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A voyage at the source of modern civilization

Prof. Karl Schmidt is achieving in Turkey archaeological searches to know the past tense of present civilization. We had some talking with him during his recent mission in Gobelki Tepe area.

by Emanuele G. - Tuesday 25 October 2011 - 4121 letture

A book published by Oltre Edizioni gained my interest. "Costruirono i Primi Templi" was its intriguing title. It deals with the first steps of human civilization in Asia Minor area. To be more clear along the borders territories accross Turkey, Syria and Iraq. According to searches made by Prof. Schmidt that area hosted 9.500 b.C. populations able to build the base of our civilization. That occured when nomad people decided to have a stable living thank to the introduction of modern forms of agriculture. But not only agriculture. Also structured society and complex religion. In a short word, the source of what we are at present. An interview to prof. Schmidt was an absolute obligation.

"Costruirono i Primi Templi" seems to be a book of adventure. The adventure to discover the first steps of our civilization.

It is still an adventure, but its roots are going back deep into the 50s of the last century, when Vladimir Milojčić, Professor for Prehistorical Archaeology at Heidelberg University, claimed to have discovered PPN period sites in Greece (Argissa). He was the teacher of my teacher, Harald Hauptmann, and when I started to study in Heidelberg, during the first years of my studies of Prehistory, “Milo” was my teacher, too. So, the discovery of Göbekli Tepe is a result of the research tradition of the Heidelberg School.

What led you to start searching in the area placed at the origins of Eufrat and Tigris?

This field of research was started not by me, but earlier by my teacher and doctoral adviser Harald Hauptmann in 1968, with his excavations at Norsuntepe (a site covering the Chalcolithic, Early - Middle and Late Bronze Age, into the Iron Age), which were conducted until 1974. He also explored Boytepe, a Pre-Pottery Neolithic (short PPN, here phase PPN B) site nearby. While I was working for my PhD thesis in the Elazig Museum in 1978 and 1979, I was not only able to study the small finds of Norsuntepe, but also the Boytepe surface material collected by Hauptmann. I was teached by Milojčić in Heidelberg, but I had a lot of doubts about the Argissa-PPN, going so far that I could not believe not only in the existence of the Argissa-PPN, but in the existence of PPN at all. Confronted with Boytepe I recognized the divergence between the Euphrates-Tigris region and Greece. During these study seasons in Elazig, which I did together with my collegue Sevil Gülcur, now Prof. emeritus at Istanbul University, she arranged my first visit at Çayönü, running excavations, still with Robert and Linda Braidwood and Halet Cambel being at the dig. It was fascinating, thrilling, that time I deicided to dedicate my scientific life to that period … being team member from 1983-1991 in Harald Hauptmann’s excavations at Nevalı Çori (another PPN site in Anatolia).

Why do you consider this area so essential for the human civilization?

It is clear by natural sciences, that the wild ancestors of both plants and animals were domesticated in that area.

Can you point out the main historical dates of the area object of your search?

With the help of archaeological dating (i.e. the typological comparison of stone tools and other artefacts found) the site of Göbekli Tepe can be dated into the so called "Pre Pottery Neolithic" (PPN). With the help of C-14 analysis of organic materials from the filling of the enclosures, the older layers can be dated to the PPN A (ca. 9.600 - 8.800 cal BC) and the younger layers to the early and middle PPN B (ca. 8.800 - 8.000 cal BC). But of course we cannot exclude that in the course of research still older rests are uncovered.

I would like to know more about the social structure of the populations living in that area.

This is a question we cannot answer for sure, since we do not know that much about the people and their social structure yet. Considering ethnological parallels one could try to describe these societies as segmented, groups dividing into tribes and clans maybe. But this still is an important question to be researched.

It seems there are relations between agriculture and religion. Can you point out which ones?

Jacqes Cauvin was describing early religious ideas as connected to a cult centering around a great female goddess in connection to the beginning of agriculture (most likely due to an aspect of fertility). However, these interpretation was topic of much discussion lately again. In the lights of more recent finds from Göbekli Tepe and Çatal Höyük, for example, the existence of such a cult has to be questioned. Religious or cultic interpretation always are a difficult field, but what we can recognize at Göbekli Tepe is that these monumental T-shaped pillars are characterized as human-like with hands and clothes. But they are faceless and impersonal and can be clearly separated from the depictions of human beings, which are much more realistic as the famous “Urfa statue” (the oldest life sized human sculpture) and similar fragments found at Göbekli Tepe demonstrate.

Can we consider the sculptures placed on buildings as the first alphabet in human history?

No, not at all. It would be much of a stress and lacking any basis to call the rich inventory of signs and depictions at the pillars from Göbekli Tepe some kind of “writing”. It has to be considered more a symbolic system which, of course, could have transported a certain meaning and information.

I noticed by reading your book that the area of Eastern Anatoly used to display a very complex culture.

That is true, it could also be labelled the centre of the development of OLD WORLD societies

What attracted my interest in your book is your capacity to link the events in that area with the general regional scenario.

That is what scholars of the Heidelberg school of Prehistory are trained to do.

According to your research we have to write again the history of mankind. How?

Not to rewrite the whole history, but we do indeed have to add a very large chapter of which we did not know before.

Maybe Eastern Anatoly is the Paradise narrated in countless sacred books?

Not at all. We have to decline any connection of the site of Göbekli Tepe with the biblical „Garden of Eden“, since there is no scientific proof to support such claim.

What is the heredity of this civilization as regards the contemporary one?

It could be seen as “the base” of modern day culture, its origin concerning the sedentary, food-producing way of living, for example.

I thank you prof. Schmidt for your consent to release the interview. Interview we feel as a great lesson in getting a more precise picture of our voyage thru the history. We all hope this discovery may help us to find a way for the future.

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