RENDEZVOUS WITH ROUSSEAU | Culinary Adventures in the Aesthetics of Time and Space | 6-High On A Hill

On 1 July 2018 the World Heritage Committee added a hill in eastern Anatolia to the UNESCO World Heritage List. In her report to announce this event, Eva Götting described the site.

‘On the hill of Göbekli Tepe, stone pillars stand tall against the Turkish summer sky. People first came here more than 11,000 years ago. These men and women, who lived as hunters and gatherers, achieved a great deal with very little. Without metal tools, the highly skilled artisans of Göbekli Tepe carved the T-shaped pillars from the local limestone. These pillars – some of which were up to 5.5 metres high and weighed several tons – then found their way from the nearby quarry to the site, where the communities incorporated them into round-oval, semi-subterranean stone buildings. Fox, crane, boar, snake and scorpion arise from the light-coloured stone, leaving a vivid testimony of Neolithic art. For thousands of years, the monumental structures were forgotten, covered by a mound of earth and rubble.’

Under the auspices of Klaus Schmidt, who excavated the site from 1995 to 2014, a Turkish-German collaboration of archaeologists gradually unearthed the secrets of Göbekli Tepe. Archaeologist Lee Clare said the hill site illustrated ‘a significant stage in human history’ especially for ‘our understanding of the Neolithic transition in this key area of the Fertile Crescent’. During those years the team of archaeologists began to understand the significance of the site for its creators and the legacy it would leave. ‘When Klaus Schmidt initiated excavations at Göbekli Tepe in the mid-1990s, there was practically no indication of the significance that this site held for us and future generations.’

These symbolic stones at this remote site near the village of Örencik, 20 kilometres north-east of Şanlıurfa, predate the stones of the pyramids (and the stones of Newgrange and Stonehenge) by 6,000 years and it would appear they have nothing in common. Archaeologists generally agree that the 11,500 year old site and its surrounding stones indicate some kind of belief system coupled to artist expression that celebrated the symbolism of life and death, the possible worship of animals, gods and celestial bodies, and an organised collectivism that became active across the region. There is no evidence of the domestication of animals and the cultivation of einkorn wheat was a pragmatic solution that produced beer as well as bread. There is a suggestion that the tepe was used for communal activity including cereal distribution, death rites, family ceremonies and what has been described as ‘external memorial storage,’ a sanctuary where the dead could rest in peace, safe from scavenging birds and animals. And this is where the conundrum comes into play.

For the time being everything is speculative!

The significance of Göbekli Tepe has been warped into a riddle in recent years. The archaeologists want to ensure it does not become a game for those who like a good puzzle. What the archaeologists do know, from their scans, is that there are around 20 enclosures with 200 megalithic pillars on the tepe, and, until they have a better understanding of these stones and the other stone sites in the region, they want to keep the debate about the symbolic character of the stones in perspective.

Archaeologist Jens Notroff explained. ‘We know little of the beliefs these people might have followed, so it would seem rather bold to denote these monumental pillar-statues as personifications of “deities”. They seem to represent something more, supposedly something beyond the self-referential depiction of human beings. Together with the obviously narrative character of other depictions on these T-pillars which clearly exceed simple decorative purposes, this perception feeds the impression that we are confronted here with a complex iconography – with mythological narrations probably even.’

Animal figures associated with the symbols of the various tribes who frequented the sanctuary are shown in relief on the stones. The boar, bull, crane, duck, fox, lion, scorpion and snake are represented. The large T-shaped pillars feature reliefs of stylised human figures. Klaus Schmidt was also reluctant to associate the artwork with a belief system. He suggested Göbekli Tepe had been built as a ‘sanctuary’ and as a ‘terminus’ where the dead could be safely left in the open. Others had a different idea.

In 2019 Manu Seyfzadeh and Robert Schoch concluded that the T-shaped pillars were symbolically marked to represent a god who guarded the entry to the afterlife for animals and humans. ‘We propose that this theme may have been inspired by real celestial images of the then prevailing night sky, ritually reenacted and celebrated for centuries by hunter-gatherer pilgrims to this hill and then spread by their descendants across Anatolia still influencing language in the region spoken and written thousands of years later.’

