<< Previous Page

Klaus Schmidt

11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014

Appreciation by
Trevor Watkins

Klaus Schmidt
Klaus Schmidt

Klaus Schmidt was sixty years old when he died suddenly and unexpectedly in July 2014. He and his team were reflecting that his work at Göbekli Tepe had been in progress for twenty years. Indeed, a joint Turkish-German conference, involving diplomats, ministers and cultural officials, as well as leading international Neolithic specialists, was planned to take place in September in Urfa, south-east Turkey, to celebrate the now world-famous archaeological site. In the event, the conference became a tribute to the memory of the archaeologist who had revealed the extraordinary site to the world.

Klaus Schmidt successfully climbed through the rigours of the German academic system towards a career as a field researcher. Between 1974 and 1983, he studied prehistoric archaeology, classical archaeology and palaeontology, first at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and then at Heidelberg University. There, he was recruited by Professor Harald Hauptman to join his team undertaking salvage excavations at the massive tell-site of Nor?untepe, within the area of the Keban Dam on the upper Euphrates in eastern Turkey. He completed his Heidelberg thesis on the chipped-stone material from the site in 1983.

In 1986, after two years of a travel fellowship that enabled him to study Egyptian prehistoric archaeology, Klaus became a research assistant working with Hauptmann in Heidelberg. Hauptmann had joined the international efforts in the area of the Atatürk Dam, farther down the Euphrates, and had begun another salvage excavation in 1983. Klaus became a member of Hauptmann's team working at the early Neolithic settlement of Nevali Çori, which proved to be pivotal in Klaus's career. For one thing, it provided the subject for his habilitation dissertation, which was successfully presented at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in 1999, its title translating as "A functional analysis of the early Neolithic settlement of Nevali Çori". This led to his confirmation as Privatdozent (external lecturer) at his old university.

The excavation of Nevali Çori finished in 1991, and it was time for Klaus to set about establishing his own research trajectory. He had become engaged with the research questions of the Neolithic in south-west Asia and wanted to find an early Neolithic settlement site that could be excavated without the time constraints of salvage archaeology. He turned to the records of an extensive survey of sites in south-east Turkey that had been carried out at the beginning of the 1960s by an American team led by Professor Robert Braidwood. Braidwood teamed up with Professor Halet Çambel of Istanbul University, and, although Göbekli Tepe was on the short-list selected from the survey, they chose the site of Çayönü to enable them to investigate the transition from hunting and gathering to the beginnings of farming.

Klaus Schmidt set about finding all the Neolithic sites that they had discovered and reported. He was almost uniquely qualified to see what the survey team had not appreciated at the site of Göbekli Tepe. At Nevali Çori, among the large houses, the excavators had found an extraordinary, semi-subterranean, rectangular stone structure. In the centre of the floor of this structure there had originally stood a pair of large, T-shaped, sculpted pillars. Klaus was able to recognise at once that the large, earthfast stones that he could see on the surface of the mound of Göbekli Tepe could be the tops of such T-shaped pillars. He was further struck by the number of battered, sculpted stones that he found scattered across the surface of the site. Nevali Çori had also produced a number of broken, three-dimensional sculptures. He once told me that he knew on his first visit that this was the site that should occupy him for the rest of his working life.

He was able to begin the investigation of Göbekli Tepe in 1994. He had already excavated a sub-rectangular, semi-subterranean stone chamber with a pair of sculpted, T-shaped pillars in time for Jacques Cauvin to include reference to them in the second edition of his influential book, Naissance des divinités, naissance de l'agriculture: a révolution des symboles au Néolithique. Cauvin's book found an extraordinarily wide audience, and it was translated in several languages. The English language version (2000, The birth of the gods and the origins of agriculture: Cambridge University Press), which I worked on with Cauvin, carried more extensive information about Göbekli Tepe around the Anglophone world. News of his discoveries at Göbekli Tepe, and pictures of the massive pillars and the raised relief figurative images that they carried, attracted the interest of all sorts of magazines and journals, well beyond the narrow confines of specialist academic journals.

Klaus accepted invitations to lecture on Göbekli Tepe around the world, and he wrote dozens of reports and articles in Turkish and German but few in English. He collaborated in the making of a major exhibition in Karlsruhe (accompanied by a massive, heavily illustrated book, Vor 12,000 Jahren in Anatolien: die ältesten Monument der Menschheit), in which facsimiles of the monumental sculptures of Göbekli Tepe played a central part. His popular book on Göbekli Tepe (2006, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel) follows the model of Kathleen Kenyon's Digging up Jericho or James Mellaart's Çatal Hüyük: a Neolithic town in Anatolia. It had a second edition in the same year, followed by a revised third edition in the following year; it has appeared in paperback, and in Turkish, Polish, Russian, Italian and English editions (2012, Göbekli Tepe. A Stone Age sanctuary in south-eastern Anatolia: ex oriente e.V.).

