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
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.
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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 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 (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.
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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) (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
“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.