Friday, May 09, 2008


URFA, Turkey - As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later, as a member of the German Archaeological Institute, he found something infinitely more important: a temple complex almost twice as old as anything comparable. "This place is a supernova," said Mr. Schmidt, standing under a lone tree on a windswept hilltop 35 miles north of the Syrian border.
Behind him are the first folds of the Anatolian Plateau. Ahead, the Mesopotamian plain, like a dust-colored sea, stretches south hundreds of miles to Baghdad and beyond. The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe, his workplace since 1994, are just in front, hidden under the brow of the hill.

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 B.C., these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of
Mesopotamia and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.

Nevermind wheels or writing, the people who erected them did not even have pottery or domesticated wheat. They lived in villages, but were hunters, not farmers. "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.

Last year, for instance, French archaeologists working at Djade al-Mughara in northern Syria uncovered the oldest mural ever found - "two square meters of geometric shapes, in red, black and white - a bit like a Paul Klee painting," according to Eric Coqueugniot, the University of Lyon archaeologist who is leading the excavation. (see our earlier blog on this)


Blogger Michael Balter said...


For more about Neolithic Catalhoyuk, check out my book about the site-- "The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk, An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization," which is based on my reporting for Science on the dig. More info at

best, Michael Balter

6:27 AM  

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