More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

We already expressed a couple of thoughts and remarks on a paper published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in which Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis have suggested (original article accessible here: [external link]) that the early Neolithic monumental enclosures at Göbekli Tepe were space observatories and the site’s complex iconography the commemoration of a catastrophic astronomical event (‘Younger Dryas Comet Impact’).

Meanwhile we were putting together a more elaborate reply with further arguments and references which, in our opinion, challenge the interpretation and add more context to the paper’s discussion of Göbekli Tepe’s iconography in the light of the early Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. The editors of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry kindly agreed to publish our response in the same journal as the original article by Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

The paper (J. Notroff, O. Dietrich, L. Clare, L. Dietrich, J. Schlindwein, M. Kinzel, C. Lelek-Tvetmarken, D. Sönmez: More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 17(2), 2017, 57-63.) can be accessed online: [external link].

Fig. 1

Aerial view of the mound of Göbekli Tepe with excavation areas. (Photo: E. Kücük, DAI)

Our reservations, which are not meant to silence any further archaeoastronomic discussion for Göbekli Tepe at all but rather comment on a number of discrepances we see in the interpretation, are summed up here:

1. The original layout of Göbekli Tepe’s monumental round-oval buildings is still subject of ongoing research (none of these structures are completely excavated as of yet). One should be aware that many of the T-pillars incorporated into the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe are not standing in their original positions and the buildings underwent significant modification during their life-cycles. Building archaeology studies have revealed that in many cases pillars were ‘recycled’, i.e. pulled out and used elsewhere. The monuments as we see them today are the culmination of multi-phase building and rebuilding events. Additionally, there is the significant possibility that we are dealing with roofed structures; this fact alone would pose limitations to a function as sky observatories.

2. The chronological frame Sweatman and Tsikritsis suggest for Pillar 43 (10950 BC +/- 250 years) is still 700-1000 years older than the oldest radiocarbon date so far available for Enclosure D (which stems from organic material retrieved from a wall plaster matrix). While there is evidence for later re-use of pillars (see above), assuming such a long tradition of knowledge relating to an unconfirmed (ancient) cosmic event appears extremely far-fetched. So far, any available date for Göbekli Tepe rather marks the end than the beginning of the Younger Dryas.

3. The assumption that asterisms are stable across time and cultures is not convincing. It is highly unlikely that early Neolithic hunters in Upper Mesopotamia recognized the exact same celestial constellations as described by ancient Egyptian, Arabian, and Greek scholars, which still populate our imagination today.

4. Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ contribution appears incredibly arbitrary, considering images adorning just a few selected pillars. Meanwhile more than 60 monumental limestone T-pillars are known from Göbekli Tepe – among these many feature similar carved low reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, a few even as complex as Pillar 43 (e.g. Pillar 56 in Enclosure H). Furthermore, the iconographic programme is not restricted to the limestone pillars; it is known from other find groups (including stone vessels, shaft straighteners, and plaquettes) not only from Göbekli Tepe but also from numerous contemporary sites in the wider region.

Fig. 3

Pillar 56 from Enclosure H is another example for the rich and often complex iconography of Göbekli Tepe. (Photos & drawing: N. Becker, DAI)

5. Göbekli Tepe’s iconography is actually even more complex than the paper suggests. The animals depicted on the pillars seem to follow an intentional pattern, whereby each building has a different emphasis, i.e. with one animal or more being especially prominent. If we interpret these differences as an expression of community and belonging, this could hint at different groups having been responsible for the construction of particular enclosures. In other words, specific enclosures may have served the needs of different social entities. For this reason, it is extremely problematic to pick out any one pillar and draw far-reaching but isolated interpretations while leaving out its context. A purely substitutional interpretation ignores these subtler but significant details. Details like the headless man on the shaft of Pillar 43, interpreted as a symbol of death, catastrophe and extinction by Sweatman and Tsikritsis, silently omits the clearly emphasised phallus which must contradict the lifeless notion; rather, this image implies a more versatile narrative behind these depictions. It should also be noted that there are even more reliefs on both narrow sides of Pillar 43 which apparently went unnoticed in the study at hand.

