The abode of gods or men?

The ancient standing stones of Gobekli Tepe, near Sanliurfa. Photograph © Berthold Steinhilber.

I’ve been meaning to post this story I did for the Times for a while but have only now got round to it.

I’ve been fascinated by the ancient archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe for some time, and have been looking for excuses to write about it. When Professor Ted Banning of the University of Toronto came out with a provocative new theory about the purpose of this site, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe are interesting not only by virtue of their extraordinary age (c11,000 years), but also because they were erected at, or shortly before, the so-called Neolithic Revolution, when humans first (and in my view, disastrously) mastered the skill of agriculture that transformed us from hunter-gatherers to settled people.

When Gobekli Tepe was discovered in the mid 1990s it caused some archaeologists to question the long-held assumption that the development of agriculture gave humans the manpower and organized social structures necessary to produce monumental architecture.

Some now believe that it may have worked the other way round, the concentrations of effort and manpower that went into building sites such as this may have necessitated the search for new ways of feeding ourselves.

Banning is contesting the hypothesis put forward by the site’s excavator Klaus Schmidt, who holds that Gobekli served a purely ceremonial function, and was not settled: a place solely of pilgrimage and worship.

While Schmidt views Gobekli Tepe as the last and greatest flowering of a unsettled, hunter-gathering culture, Banning goes so far as to suggest (tentatively) that the standing stones themselves may be the pillars of what were once homes.

You can read his paper here. It remains to be seen how seriously his ideas will be taken, but archaeological opinion seems to be swaying in favour of viewing Gobekli Tepe as the abode of early, settled people, who were indeed experimenting with early forms of agriculture (see this piece in Hurriyet Daily News).

There are several good articles about Gobekli Tepe. National Geographic did a cover story about it earlier this year. This piece from the Daily Mail is also good, if a little sensationalist.

Here is my piece for the Times. I wish I had got the chance to go there myself. Also, my thanks to Berthold Steinhilber for letting me use his beautiful photograph for this post:

A series of mysterious stone circles said to be the world’s first temple may have housed not gods but men, according to a Canadian scientist.
Göbekli Tepe, a complex of huge, elaborately carved stones built 11,000 years ago on a hilltop in southern Turkey, is ranked by many as the most extraordinary archaeological discovery of the past half-century.
Predating Stonehenge by 6,500 years, the cluster of huge T-shaped monoliths bearing stylised images of people and animals were erected before humans mastered metalworking, pottery or writing and have long been recognised as the earliest example of complex religious worship.
However, in a paper published this month in Current Anthropology, Ted Banning, a professor at the University of Toronto, claims that the stone circles could have been the homes of the world’s first settled people. “If my hypothesis is correct, no one in their wildest dreams would have thought we would find houses like that in such an early period,” he told The Times.
When excavation began in 1994 the site astounded archaeologists, pre-dating by millennia other man-made structures of similar scale and complexity. Until now, they claimed that it was devoid of permanent habitation and had been a place of religious pilgrimage for Neolithic hunter-gatherers.
Professor Banning points to the discovery of vast quantities of stone-tool debris, charcoal and animal bones to suggest that the site was settled: “It’s one of the world’s biggest garbage dumps. Food remains, tool fragments, charcoal; it’s difficult to see where they came from unless there were people living there.”
He said the “temple” hypothesis assumed that the builders of Göbekli Tepe drew distinctions between the everyday and the sacred, something that developed only later. The monoliths may have acted as pillars for roofed houses, and stone sickles found on the site suggest inhabitants were experimenting with agriculture. “I’m uncomfortable with the automatic conclusion whenever we come across a building that is large and impressive that it has to be a temple,” he said.
However, Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who first realised the significance of Göbekli Tepe and has led the excavation there since, dismissed Professor Banning’s theory. “I don’t agree with his ideas; however, I welcome any competing explanations,” he said, declining to give more specific criticism until he has responded through an academic journal.
With only a fraction of the 20-acre (8ha) site excavated, Göbekli Tepe remains a mystery. One unanswered question is why it was deliberately buried beneath thousands of tonnes of soil in a process that ended about 8,200BC. The stone circles may also shed light on the Neolithic Revolution, when humans moved from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled, agrarian existence.
With some monoliths 16ft (5m) high and weighing 16 tonnes, the site forces archaeologists to question the assumption that complex societies arose only after the mastery of agriculture.


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