Story Spotlight

Gobekli Tepe

There's been much excitement over the weekend about a news story suggesting that the truly ancient archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe records, in engravings on its pillars, a devastating comet strike that was the cause of the Younger Dryas period. Even usually skeptical science publications such as New Scientist have mentioned the new finding, perhaps as it is based on a paper published in a scientific journal ("Decoding Göbekli Tepe with Archaeoastronomy: What Does the Fox Say?", in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry).

According to the paper, the key to unlocking this 'Göbekli Tepe code' is Pillar 43, in Enclosure D (the 'Vulture Stone'), along with a number of other apparently related pillars. Pillar 43 is engraved with zoomorphic figures - including what appear to be birds, snakes or fish, a canine, and a scorpion - as well as two rows of nested ‘v-shapes’, a central circle shape, and a row of three ‘handbags’ at the top of the pillar that each have a small accompanying zoomorphic carving. The researchers - Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, of the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh - believe that these symbols are astronomically-related:

We begin by noting the carving of a scorpion on pillar 43, a well-known zodiacal symbol for Scorpius. Based on this observation, we investigate to what extent other symbols on pillar 43 can be interpreted as zodiacal symbols or other familiar astronomical symbols. The possibility that ancient sites have astronomical significance in terms of alignment or symbolism has a long history; see for example theories about the famous Lascaux cave paintings, circa 15000 BC.

Of course, an astronomical interpretation is not mandated by the presence of the scorpion; one might attempt interpretation instead in terms of hunting or migration patterns, mythology, or any other coherent system or framework. Indeed, we must also consider the possibility that the symbols on Pillar 43 were not intended to convey any specific meaning, beyond depictions of common animals. However, our basic statistical analysis indicates our astronomical interpretation is very likely to be correct.

Let us now consider another feature of pillar 43. We suggest the carved circle in the visual centre of pillar 43 can be interpreted as the sun, and the pillar is communicating a date, i.e. it is a ‘date stamp’. Normally, the zodiacal epoch is defined by the position of the sun being ‘in’ a particular zodiacal sign at sunrise/sunset on one of four auspicious dates in the year; the spring equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox or winter solstice. Using stellarium it is easy to see, when the location is set to Sanliurfa in southern Turkey (which is about 10 miles from Göbekli Tepe) and when we consider these four events, that the hypothetical date stamp likely corresponds to one of the following four dates (with an error of around ± 250 years;

2,000 AD – Winter solstice
4,350 BC – Autumnal equinox
10,950 BC – Summer solstice
18,000 BC – Spring equinox"

These dates correspond to those when, according to Stellarium, the sun is slightly above the spout of the teapot asterism of Sagittarius, i.e. when the circle-sun is just above the right wing of the vulture on the pillar.

...Let us now consider these dates. We understand Göbekli Tepe is an authentically ancient site, and we can certainly rule out 2,000 AD. Given the established radiocarbon date we can also rule out 4,350BC. Of th remaining two dates, by far the closest to the radiocarbon date is 10,950 BC, based on the summer solstice, and we suggest therefore that this is the most likely date. When the uncertainty in this date estimate is taken into account, it is in very good agreement with an estimate for the date of the proposed YD event, 10,890 BC.

This makes a strong case for this interpretation of pillar 43 – that it is referencing circa 10,950 BC, and hence the YD event.

I was initially very excited to hear about this new paper, but I have to admit that upon reading it I'm not sure it deserves the coverage it has got (and certainly shouldn't be presented uncritically in publications such as New Scientist). It's highly speculative - not that there's anything wrong with that, I love archaeoastronomy and am partial to a bit of speculation myself, but it should be presented as such.

It starts off well: I think it's definitely a good idea, when seeing depictions of a scorpion in ancient art, to consider that it might be representing a constellation. Sure, we should definitely be careful not to assume that ancient people saw the same constellations as we do - but Scorpius is one of the largest and most conspicuous constellations in the sky, and many ancient people definitely saw the shape of a scorpion in it.

