Göbekli Tepe

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by Rachel Polus

The site of Göbekli Tepe.[1]

Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site found in the southeast of Turkey. In modern times, it was rediscovered in 1963 during a survey conducted by Istanbul University and University of Chicago.[2] The site has been partially excavated, mainly through the efforts of Klaus Schmidt working for the German Archaeological Institute. The findings at the site and interpretations thereof are preliminary, as only approximately 5% has been excavated.[3]



A pillar found in Layer III.[4]

The site was initially described in a 1963 survey as follows:

A complex of round-topped knolls of red earth with slight depressions between, located on a high limestone ridge trending SE. The ridge is otherwise barren of soil. The overall diameter of knolls is 150 m and the rocky red soil rises to 20 m above the limestone top. The two highest knolls have small cemeteries covering the top. The ridge lies at the end of a steep- sided grassy gully 2.5 km NE of village of Karaharabe. The ridge-top site and grassy W slopes are littered with flint artifacts. No water in vicinity.

The "cemetery" noted in this survey refers to the large T-shaped pillars in the site, which were partially exposed but not yet excavated. In 1994, Klaus Schmidt visited the site and began to excavate.[5]]

Excavation History

Klaus Schmidt began to excavate the site in 1995. The humans inhabiting or visiting the site left some refuse that has been discovered thus far, including the remains of plants and animals. None of these are domestic, aligning with the theory that these were hunter-gatherers.[6]

Four circular enclosures have been excavated, and a number of rectangular enclosures from a later time period have also been excavated.

Similar Sites

Nevalı Çori is a similar site located east of Göbekli Tepe, though it is slightly more recent than Layer II. Nevalı Çori gives an interesting comparison to the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe; the structures at Nevalı Çori are evidently residential, with one religious structure.[7] The purported shrine at Nevalı Çori demonstrates "significant differences in design and internal features between these buildings and "ordinary" houses"[8], in contrast to the structures present at Göbekli Tepe. Claims regarding ritual structures at other similar sites in the region have also been made, though the sites always exhibit the same differentiation between residential space and religious space as seen in Nevalı Çori.[8]

Time Periods

Layer III

A map of the currently excavated area at Göbekli Tepe with locations of samples used for dating.[9]

The earliest portion of Göbekli Tepe is Layer III, assigned to Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA). Layer III consists of circular structures of 10 to 30 m in diameter each. Four such structures have been excavated and are referred to as Enclosures A, B, C, and D, but electromagnetic analysis shows that over 10 additional enclosures may exist.[10] Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in the four enclosures currently being excavated show that Layer III dates back to approximately 9990 to 9250 BCE, with charcoal samples from Enclosure D appearing to be slightly older than Enclosures C and A.[9]

Each enclosure excavated to date contains multiple T-shaped limestone columns set into the interior walls of the structures. Reliefs depicting animals are present on many of these columns. In the center of each of the currently unearthed enclosures, two columns stand parallel to one another in the center of the enclosure. Following from the hypothesis that similar columns are present in the unexcavated enclosures, more than 200 total columns may exist in Layer III.[10] The walls of the structures are composed of unworked stone.

Layer II

Layer II follows Layer III and manifests in the form of smaller rectangular structures. It is associated with Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). Similar T-shaped pillars found in the enclosures of Layer III are also present in Layer II, ranging from zero to six columns per structure. These columns are sometimes set into the wall of the enclosure, but are more often found in the center. They are also generally smaller than the columns found in Layer III. Radiocarbon dating of Layer II using humic acid from soil samples gives that Layer II dates back to 8880±60 BCE.[9]

Layer I

Layer I is the surface layer. It is mainly comprised of erosional sediments.

