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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH
Two gigantic T-shaped stone blocks faced one another at a distance of two metres in the centre of a circular chamber with a diameter of five or six metres. The weight of the stones is an estimated 20 tons, and they will probably measure four metres in height when the lower sections have been uncovered. Going up close to one of the stones I examined the extraordinarily smooth unflawed surface. Right in the centre was an exquisitely carved animal figure. I had entered the chamber with the permission of Professor Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who explained that several such chambers had been found adjoining that in which I stood.

I was at the settlement mound of Gobeklitepe, a 25 minute drive from the city of Urfa in southeastern Turkey. In the unexcavated parts of the mound there may be many more such chambers, or perhaps other completely different structures. My first question and the one which I was most eager to have answered was about the date of the stones and the building in which they stood.
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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH
Professor Schmidt told me that at present they were unable to date them, the tone of his voice expressing not disappointment, but the excitement of someone witnessing a landmark in archaeological discovery. He went on to explain that at some point after the chamber had been built it had been filled up with earth, and that carbon dating of some fragments of charcoal in the soil had been carried out. I waited with suspense to hear what the results of these tests had been. It was 9000 BC! This was astonishing. It meant that the date of construction must have been even earlier.

I next asked if they had found any skeletons. The professor replied with a smile that they had not, but that the team had not yet dug down to the ground soil. The raised section around the inside walls of the building is to be excavated this year in September and may reveal burials. This would enable carbon dating to establish the date to within a few centuries, and could reveal the site to be as old as the 11th millennium BC.
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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH
If this happened it would mean rewriting the history of the Neolithic Age - otherwise known as the New Stone Age. Professor Schmidt had more and equally fascinating information about the site. Apparently all the other hills visible in the vicinity are made of limestone blocks, but that on which we stood - measuring 300 metres in diameter - is surmounted by a deep layer of soil carried up here from the valley below. By what methods had people who had not even discovered pottery managed to carry millions of cubic metres of soil to this hilltop?

My second important question was the stage of production that these people had reached. I felt sure that they must have been an agricultural society, but Professor Schmidt smiled and assured me that they were certainly hunters and gatherers, who did not even know how to make pottery.
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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH

Since no pottery fragments had been discovered in the area at all, the latter had to be true, but I had profound doubts about this being a hunting and gathering culture. I thought for instance of the pyramids of Egypt, whose construction had required large numbers of workers. The workers had to be fed, which required a system for the transportation and distribution of food, and order had to be maintained, which in turn meant soldiers and administrators. In other words, the construction of a single pyramid presupposed an entire state system and sophisticated economic structure.

Even though the monuments at Gobeklitepe were not on such an enormous scale, one had to make similar suppositions about the culture which had produced and erected these T-shaped menhirs. The relief carvings of animals on the stones were astonishingly beautiful, and must surely have been executed by a craftsman who had devoted his life only to this work.

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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH
So the Gobeklitepe culture must have had a food production system which enabled them to feed specialists and workers without difficulty.

Away from the excavation site we looked at hundreds of finished and unfinished flint tools scattered on the ground, illustrating every stage of stone tool production. This was undoubtedly the site of a flint workshop which produced axe heads and knife blades.
At the tool and artefact park just below the excavation area we were met by one of the Turkish members of the archaeological team, Cigdem Koksal. Here we saw stone vessels of various sizes laid out over an area as large as a basketball pitch. One might assume from this that the people who had lived at Gobeklitepe had made artefacts of basalt alone, but in fact this was only because leather and wood are perishable, whereas stone can survive indefintely.
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GOBEKLITEPE:DIARY OF AN EXCAVATION
2001 /MARCH

Over the past twenty to thirty years archaeology has made incredible strides. Sites like Gobeklitepe are proving that human history is far more colourful, far more complex, and far more ancient than we had ever imagined. Archaeological excavation over the next century will certainly throw light on the ancient past to an extent we can hardly envisage today. Who knows what fascinating cultures will be revealed. As I returned from Urfa to Gaziantep, I looked at the ancient mounds scattered over the landscape in every direction, and wondered what they have to reveal about the people who lived there.

 


Sengul Aydingun is an archaeologist.

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