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Stone reliefs found at Göbekli Tepe

A Monumental Cover Up? Why did Gobekli Tepe End Up in the Dirt?

In the farmlands of southeastern Turkey there is a hill that rises out of the landscape. Unlike the surrounding plateaus, it has a gentle slope like a mound. At its top is a depression which looks like a belly button, hence the name Gobekli Tepe which means “potbelly hill.” Potbelly Hill looks unnatural to the landscape and it is. The depression has been found to be artificial by archaeologists. It is in fact a monumental structure complete with T-shaped pillars and artwork consisting of a variety of predator and prey animals. It was built around 9,000 BC, well before the rise of agriculture and it is this age that has brought its fame, as archaeologists believe that it represents the earliest temple in the world. The temple was mysteriously abandoned around 8,000 BC and filled in with dirt containing scattered human bones. One of the many mysteries regarding the site is why it was abandoned and whether it was buried by nature or by humans.

Massive megaliths of Enclosure D. Credit: Alistair Coombs

Massive megaliths of Enclosure D. Credit: Alistair Coombs

The ‘World’s Oldest Temple’ Conclusion

When the site was first surveyed by archaeologists from Istanbul, it was thought to be little more than an abandoned Medieval cemetery. In 1994, the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt re-examined the site and found that it was more extraordinary. He discovered a series of limestone pillars in a circle containing artistic depictions of lions, bulls, spiders, scorpions, snakes, gazelles, and donkeys among other creatures. He also found an abundance of stone tools and crushed bones from animals and humans. Based on comparison between artifacts at the site and artifacts found at other sites with known radiocarbon dates, he determined that it was built during the late Paleolithic, when the region was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers.

During the excavation, Schmidt and his collaborators did not find any evidence of regular habitation. There were no hearths, trash pits or other features indicating that people were living there long-term. Based on this evidence, he and other archaeologists have concluded that the site was not a regular habitation site but that it had a special, perhaps religious function. Schmidt in fact believes it was a temple.

The whole area was filled with stones and dirt

The whole area was filled with stones and dirt ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Pre-Agriculture Temple Anomaly

If it is a temple, it is a very interesting site because it appears to go against the archaeological convention that temples and other monumental structures were built after the rise of agriculture. According to archaeological consensus, hunter-gatherer societies did not have the time and resources to build monumental structures. Temples, palaces, and similar institutions did not appear until after the rise of agriculture when a food surplus allowed enough people to leave food production and take to other full-time professions such as construction, masonry, and priesthood.

The ‘Vulture-Stone’. Credit: Alistair Coombs

The ‘Vulture-Stone’. Credit: Alistair Coombs

The age of Gobekli Tepe suggests that agriculture is not required for the emergence of complex societies. Archaeologists Klaus Schmidt and Ian Hodder even go as far as to say that “all our theories are wrong.” Hodder and Schmidt suggest that rather than social complexity being a response to a change in subsistence patterns (ie. foraging to farming), subsistence patterns could have changed to accommodate emerging social complexity. The argument goes that people wanted to build temples, so they eventually developed agriculture to feed the builders.

Besides the fact that this is difficult to prove scientifically, since we can’t get inside the heads of the people who built the Gobleki Tepe complex, the suggestion of there being temples before agriculture might not be such a radical step for archaeology as the above scholars suppose. Archaeologists have known for decades that there were large settlements built by hunter-gatherers who harvested wild grain and hunted wild sheep, goats, and gazelles at places such as Jericho and Ain Ghazal. It has been proposed that these settlements were possible because of the extraordinary abundance of the Fertile Crescent during the late Paleolithic. There was enough wild grain and game that the food surplus necessary to facilitate social complexity could be created without agriculture.

Golbekli Tepe, Stone pillar with animal relief

Golbekli Tepe, Stone pillar with animal relief ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

This is not to say that human ideas could not have played a greater role than previously believed in the rise of civilization, but it is not necessary to completely abandon current archaeological theories regarding the relation between social complexity and subsistence patterns.

Why Was Gobekli Tepe Abandoned and Buried?

If we accept the argument that the area was some kind of religious center, it seems likely to have been abandoned due to a change in beliefs. For hitherto unfathomable changes in thinking, the monuments had lost their relevance.

The next mystery is why the entire site was buried. It is possible that the site was buried naturally after being abandoned but its position makes this unlikely. Sediment does not usually collect on hilltops, which tend to be zones of erosion not deposition. As a result, it is likely that the monuments atop Gobleki Tepe were intentionally buried. Having determined this, the tricky question of why remains, for which explanations are mainly theoretical.

All of the temple areas were buried

All of the temple areas were buried ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is possible that it was buried to be preserved for future generations. It may also have been buried because a new religion emerged in the area and the sanctuary of an old religion needed to be destroyed. Another reason might have been because after a while, it was considered a taboo place.

Another possible reason that seems sensible if the site was a religious sanctuary, is that the burial was a part of some sort of de-sanctification process. There are examples in many cultures where objects or buildings considered to have supernatural or divine power must be destroyed or otherwise neutralized if they are no longer in use. In many Christian traditions, the alter of a church that is about to be abandoned or repurposed must be ritually de-sanctified lest someone accidentally use a sacred table for mundane use and be guilty of sacrilege.