Fig. 4

Distribution of the appearance of figurative representations in the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe. Note: The different state of excavation as well as chronological depth of construction periods have to be considered; later added graffiti as well as symbolically reduced icons were not included. (Graphic: J. Notroff & N. Becker, DAI)

Fig. 2

Pillar 43 from Enclosure D and its particularly rich relief-decoration – actually extending not only on the pillar’s western broadside (left), but also the southern (middle) and northern (right) narrow sides. (Photos: K. Schmidt, N. Becker, DAI)

Pre-Pottery Neolithic iconography, by far exceeding the realms of Göbekli Tepe, is often especially concerned with articulation and disarticulation of the human body. Particularly the depiction of severed human heads or headless bodies in combination with necrophagous animals (preferably but not exclusively vultures) is a well-known theme and may be rooted in a complex multiphase Pre-Pottery Neolithic mortuary ritual. Similar depictions of a bird grasping a human head are known from Göbekli Tepe as well as life-sized human sculpture heads which were deposited within the buildings.

Fig. 5

Fragmented sculpture from Göbekli Tepe showing a bird of prey crouched on a human head. (Photo: N. Becker, DAI)

 

Meanwhile both authors of the orginal study replied to our response (same issue of MAA, see link above), stressing that “… given the statistical basis o[f] [their] interpretation, any interpretation inconsistent with [theirs] is very likely to be incorrect.” (Sweatman and Tsikritsis, Comment, MAA 17(2), 66). Admittedly though, we still would like to express our doubt that human creativity really can be treated as a statistical case solely.

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20 thoughts on “More than a vulture: A response to Sweatman and Tsikritsis.

  1. Why do you even reply to these alien-creation crackpots? Their nonsense only detracts from scientific analysis and credible human evolution.

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    • It was a scientific article published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal we were replying to. In the same journal. That’s academic common practice.

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    • Just to add that (luckily) nobody has talked about aliens so far. As Jens also said in the post, we are not against archaeoastronomy. We observed severe flaws in the line and logic of argumentation in one particular article and see no reason to connect Göbekli Tepe to the hypothetical Younger Dryas Impact Event. We made that clear in a response to that article. To me this isn’t a waste of time, it’s science.

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    • William, this is how science works. Science is only science when it is underpinned by evidence expressed in statistical terms with an estimate of confidence. We therefore provided a detailed scientific argument that Jens and his colleagues avoided in their response. Any other kind of ‘evidence’, without a statistical estimate of confidence, is not scientific – it is merely opinion. From your comment I can only presume you did not actually read our paper, as we did not mention aliens or creation once. You might also find our response to Jens and his colleagues interesting – Vol 17, issue 2 of the same journal.

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    • Determinations are done by our archaeozoologists. In this case shape of head and beak, as well as the pattern visible in the neck area are important arguments.

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      • Yes, it’s in particular the beak and the characteristic collar giving away this one. Plus: vultures are significantly present among animal bones as well.

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    • Much better image, but not yet good enough. The Sun is on the ecliptic this time, but your vulture is ‘artistically’ /inclined/, whereby the one on the pillar is not – it is horizontal! What you are missing is that the Sun is supposed to be at sharp zenith to mark the solstice, as viewed locally on a gnomon. Never mind the fact that the actual crossing into Cancer sign is at some other time. But, while the Sun is at zenith, the constellation of Vulture is indeed horizontal, whilst Scorpio, and Libra are above the horizon, as depicted, so horizon is supposed to be at ground level, not at the head level, as you drove it this time.

      So, for the next iteration, I suggest that you redraw the image with Sun placed at zenith, for the solstice day on years 10,952 – 10,949 BC, and match it with the (Vulture & sun disc) from the pillar, as drawn upon it. If you do, you might notice several interesting, and very indicative details.

