When a circular pit dug in the middle, from

When
one imagines ancient and historically significant archaeological sites or
locations, it is easy to understand why a significant percentage of the
population would describe the Great Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, Easter
Island, and other similar locations. These sites have become ubiquitous in the
archaeological sphere, and can likely be identified by individuals across
cultures, as they have become the face of archaeology and related sciences.
These sites are so massively significant historically, that it begs the
question, “what else is left to be discovered? Surely, discovering the purpose
and function of these places from the ancient world is the pinnacle of
archaeological research, and everything discovered hereafter will be less
influential. The vast majority of things relevant to ancient human history have
already been uncovered and their mysteries elucidated” This ideology, though,
is critically flawed, as it is important to remember that archaeology is a
science, and like all other sciences, is an ongoing process of discovery.
Nothing is more apt an example of this, then the massively significant site that
was discovered in the Anatolia region of Turkey during a survey conducted by
the University of Chicago and by Istanbul University in 1963. It rests on a plateau,
with a circular pit dug in the middle, from which it draws its name “Göbekli
Tepe” or “Potbelly Hill.” It is surrounded by steep slopes and higher
mountainous regions. Incredibly, this site contains the world’s oldest known
megaliths. When the site was originally discovered by Peter Benedict, the tops
of these structures were mistaken as tombstones from the Byzantine empire.
After this incorrect cataloguing, the site was mostly abandoned until 1994,
when Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute revisited the site,
and realized that similar structures had been seen at a separate, prehistoric
site. Shortly after this, excavation began again, and the massive T shaped the
megaliths, and other structures and artifacts, were discovered in their
entirety.  Up to 95% of the site remains
unexcavated, so any statements about the chronology of the things found there
must be accepted as incomplete.

The
site is Neolithic in origin and was constructed during the earliest Neolithic
period, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period. As you move up the side of the
hill, the structures become older. Using the radiocarbon methodology, Layer III
can be assigned to approximately 9000BC. The layer located at the highest
elevation, Layer I, though, is believed have been used in spiritual ceremonies
at the end of the Pleistocene, as early as 11,000 BC. This is hugely
significant, as the Neolithic revolution occurred around 9,000 BC. This
suggests that the group of individuals who constructed the first structures at Göbekli
Tepe did so before the revolution and advent of animal husbandry, which is
inconsistent with the standard notion that animal husbandry occurred
chronologically before the construction of monuments. It is estimated that 500
individuals are necessary to transport the pillars, as they weigh an incredible
10-20 metric tons. If the individuals began construction before the
proliferation of animal husbandry, it is likely that they were nomadic, as
animal husbandry typically requires land and agricultural assets to maintain
the domesticated stock. In Schmidt’s interpretation of the site, there is
little evidence, (but there is a small amount of gradually increasing evidence)
for permanent structures that would have been used if the individuals who
constructed the site also lived at or around it. Below, we will discuss in
detail the differences between the three layers in the archaeological record at
Göbekli Tepe.

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Layer
I is the highest point on the hill. This layer was potentially for religious
ceremonies from as long ago as 11,000BC.

Layer
II is assigned to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. The emergence of rectangular/ square
rooms occurs in layer II. Rectangles/squares replaced circular structures
because their volume/construction material ratio is high, meaning you can
utilize the space more effectively for lower building material requirements.
(This is seen across cultures.) The floors are constructed from polished
limestone. The T shaped pillars from layer II are also present here, which
shows that these spaces may have also been used as religious structures. Radio
carbon dating has placed the construction of this layer between 8800-8000 BC.

Layer
III contains circular pits with over 200 T-shaped pillars outlining their
perimeters. These pillars are non-central. Radiocarbon dating techniques have
placed the construction of these structures between 9600 and 8800 BC.  Engraved within these pillars, there are
reliefs of animals that may have been found in the surrounding area, like
snakes, scorpions, bulls, among others. The iconography can be interpreted as
religious symbolism, which is Schmidt’s view. Schmidt believes that the Göbekli
Tepe is the oldest religious site ever discovered.

He
believes that the site served as a sanctuary for those nomadic tribes traveling
across the breadth of lower Anatolia. In his view, the location served as a
central site for veneration of dead individuals. This interpretation is novel
and is supported by the very recent discovery of a skull covered in incisions
in 2017. This interpretation begs the question: “Why?” Why did a nomadic group
of individuals dedicate a massive amount of time and resources to the
construction of such a place? Did they aggregate around the hill on their own
volition, or were they forced there by an external force? An explanation provided
by Schmidt readily answers this. One possible explanation is that the Young
Dryas climatic event drove the previously nomadic groups of people to the
hills, where porous bedrock had collected water previously, depositing it in
springs and rivers. The search for water as a resource may have led to a large
accumulation of people in the area, who developed common religious and burial
practices to reduce conflict over the scarce resources. Schmidt also proposed
that the Neolithic period didn’t begin with isolated pockets of peoples who spontaneously
began to cooperate, rather, professes that social structures quickly developed
with a shared space and religious ideology as a catalyst. This connects
logically with the theory that Göbekli Tepe also served as the site of the
domestication of grains, which would have spawned cooperation between peoples,
as they would be likely to cooperate in order to protect their crop from being damaged
by undomesticated animals. 

Schmidt’s theory that the site served a pure religious
purpose isn’t the only one that has be proposed. Archaeologist Ted Banning from
the University of Toronto believes that the many structures may have been a
part of large complexes which served as houses for people, not as religious temples
for worship or commemoration, and that the population living at Göbekli Tepe
would be quite large. He points to the small amount of evidence at the site
that is indicative of habitual occupation, such as practices like
flintknapping, and disagrees that the presence of megalithic or monumental art
negates the possibility of a society of people living there. In his
description, he draws a comparison between the civilization living at Göbekli Tepe,
and the society of Native Americans living in the large row houses, supported
and embellished by totem poles.  If his
theory that the structures in Level II and Level III are indeed used as large
housing complexes, then the civilization living at Göbekli Tepe would provide
one of the earliest known examples of what was identified as a “House Society”
by Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French archaeologist.

Regardless
of which theory is correct, it isn’t hard to see why Göbekli Tepe has and
continues to become a site of increasing interest. The things that are found
there have the potential to alter the understanding of an important stage in
the development of human civilization. If hunter gatherers indeed had the
capabilities to create megalithic structures, then the timeline of civilization
development could be changed dramatically.   In
order to prove or disprove either or both of these interpretations, it is
imperative that more archaeological research and excavation be completed. Only then
will there be a possibility for a more complete understanding of.  It is important to remember that only 5% of
the archaeological site has been excavated. Schmidt desired that the remaining
95% of the site would remain unexplored, so that future generations of
archaeologists would use more refined methods and tools to finish the
excavation. I would not be surprised, though, if Schmidt left much of the
excavation to a younger generation simply because he wanted such a historically
important site to be excavated in the future. As more is learned about Göbekli
Tepe, and about the people who lived or worshipped there, I suspect that it
will rise to the same echelon in archaeological communities as the Great
Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, with similarly important discoveries to be
made within. Even though archaeology studies the past, it will always be an
intensely relevant field, as there is nothing more relevant to our future as a
species than understanding where we came from, and how we became who we are.