The Site

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Göbekli Tepe seen from the southeast (Photo: DAI).

The mound of Göbekli Tepe is situated a few kilometres to the northeast of the modern town of  Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey. The tell is situated on the highest point of the Germus mountain range towering 750 m above the Harran plain. With a height of 15 m, the mound, which is completely artificial, is spreading on an area of about 9 ha, measuring 300 m in diameter. This immense ruin hill was formed of the debris of monumental constructions dating back to the 10th and 9th millenium BC. Göbekli Tepe was first noted as an archaeological site during a combined survey by the Universities of Chicago and Istanbul in the 1960s (Benedict 1980 – external link) due to its remarkable amount of flint flakes, chips, and tools, but the architecture the mound was hiding remained unrecognized until its re-discovery in 1994 by Klaus Schmidt. Excavations started the following year and are still ongoing, until his untimely death in 2014 lead by Klaus Schmidt. They revealed an monumental architecture not suspected in such an early context and illustrating the outstanding role of this site – not as a settlement, but as a place of cult and ritual.

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Main excavation area with monumental PPN A enclosures (Photo: DAI).

Three layers could be distinguished up to now at the site. The oldest Layer III (10th millenium BC) is characterized by monolithic T-shaped pillars weighing tons, which were positioned in circle-like structures. The pillars were interconnected by limestone walls and benches leaning at the inner side of the walls. In the centre of these enclosures there are always two bigger pillars, with a height of over 5 m. The circles measure 10-20 m.
The T-shape of the pillars is clearly an abstract depiction of the human body seen from the side. Evidence for this interpretation are the low relief depictions of arms, hands and items of clothing like belts and loincloths on some of the pillars. Often the pillars bear further reliefs, mostly depictions of animals, but also of numerous abstract symbols. To the spectrum of finds adds a wide range of sculptures of humans and animals.

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So-called lion-pillar building from the younger Layer II (Photo: DAI).

Layer III is superimposed by Layer II, dating to the 9th millenium BC. This layer is not characterised by big round enclosures, but by smaller, rectangular buildings. The number and the height of the pillars are also reduced. In most cases only the two central pillars remain, the biggest measuring around 1,5m. Layer I consists of big accumulations of sediments at the hill flanks, which were produced partly by natural erosion, but mainly by modern farming activities at the ruin hill. The very early date of this astonishing monumental architecture to the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN), i.e. the time between 9600-8000 calBC is not only confirmed by characteristic finds, but also by radiocarbon data.

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Map of Göbekli Tepe excavation and surveys by ground-penetrating radar (Photo: DAI).

The PPN A enclosures are the most impressive part of Göbekli Tepe´s archaeology. A geomagnetic survey, including ground penetrating radar proofs that these enclosures were not restricted to a specific part of the mound but existed all over the site. More than ten large enclosures were located on the geophysical map additionally to those already under excavation – numbered A to I in the order of their discovery. Five of these monumental structures, A, B, C, D and G were discovered in the main excavation area at the mound’s southeastern depression one, Enclosure F, at the south-western hilltop and another one, Enclosure E, at the western plateau. Enclosures H and I lie on more recently excavated areas in the northwestern part of the site. Two enclosures, C and D, could be excavated to ground level in recent campaigns. Enclosure D may serve as good example here  to characterize the general layout and character of Göbekli Tepe’s older circular to elliptic PPN A enclosures.

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Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

Enclosure D is the largest and best preserved so far. Two huge central pillars are surrounded by a circle formed by – at current state of excavation – 11 pillars of similar T-shape. Most of these pillars are decorated with depictions of animals, foxes, birds (e.g. cranes, storks and ducks), and snakes being the most common species in this enclosure, accompanied by a wide range of figurations including the motives of boar, aurochs, gazelle, wild donkey and larger carnivores.
The two pillars in the centre of this enclosure, measuring about 5.5 m in height and weighing some 8 metric tons, are founded in only 20cm high pedestals, which are – like the rest of the floor level – carved out of the carefully smoothed bedrock, and, in one case, decorated with a relief frieze of ducks.

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Western central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

In particular these central pillars of Enclosure D allow demonstrating the anthropomorphic appearance of the T-shaped pillars. The oblong T-heads can be regarded as abstract depictions of the human head, the smaller side representing the face. Clearly visible are arms on the pillars’ shafts with hands brought together above the abdomen . The depiction of belts and loincloths in the shape of animal skins underlines the impression that these T-shaped pillars own an anthropomorphic identity and therefore should be regarded as pillar-statues more precisely. Some small bones from a foxtail found in front of one of the central pillar’s hints at the presence of a real fur here once, maybe as some kind of offering or indeed to be understood as a genuine counterpart to the loincloth depicted.

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Eastern central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: DAI).

Since this relief of a loincloth is covering the genital region of the pillar-statues, we cannot be sure about the gender of the two individuals depicted in the centre. But some help may come from the clay figurines from the PPN B site of Nevalı Çori (Morsch 2002 – external link) about 50 km north of Göbekli Tepe, now flooded by the Atatürk dam reservoir. Apparently, of those figurines depicting both, male and female individuals, only the male ones are wearing belts. Thus, it is highly probable to assume that the pair of pillars in Enclosure D should represent two male individuals, too. Indeed, it seems striking that the iconographic and symbolic world present at Göbekli Tepe is one dominated by masculinity. Whenever the gender of one of the animals depicted is indicated, it is a male specimen. Among the depictions of human beings, ithyphallic individuals are numerous. The hitherto only known clearly female depiction is a later added graffito on a stone slab in one of the buildings of Layer II, which was most likely not an original decoration of that room.