Gobekli Tepe, aside from having a near-unpronounceable name (it’s called Potbelly Hill by locals), is a very special place. It sits on the southern border of modern-day Turkey inside what archaeologists call The Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent is an arc of land which curves north east from Gaza into southern Turkey and sweeps southeast into Iraq.
Let’s begin with the pronunciation: guh-behk-LEE-TEH-peh. Now that’s out of the way, lets have a good long look at the site itself.
The site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge (if it had been drawn by Picasso), save for the fact that it’s built around 11,600 years ago (so that’s 9,600 years before Christ, give or take, and several millennia before the Great Pyramids of Giza), and is made of circles of carved limestone pillars, the largest weighing in around 16 tonnes each with relief figures of deadly animals – lions, snakes, boars, foxes and scorpions. It has been interpreted as the oldest-known example of monumental architecture – the very first time that human beings built something bigger than a hut to live in. Geomagnetic surveys of the site in 2003 have revealed at least 20 rings of pillars, mashed together under the earth. The site also contained stone tools, and a lot of them. Not only a lot, but of varying different types; knives, choppers and projectile points were liberally scattered throughout the site and are still being collected and catalogued. The circles of pillars follow a common design; all are carved from limestone, which had to be lugged from neighbouring valleys, and are shaped like giant spikes or like a capital T. The T-shaped pillars have been interpreted as stylised people: they have carved arms and hands reaching towards a loincloth; all the figures face inwards. They are about five times wider than they are deep, and are connected by low stone walls. In the centre of the rings are two taller pillars, their ends put into shallow grooves in the floor. Every few decades, the people buried the pillars and put up new stones – a second ring inside the first – sometimes they installed a third ring later, then the whole thing would be filled with debris and the process would begin again. Strangely, the people who built these structures appear to get progressively worse at building their temples: the earliest are the biggest and most sophisticated; the pillars become smaller and simpler as time goes on, until around 8200BC the site was in a state of disrepair.
The researchers and archaeologists didn’t find any signs of human habitation: no houses, no protective walls, no trace of agriculture, and no good evidence of a social hierarchy – no rich burials, no segregated living areas, no evidence of a certain class having better diets than others.
At the time of construction, human beings lived in small nomadic bands which survived by foraging for plants and hunting animals. They had no access to domesticated beasts of burden, no writing, ceramics or metal work and no wheels.
Archaeologists are still debating the precise meaning of the site: (on account of armchair debating beats long days of hard physical labour hands down…) what they do know for certain is that the site has overturned our understanding of early man’s steps to civilisation.
The site happens to be dated to a very early period in prehistory known as the Neolithic Revolution (because using the word revolution always makes boring stuff sound cool). It’s used to describe early man’s transition from being nomadic hunter-gatherer types, to the birth of agriculture and the population becoming sedentary (a big word for staying still instead of moving about), to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with kings and priests to direct their subjects and write records. Note that religion and priests come right at the end of that list, faith and belief are somewhat hard to spot in the archaeological record, it’s much easier to find a house, rubbish pits and burials than it is to define a temple or sacred space, much harder is defining the religious practices of a group of people from the Neolithic. This revolution, unlike the October Revolution of Russia which lasted a couple of months, is thought to have happened over thousands of years and developed simultaneously over a large area.
The Fertile Crescent is where the Neolithic Revolution begins to happen first. The western end is the oldest, with settlements known as Natufian Villages, dating to around 13,000BC.
This site turns most of the current thinking about the Neolithic Revolution on its head. Here is a site which shows the advanced sophistication of labour organisation, a social structure which would have had to include specialist builders, labourers and overseers (and probably a priest or king or two to actually define what the gods wanted in the first place) whilst the human race was supposed to be following herds of animals for game and foraging for wild plants in small bands. It’s a bit like finding a shopping centre the size of Meadowhall having been built by chimpanzees.
So now instead of the previous: hunter-gatherer – settlements – farming and agriculture – religion to promote social co-operation
The current and shiny new theory is: hunter-gatherer – religion (wonder at the natural world) – agriculture and settlements – people come together for rituals, creating the need to grow large amounts of food
There are those who disagree with the new theory, instead putting forward the ideas that the occupants of various sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilisation to find a combination which worked – in one site it may have been agriculture, in another art and religion, another may have been population pressures, or the development of social hierarchy. Eventually all the sites ended up in the same place, with the developments of agriculture, religion and social hierarchy which put them on the course to developing into the societies we have today.