A Most Ancient Symmetry Abandoned

By Charles Henry posted

Third in the Beveled Mirrors Series

In a recent blog I wrote about Stonehenge and Newgrange, megaliths in Britain and Ireland whose construction and maintenance over a great period of time remain astonishing and mysterious to a modern visitor. While we may never fully understand the many facets of meaning and symbolic references these works represent, they clearly served an archival and preservation function that we can assume was integral to the cultural life of the societies that invested so much in them.


If we go further back in time, about 12,000 years ago, another immense, mysterious, and little understood stone construction was begun: Gobekli Tepe in present day southwestern Turkey. Gobekli Tepe was active thousands of years before the first construction phase of Stonehenge, thousands of years even before the domestication of animals and the rise of agriculture, making Gobekli Tepe especially challenging to our concept of early human social development. We have long assumed that a non-foraging, locally situated population practicing agrarian techniques was requisite for the construction of these huge monuments. Gobekli Tepe thoroughly skews this presumption and forces us to reconsider: it was built and used by hunter gatherers, wanderers with no permanent village to anchor them, no fixed source of food, and likely no social hierarchy. The monument also predates the invention of pottery, metallurgy, writing, and the wheel.

Like many stone megaliths, Gobekli Tepe is sited on a hill, with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Twelve thousand years ago the flora would have been lush and greener than today, with abundant fauna. The vast scale of the design is confounding given the meager tools available for chiseling and carving the limestone used in Gobekli Tepe’s construction. There are about 20 large stone circles, ranging from 30 to 100 feet in diameter. Each circle typically has two or more circular walls within it, and an open center. In the center are uniformly two 18-foot T-shaped upright stones weighing as much as sixteen tons. Many are carved in low and high relief with various animals (there is to date only one depiction of a human form at the complex, reminiscent of the absence of human figures in the earlier cave drawings in central Europe). Smaller T-shaped limestones are embedded in the walls that ring the central open spaces. Gobekli Tepe is in this respect a modular construction.

It is believed that Gobekli Tepe functioned as a social gathering point for a few thousand years, its purpose unknowable. Some archeologists call it the first temple, the oldest indication of a formal religion, though this is speculative. What is known is that the entire complex of 20 circles was filled in with rocks and rubble and abandoned. Why a complex that required such extraordinary labor and commitment would be summarily buried and discarded is difficult to understand, and only adds to the mystery of the site. Among the more intriguing interpretations is that Gobekli Tepe, built by hunter gathers, became a central point for the society that raised it, and caused over time the community to become more settled and stationary, and thus precipitated the revolution to an agrarian society that became the foundation of all our civilizations. This haunting monument on the windswept hill was without question built by massive collaboration and knowledge sharing over a very long period of time. It may have instigated a change in human behavior that entailed a new form of collaboration and cooperative relationships: permanent villages and towns, social strata, and codes of law, leading to art, writing, metal working, and other foundational inventions. In this theory, the society had evolved so definitively from that of the original builders that Gobekli Tepe became obsolete and was abandoned because of its functional irrelevance.

This narrative—the most important expression of an ancient people’s knowledge and world view contributing to such an extraordinary change in organization and conduct that it looses its meaning and significance—reminds me of Kathleen Fitzpatrick's excellent book, Planned Obsolescence:  Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. She calls for much greater collaboration across the academy to wrestle with and resolve the challenge of the scholarly monograph, long the chief means of expression in the humanities and now obsolescent (“undead” in her words). We need to invent forms of scholarly communication that can capture new kinds of research and new methodological approaches situated increasingly in a digital environment. In doing so I think it important to reflect on Gobekli Tepe, and to realize that the printed book, which has contributed so fundamentally to our understanding of the world and ourselves, may also in time be understood as instigating new forms of expression that will render it irrelevant. There is powerful precedent for this.    

Previous blogs in the Beveled Mirrors series:
Framing the Sun (Oct. 25, 2012)
Beveled Mirrors (Oct. 11, 2012)