I suppose some background would be in order here. Göbekli Tepe is a site in South-Eastern Turkey, about 20km from Şanlıurfa, and about 40km from the Syrian border. It lies between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and is more or less in the middle of the Fertile Crescent. It is situated on a limestone hill, and is the highest feature in the landscape around. According to carbon datings, the site was founded approximately 11500 – 12000 years ago, at the very beginning of the Neolithic era, and right at the end of the last Ice Age. Archaeologists refer to the period as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, which is generally divided into two: PPN A and PPN B, and Göbekli Tepe starts at the beginning of the PPN A. It appears to have been inhabited for 2000 years, then back-filled by the inhabitants and abandoned.
The area is thought to have been lush at the time, with forested valleys and highland grasslands, all teeming with game and full of edible plants, including the precursors of barley, wheat and rye. It seems to have been so congenial that it allowed an unprecedented lifestyle: sedentary hunter-gathering, which means that humans established settlements where they lived most of the time, and were skilled in exploiting the land without having to move on. Göbekli Tepe is not such a settlement. Rather, it appears to have been built by sedentary hunter-gatherers for non-residential purposes.
Beyond this, everything is speculation. We don’t know what they did there, (though feasting seems a possible component in view of all the bone fragments) or why they did it. We don’t know what the carved forms on the pillars meant for the builders, and we are scarcely in agreement about what they mean for us. But we can safely say that the entire complex meant A LOT to them – enough for them to invent new technologies and put in vast amounts of physical labour to achieve it. So it has a rather special status – standing as it does at the very fountainhead of what was later to become “civilisation”, it is nevertheless an unknown. Its pillars, writhing with carved life, are blank of meaning but present a rich ground for projection.
We can note that the depicted forms are almost entirely male, that they are often of an aggressive or threatening nature (lions, boars, scorpions, lots of snakes, etc.) but that there are also food animals depicted. We can observe that many of the pillars have arms, hands, belts and loin-skins, and deduce that they represented beings of some sort, but we don’t know what sort. Ancestors? Proto-gods? We neither know nor can we have any idea of what the original builders’ and users’ experience of these things were. We can see in the excavated hollow in the hill the layering of the stone circles, one above the other, and deduce that they were bringing in enough material to significantly raise the ground level, but we don’t know why, or whether it was a slow accretion, or if the material was brought in in one or more pulses of activity. We know that much of the back-fill consists of what one might expect to find on a PPN A midden or garbage heap (but not on a “temple”) except for the admixture of a great number of smallish limestone stones – material of a portable size, from fist to pebble.
One can look at broken pieces of limestone tuns or barrels, as well as a few complete ones, and wonder what was in them. Klaus Schmidt and others think they may have found remains that are diagnostic of brewing barley beer, but one can’t really be sure.
One can speculate whether the preponderance of bones from crows, ravens, rooks and vultures indicates that the site had something to do with the disposal of the dead.
One can wonder about the meaning or function of the circular holes that are found in various pillars and stones, or the doorway-shaped openings in others.
But eventually we must concede to our ignorance, and to the manifest presence of the things themselves, their poignant signification of ancient concerns, of loss, of time that passes, of their position at the very beginning of who we have become. What we have, besides our ignorance, is the pillars and structures themselves.
And the pillars are, in the original sense of the word, awesome. In-turned, solemnly facing each other across their oval or circular spaces, they have weight and presence; they stand upright like people but are higher than mammoths; they have endured great time. Though science may extract various facts and numbers from them, our only route to their meaning is finally a sort of empathy.
If the place is to be seen as humanity’s first (known) attempt to make something (we might now call it architecture) that was seriously awe-inspiring, it can also be seen as an early serious commitment to place, or to a place. This is no longer the intimate and mostly portable sculpture of the Palaeolithic, whose owners had to move along to follow the source of their food. These people made a place that was itself an artefact, at which at least some of them could dwell, and to which they could and return. They used it for 2000 years. If you stand among the stones and try to imagine what these things meant for their makers, you cannot fail to be impressed, to be filled with both wonder and wondering.