Göbekli Tepe: In the Eyes of the Excavation Team

17 Jan 2017
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There is no question that Turkey is an archeological wonder and home to magnificient sites such as Ephesus and Pergamon in the Agean region. While we are very proud for hosting such extraordinary sites on our own soil, we are never short of imagination and the ability to “manufacture” stories associated with these sites. It would be fair to say that Göbekli Tepe (located near Urfa in the South East Turkey) has suffered the most due to our imagination and it has been subject to many conspiracy theories including the idea of having been constructed by aliens. Being nearly as old as 12,000 years – there is still so much left to be discovered about Göbekli Tepe to be able to establish what Göbekli Tepe actually means for the history of the mankind. I have last year paid a visit to this magnificient site for a travel article and during my pre/post trip researches I came across a wonderful source on the web put together by the archaeology team doing the excavation work on the site. Their blog aims to keep us up to date on the status of excavation works at Göbekli Tepe and also provides “accurate” information on what has so far been discovered about the site. I reached out to German archeologist Jens Notroff, who is part of the crew of the archeologists running the Tepe Telegrams and he was very kind to answer my questions on Göbekli Tepe and provide some of his photos and drawings of the site.

Wish tree at Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Burcu Basar – December 2015.

Jens, I first discovered your writings through your site “The Tepe Telegrams” when I was looking up for further information about Göbekli Tepe. The Tepe Telegrams is a wonderful site where you, together with your colleague Oliver, frequently publish articles in relation to Göbekli Tepe in a manner which would also appeal to people with no particular knowledge of archaeology.

Thanks for your kind words! Actually, I am really glad about the impression you’ve got of our “Tepe Telegrams” articles, because this was exactly our intention. When Oliver and I had the idea to start this weblog we wanted to make our results accessible to everyone interested in the progress of excavations and research at Göbekli Tepe. Interest in this peculiar site is still growing and unfortunately there is a huge amount of esoteric and fringe claims regarding the Göbekli Tepe floating around the internet. We wanted to give an insight into the actual and factual research results and share these with a public we usually do not reach with academic publications.

Sunrise at the excavation site. Photo by Jens Notroff.

Even though it was already mentioned as a Neolithic site  in the 1960s in the joint surveys of Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, Göbekli Tepe can be considered to be a relatively new discovery as it was actually located in 1994 whereas – as an example – Ephesus was discovered as early as in 1860s. How long have you been working on the site at Göbekli Tepe and did you have a chance to work with Klaus Schmidt who originally discovered the site back in 1994? 

I am involved in the Göbekli Tepe research project since 2006, still a student back then. Meanwhile I am a research assistant at the German Archaeological Institute and had the great chance to work at this fascinating site all these years with Klaus Schmidt.

What is the affiliation status (any country/university) of the main team in charge of the excavation works at Göbekli Tepe and are you also joined by archaeology students from Turkish universities? 

The Göbekli Tepe Research Project is an interdisciplinary long-term project addressing the role of early monumentality in the origins of food production, social hierarchisation and belief systems as well as questions of early subsistence strategies and faunal developments in Neolithic Anatolia, Turkey. Excavations and archaeological research in the frame of this project are conducted by the Orient and Istanbul Departments of the German Archaeological Institute (funded by the German Research Foundation) in close cooperation with the Şanlıurfa Haleplibahçe Museum. The archaeobiological part of the project is conducted by the Institute of Palaeoanatomy, Domestication Research and the History of Veterinary Medicine, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Recently a ‘Scientific Advisory Board’ was established to facilitate collaboration between project stakeholders. This board comprises eminent Turkish colleagues from different universities. We are in particular happy that the Göbekli Tepe research project has such an international and interdisciplinary scope, indeed including students of archaeology (and related subjects) from Turkey, Germany, and other countries.

Drawing of the fields en route to Göbekli Tepe by Jens Notroff.

There is – in a both positive and negative way – an increased interest in Göbekli Tepe and in what the site is actually all about. National Geographic is also continuously showing an interest in the site (very understandably) and one of their propositions in relation to what Göbekli Tepe means is as follows: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization”. This was also the main aspect that I focused on for my short travel article on Göbekli Tepe that I wrote for Skylife of Turkish Airlines a while ago. Would it be correct to say that Göbekli Tepe is a site composed of massive pillars constructed by the civilisation of the date for spiritual/worshiping purposes and its discovery had a great impact on the modification of some ideas embraced earlier in relation to what triggered the advancement of the civilisation? 

Well, first of all we need to discuss the ‘temple’ lable here – which has the potential for some criticism. Following the historic definition of ‘temples’ as the houses of gods we are facing the usual challenges of prehistoric archaeology where we do not have any written sources explaining aspects of culture and society but are depending on interpreting material remains only. We cannot be sure if we’re facing an organised religion and belief in deities and gods here. Thus, personally, I’d rather prefer an interpretation along the lines of a meeting centre, including rite and ritual of some kind. Maybe more of a sanctuary than a temple. But in the end this really is a question of definition. I went a bit more into detail in this contribution. But the more interesting point is indeed the question of subsistence and the adoption of agriculture. At Göbekli Tepe we might have the chance to witness one of the motors behind this crucial step in the development of our very own lifestyles. The degree of monumentality visible at Göbekli Tepe clearly speaks in favour of a coordinated cooperation of more than just one hunter-gatherer band and from ethnographic and historic analogies we know that the necessary work force can be mobilized by large feasts. And we did indeed find a significantly large number of animal bones (in particular of gazelle and aurochs) hinting at the consumption of large amounts of meat. The need to provide these gatherings and feasts with food supplies – repeatedly and on specific occasions – must have caused some economic stress which probably lead to the need to explore other food resources. It’s probably hardly a coincidence that at Karaçadağ, a volcanic mountain in the region, one of the places where Einkorn (an early wheat) was domesticated. Thus it seems worth considering that social activities like these gatherings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have fuelled the changes in lifestyle we subsume as ‘Neolithisation’ today.

