The Ancients
Göbekli Tepe
Is this the world’s oldest statue?
Dr.Klaus Schmidt

Is this the world’s oldest statue?

It should be famous but it stands alone and unloved, says Sean Thomas

I can't quite work out what I'm seeing. It looks like a fossilised snowman. Or maybe a mock-up of a Doctor Who monster. Yet, if scholars are right, this is the oldest statue in the world. The cream-coloured effigy was found in the ancient Kurdish city of Sanliurfa, in the hot plains of central southern Turkey, not far from the extraordinary archaeological dig of Gobekli Tepe.

The statue was discovered a few years ago when foundations were being laid for a new bank. The excavations took place right next to an historic city attraction - the Balikli Gol, a beautiful fishpond surrounded by mosques and gardens.

As the workmen dug away in the Turkish sunshine, odd chunks of limestone began emerging from the earth. Archaeologists were summoned and, pieced together, the chunks turned out to form a peculiar and hefty sculpture of a man, or a man-like god. The head of the statue had piercing coal-black eyes. The hands were placed in front of the genitals, like a soccer player protecting himself.

The statue turned out to be part of a larger discovery: of a Neolithic temple. This and the statue have now been dated to 10,000BC, making the 'Snowman' possibly the oldest statue in the world.

The veracity of this claim depends on semantics. What is a 'statue'? The Venus of Willendorf dates back to 20,000BC. But the Venus is just 11cm long: surely not a statue.

So the Balikli Gol Snowman is the first sizeable sculpture of a man. Arguably, it is the oldest sculptural representation of humanity, the oldest self-portrait in stone. In the accepted sense of the word, that makes him the oldest known statue.

You'd think the Balikli Gol statue would be famous. Yet it is scarcely known. It stands in the tiny local museum, next to the fire extinguisher. Why?

One reason is the venom of local politics: the ongoing tussle between the Turks and Kurds prevents good publicity for archaeological treasures, in which the area of Sanliurfa abounds.

But maybe the Snowman lacks friends for another reason: because he is such an unsettling presence. His lonely, obsidian eyes dominate the gallery where he stands; his wistful gaze speaks of a weird and agonising regret. After a few minutes with him, I make quickly for the exit; and when I reach the sunny street, I find I am sighing with relief.


Göbekli Tepe: your questions answered
Dr.Klaus Schmidt

Gobekli: your questions answered

The First Post’s report from an archaeological dig in Turkey has sparked interest worldwide. sean thomas answers some frequently asked questions

Q: How do they know Gobekli Tepe is so old?

A: The archaeological team at Gobekli, working under Klaus Schmidt, has used radiocarbon analysis on the soils adhering to the stones. The analysis shows that the main stones at Gobekli Tepe were erected between 10,000 and 9,000 BC. The characteristics of flint arrowheads found here confirm these dates.

Q: How big is the site (above)?

A: So far, 40-odd standing stones (two to four metres high) have been dug out. They are T-shaped and arranged in enclosed circles, which cover several hundred square metres.

However, a broken, half-quarried stone has been found in a limestone bed about a kilometre from the main site. It is nine metres long, and was obviously intended to join the pillars at Gobekli: so there may be other stones, as yet unearthed, that are this big. Geomagnetic surveys imply that there are at least 250 more standing stones buried at the site.

Q: How could hunter-gatherers build something so complex?

A: Farming did not start in this area until 8,000BC. It is therefore certain that hunter-gatherers did build Gobekli: there was no one else around. Klaus Schmidt (right) speculates that large bands of hunters congregated here during the construction. (Bones and arrowheads support this thesis.) They then dispersed, perhaps returning to Gobekli at specified times of the year.

Q: Why was the site buried in 8,000 BC?

A: No one knows. But the way the dust is packed around the stones shows that Gobekli was entombed deliberately, and with some care.

Dr.Klaus Schmidt
Schmidt speculates that large bands of hunters came here during construction
Q: How do they know it's a temple?

A: Evidence of any domestic use is entirely lacking. No remains of settled human habitation have been found nearby. But human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters. It seems people brought the corpses of relatives here, and installed them in open niches by the stones. The many rock carvings on the stones also appear more ritualistic than domestic; likewise, the architectural arrangement of Gobekli prefigures much later Stone Age temples - like Avebury or Stonehenge.

Q: How do they know the recently uncovered sculpture is a 'reptile'?

