Constructed about 12,000 years ago (around 10,000 BC), Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest temple. Situated in what is now modern-day Turkey, just north of the Syrian border, it consists of dozens of huge T-shaped stone pillars, each weighing 2-3 tonnes and filled with gargoyle-like carvings of almost every animal imaginable: lions, scorpions, foxes, vultures, boars, spiders, and snakes. It’s the kind of thing that makes Stonehenge look crude.
The thing that perplexes (or inspires) many archaeologists is that it was built during a period occupied by semi-nomadic foragers who made stone tools, but not pottery. As a result, it has upended pretty much every assumption we’d had about the origins of religion and monumental architecture.
The site has produced no signs of habitation. There are hearths, houses, roofs or middens. Mysteriously, the pillars appear to have been deliberately buried around 1,300 years after they were built.
Now, new research published Wednesday in Science Advances provides some new suggestions about the beliefs and practices of the people who built Göbekli Tepe.
Archaeologists have not found any burials so far, but what they have found are 600 or so fragments of human bone. Most of them are pieces of skull, and many of them show signs of having been defleshed (cutmarks on the areas where the major muscle groups of the head and face attach to the skull).
In addition, three pieces of human skull show evidence that a deep line was scored line from the back of the head to the front. One of them also had a drilled perforation, and the other carried remnants of ochre.
All this suggests that the people of Göbekli Tepe may have used this space to enact beliefs matching what the researchers refer to as a ‘skull cult’.
As thrash metal as this sounds, ‘skull cult’ is actually a pretty broad term, used by archaeologists and anthropologists to describe practices that focus on the special treatment of the human skull. It can reflect beliefs ranging from ancestor worship, to belief in the transmission of protective powers from the dead to the living.
Skull cult can take on different forms, that is, with skull modifications frequently underlying very specific cultural codes.
So was Göbekli Tepe the site of a skull cult? Elsewhere around the site, there’s a carving of a headless ithyphallic figure on one pillar, evidence that a number of larger statues had their heads forcibly, images of raptors clasping what could be severed human heads, and a carving of a kneeling figure carrying a human head in its hands.
And there are other examples from around this time that people in many parts of Southeast Anatolia and the Levant gave special care to human skulls. People deposited skulls in special places, as attested by the ‘skull depot’ at Tell Qaramel or the ‘skull building’ at Çayönü. In some cases they decorated them with ochre, and in others they remodeled the soft tissue and facial features with plaster.
Göbekli Tepe’s rich symbolism, and now its fragments of human skulls, are starting to provide an unprecedented insight into people’s worldview at the Neolithic transition in one of its earliest geographical regions of genesis.
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