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.