In 1994 Klaus Schmidt discovered Göbekli Tepe and in 1995 he began the ongoing excavations. In 1998 Schmidt published his first site report. To date, Schmidt has published close to 20 articles or reports (about half of which are in German) and others working with Schmidt have published more. For this Schmidt deserves considerable praise. His openness allows others to evaluate Göbekli and the claims that have been made.
The first report — “Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Ritual” — appeared in 1998. After noting that his views are preliminary, Schmidt contrasts Göbekli with similar sites whose location can be explained because they have water access, agricultural land, and hunting grounds. Göbekli seemingly lacked these things, a fact which makes its location puzzling. For Schmidt, this suggests Göbekli was sited for “non-profane” or sacred reasons.
Here Schmidt deploys Emile Durkheim’s problematic sacred-profane dichotomy that is closely related to (and probably derives from) the Enlightenment construct of secular-religious. A corollary of this dichotomy is a distinction between ritual and non-ritual activities, which Schmidt applies to Göbekli:
[R]itual activity, aside from burials, is not normally an archaeologically predictable phenomenon, and evidence for such special events is certainly rare in the earlier prehistoric archaeological record. Göbekli Tepe, on the other hand, apparently was a special location devoted to very important specific rituals, at least for a certain time. The archaeological evidence is overwhelming, as the function of two partially excavated pillar buildings irrefutably prove.
After only a few years of excavation, Schmidt was clearly impressed by the size and scale of the megalithics and their seemingly anomalous placement on the landscape. Already, Schmidt had concluded that Göbekli was a ritual or religious site and the evidence was not only “overwhelming” but also “irrefutable.” With perhaps 1-2% of the total site having been excavated at that time (based on estimates that 5% has been excavated through 2011), these are interesting assertions.
In 2001, Schmidt published “Göbekli Tepe: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations.” In this report Schmidt affirms and extends his previous conclusions:
The function of these buildings can only be characterized as associated with ritual purposes, and no serious claim for domestic use is tenable. It is clear that Gobekli Tepe was not an early Neolithic settlement with some ritual buildings, but that the whole site served a mainly ritual function. It was a mountain sanctuary.
Whatever Göbekli represents, it is even more astonishing given Schmidt’s assertion — based on the ostensible fact that only “wild” or non-domesticated plant remains and animal bones had been found — that it was constructed by hunter-gatherers who must have periodically come together for ritual reasons. Schmidt then suggests that ritual or religion spurred the domestication of plant-animals and caused the Neolithic Revolution:
Cauvin’s connection between the profane and the sacred, is a perfect guide to understand the change of the hunter-gatherer societies to the Neolithic way of life, not only through economic or ecological reasons, but by the impact of a transcendental sphere….Gordon Childe’s Neolithic Revolution is getting a new facet, the religious one.
Here Schmidt references French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin, who controversially argues in The Birth of the Gods and Origins of Agriculture (2000) that hunter-gatherers developed more complex religious ideas before they domesticated plants-animals, and that the Neolithic Revolution was the result rather than a cause. Schmidt obviously agrees and interprets Göbekli as proof.
In “Göbekli Tepe — The Stone Age Sanctuaries” (2010), Schmidt details recent finds and interprets them in light of his earlier conclusions:
Göbekli Tepe was not used for habitation; it consists of several sanctuaries in the form of round megalithic enclosures. [N]o residential buildings have been discovered. However, at least two phases of monumental religious architecture have been uncovered.
[T]here is no question that the site of Göbekli Tepe was not a mundane settlement of the period, but a site belonging to the religious sphere, a sacred area, since the excavation has revealed no residential buildings. Göbekli Tepe seems to have been a regional centre where communities met to engage in complex rites.
So the general function of the enclosures remains mysterious; but it is clear that the pillar statues in the centre of these enclosures represented very powerful beings. If gods existed in the minds of Early Neolithic people, there is an overwhelming probability that the T-shape is the first know monumental depiction of gods.
Schmidt then asserts, dubiously, that a religious revolution caused the Neolithic Revolution:
There are no domesticated animals or plants. The enclosures date to the period of transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer societies during the 10th and 9th millennia in the Near East. The evolution of modern humanity involved a fundamental change from small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer bands to large, permanently co-resident communities.
Jacques Cauvin’s suggestions were correct: the factor that allowed the formation of large, permanent communities was the facility to use symbolic culture, a kind of pre-literate capacity for producing and ‘reading’ symbolic material culture, that enabled communities to formulate their shared identities, and their cosmos.
Although Schmidt offers several possibilities for interpreting Göbekli’s rich symbolism, he does not explain (in either this article or others) what might have caused this religious revolution. If radically different ideas led the way to domestication and “civilization,” how do we account for the development of these ideas?
This seminal question aside, there are others. In the next post we will look at E.B. Banning’s recent article in Current Anthropology which challenges Schmidt’s interpretation of Göbekli.
Schmidt, Klaus (1998). Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Rituals from Gobekli Tepe Neo-Lithics, 2, 1-5
Schmidt, Klaus (2001). Gobekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations Paleorient, 26 (1), 45-54
Schmidt, Klaus (2010). Göbekli Tepe – The Stone Age Sanctuaries: New Results of Ongoing Excavations with a Special Focus on Sculptures and High Reliefs Documenta Praehistorica, XXXVII, 239-256