Archaeoastronomy, meteor showers, mass extinction: What does the fox say? (And what the crane? The aurochs?)

Recently a (peer-reviewed) paper published by M. Sweatman and D. Tsikritsis, two researchers of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, has made headlines, suggesting that the Göbekli Tepe enclosures actually were space observatories and that some of the reliefs depict a catastrophic cosmic event (the original publication in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(1), 2017 is accessible online here [external link]).

A selection of the carved reliefs found on many of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars is linked to and interpreted as depiction of actual stellar constellations. In particular Pillar 43, which is indeed an outstanding (but actually not exceptional) example of the site’s  rich and complex iconography, is interpreted as record of a meteor shower and collision – with quite serious consequences for life on earth 13,000 – 12,000 years ago (this whole ‘Younger Dryas Impact’ hypothesis [external link] actually is disputed itself [external link], so making Göbekli Tepe a ‘smoking gun’ in this argument should absolutely ask for a closer look).

GT06_P43_N09.32_ 600_A4.jpg

Pillar 43 in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

Debate regarding a possible astronomic link and interpretation of the architecture and the characteristic pillars in particular are as old as the history of research regarding Göbekli Tepe, but as of yet no convincing proof for an actual celestial orientation or observation of such phenomena could have been put forward. We always were and still are open to consider these discussions. So, of course we were looking into the new study with quite some interest, too. After all it is a new and fascinating interpretation. However, upon closer inspection we as excavators of this important site would like to raise a few points which may challenge this interpretation in our point of view:

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. There are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of P43 which went conpletely uncommented here.

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 detailed discussion. A more thorough exchange with the excavation team could have clarified many of these concerns.

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121 thoughts on “Archaeoastronomy, meteor showers, mass extinction: What does the fox say? (And what the crane? The aurochs?)

  1. Is there a supposed reason why the same ancient sculptors who could create a detailed and realistic scorpion would create a “man” that is so unrealistic?

    I find the idea that the “headless” figure is a man laughable. It might well represent a turtle with a split shell and/or it’s head pulled into the shell, notwithstanding the odd “arm” flapper. Please note that the body seems to have a pointed tail extended from the “body” at the bottom. Insofar as the “phallus” goes I should think they could sculpt a better image of one of those also: if you mean that thing to the left ofnthe figure, it looks more like intestines to me. What phallus curves round like that? Poor old fellow!

    Perhaps the “story” of the stone is more like this:

    We make scoop-type baskets to catch and carry food
    Out of reeds that we bundle in the sea marshes, cut and then dry.
    The sand runs out but the little sea animals are captured by our baskets!

    Reeds come from the shore where the seabirds gather
    One hunter’s child threw a big round rock but the biggest bird flew away!
    What a shame, the biggest bird would have made a tasty meal.

    One man tells his son to behave or the scorpions will sting him when we get home!
    Later he carved a scorpion to remind the children to behave.
    Whatever we do, we teach the children to do it also.

    So when we carve stories on stone, they get to carve something too.
    Down where they can reach so they don’t need to climb.
    We do not want them to fall and break their tender bones.

    As we carved our story on the upper parts of the stone
    The story of how we gathered reeds at the sea marshes, and food from the shore,
    The younger ones carved near the base of the stone.

    One child said it was a broken turtle!
    Little ones like to dream of catching and eating the turtles of the sea.
    “Look closely and you will see the squished intestines next to it,” said one child.

    “Some distant day many many cycles in the future,” we laughed,
    “Some man will claim that our story held magical meanings
    Because of the stone-throwing of one child and the carving of another child.”

    “Surely,” said the old grumpy man, “Such a future man will be able to distinguish
    The sacred works of our finest sculptors from the works of mere children!”
    One of the women made the others laugh “Not if he is pompous like you!”

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    • To show humans as abstract T-shapes seems a bit ˋunrealistic‘ too, doesn’t it? Yet, they did it.

