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Gobekli Tepe

14 May 2015

Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist in charge of the excavations at Gobekli Tepe over the last 20 years or so, has recently died. He was based at the Deutsches Archeologisches Institut in Berlin and wrote an article in 2010 outlining the discoveries at this most important ancient site, which goes back to 10,000BC (or thereabouts). It was published in 'Documata Praehistorica 37 (2010) and you can read it in English at http://arheologija.ff.uni-lj.si/documenta/authors37/37_21.pdf

The transition from non food producing to farming is supposed to date just after 10,000BC – in the general region that includes Gobekli Tepe, during the pre-pottery Neolithic. The fact that in Japan and China pottery was being used several thousand years prior to this is neither here nor there as it is consensus opinion the farming revolution began in the Fertile Crescent (even though we now know the so called crescent was just the top end of a large region that was fertile and productive in the early to mid Holocene). The excavated remains date between 10,000 and 8,000BC. Gobekli Tepe itself is an artificial mound but was never used for habitation. The people lived elsewhere – yet to be located. It consists of several sanctuaries in the form of round megalithic enclosures and lies at the highest point of an extensive mountain range overlooking the Syrian Plain. It is visible for miles around and consists of several layers of different date, spread across an area of 9 hectares.

The hill is strewn with countless stone implements and large format regular shaped ashlars – and two distinct phases of religious architecture have been uncovered. The older layer is the most impressive. These include t-shaped pillars each weighing several tons, erected to form large circular enclosures. In the centre of these are a pair of pillars that tower above those in the outer ring.

The problem for historians is that the builders are regarded as hunter gatherers – with a non sedantory life style. People that lived by hunting wild animals. This is further emphasized by the fact that many wild animal bones were found at the site – and no domesticated animals. Later enclosures, of the 9th millennium, are smaller and less impressive.

The pillars are cut out of a very hard crystalline limestone – quarried in the vicinity of the site. One peculiarity is a lack of carbonised organic material – suggesting no fires had been lit in or near the enclosures. Any organic material had faded away – apart from bones. The site has been preserved as the sanctuaries were intentionally and rapidly buried. The old surface can be observed in the excavations and the filling itself has been dated.

The origin of the filling material is an unknown – where it actually came from. Some 500 cubic metres of debris would be needed just to fill in Enclosure D. It is not sterile soil. It consists mainly of chips and pieces of broken limestone – debris from the making of the pillars and walls. This must have been piled up nearby, in a sort of rubbish heap – prior to the backfilling operation. There are many artifacts too, mostly flint tools of one kind or another. There are also fragments of stone vessels, round stone buttons, grinding stones and other ground stone tools. What were they grinding – wild cereals?

This kind of thing was still taking place as late as the Iron Age in Britain – ritualistic closure of sites by backfilling with rubbish and spoil. What it means is an unknown – or why it takes place.

On top of the artifacts and stone chippings there are many animal bones, neatly broken into small pieces – and again, probably with an origin in a rubbish heap. They are mostly of gazelle and wild cattle but red deer, onagers, wild pigs, and wild caprasids are also present. There are no obvious domesticated beasts – or any evidence of crop plants (but organic remains will have disappeared and usually survive in a carbonised form, as a result of cooking or heating). There are also human bones present in the fill – and again are broken into small pieces. 

It is suggested the T-pillars are anthropomorphic as some of them appear to have arms and hands (in relief). They seem to be stone statues of human like figures – yet with an unreal non human character. The T form represents their heads (and it is a small T that might indicate the proportions of a head). It is in effect a minimalist form of representation it is argued as other statues and reliefs found in the fill (and at nearby settlement sites of the Early Neolithic) show that people at this time had the ability to create a human like form if they wished.

The two pillars at the centre of the enclosures appear to represent twins – and male twins to boot. Twins have a long pedigree in mythology – and two companions such as Gilgamesh and Enkidu may also fit the bill. They wear necklaces of different composition and one has a fox thrown across his elbow. They also wear loin cloths and the hind legs and tails of what appear to be fox pelts hang down. The pillars have various reliefs and designs on them which include depictions of wild animals (various), crescents, discs, and various other symbolic motifs. The reliefs may represent a kind of pictorial language, it is suggested, and may all be part of a mythological cycle – such as Glgamesh and Enkidu (we might imagine). Gilgamesh is usually identified as a third millennium Early Bronze Age king of Sumeria – but equally, the king could have taken his name from a mythological character, or god.

The article comes with lots of pictures taken of artifacts and statuary etc. There even appears to have been some lewd graffiti – the only instance of the female form.

The pillars  appear to belong to the 'other world' whereas the non-stylised statuary appears to represent flesh and blood people. In the conclusion, Schmidt says permanent settled communities elsewhere in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant provide evidence of monumental architecture and an extraordinary rich symbolism that challenges our ability to interpret them. He goes on to ask did gods exist in the minds of Early Neolithic people as at Gobekli Tepe we have probable evidence of just this – the depiction of gods. This is not surprising to catastrophists as the end of the Ice Age and the Younger Dryas event may have been seen as the work of the gods. In uniformitarianism the idea of religion was a product of sedantory living, of cities and developed economies with priesthoods, an idea with roots in the evolution of societies – which is of course a hypothetical idea.

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