Filling Event

An interesting characteristic of Göbekli Tepe is that the enclosures seem to have been intentionally backfilled. The earliest possible date of the filling can be determined using radiocarbon dating of the pedogenic carbonate coatings left on the columns in the enclosures. Samples from the carbonate coatings of pillars from Enclosure B and Enclosure C yield dates of 7010±85 BCE and 6480±80 BCE, respectively.[11] Carbonate coating begins to develop after an object has been buried, so this means that the actual filling date for Enclosures B and C are earlier than the dates determined by radiocarbon dating.

Interpretations and Pseudoarchaeological Narrative

Klaus Schmidt

Schmidt believed firmly that Göbekli Tepe is the first known religious site.[5] He believed that the resources surrounding the site could not support a community of hunter-gatherers. He also believed that the reliefs present on the limestone pillars were too ornate and that the columns were too massive for a mere residential use. Additionally, at present, there is no source of water close to the site, which would be an impediment to the existence of a permanent residential community. Schmidt also claims that the structures had no roofs, so they would not be habitable.

Pseudoarchaeological Perspectives

In the pseudoarchaeological community, there is an assertion that all of civilization arose from Göbekli Tepe, that humans here were created by aliens for the purpose of mining. There is also a claim that carvings depict "at the very least" a belief in extraterrestrials, and that the extraterrestrials may have created the site itself.[12]

There are also claims that the whole site is a Turkish fabrication.[13]

The site was also featured in the television series Ancient Aliens Season 2, Episode 8, entitled "Unexplained Structures" that aired on December 16, 2010. Many claims were made about the origins of the site. In the program, the narrator states that no stone cutting tools have been found in the 13 years of excavation of the site. Jason Martell appears on the show to claim that the enclosures may have been built to be viewed from above, and that "who could have been flying at that time, other than extraterrestrials?" Linda Moulton Howe seems incredulous that such great pillars could be erected in that time period. Andrew Collins claims that the fauna depicted in the carvings on the pillars represent a "weird menagerie," and that this could be evidence of an ark, given that Göbekli Tepe is 700 km away from Mount Ararat, the favored pseudoarchaeological site for Noah's Ark.


Schmidt's claims

Many of Schmidt's claims regarding the cult purpose of Göbekli Tepe can be addressed with the preliminary nature of the excavations. According to Schmidt himself, the site is 5% excavated. This leaves massive room for future findings that could explain the true purpose of the site, religious or otherwise. For example, the "missing" trash pit could be found in a future excavation. Many of the reasons Schmidt gives for the site's ritual significance relate to the absence of certain objects, which could be explained by the remaining 95% of the site yet to be excavated. It is still possible that the site could bear a cult-like purpose, but more excavation needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn. This would mean that the site would be the oldest known temple or collection of temples[3]

As noted in Banning's paper entitled "So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East," Banning points out that there are many examples of ritual structures in relatively mundane locations, like habitations.[8] Additionally, in response to the claim that the enclosures could not have been habitable because they did not have roofs, Banning points out that the columns could have structural purpose in supporting a roof. The columns in the middle of the enclosures of Layer III are typically taller than those on the border of the structures.[8] Further analysis of the drainage patterns and weathering of the limestone tiled floors of the structures could also provide answers as to the presence or absence of roofs in the enclosures.[8]

Finally, there is still question as to where the debris that filled the site originated. Schmidt claims that the debris did not originate from Göbekli Tepe, although there are no contemporary sites within 14 km.[8] Also, the amount of debris required to fill the site would require massive amounts of time in transporting the debris from another site. Banning asserts that it is more likely that the debris came from either a small group of permanent inhabitants at the site that was frequented by visitors, or that the site was home to a large residential population that produced the debris themselves.[8] Given the effort required to procure the debris from the closest site, it is most likely that the debris was produced at Göbekli Tepe itself.