Jens enjoying Turkish breakfast at the site with the excavation crew.

You know that I am a fan of your article on the day of an archaeologist that you published at the Tepe Telegrams, which focuses on a typical day of excavation in Göbekli Tepe and also touches upon your interactions with the locals of the region. I read it so many times and I also love the photos that go with the article. One of the things that made me really happy during my trip to Göbekli Tepe/Urfa was to see how the site is genuinely embraced by the locals of the region and how proud they are of Klaus Schmidt’s discovery. What is your take on this? Are you accompanied by many locals as part of the excavation team during your work on the site? 

Thanks a lot for that compliment; glad you liked that little article. It is indeed quite fascinating to see how the site becomes part of local identity. The name “Göbekli Tepe” is quite present in Urfa now and especially local visitors – school classes, students, families – can always be found there, in particular during the weekends and holidays. Next to international tourists – at least I got the impression that, over the last 10 years, international tourism in Urfa and the region has somehow increased. Göbekli Tepe is an important site and attraction, Urfa and Turkey have any reason to be proud of this cultural heritage. Locals also do indeed make up an important part of the excavation and research crew. Not only students from the nearby Harran University and colleagues from the local museum it’s especially the crew of workmen coming from the village of Örencik at the foot of the Tepe. Some of them are digging at the site for 20 years now, having developed quite some archaeological expertise on their own.

Excavation site. Photo by Jens Notroff.

Have you over the course of years observed an increase in the number of the tourists visiting Göbekli Tepe? I hope that the on-going construction work (construction of a roof to protect the excavation site) will end soon and the new set-up will trigger even further increases in the number of visitors. 

I actually did. In particular following reports in larger international media like National Geographic, BBC, and the like. Compared to my first visit to the region in 2007, international tourism definitely increased. But also local tourism is quite a factor – there is a strong number of visitors coming from Turkey as well. Unfortunately the recent turmoil in nearby Syria lead to a noticeable decrease in visitors to the site. I hope that the new shelter constructions and visitor centre – and the prospect that Göbekli Tepe could become an UNESCO world heritage site (we are supporting preparations for the application right now) – will help to attract and canalize future tourism.

Urfa Museum. Photo by Burcu Basar.

The recently opened archaeological museum in Urfa is also very impressing and is one of the best museums that I have ever visited in Turkey both in terms of the architectural design and the quality of the collection that is on display. The museum also helps to underline the archaeological importance of the entire region including Urfa. Do you work closely with the museum team (not only in respect to the findings at Göbekli Tepe but the identification of some other discoveries coming from the other nearby archaeological sites such as Nevali Çori)?

Absolutely. Not only now with the new museum, but from the very beginning of the excavations the museum in Urfa was involved, housing and exhibiting some of the most spectacular finds we unearthed. Personally I like the 1:1 replica of one of Göbekli Tepe’s enclosures in the museum which allow visitors a great and very subjective impression of the site’s monumentality. Nevali Çori, which is featured quite prominently in the exhibition as well, is a very special case for us, too. It is not only the Neolithic site where the typical T-pillars were discovered for the first time, Klaus Schmidt also was a long time staff member of the excavations there.

En route to Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Burcu Basar.

In addition to  your main area of expertise – archaeology –  you also have your own travel blog that I follow with a great interest (https://lettersfromthefield.com). Your latest post is about a night that you spent at an allegedly “haunted” mansion in Denmark. I notice that you in most cases craft your travel posts like short stories making me think that you are a literature buff. Who is your favourite author and what is your favourite piece of travel writing? As an example, while he cannot simply be categorised as a travel writer, I am deeply taken with the way the concept of travel is approached by your fellow countryman Thomas Mann in his novels or short stories. Who is your favourite and why?

Ah, again I owe you thanks for such a nice compliment. I am indeed an avid reader, hardly ever leaving the house without a book (actually, while still preserving smell and feel of ‘real’ books, I really learned the benefits of e-readers the hard way when I ran out of reading material once in week two of a nine-week excavation expedition). My most favourite travel writer probably is Patrick Leigh Fermor whose account of a journey by foot across Europe in the early 1930s pictures a world, culture, and society which is was blown away in the war following shortly after. A fantastic and intense report written down in three books (“A Time of Gifts” (1977), “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), “The Broken Road” (2013)), one I definitely recommend. I also have a weakness for (and draw a lot of inspiration from) old explorers’ travelogues – von Humboldt, Burton, Nansen, and the likes took me on expeditions and adventures already then I still was a little boy reading underneath the bed cover (as did Jack London, Henry Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle, admittedly).

Drawing of a local man by Jens Notroff.

Jens, once again thank you so much for making time for these queries. I know that your next trip will be a camping trip to Iceland this winter! Have fun and I wish you all the luck with the weather. I am looking forward to read all your posts from that trip. Any archaeological interests in Iceland?

Thank you for inviting me to this little interview; the pleasure is all mine! Yes, it’s true. Our next winter tour will lead to Iceland (again). And while there actually is indeed some interesting archaeology (Vikings!), this time we’re more following the footsteps of Jules Verne, whose heroes started their “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” right here at the glacier-covered volcano Snaefellsjökull.