gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, boars. Also around, though not glamorous enough for the headlines, are immense amounts of flint, very early and rudimentary stone tools, with more in a single square metre than would often be found on entire archaeological sites.

What was it all for? It certainly wasn't for living in. There are no signs of habitation, and no water sources for three miles. There are no burials either, or evidence of wealth or elite status. There are lots of animal bones at the site, suggesting that food was consumed there, but no signs that anyone enjoyed a better diet than anyone else. Puzzlingly, it appears that every few decades or so, the rings were buried and new stones put up in their place, in a smaller ring than the one before. This might happen a third time - then the whole thing would be filled in and buried and an entirely new circle built nearby. Repeat, for centuries. Weirdly, as time went on, the society got worse at temple building, with the newer rings becoming less and less sophisticated, technically and artistically. Evidently, the know-how wasn't effectively passed on, with each new ring being a poor copy of the last, like a series of photocopies of photocopies getting less and less defined. By 8000 BC, after around 1500 years of ceremony or whatever, they gave up. The last temple was filled in, the entire site now buried, and time moved on.

All this was at a time way before human civilisation. It predates pottery, metallurgy, animal husbandry, writing, the wheel. It predates everything. At the time, humans were nomadic, living in small groups, hunting and foraging for food. But the construction of Gobekli Tepe would have required a large-scale communal effort, to cut and shape colossal stones and move them hundreds of metres with manpower alone. Around 500 people would have been involved it has been estimated, and this goes on for 15 centuries - a lot of organisation. It gives archaeologists good cause to rethink the traditional sequence associated with the Neolithic Revolution. This is when mankind progressed from scattered nomadic life to settled farming communities, which later gave rise to more complex society, with leaders, construction, writing, and civilisation. But Gobekli Tepe predates all this. It is the oldest known example of monumental architecture, and the first time humans did anything more complex than a small hut. At the time, and for some time after, it was likely the biggest man-made structure ever built. If it was built for religious reasons, it suggests that instead of agriculture and human settlement being the origin of communal worship and religion, it was actually communal worship and religion that led to human settlement and society. Humanity's instinctive appeal of the sacred and the love of grand things gave rise to civilisation.
But much is unexplained. Can we really get into the heads of people from so long ago, in such a different world? Foraging and hunting nomads who came together, for some reason, to regularly build unprecedented stone structures - why? Ceremonial reasons do seem the most likely, from our perspective 11500 years later, but it's simply guesswork. Another suggestion is that it was a safe meeting place in a dangerous world, for hunters to get together before the hunt, and perhaps pass on knowledge to younger members of the party - a primitive school, if you like. And the possibility that it was a kind of settlement can't be fully discounted - only small percentage of the site has as yet been excavated. The entire area could take another 50 years. Gobekli Tepe may have many secrets that we'll never know, but it surely has a few that await being uncovered.

Of course, one more theory, as highlighted on the programme itself, is that Gobekli Tepe is simply a prehistoric and somewhat anachronistic tribute to QI.

As for me, well, Gobekli Tepe is probably a Wonder-in-progress. Right now, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. To look at, sure, it's going to be a few rocks standing up, and some circular outlines, but there's no doubt the standout feature is just the sheer, mindblowing age of the place. It is spectacularly old. Age enhances appreciation, and the more unlikely something is, the better it seems. Gobekli Tepe transcends just being some rocks because it represents something within the human psyche to create the monumental, that took place thousands of years before anything else. As an achievement, it is immense, and ultimately all my Wonders boil down to supreme human achievement. Gobekli Tepe might end up being interesting rather than providing the visual punch that the great Wonders provide, but it looks like it will be profoundly interesting, to say the least.

I'll be visiting Gobekli Tepe in around January or February next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions. I might even discuss my own personal theory as to its purpose - I believe it was the landing platform for an alien spacecraft piloted by Jesus (the evidence is all there if you just open your eyes).

"The Birth of Religion" National Geographic June 2011, Charles C. Mann


  1. I had never heard of this. It reminds me a bit of the megalithic temples in Malta which are also older than Stonehenge. It makes me wonder if the people who built either had contact with each other.

  2. Nah, there are several thousand years between them. I think there's an underlying urge with organised communities to build and develop, with religion often providing the impetus.

    I'd forgotten all about these Maltese temples though - they look pretty interesting and have some baffling names: Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta' Ħaġrat, Skorba, Tarxien.

  3. Maltese is a baffling language. Semitic, but due to the history of the island, there are many other influences. I work in shipping and thus with Malta and their English is excellent. In fact I once saw an advert for an English language school from over there that basically said why learn English in rainy old UK when you can do so on a sunny Mediterranean island? Clever marketing!