If you’re into archaeology, neolithic civilization, ancient religion and, of course, paleobabble, you’ve head of Gobekli Tepe. But in case not, Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey whose use dates back to the 10th-8th millennium B.C. The site has been interpreted as a worship center / temple complex. If that’s the case, it is arguable the oldest such complex discovered to date. As the Global Heritage Fund website for Gobekli Tepe states:
Göbekli Tepe is an Early Neolithic site of enormous significance, featuring 5-meter-high monolithic pillars carved in relief and dating to 10,000 or more years ago. Erected within circular “temple” structures, the latest excavations have revealed that these structures likely covered the entire hillside and could number as many as 20 in total. Göbekli Tepe has been interpreted as the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered.
Though known earlier, excavation of the site first began in 1994 under German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. The site quickly became known as the Turkish Stonehenge in the popular media. It’s circular structures are unique in that:
. . . [its] circles range from 30 to 100 feet in diameter and are surrounded by rectangular stone walls about six feet high. Many of the pillars are carved with elaborate animal figure reliefs. In addition to bulls, foxes, and cranes, representations of lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes appear on the pillars. Freestanding sculptures depicting the animals have also been found within the circles. During the most recent excavation season, archaeologists uncovered a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture’s head and a boar.”1
Fringe researchers were quick to label it the original Eden. The problem is that other archaeologists who have now gone through the dig material don’t believe the site is a slam dunk for a temple complex. One of them is E. B. Banning, author of “So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East,” Current Anthropology 52:5 (October 2011): 619-660. Like so many of the antidotes to paleobabble, Banning’s article is not publicly available to those who lack access to scholarly journal databases like JSTOR. And of course the archeo-porn popular press would never tell you about alternative views. Fortunately, a short write-up of Banning’s criticisms of the temple interpretation is available: “Archaeologist Argues World’s Oldest Temples Were Not Temples At All.” Here’s a telling summary:
He outlines growing archaeological evidence for daily activities at the site, such as flintknapping and food preparation. “The presence of this evidence suggests that the site was not, after all, devoid of residential occupation, but likely had quite a large population,” Banning said.
Banning goes on to argue that the population may have been housed in the purported temples themselves. He disagrees with the idea that the presence of decorative pillars or massive construction efforts means the buildings could not have been residential space.
If you’re not used to reading scholarly literature on archaeology, this doesn’t sound like much. I’ll translate. True temples were houses of gods — not domiciles for the general population. The fact that this site does indeed witness to neolithic occupation by a sizable number of people argues against it being a temple complex. The abstract of the actual article puts it this way:
Archaeologists have proposed that quite a number of structures dating to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B in southwest Asia were nondomestic ritual buildings, sometimes described specifically as temples or shrines, and these figure large in some interpretations of social change in the Near Eastern Neolithic. Yet the evidence supporting the identification of cult buildings is often equivocal or depends on ethnocentric distinctions between sacred and profane spaces. This paper explores the case of Gobekli Tepe, a large Pre-Pottery Neolithic site in Turkey that its excavator claims consisted only of temples, to illustrate weaknesses in some kinds of claims about Neolithic sacred spaces and to explore some of the problems of identifying prehistoric ritual. Consideration of the evidence suggests the alternative hypothesis that the buildings at Gobekli Tepe may actually be houses, albeit ones that are rich in symbolic content.
Here are some excerpts from the Banning article that extend from the abstract:
. . . contrasting interpretations of Neolithic ritual space make it clear that archaeologists are far from agreed on how to identify specialized ritual spaces either in the Neolithic or more generally. This is not only a matter of identifying evidence of ritual activity but of identifying in what ways, if any, it can be distinguished from the “ordinary” activities of daily life that we associate with residential or “domestic” use. (619)
Schmidt interprets the images on the pillars as “art” and as religious symbols . . . [He] insists that “no serious claim for domestic use [of the buildings] . . .” and that the Gobekli structures are “without fireplaces, ovens, or other usual traces of “domestic life.” (623)
Banning proceeds to discuss the evidence for domestic ritual, ritual symbolism, and art in previously-known neolithic sites. Bringing such evidence to bear at Gobekli Tepe undermines its identification as a centralized cult center for a single population (i.e., a temple). Banning’s article shows that there is an abundance of such domestic contexts and artifactual materials from those contexts. Lastly, he combs through the excavation records from Gobekli Tepe, pointing out the site yields evidence of domestic occupation.
The point here is not that Banning’s alternative thesis has won the day. Rather, the point is that it’s a thesis that exists and must be taken seriously — as opposed to jumping to conclusions and turning Gobekli Tepe into Eden (perhaps Atlantis would be a more appropriate analogy). This propensity is something that crops up all the time in discussions of fringe archaeology. Amateur researchers seize on some site, assign a fantastic meaning to it, write a book that never undergoes peer review, make some cash, and then look for the next point of titillation amid the dirt and debris of antiquity. Conclusions are drawn about an object without serious consideration of all the data in context (or the absence of data one would expect if a given interpretation would be correct). This “method” is simply unprofessional and misleading.