The scale of the monumental enclosures that he slowly revealed involved the excavation of thousands of tons of the broken stone and soil with which they had been deliberately backfilled. Although there were quantities of cultural material in the matrix, it was all secondary, and there would be little to be learned about the date of the constructions, how they functioned or how they related to one another until the backfill had been completely removed. In order to make progress, Klaus began a programme of two seasons of work on site each year.

From 2001 he was a referent (equivalent to a university lecturer) in the Orient section of the DAI, the German Archaeological Institute. In addition to the work at Göbekli Tepe, he was involved in the excavation of a late-Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age tell-site near Aqaba in the south of Jordan. When Professor Ricardo Eichmann became the director of the Orient section, Klaus took over responsibility for completing the excavations and bringing them to publication. He also spent part of each year teaching at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, where he was proud to have been made adjunct professor in 2007.

The pressures mounted year by year, with more and more demands made on him from different quarters. Archaeological colleagues were impatient for the publication of detailed information and a radiocarbon dating series to confirm the comparative stratigraphic chronology of the site. Other archaeologists voiced doubts that the site could really be as old as Klaus claimed. Klaus was aware that he had generous state funding for his research and that he was expected to produce ‘value for money' within a timescale that he knew was challenging. Journalists and television documentary makers wanted access to the site, and they expected Klaus to give them days of his time. Klaus told me on one occasion that there had been seven documentary teams at Göbekli Tepe in that year.

In addition, the Turkish directorate-general of antiquities and museums, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, of which it is a part, were becoming increasingly interested in the visitor and tourism potential of Göbekli Tepe. The site began to be signposted everywhere within the nearest city of Sanliurfa and on the east-west motorway, putting the site on a par with others such as Troy and Çatalhöyük.

Visitors from all over Turkey and all over the world made their way to Göbekli Tepe in ever-increasing numbers. Soon there were one or two hundred people each day, but by last year there were sometimes in excess of one thousand visitors a day. Guides bringing parties of tourists sought to draw Klaus to their side to talk to their group. If Klaus saw them coming, he would show a surprising agility sprinting over the mound to disappear at the far side. With visiting archaeologists Klaus was exceptionally welcoming and generous. I was fortunate enough to visit Sanliurfa and Göbekli Tepe almost annually over a period, and I was always invited to join Klaus, his archaeologist wife and the team for dinner at the old stone-built courtyard house in the heart of the old city that was the dig headquarters. Indeed, I was rarely the only guest; there were usually other archaeologists who had made their way to the site and been made welcome.

In recent years, Klaus's permit to work at Göbekli Tepe was focused on preparing the main area of excavations to be a visitor site. It was his responsibility to find the funding and oversee the design and construction of a highly innovative sheltering roof for the site and suspended walkways through the stones. The Turkish government wished to propose the site for inscription on the World Heritage list. In addition to the heavy task of directing such a high-profile archaeological project, Klaus was coming under increasing kinds of pressure, for which an academic archaeologist has no training.

The last time that I saw Klaus at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, he was continually called from the room to take phone calls from the architects who were designing the shelter or from the Turkish Ministry of Culture. He complained that it was necessary for him to fly backwards and forwards to Ankara to attend meetings, or to Shanghai, where he was to receive a prize, or to Australia, where he was to lecture. He said it was too much, and ultimately it proved to be so.

Unlike most of us archaeologists, Klaus Schmidt will leave a true monument, and not just some articles in journals and another monograph or two to gather dust on a library shelf. Although public interest in Göbekli Tepe made his work more difficult, he was always pleased that other people shared his excitement. Göbekli Tepe has caught the imagination of people all over the world, and it will continue to attract thousands of visitors, who will be amazed to stand before the sculptured stones and experience the unique and extraordinary site.

Klaus enjoyed the thought that Göbekli Tepe turns our conception of the Neolithic inside out and upside down, requiring us to reframe our ideas of the communities of the earliest Neolithic of south-west Asia. He had formulated some of the important questions that the site raised, and he was working his way patiently towards the resolution of those questions. He relished the prospect of developing a new way to understand the beginning of the Neolithic in the light of work at Göbekli Tepe and its contemporaries in the north Levant. It is sad that he will not see some of those resolutions and not be able to contribute further to the reframing of ideas.