It would appear the enclosures or gates of the megalith were astronomically aligned. One enclosure is apparently oriented towards the rising point of the Sun on the day of the harvest festival, a day approximately halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox.

All this adds to the arguments, opinions, speculations and theories that the hunter-gatherer tribes of eastern Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia around eleven thousand years ago were highly cognitive, spatially conscious of their environment and had developed a form of animism they felt a desire to celebrate with their creativity. As nomads they would have collected geographical, geological and topographical knowledge, much like the birds and animals they hunted. They lived among them and as inhabitants of that world they shared the same traits, symbolic association must have seemed like the natural thing to do.

A network of T-pillar enclosures exists within a 200 kilometre radius of Göbekli Tepe. These were assembled, decorated and erected by trans-egalitarian tribes with skilled workers and they had to be fed. Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and Klaus Schmidt said this was a shift in perspective. ‘Vast evidence for feasting at [each] site seems to hint at work feasts to accomplish the common, religiously motivated task of constructing these enclosures.’

Laura Dietrich, Oliver Dietrich, Julia Heeb and Nils Schäkel collaborated on a paper they titled ‘Plant food management as a prerequisite for monumental building at Göbekli Tepe‘. They also asked a curious question, how many scientists does it take to make a stone speak? It is a trick question so don’t go there, but it is relevant because over 10,000 grinding stones were found at the site and macrobotanical analysis revealed traces of the wild variants of almond, barley, einkorn, emmer and pistachio, as you would expect from this region.

The team also experimented with the different shapes of hand stones for grinding the cereals and nuts, and meat from wild animals and concluded that the different types had specific practical purposes. With our knowledge of the history of traditional food in the region (modern Turkey, Syria and the Levant), we can tell you that the mortar and pestle method for grinding and pounding ingredients produced numerous iconic foods that are ingrained in those ancient methods and traditions.

One of these is lcli köfte, a type of meatball made with a crust from fine ground bulgar, semolina and walnuts with a core of pounded meat, onions and walnuts with various herbs and spices including cumin, dried red pepper flakes, mint, parsley and sumac plus red pepper paste and an ingredient that has been part of Anatolian and Assyrian food culture for a very long time – pomegranate molasses. These portable little packages can be baked in a hearth, boiled in water and fried in oil. It does not require a stretch of the imagination to see the cooks at Göbekli Tepe engaged in the production of this type of food from indigenous ingredients.

In his review of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Steven Mithen wondered whether the wild einkorn was deliberately cultivated to feed the workers who built the pillars and walls of the sanctuary. ‘If the Neolithic gods could persuade people to invest so much effort in construction, and to suffer the physical injuries, ailments and deaths that came along with it, then perhaps expending those extra calories in the fields would have seemed quite trivial.’

Klaus Schmidt came to the same conclusion. Without a controlled use of the natural resources, the hunter-gatherers would have exhausted the wild plants during the long period of construction. That solution might have been an agreed plan, to collect the seeds of wild plants like almond, barley, einkorn, emmer and pistachio, plant them on the slopes of the mountain and the surrounding ground and harvest the grains and nuts as needed during the months of carting the limestone from nearby quarries and the laborious carving and placing of the stones on the mountain top. Beer apparently crowned the nightly feasts and as anyone with knowledge of beer will tell you, beer made with wheat has a depth of flavour to quench any thirst!

There is no evidence of permanent agriculture, and no suggestion that any temporary cultivation of grains and nuts and seeds in the Urfa region led to a farming revolution. That did not happen until thousands of years later. Göbekli Tepe had a different purpose, and we may never know what it was beyond the obvious, from the symbolic representation on the stones to the symbolic shape of the stones, and from the symbolic location of the stones – high on a hill.

Göbekli Tepe planted an idea in the minds of humans and we may never know why the idea remained dormant for countless generations. We can only guess, that it was resisted because the hunter-gatherer existence was the absolute expression of life, the natural way.

… continued in part 7.

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