Imagine a flat limestone plateau, the highest feature in the countryside around – anything higher is way over on the horizon, where various dim blue mountains, including Mount Nemrut, can be seen. The only vegetation is the short winter grass that covers the hills and a paradoxical stand of olives right on the top. In the summer, when the grass has withered, the place is dry and semi-desert.
On the one side of the plateau is a round hummock. Göbekli Tepe means “Pot-belly hill” in Turkish and it is to this hummock that the name refers.
There’s no geological reason for a round bump of mixed rubble to stand on top of a limestone plateau, and it turns out that although Göbekli Tepe is big, it is entirely human-made. Inside the rubble are the remains of more than twenty large circular stone enclosures, dating back to a two-millennium period that began eleven and a half thousand years ago.
Once, we are told, the area was a paradise. Forested, at least in the valleys, teeming with wild game, and full of the grasses which would become wheat, barley and rye, it was so lush that the human inhabitants were able to adopt a pretty-much unprecedented life-style: Sedentary hunter-gathering. This means that the local ecology was providing food faster than the humans could exhaust it, and they were able to settle down. They still had no pottery. Bones of a great variety of animals have been excavated at the site, but there is no evidence of domestication.
Before encountering the excavated mound, one comes across areas where wide rock surfaces have been enhanced. Here are a series of cup-shaped indentations carved in the limestone, as well as a pediment for a pillar. The rock is also cut with channels whose function is to catch run-off and direct it into several cisterns.
Even if the climate was more forgiving then than it is now, this is the top of a hill and has no natural springs. For people to have conducted the mass activities that the excavation suggests, water must have been important. It’s not feasible to carry water uphill in quantities that could have sated the thirsts of the hundreds of people needed for the transport of each pillar. I don’t know if anyone has conducted a study of these water-works. They would provide a meaningful upper limit to the number of people who could be accommodated on the hill.
If one is alert, the very ground on which one walks can take on a meaning.
Bone fragments, flint and obsidian tools, and lumps of chalky limestone lie everywhere. Everything is an artefact, and was put or dropped there by people. This picture is not cherry-picked – it’s just a part of the pathway, and all of the ground is like this. In a more meticulous conservation environment one would walk on a raised walkway.
Here’s another random view of the pathway. Enlarge it and count the flint tools and flakes.
Before I arrived at the excavation pit, the whole thing shifted for me. I realised that it was all artefact, that everything marked the ancient human presence, not only the potentially awe-inspiring pillars in their enigmatic circles. So I could approach the whole mound as itself an ancient mystery, rather than as something that obscured the more interesting structures of pillars and circles which are embedded in it, overlapping, built one over the other.
The accretion of stones around Göbekli Tepe, like almost everything else about it, remains unexplained. I imagine that for ancient visitors to the site, carrying stones was an important part of the ritual associated with going there. Large parties of people would have been required to carry and place the very large number of stones that make up the structures. It is clear that a lot of additional stone was carried in. My speculation is that visiting the site somehow involved bringing stones and adding them to the mound. Eventually the ground level would rise, and new structures would be built on top of the old.
More on Göbekli Tepe in my next post. We’ll actually get to the stone circles.