Posted on 13th September 2012 by David McGuinness

It was three years ago that I first heard about Göbekli Tepe. It was a chance encounter in the narrow alleys of Sanliurfa in Eastern Turkey. An old man smiled at me and asked me if I spoke German. I replied that I did. He started to explain to me a little about Göbekli Tepe in broken German. His eyes sparkled as he talked and though I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say he had convinced me to look into it further. So that night I Googled it and found out that this was something that was certainly worth a visit – a sophisticated human site from 11,500 years ago, possibly the world’s first religious site.

Unfortunately when I went to visit the next day the site was closed (though I could see some of the site from the perimiter fence). So simultanously disappointed and excited by the prospect I ensured we put Göbekli Tepe on our Eastern Turkey itineraries and vowed to come back and see it properly myself when I could.

And so I have just been back, and this time I had an appointment with Dr. Schmidt, the chief archaeologist of this incredible site. I was a little anxious about meeting him but he proved to be a very humble, approachable and likeable man. I asked him about his concerns regarding the increasing tourist numbers, and we agreed to draw up a list of dos and do nots for visiting the site.

Dr. Schmidt had just returned from Germany and the excavations were just starting to get going in earnest again after the summer break so when the Travel The Unknown tour arrived a little while later he was very kind to take some time to speak to them about how he got involved in pre-pottery Neolithic sites, building on the work of Kathleen Kenyon, first at Nevalı Çori, a village site, now flooded by a dam project, then, since 1994, at the sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe.

He explained how he believed that the T-shaped pillars are meant to represent human-like or anthropomorphic beings and how you could make out the arms, hands, fingers and even a loin-cloth belt, but always without a face. Why exactly was unclear but perhaps as they were not from this world. He explained that he expected that the site was connected to burial rites though they had yet to find any remains. These he suspected may be found in the corridors between the walls. He explained that there could not be a village here as there is no water and as it is on a hill there could be no water.

Thus he deduced the site was a form of sanctuary. He explained that there are now known to be about 20 of these circular sanctuaries in the artificial hill though not all have been excavated but various forms of scans (magnetometry, ground pentrating radar (GPR)) have shown this to be true. The plan was not to excavate the whole site but to leave much of it intact for future generations to excavate. In terms of the surface of the site about 10% has been excavated but to excavate it fully they need to go down 15m which they have only done in a small percentage of the 10% of the surface they have excavated, meaning that there is probably a whole world of treasures still left to be found here.

Perhaps most incredibly of all he said that it seemed that they had only used each circular site for a matter of weeks, perhaps even days, to perform their rituals and then they had covered it over and commenced making the next one. He explained that there was still much that was not clear and that he expected to be still working at Göbekli Tepe for at least another 10 to 20 years.

Later Christian a contractor working on the  scans showed us on his laptop how various forms of scan are used to map our the unexcavated areas of Göbekli Tepe and other similar sites – magnetometry to make an aerial view and GPR to figure out the depths of the items discovered by magnetometry. We could make many more circular structures beneath the ground in the surrounding hills.

We all left Göbekli Tepe feeling very satisfied with our experiences and privileged that Dr. Schmidt and his team were able to give up some of their time to explain to us the work they were doing and pondering what might still lies beneath the ground at Göbekli Tepe. But first we were headed to the museum in Urfa with its collection of artefacts from Göbekli Tepe!

Read more about Göbekli Tepe here

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