07 October 2010

Theft from the world's oldest temple

Göbekli Tepe and its striking stelae.

Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is the world's oldest known site of religious worship, with a 'temple' going back at least to the early Neolithic (9000 years). Last week Milliyet reported (Turkish) the theft of a newly discovered statue from the site. The 40-centimeter high, T-shaped stela had a human head above and an animal figure below and had been left in place in the excavation area. Sunday, when most of the excavation team was off work, archaeologist Gülsüm Yaprak discovered that the new statue was missing and called the gendarme.

A detail of one of the T-stelae. Note the vulture, scorpion, and crazy-looking bird.

I can't find any more news as yet about this major theft. It's hard to overstate the importance of the site, which has evidence for complex architecture and representative art as early as 11,000 years ago - before even the development of pottery.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is "unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date," according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford's archeology program. Enthusing over the "huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art" at Göbekli, Hodder - who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites - says: "Many people think that it changes everything...It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."
If Ian Hodder is blown away, well, you probably should be too. I am, this site is amazing! Not least because it confirms my opinion that early people were much more like us than we usually give them credit for. The picture of the neolithic emerging from Çatalhöyük, Göbekli, and other sites in the region changes totally our picture of hunter-gatherers - from grunting savages in skins to settled communities with complex ideas and artistic traditions, who just happen to live on wild animals and plants rather than cultivated ones. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, the excavation director, thinks that the stelae represent shamanistic religious traditions. Even more cool, there's lots of vultures juxtaposed with human body parts, suggesting that these people practiced sky burial, which survives in only a few remote places today (e.g. see this insane slide show or this video from Tibet).

Of course, such stuff is catnip for the unscrupulous collector, whose ego tells them they should have the right to "own" something like these stelae. I wonder if the theives were opportunistic, or whether the theft was commissioned? The fact that the stela was recently found points to inside knowledge and a certain familiarity with the archaeologists' routines. Local farmers? Workmen? Archaeologists? The Gendarmes? There's overlap between local mafias and antiquities smuggling in southeast Turkey. Depending on the area they could be connected to the Kurdish rebels, the army or gendarmes, or both.

The excavation has been closed to the public until further notice. How long it will take for the stela to show up in some museum, with an innocent-looking tag that says: "Syria or Anatolia. Purchased from an old private collection"? Whoever touches this thing deserves our rich contempt.

1 comment:

  1. contempt indeed! this entire story is just amazing. I've been to Gobekli and seen in person just how large these stele are. This had to be a huge operation to remove this thing and an activity that in no way could have gone unnoticed by the village nearby. I just hope someone will be brave and speak out.