      Second remark: please mention the time of day for the picture (preferably in UT), it is very important for replication, and if possible use Gregorian calendar referencing, because that promptly indicates the discrepancy from the June 22 solstice that we are accustomed to.

      Third, what precession formula have you been using for calculating the ecliptic of date ? (I presume the ephemeris is DE431).

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      • Casual Visitor:
        i) Sorry, but the image is more than good enough for the purposes of confirming that the Vulture/Sun Disc sculpture is REPRESENTATIVE of the date at summer solstice. If you believe that I have missed anything then it is for you to present your own interpretation, and of course I will be more than interested to see this, when in due course you publish as you appear to have indicated that you will do so.

        ii) Personally, I think you are considerably over complicating the matter by wishing to be so accurate to time. If they wanted to express precise time then they would have shown it. I have not overlooked that perhaps indeed they did by the rectangular boxes below the “handbags”, if they represent the hours passed on this day. However, I don’t believe that these represent the time of day, and what I do believe they represent is a matter for me when I publish in due course, so I am, regrettably to those who might wish to read further discussion, not prepared to do so here.

        iii) Sagittarius would not have been visible at this time of year. However, the position of the constellation is fixed throughout the year, and so it’s rising position, and any step along its path, would easily have been able to be marked during those times of the year/day when it could have been observed in a dark sky. The image clearly shows Sagittarius as above the local horizon – as generated using the “Horizon” astronomy program, created by Andrew Smith. This is not necessarily precise, but more than sufficiently indicative in the absence of a theodolite survey supported by photography.

        iv) We are not “accustomed” to June solstice on 22nd – http://www.astropixels.com/ephemeris/soleq2001.html. In the previous century it occurred on that date 36 times. Since my date of birth, only seven times.

        iv) I use the proleptic Julian date. The purpose of the image is to show that the integrity of the sculpture as representing a vulture is not damaged by deconstruction and fitting individual elements to observable sky phenomena (as calculated). This can be done against any sky over decades and centuries around the target date as shown,and as can still be done currently, hence my subsequent posting. Times, as you appear to be so intensely concerned with are immaterial to this objective, and Gregorian or any other translation, is equally immaterial.

        v) An equally important purpose is to show that the integrity of the astronomical interpretation of the vulture is valid as further statistical input to the analysis undertaken by Sweatman and Tsikritsis. There is much more to come, from my investigation, regarding this aspect. It is, of course, entirely in the hands of the Authors whether they wish to take this potential evidence further or not.

        vi) Yes, I used DE431 in this instance, but this issue has been covered elsewhere in our dialogue, hence the spread of solstice dates that I have used in the image. If you are concerned that this is still not accurate enough for the specific purpose, herein, of “astronomical integrity” of the vulture sculpture (including its relation to the Sun disc) then the only way to dispute it is to present your own technical argument. What I have presented will stand as it is shown in my proposed presentation, in due course. I am not inclined to change it unless you, or anyone else, provides sufficient prior evidence. I am more than open to change my mind if such evidence is presented. Scrutiny from appropriate expertise is an important part of the scientific process, at whichever time it occurs.

        Nonetheless, many thanks for your input.

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      • Richard,
        The sculpture *does* show the time, sharp (apparent) noon, on summer solstice. It is *only* at that time that the Vulture is horizontal, as it was carved on the pillar, and it is *only* at that time, on summer solstice, that the subsequent two constellations, Scorpio and Libra are also visible, but not the Virgo, as it was carved on the pillar.
        This is one of the things that you missed.

        The second thing that you missed is that I was trying to help you by giving you a hint. Between the lines.

        The third thing is that *precise time is of the essence*, because if you know the time, then any positional discrepancy is due to precession, which then yields the year. Without knowing the time, you end up with +/- 250 years of error margin, as in the fox paper, which is almost utterly useless data.

        If you do precisely what I asked you to do, after several iterations you would be able to refine the stated +/- 250 years of error margin substantially.

