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4 October 2011
New conservation efforts at Gobekli Tepe

More than 10,000 years ago, before settled agriculture and the rise of civilizations, hunter-gatherers were erecting and carving T-shaped monolithic pillars weighing as much as 20 metric tons atop a mountain ridge in present day  Turkey, using nothing more than simple flint tools. Questions about who these people were and why they built these monumental structures remain unanswered. Only five percent of the site where these stones were placed has been excavated by archaeologists, so it is a bit early to draw major conclusions.
     The site is Göbekli Tepe, considered the oldest known set of religious structures in the world. Its evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were capable of conceiving and building monumental complexes. As the site excavator, Dr. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute says: "First came the temple, then the city." He suggests that the site was not a settlement but rather a sanctuary or center where communities met to perform religious rites, supporting this by pointing out that the excavations to date have not provided any evidence of residential buildings or fortifications.
     More needs to be done before this theory can be substantially supported, but while the excavation and research chugs along, a team of conservationists are pushing forward with plans to protect, conserve, and showcase this site for posterity.
     Reports the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit conservation organization based in Palo Alto, California, "The site and its extant remains are threatened by looting, exposure and insufficient management of the site and its resources". As a case in point, just over a year ago, a 30-kilo stele was removed from the site by looters, closing the site for 11 days. Moreover, erosion of the exposed structures caused by the natural freeze/thaw cycle continue to affect the original integrity of the structural surfaces and carvings.
     Now the GHF, with the help of the Turkish Government and other institutions and organizations, is spear-heading an effort to address all of those issues.
"If it is decided to excavate new areas, then additional conservation and shelter funding will need to be secured. One of the most pressing issues is the repair of broken stelae."
     As the construction of a shelter to protect the site is an urgent need, shelter design proposals are being submitted from six different firms under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute. The shelter, once constructed, will be designed so as to minimize site impact by installing it directly onto bedrock to support a overhanging roof structure. Hanging visitor walkways will be constructed to allow visitors a clear view of the remains without the adverse effects produced by physical contact. Structural support will be established to stabilize the monuments, including a number of stelae.
     Along the way, GHF and other participating organizations hope to be able to assist Turkish authorities in securing World Heritage Site inscription for Göbekli Tepe. And as for the advancing research, it may be likely that much of the site will be left indefinitely unexcavated, preserving what remains for future inquiry and discovery when better, non-intrusive methods have been developed.
     
Edited from Popular Archaeology (29 September 2011)

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