Gobekli Tepe is considered a site of great importance to archaeologists as it belongs to the early Neolithic period when humans were still hunters and gatherers. It is located to the north of the Fertile Crescent, a roughly crescent-shaped region in present-day Egypt and in west Asian countries where agriculture and early human civilizations flourished. Made with massive stones, the structure is a marvel and a puzzle to archaeologists who wonder how a society that predates pottery, metallurgy, writing, or the invention of the wheel could build it. According to current observations, Gobekli Tepe, which is 6,000 years older than Stonehenge, could be the world’s first temple and has the oldest known megaliths.
Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site located in the southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey that was first discovered in 1963 during a survey by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago. The excavation work started in 1996 by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt.
Gobekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill” in Turkish, is a tell or an artificial mound that is 15 meters high and about 300 meters in diameter. When it was first discovered, American archaeologist Peter Benedict identified the stone tools collected from the surface as Aceramic Neolithic. However, he believed that the stone slabs were gravestones and that the prehistoric site was just overlaid by a Byzantine cemetery. Klaus Schmidt, who was previously working at Nevalı Çori, re-examined the 1963 records of the site in 1994, and he and his team began excavation works in collaboration with Şanlıurfa Museum until his death in 2014.
The site dates back to 10th-8th millennium BCE and is believed to have been used for ritual purposes. It consists of 200 massive, T-shaped stone pillars up to six meters high erected in 20 circles making them the world’s oldest known megaliths.
The tell is believed to have seen used during two phases: Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). The larger stones, each weighing up to 20 tons, were believed to have been erected during the first phase and were fitted into sockets that were hewn in the bedrock. Archaeologists estimate that the pillars would need up to 500 individuals to extract them from the quarries and move the 100 to 500 meters to the site.
The geophysical surveys done so far indicate the number of pillars to be 200 in 20 circles of which only four circles have been excavated. During the second phase, the erected pillars were smaller, standing in rectangular rooms with floors made of polished lime. The structures built during the first phase were dated back to the 10th millennium and the 2nd to 9th millennium. In comparison, Stonehenge was built in between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE.
Some of the pillars also feature relief carvings of animals, pictograms, and abstract symbols. Archaeologists believe that when it was built, the site was probably surrounded by a forest with a variety of wildlife.
Though it is uncertain if the circles had a roof back then, the archaeologists did find stone benches for sitting inside. The pictograms they found on the pillars are believed to be sacred symbols. Among the reliefs they found are mammals such as lions, boars, bulls, gazelles, foxes, and donkeys. There are also snakes, other reptiles, arthropods, and birds, especially vultures. Vultures are also extensively present in the iconography of Çatalhoyük and Jericho. According to archaeology professor Steven Mithen, the early Neolithic culture of Anatolia deliberately exposed the dead for the vultures to feed upon, a practice that might be the earliest form of sky burials in Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.
With the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry, Gobekli Tepe lost its importance in the 8th millennium. As a new lifestyle emerged, the entire site was deliberately buried under 300 to 500 cubic meters of refuse.
The Neolithic Revolution transformed what was a hunting and gathering society into one that was agriculture and settlement based. The individuals started growing grains and domesticating animals to provide a sustained living where they lived. This meant that the Stone Age edifice lost its relevance, and for some unknown reason instead of simply abandoning or forgetting the structure, it was filled with tons of small fragments of limestone, stone tools and vessels, and animal and even human bones.
Though it remains a puzzle, archaeologists consider the site’s burial a good thing as it was well-preserved and protected from future civilizations. According to Klaus Schmidt, all the observations made of the site should be considered preliminary since not even five percent of the site was excavated. He left the rest untouched for future generations to explore as the techniques will have improved by then.