Tell me what brought you to Turkey.
My geologist colleague, Robert Schoch, and I, more or less invited ourselves to this amazing place that’s been getting a certain amount of press, particularly in Europe—less so here—called Goebekli Tepe, which is in southeastern Turkey, some 40 or 50 miles north of the border with Syria. What’s interesting about this place: It’s, in my view, arguably one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the last century, or really, in a sense, ever. It’s a hill, or it’s on a hill. It turns out that the hill is, as far as anyone knows, entirely artificial. The site is only about 5 percent excavated at the moment. The work’s being done by a very meticulous German archaeologist named Klaus Schmidt. What’s been found so far are four or five stone circles, like mini Stonehenges, each circle comprised of two massive, between 10 and 15-ton central stone pillars, and surrounded by two concentric circles of smaller pillars. The pillars themselves are decorated with exquisite high relief, the most difficult kind of carving. You have to carve away the rest of the pillar to leave whatever is carved jutting out from it. There are all kinds of animals—wild boar, foxes, cranes, an incredible lizard—and some of the pillars are anthropomorphic. They’re huge ,T-shaped slabs with arms and hands integrated into the form, as though they’re stone men.
How big is the site?
The inner circle is maybe 50 feet; the outer circle, maybe 60, something like that. The circles are placed very near to each other where they don’t quite interlock, but they’re very closely packed. It’s known that there are at least 22 subsites. Whether or not they’re all circles yet, nobody knows. But the most spectacular part of it, from our point of view, is the dating, which is done in part through carbon dating of material around these circles, which were completely, and deliberately, covered over around 8,000 BC.
How do we know that they were deliberately covered over?
Because the material that’s packed around them has to have been put there. It couldn’t have accumulated there. This is an archaeological conclusion backed up from a number of different points of view. The dating is done, some of it by carbon dating organic material within this fill, and some of it by geologists and geophysicists analyzing what are called microstalactites forming on the stone pillars themselves. When they get covered over, they get moist, and they form tiny crystals, and those can be dated; they contain organic material. This is the clincher: Schmidt dates those pillars to at least 10,000 BCE.
What’s the significance of the dating?
These dates, from an archaeological point of view, are absolutely shattering. They completely destroy the reigning paradigm of when and how sophisticated civilization began, because normally it’s thought that real civilization in our sense, sophisticated architecture—carving, painting, et cetera—dates from around 3,000 or 3,500 BCE; that it developed coevally in Egypt and Sumeria and China and probably in Mesoamerica. Before that, there were simple Neolithic settlements that produced rough pottery, combs, fish hooks, spears—little things like that. Before that, it’s all hunter-gatherers. This paradigm has been chipped away at over the last 15, 20 years or so, but there’s been nothing like a sophisticated site discovered.
But Goebekli Tepe is such a site?
Putting up a 10- or 15-ton block of stone, and carefully orienting it, is not the work of hunter-gatherers; or rather, these are very smart hunter-gatherers who can wrestle around 15-ton blocks of stone. And the carvings on them are spectacular. They’re reminiscent a bit of the Maya and also of much later but early Dynastic Egypt. They’re really elegant. But at 10,000 BCE! This means the current theories have got it all wrong. It was already highly developed at 10,000 BCE. Subsequently, for reasons that we absolutely don’t understand, civilization degenerated until it again rose with the onset of these major civilizations that we’re all familiar with—Sumeria, Egypt, China, et cetera.
In my reading about Goebekli Tepe, the assumptions were that these were hunter-gatherers, but they happened to build a nice temple.
[Laughs] Yeah, well…10- to 15-ton blocks of stone that they were bringing from a half mile away, up the hill.