Pseudoarchaeological Claims

Regarding the claim that aliens constructed the site, there is evidence of quarrying for the limestone in the area surrounding Göbekli Tepe, indicating that humans constructed the site.[5] Additionally, the existence of contemporary communities to Göbekli Tepe in the surrounding region indicate that humanity did not arise from Göbekli Tepe, as well as the evidence of communities in other regions. None of the carvings at Göbekli Tepe indicate any belief in extraterrestrials, and the vast majority of the carvings have been identified as fauna in the area.[6] There is strong evidence for the relative ease with which humans can erect large stone monuments using rudimentary tools[14], so the assertion that only extraterrestrials could have sculpted and moved the pillars is false.

The claim that the site could be a Turkish fabrication is incredibly unlikely. Klaus Schmidt led much of the excavation until 2014, and Schmidt was a part of the German Archaeological Institute. For the Turkish government or people to fabricate the site, they would require the cooperation of the international teams working on Göbekli Tepe. The dating of the materials found in the enclosures would also need to be forged, or the site would need to be salted with artifacts from the same location and same time period. This massive undertaking would not yield reward, as the site does not bring Turkey much fame or economic benefit by way of tourists. Therefore, the idea that the site is a fabrication by the Turkish government is completely unreasonable.

With respect to the claims made on Ancient Aliens in Season 2, Episode 8, stone cutting tools have been found and are well-documented.[5][8] Martell asked if the site could have been meant to be seen from above. This seems unlikely and reaching, as there is nothing particularly impressive about the site from above as opposed to the site from human eye level. Attempting to impose ancient aliens on the site is an attempt to delegitimize the accomplishments of the humans living in this area. Regarding Howe's apparent wonder that humans in this time period could erect large stone pillars, there is a breadth of studies that show the feasibility of moving much larger stones than those found at Göbekli Tepe.[8][14]

Collins' assertion that the carvings represent a "weird menagerie" is also unfounded, as the remains of similar fauna have been found at the site and continue to exist in modern Anatolia.[6] Boars, foxes, a leopard, wild asses, and a multitude of other taxa have been identified in bone matter found at Göbekli Tepe, all animals also represented in carvings.[6]. In fact, most of the animals appearing in artistic depictions at Göbekli Tepe are also found in the bone record, though not all animals present in the bone record are featured in the carvings.[6] This discounts the idea that Göbekli Tepe could be evidence for an ark, as no non-native species are present in the reliefs.


  1. Teomancimit. (2011, September 6). [Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg
  2. Benedict, P. (1980). Survey Work in Southeastern Anatolia. The Joint Istanbul - Chicago Universities' Prehistoric Research in Southeastern Anatolia, 151-190.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Curry, A. (2008, November). Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonian.com.
  4. Teomancimit. (2011, September 6). [Gobekli Tepe, Urfa]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gobekli_Tepe_2.jpg
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Schmidt, K. (2000). Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient, 26(1), 45-54.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Peters, J. & Schmidt, K. (2008). Animals in the symbolic world of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey: a preliminary assessment. Anthropozoologica, 39 (1), 179-218.
  7. Schmidt, K. (1998). Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Neolithic Ritual from Göbekli Tepe. Neo-lithics, 2/98, 3-5.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 Banning, E.B. (2011). So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East. Current Anthropology, 52(5), 619-660.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Dietrich, O., Köksal-Schmidt, Ç., Notroff, J., & Schmidt, K. (2013). Establishing a Radiocarbon Sequence for Göbekli Tepe. State of Research and New Data. Neo-lithics, 1/13, 36-41.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Schmidt, K. (2003). The 2003 Campaign at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-lithics, 2/03, 3-8.
  11. Pustovoytov, K. (2002). 14C Dating of Pedogenic Carbonate Coatings on Wall Stones at Gobekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey). Neo-lithics, 2/02, 3-4.
  12. Retrieved from http://www.alienufotruth.com/.[1]
  13. Retrieved from http://www.big-lies.org/.[2]
  14. 14.0 14.1 Adamson, T. (2002). Stonehenge: the stone mason and his craft. Antiquity, 76(291), 41-42.