      On another note (and it seems we have to repeat that frequently here): we have the comments sections so everyone can express and share their opinion on what we are doing. We really appreciate constructive discussions. What we really don’t appreciate are aggressive or condescending comments directed at us or others. Thank you.

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    • KBR: I think this question is still up in the air. In terms of depicted sign language there is little doubt that the “T” Pillar’s Form is the sign for, “below.” The Pillar itself is Big and Singular, “the Great One.” There is a certain vagueness about this. Does the “great one” refer to a person who is “below” in the underworld or does it refer to, “the great below.” Because we haven’t yet determined a rule for the reading order of Form, and Size the subject remains vague. For all we know, the intent may have been both (the great person and the great underworld.) The fact that Arms and Hands also appear on the Pillars does not necessarily refer to the Pillars. Separate Form and Imagery seems to be like a “sentence” that doesn’t refer directly back to a previous Form or Imagery/statement.

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      • Cliff,

        How do you interpret the Fox sign at the side of the Pillar 18. Important note: the Fox is NOT being carried by the person, but is a full standalone image. Important detail: the tail of the Fox is pointing to the elbow ?

        (Note to KBR: sea turtles and Foxes do not mix.)

        How do you interpret the 7 ducks at the pedestal of the Pillar 18 ?

        The Pillar itself is not singular: there is always a pair of the large, central ones.
        What do you think of the Pillar 31 ? Is it a female ?

        What do you reckon of their pendants ?

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      • Causal Visitor:

        The Fox represents the animal’s spirit essence. The Fox was and is considered “very clever, a wonder.” Probably this concept was based on the Fox triangulating its prey before jumping on it. Thus, “the clever one, jumping upwards.” The Moche culture of Peru used dual Fox heads on their Rainbow Serpent reflecting the “wonder” of the Rainbow (especially since they depicted a lunar rainbow). The Fox’s Tail is in the Form of a “part” the gesture sign made by indicating a part of the Finger by sliding the index finger of one hand along the index finger of the other hand indicating a fractional size. The Finger points at the Elbow that would indicate an area that, “opens and closes.” alluding to the Elbow joint. Often the “V” shape made by a partially closed arm Forms the gesture sign for an “opening.” Therefore the Fox is positioned within the “V” shaped “opening.” on the side of the Body of the Pillar.

        The 7 Birds represent, “(Numerical Association Count of 7) the revered, ones”, Sitting, “awaiting their flight”, (ascension) to the sky. If the Birds were intended to be Ducks than their meaning (aside from flying or flight) may indicate their spirit essence as, the one(s) that, “dip their faces below the water.”

        True on the Central Pillars not being singular. The fact that they have the same Imagery on them would indicate, the Twins. In ancient cultures Venus was often called the Twins due to its appearance in the east and western sky. Whether the Pillars represented male or female entities is difficult to say. Because depicted sign language is so heavily dependent on relative position, gender changes often within the same composition. The “T” Form by itself represents, “below.” The underside or the underworld would be female as it is part of the Female-earth. Venus, as an example would be female while in the underworld but male when it has arisen to the male sky. There may have been some com-positional rule that would help sort this out but to date, this has not yet been determined. So some aspects of the compositions remain vague.

        I am not sure what you mean by “their pendants.”

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      • May I again remind you that this isn‘t a message board but the comments section of a weblog (and a completely unrelated blog post). I am sure there are better ways for such an exchange than this place here where every of your posts needs to be reviewed by one of the moderators of this blog and I would kindly ask you to continue this discussion in a more suitable frame. Thanks.

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  2. Sorry, I wasn’t sure whether this was related or not. I will refrain from responding to others comments from now on…

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  3. Are there any plans to remove more of the wall to the left? It’d be nice to see more of what’s carved there, and if anything else is below.

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    • Of course it would be nice to know more about these reliefs and carvings, but we try to preserve as much of the original state of the structures (‘original’ meaning ‘last state’ here) – removing (and thus ‘destroying’ as few as possible).

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