A: They don't know. Schmidt thinks it may be a reptile but isn't sure. Gobekli Tepe is so bizarre - and the newest finds so mysterious - no consensus has yet developed. Others believe the sculpture shows a wolf, a cat, or some other mammal. It possibly represents a kind of animal-spirit, watching over the dead.

Q: Is there really a link with the Garden of Eden?

A: The idea that the Eden story is a kind of allegorical folk memory - of the switch from hunter-gathering to farming - is not a new one: it's been canvassed by writer Hugh Brody, among others. What is new is the combination of data that links Genesis to this area of Turkey, and very early farming to this area: thus placing a 'metaphorical Eden' arguably in these environs. However, Klaus Schmidt emphasises that this is just a theory: "Gobekli Tepe is extraordinary enough, without speculation".

Q: How does the world of archaeology perceive Gobekli?

A: Academics agree on the site's revolutionary implications for our view of Stone Age civilisation and religion. No one knew Neolithic people were this artistic and leisured. Harald Hauptman at Heidelberg University believes the discoveries at Gobekli rank with the first uncovering of cave paintings in Lascaux, France in the 1940s. South African expert in palaeolithic art David Lewis Williams calls Gobekli Tepe "the most important archaeological dig anywhere in the world".


Göbekli Tepe
Digging for history in Turkey
Dr.Klaus Schmidt

Digging for history in Turkey

An archaeological dig tells us more about the Garden of Eden, says Sean Thomas

I am standing above an archaeological dig, on a hillside in southern Turkey. Beneath me, workmen are unearthing a sculpture of some sort of reptile (above). It is delicate and breathtaking. It is also part of the world's oldest temple.

If this sounds remarkable, it gets better. The archaeologist in charge of the dig believes that this artwork has connections with the Eden story. The archaeologist is Klaus Schmidt; the site is called Gobekli Tepe.

In academic circles, the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have long been a talking point. Since the dig began in 1994, experts have made the journey to Kurdish Turkey to marvel at these 40-odd standing stones and their Neolithic carvings. 

But what is new, and what makes this season's dig at Gobekli so climactic, is the quality of the latest finds - plus that mind-blowing thesis which links them to the Garden of Eden.

The thesis is this. Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure - literally picking fruit from the trees - to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.

And where did this change take place? Biologists now think the move to agriculture began in Kurdish Turkey. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of the world's cereal species, has been genetically linked to here. Similarly, it now seems that wild pigs were first domesticated in Cayonu, just 60 miles from Gobekli.

This region also has Biblical connections, tying it closer to the  Eden narrative. Muslims believe that Sanliurfa, a nearby city, is the Old Testament city of Ur. Harran, a town down the road, is mentioned in Genesis twice.

Even the topography of Gobekli Tepe is 'correct'. The Bible describes rivers descending from Paradise. Gobekli Tepe sits in the 'fertile crescent' between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Bible also mentions mountains surrounding Eden. From the brow of Gobekli's hills you can see the Taurus range.

But how does this intoxicating notion link to the architecture of Gobekli, and those astonishing finds?

Klaus Schmidt says: "Gobekli Tepe is staggeringly old. It dates from 10,000BC, before pottery and the wheel. By comparison, Stonehenge dates from 2,000BC. Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious - the world's oldest temple. This site  proves that hunter-gatherers were capable of complex art and organised religion, something no-one imagined before."

As for the temple's exact purpose, Schmidt gestures at a new discovery: a carving of a boar, and ducks flying into nets. "I think Gobekli Tepe celebrates the chase, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And why not? This life was rich and leisured, it gave them time enough to become accomplished sculptors."

So why did the hunters of Gobekli give up their agreeable existence? Schmidt indicates the arid brown hilltops. "Gathering together for religion meant that they needed to feed more people. So they started cultivating the wild grasses." But this switch to agriculture put pressure on the landscape; trees were cut down, the herds of game were dispersed. What was once a paradisaical land became a dustbowl.

Schmidt explains that this switch took place around 8,000BC. Coincidentally, the temple of Gobekli Tepe was deliberately covered with earth around this time.

Dr.Klaus Schmidt
We may never know why the hunter- gatherers buried their ‘temple in Eden’

We may never know why the hunter-gatherers buried their 'temple in Eden'. Perhaps they were grieving for their lost innocence. What is unquestionable is the discoveries made in Gobekli Tepe, in the last few weeks, are some of the most exciting made anywhere in half a century.

Schmidt shows me some workmen scraping earth from a rock relief (above). It is marvellously detailed: it shows scorpions, waterbirds, and river life. I suddenly realise I am the first person other than an archaeologist to see it in 10,000 years.


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