26 April 2008
Turkish site a Neolithic 'supernova'
Klaus Schmidt, a member of the German Archaeological Institute, has found in Turkey a temple complex almost twice as old as anything comparable. "This place is a supernova," said Mr. Schmidt. "Within a minute of first seeing it, I knew I had two choices: go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here."
The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe are his workplace since 1994. Compared with Stonehenge, they are humble affairs. None of the circles that have been excavated, four out of an estimated 20, is more than 100 feet across. Two of the slender, T-shaped pillars tower at least three feet above their peers. What makes them remarkable are the carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions that cover them, and their age. Dated at about 9500 BCE, these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.
"Everybody used to think only complex, hierarchical civilizations could build such monumental sites and that they only came about with the invention of agriculture," said Ian Hodder, a Stanford University anthropology professor who has directed digs at Catalhoyuk, Turkey's most-famous Neolithic site, since 1993. "Gobekli changes everything. It's elaborate, it's complex, and it is pre-agricultural. That fact alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time."
With only a fraction of the site opened after a decade of excavation, Gobekli Tepe's significance to the people who built it remains unclear. Some think it was the center of a fertility rite, with the two tall stones at the center of each circle representing a man and woman. Mr. Schmidt, however, is skeptical. He agreed the site could well have been "the last flowering of a semi-nomadic world that farming was just about to destroy" and pointed out that if it is in near-perfect condition today, it is because those who built it buried it soon after under tons of soil, as though its wild animal-rich world had lost all meaning. However, the site is devoid of the fertility symbols that have been found at other Neolithic sites, and the T-shaped columns, while clearly semi-human, are sexless.
"I think here we are face to face with the earliest representation of gods," according to Mr. Schmidt. "They have no eyes, no mouths, no faces. But they have arms, and they have hands. They are makers. In my opinion, the people who carved them were asking themselves the biggest questions of all. What is this universe? Why are we here?" With no evidence of houses or graves near the stones, Mr. Schmidt thinks the hilltop was a site of pilgrimage for communities within a radius of roughly 100 miles and he notes how the tallest stones all face southeast.
Source: The Washington Times (21 April 2008), Tehran Times (26 April 2008)