Drawing Some Comparisons

In the end, searching for answers concerning motives and reasons from such an ancient time involves a great deal of speculation, since we cannot go back in time and probe the perpetrators. Where we might find some firmer ground is by using our knowledge of de-sanctification processes in known cultures such as the Olmec culture or Medieval Christendom. By looking at cultures that we know well and have written records to inform us, we might identify telling similarities.

A possible comparison of this de-sanctification might be made with the case of intentionally mutilated and buried Olmec heads. Many archaeologists who study the Olmec believe that the giant stone heads that they built served a religious function such as protecting a village or city from harm. Interestingly, many Olmec Heads have been found defaced and buried a good distance away from Olmec settlements.

A Olmec Colossal Head found buried and defaced near San Lorenzo, Mexcico (Pre- 900 BC)

A Olmec Colossal Head found buried and defaced near San Lorenzo, Mexcico (Pre- 900 BC) ( CC BY 2.0 )

One suggested reason for their defacement and burial was to deactivate the power in them. If they were not disenchanted they might be dangerous to someone who unwarily stumbled upon them without knowing the power they held. It would be similar someone accidentally stepping into the Holy of Holies in the ancient Jewish Temple.

In the same way, Gobekli Tepe may have been considered so sacred that it was thought necessary to bury it so that no one accidentally did something that would be sacrilegious to whatever spirits, gods, or cosmic powers dwelt there.

If the cross-cultural comparison holds then this could be a good explanation but ultimately, without further proof, the speculation on the monumental cover-up continues.

Top image: Stone reliefs found at Göbekli Tepe. Credit: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic

By Caleb Strom

References

“Gobleki Tepe” by Ronnie Jones III (2015). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Gobekli_Tepe/

“Gobleki Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” by Andrew Curry (2008). Smithsonian Magazine. Available at:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gobekli-tepe-the-worlds-first-temple-83613665/

“Gobleki Tepe” by Robert Todd Carrol (N.D.). Skeptic’s Dictionary. Available at: http://skepdic.com/gobeklitepe.html

Grove, David C. "Olmec monuments: Mutilation as a clue to meaning."  The Olmec and Their Neighbors:

Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling  (1981): 49-68.

Comments

The location of this site in Turkey suggests it could have been part of the ancient Sumerian civilization. What if it were a depiction of the species that were put on board the ark? I am not thinking biblical, but an ark that would have been a DNA repository of all the species. I noticed that many of the species depicted are show in a state of repose, not standing or running, particularly the birds... Just a thought, also the layout of the site reminds me of the bowels of a rocket launching pad. Could these pillars have supported some sort of "ship"?

I was somewhat disappointed with the tameness of the article. It simply reiterated the blather of the Archaeological community that has been disseminated for years. By coming to this site I was hoping for a more cutting edge view of this site, rather than the old, "it was a temple". Everything that the archaeologist cannot explain is relegated to the "Temple" category. I think these people, who already have proven that they did not fit the status quo of our narrow minded view of history, did more than eat, sleep and worship. There is every indication that this site served a different purpose. The fact that it was underground, the shape of the pillars that indicates they "supported" something big and heavy, the nature of the carvings and the depiction of animals that we cannot identify points to a function of this site that is outside of our current, mainstream understanding of that era. So why try to slam it into the mold of outdated archaeology??

I once attended a lecture and museum tour of an exhibit of artifacts from Mexico (I don't remember if they were Incan or Mayan) about to open. The archaeologist who led it was quite open about the "we don't really know what this means so we'll call it religious" approach.

One of the exhibits was a small carved stone animal that was wearing a human mask over its face. He mentioned religion. I spoke up and talked about how on the Day of the Dead celebrations in modern day Mexico people often wear animal masks. Perhaps, I suggested, If that tradition went far enough back, this sculpture was intended as a joke showing an animal wearing a human mask, rather like the infamous painting of the dogs playing poker. He laughed and said it was as good an explanation as any. I then went on to suggest that it could also be a serious piece of art as a commentary meant to remind us that humans are also animals underneath the mask of civilization. He liked that interpretation as well.

Later at the reception I got to share a more personal story with him. I told him about how my husband and I had visited Mayan ruins on our honeymoon and how at Chichen Itza I stood behind the statue of the reclining Chac Mool on one of the temples and crouched down to see what he was looking at. I stood up and told my husband he was looking at the ball court and his position suddenly made sense to me. He was watching the game and had a bowl of Doritos on his tummy! My husband said at the time that I was not taking this seriously enough, but the lecturer had a great laugh and said he was going to use it in his next talk.

Assigning ritual and religious value to things we don't understand has a long history in our species.

Presumption, best guess, call it what you will, but that's all anyone can offer in regard to ancient sites. Unless a person was actually there when the site was being constructed or used, then presumption is the best anyone can do.It just annoys me that these highbrow academics can't use plain English and say it's a best guess, instead they use pseudo floral language like,"they believe" that so-and -so is several thousand years old or whatever, or just admit that you don't have a clue!

Unfortunately the closest thing we have to first hand witness to ancient sites like this are the oral traditions
(aka myths and legends) handed down from generation to generation until they were written back down using a completely different alphabet. Since oral tradition is rife with change, both inadvertent and deliberate, main stream historians just dismiss it completely as fiction.

I'm willing to bet that if someone who was an expert in Turkish and/or Indo-European mythology took as unbiased a look as could be possible at this site in comparison to the oldest of myths, we could have a better understanding as to what it really was trying to tell us.

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