Gobekli Tepe (c.9,500 BCE)
A rare and important site of early megalithic art, Gobekli Tepe is an archeological mound, dating back to the Mesolithic Age, which is situated at the top of a ridge in Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey, not far from the town of Sanliurfa. The mound (tell) - formed by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements - is roughly 49 feet in height (15 metres) and about 1000 feet (300 metres) in diameter. The complex, whose earliest remains have been carbon-dated to about 9559 BCE, contains the oldest art involving stone structures; this ancient art includes a large quantity of stone sculpture, notably reliefs of animals such as bulls, wild boars, lions, foxes, gazelles, reptiles and vultures, as well as abstract pictographs and petrograms. (Note: For a guide to abstract symbols and motifs used in the Stone Age, please see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs 40,000-10,000 BCE.) Interestingly, only a few traces of human imagery have been found, notably a relief sculpture of a nude woman in a crouched position, discovered amid debris. Although the original purpose of Gobekli Tepe remains unclear, according to German archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who has been in charge of all archeological excavations at the site, since the mid-1990s, it was first used as a Neolithic holy place, cult centre or sanctuary. This is indicated by the large number of megaliths used in its construction. For instance, during the first two phases of construction (c.7500-9500 BCE), more than two hundred T-shaped pillars, each weighing up to 20 tons, were erected in a circular pattern, topped with huge limestone slabs. For another important contemporaneous site of stone carving in the SE Mediterranean, see the Addaura Cave engravings (11,000 BCE).
The archeological potential of Gobekli Tepe was first recognized in 1963 by archeologists from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago. Then, in 1994, the details of their survey were read by Klaus Schmidt - fresh from his investigations at Nevali Cori, another Neolithic site - who decided to launch a new dig. It was this second investigation that soon uncovered the enormous T-shaped pillars which formed the backbone of the original buildings, plus three even larger unfinished pillars, weighing up to 50 tons. In addition, several caves were discovered - one of which contained an example of an ox-like prehistoric sculpture - as well as recent traces of Roman architecture and Byzantine art.
One should note that the archeological potential of Gobekli Tepe - including its status as a source of prehistoric art - has hardly been touched, since only about 5 percent of the site has been investigated to date. Furthermore, Schmidt considers it possible that the site may have functioned as a religious centre some time before its pillars were quarried and erected: possibly from as early as 11,000 BCE. There may even have been a rock shelter on the site, with undiscovered parietal art yet to be found.
So far, we know that Gobekli Tepe was built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, by a highly organized society - one more advanced than any hitherto known in the 10th Millennium BCE. It predates ceramic pottery, metallurgy, as well as the invention of writing and the wheel, and constitutes the oldest religious site known to archeology. Above all, by demonstrating that hunter-gatherers were capable of constructing monumental complexes prior to the emergence of settled agricultural communities, Gobekli Tepe offers new explanations for the evolution of Neolithic society.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART