New research from Tel Aviv University sheds light on the building history of monumental structures in the main area of Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site in southeast Turkey known for its impressive megalithic architecture with characteristic T-shaped pillars, and the chronological relations between them.

Göbekli Tepe (‘Potbelly Hill’ in Turkish) is among the earliest known examples of man-made megalithic buildings constructed specifically for the ritual requirements of their prehistoric builders.

The site is located at the summit of a limestone mountain ridge in the Şanlıurfa Province, southeast Turkey. It is a 15 m high artificial hill (tell) covering an area of about 9 ha.

Excavations carried out in different areas of Göbekli Tepe yielded impressive megalithic architecture dated to the 12th and 11th millennia BCE.

“Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological wonder,” said Professor Avi Gopher, a researcher in the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

“Built by Neolithic communities 11,500 to 11,000 years ago, it features enormous, round stone structures and monumental stone pillars up to 5.5 m high.”

“Since there is no evidence of farming or animal domestication at the time, the site is believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers. However, its architectural complexity is highly unusual for them.”

Göbekli Tepe, Enclosure C: note the discontinuity of the bench between the southern pillars and the additional construction built against the southern part of the inner peripheral wall. Image credit: Haklay & Gopher, doi: 10.1017/S0959774319000660.

Göbekli Tepe, Enclosure C: note the discontinuity of the bench between the southern pillars and the additional construction built against the southern part of the inner peripheral wall. Image credit: Haklay & Gopher, doi: 10.1017/S0959774319000660.

Professor Gopher and his colleague, PhD candidate Gil Haklay, used a computer algorithm to trace aspects of the architectural design processes involved in the construction of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round structures, the largest of which is 20 m in diameter.

They found that geometry informed the layout of these structures and enormous assembly of limestone pillars, which were initially planned as a single structure.

Professor Gopher and his colleague, PhD candidate Gil Haklay, used a computer algorithm to trace aspects of the architectural design processes involved in the construction of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round structures, the largest of which is 20 m in diameter.

They found that geometry informed the layout of these structures and enormous assembly of limestone pillars, which were initially planned as a single structure.

“The layout of the complex is characterized by spatial and symbolic hierarchies that reflect changes in the spiritual world and in the social structure,” Haklay said.

“In our research, we used an analytic tool — an algorithm based on standard deviation mapping — to identify an underlying geometric pattern that regulated the design.”

“This research introduces important information regarding the early development of architectural planning in the Levant and in the world,” Professor Gopher added.

“It opens the door to new interpretations of this site in general, and of the nature of its megalithic anthropomorphic pillars specifically.”

Göbekli Tepe, architectural formal analysis: (in red) the nearly equilateral triangle that passes through the middle points between the southern face of the central pillars of Enclosures B-D; (in yellow) the alignment of the central pillars of Enclosures B and C along the southern triangle side; (in blue) the main axis, perpendicular to the southern triangle side, passes through the centre of Enclosure D; (in green) the U-stones symmetrically positioned on both sides of the main axis. Image credit: Haklay & Gopher, doi: 10.1017/S0959774319000660.

Göbekli Tepe, architectural formal analysis: (in red) the nearly equilateral triangle that passes through the middle points between the southern face of the central pillars of Enclosures B-D; (in yellow) the alignment of the central pillars of Enclosures B and C along the southern triangle side; (in blue) the main axis, perpendicular to the southern triangle side, passes through the centre of Enclosure D; (in green) the U-stones symmetrically positioned on both sides of the main axis. Image credit: Haklay & Gopher, doi: 10.1017/S0959774319000660.

Certain planning capabilities and practices, such as the use of geometry and the formulation of floor plans, were traditionally assumed to have emerged much later than the period during which Göbekli Tepe was constructed. Notably, one of the characteristics of early farmers is their use of rectangular architecture.

“This case of early architectural planning may serve as an example of the dynamics of cultural changes during the early parts of the Neolithic period,” Haklay said.

“Our findings suggest that major architectural transformations during this period, such as the transition to rectangular architecture, were knowledge-based, top-down processes carried out by specialists.”

“The most important and basic methods of architectural planning were devised in the Levant in the Late Epipaleolithic period as part of the Natufian culture and through the early Neolithic period.”

“Our new research indicates that the methods of architectural planning, abstract design rules and organizational patterns were already being used during this formative period in human history.”

The research was published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

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Gil Haklay & Avi Gopher. 2020. Geometry and Architectural Planning at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 30 (2): 343-357; doi: 10.1017/S0959774319000660