Therefore, it's worth checking whether the other figures around the scorpion might also represent constellations. This can certainly be tricky though, and if you're looking to confirm a theory it is easy to see what you want to see. Nevertheless, I'm open to what they are saying about the 'entire picture' as a star map of sorts, and I like that they did some statistical analysis on this (though I'm not sure I agree with their '1 in 5 million' certainty).

From there though, things seem to build assumption by assumption, until we're left with a construction that is wobbling precariously due to its dubious foundations. The authors cite alternative author Andrew Collins' work on Göbekli Tepe, and from the content of the paper I'm assuming they are also familiar with Graham Hancock's recent writings on both the site, and the possible global catastrophe that caused the Younger Dryas. It's great to see such fascinating 'heretical' theories getting coverage from academics in a journal, but in my opinion the paper seems to work backwards from these alternative theories as if they are the conclusion, and the evidence is fitted to it.

For instance, they say that the depiction of a headless man at the bottom of the pillar "is indicating probably the worst day ever in human history since the end of the ice age; the hypothetical YD catastrophe". Snake motifs are interpreted as indicating death and destruction, followed by "comets are certainly dangerous and destructive... Moreover, the serpent motif is a good symbolic representation of a meteor track." And symbols on the pillar that are ‘punctured’ or dimpled apparently suggest "a cometary encounter sufficient
to obscure sun, moon and stars".

For those reasons, I find it difficult to give this paper much credence. There is definitely some worthwhile theorising in there - as I said, the idea that the symbols might represent constellations, as well as later speculation that the handbags with zoomorphic figures might be representations of zodiacal signs at different times of the year. But the jump to suggesting a comet strike, I think, is far too speculative, especially for a published journal paper.

It's worth noting that the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff have addressed this new paper in a recent blog post, and it is worth a read. In a commendably calm and balanced manner, they address a number of issues with the paper:

1. There still is quite a significant probability that the older circular enclosures of Göbekli Tepe’s Layer III actually were subterranean buildings – possibly even covered by roof constructions. This then somehow would limit their usability as actual observatories a bit.

2. Even if we assume that the night sky 12,000 years ago looked exactly like today’s, the question at hand would be whether a prehistoric hunter really would have put together the very same asterisms and constellations we recognise today (most of them going back to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek scholars and descriptions)?

3. Contrary to the article’s premise the unearthed features at Göbekli Tepe are not shrouded in mystery. Published over the last years and decades, there is ample scientific literature available which unfortunately did not find its way into the study. The specific animals depicted in each enclosure’s iconography for instance seems to follow a certain intention, emphasizing different species in different enclosures. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these more subtle but significant details. This also can be demonstrated for instance with the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as symbol of death and mass extinction in the paper – however silently omitting the emphasised phallus in the same depiction which somehow contradicts the lifeless notion and implies a much more complex narrative behind these reliefs.

4. It also seems a bit arbitrary to base this interpretation (and all its consequences as described in the paper) on what seems to be some randomly selected pillars and their iconography (the interpretation thus not covering “much of the symbolism of Göbekli Tepe” as stated in the paper, but merely the tip of that iceberg). In the meantime more than 60 monumental T-pillars could have been unearthed in the older Layer III – many of these showing similar reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (like Pillar 56 or Pillar 66 in enclosure H, for example). And it does not end there: the same iconography is prominently known also from other find groups like stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes – not only from Göbekli Tepe, but a variety of contemporary sites in the wider vicinity.

So, with all due respect for the work and effort the Edinburgh colleagues obviously put into their research and this publication, there still are – at least from our perspective as excavators of this important site – some points worth a more thorough discussion.

For a more ascerbic skeptical reaction, Jason Colavito has also written a blog post on the journal paper.

Link: "Decoding Göbekli Tepe with Archaeoastronomy: What Does the Fox Say?" (PDF)

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