        If you wish to thank me, then if you publish a paper there is a chapter called ‘Acknowledgments’ reserved for this purpose.

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      • I just wanted to ask everybody again to discuss here without mockery, provocations and personal attacks. If this is not possible, then there are other places on the internet where nobody has to moderate your debates.

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      • Casual Visitor:
        All I did was to respond to the question put by “EA4 Admin” to illustrate the validity of an astronomical interpretation for the vulture. The message is simply that I am trying to build bridges between archaeology and archaeoastronomy along scientifically valid lines when appropriate opportunities arise. This was my sole intention here, and I have answered with respect to the form of the “bird” being capable of defining across epochs and sky position, as a vulture. I’m not at all clear, therefore, regarding the purpose of your continued intervention.

        Our dialogue on another thread was technically interesting to me, but the key point from this is that you claim errors, or potential refinement, of dating, argued around ephemeris models.The proper way to deal with this is to publish your error table, as I suggested, and then let colleague experts deal with the matter, one way or another. The technicalities involved are beyond my expertise, despite my being aware of the issues at a level greater than the average reader, probably more also than many an archaeoastronomy practitioner. The range of technical applications and research areas have exploded over recent decades – something archaeologists, I would suggest, are not generally aware of, as they would clearly benefit if they were. Gobekli Tepe is an excellent opportunity to further dialogue.

        As regards missing things, I have to respond that I have missed nothing, since I have not published the full results of my investigation, and the contribution here was meant only to be an extract with a specific focus. There is, therefore, nothing against which you can even claim that I have missed anything, and so it appears to me that you are, effectively, trying to double-guess what it is that I might be publishing. With respect, I don’t see the point. I certainly wasn’t fishing for hints to aid in my investigation and to be frank, I’m perfectly happy with the +/- 250 year at this stage. So the way to deal with this is to wait until I publish, and then you will have all the opportunity you wish to critique.

        However, there is no competition on my part, and I will look forward to reading anything you may wish to publish, even if you do so tomorrow. A particular point is that it appears that you have strong opinions in the context of the +/-250 years being “useless data”. If you do nothing but publish a narrower date range, supported by appropriate argument, then that would be something that can be cited, if relevant. Otherwise there is nothing to acknowledge, and in any case of no benefit to anyone since you wish to remain anonymous.

        The end result, is that Oliver is being forced to moderate – albeit my approach is only to answer directly, with none of the implied intentions – and he has my sympathies. So it looks as if, for the second time, I will withdraw from discussion unless in answer to any directly relevant technical query.

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      • I apologize if this debate has gone a little wild, so I’ll stop it for the time being.
        As for the acknowledgments, I’ll surely mention Richard when I wrote my paper, even though he is anonymous too, for he prompted me to update my software with DE431 ephemeris, which is a major improvement, just at the time when I needed it. As I said elsewhere, this process would take until the end of July.

        Without that improvement, the accuracy was +/- 250 years. That is too much. Precision was expressed in degrees.

        At present precision is below one arc minute, which allows the +/-250 years interval to be reduced to +/- 0 years. I thank Richard for his latest image, which allowed me to conclude that. I regret that this research has to be competitive instead of cooperative.

        I hope to increase the precision of my software further to below one arc second by the end of the month.

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      • Casual Visitor:
        I’m more than happy for Oliver or Jens to pass on to you my email address, although it may be a step too far with regard to the terms and conditions of this facility(?). Otherwise, I’m in the process of putting together a first publication – not involving Gobekli Tepe. When done I will let you know.

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      • You both have chosen to remain anonymous here. I’m sure there are reasons for this and I respect your decision. But this puts us in a difficult situation here. I really don’t like the idea of sending personal data from one person I don’t know to another person I don’t know. In addition to ethic issues I’m really not sure if that would be legal in terms of German privacy laws, which are rather strict.

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      • Thanks Oliver, that’s why I included the caveat. “Richard” is however my real name and, as per images, I’ve shown my surname. It is a matter of putting in a variety of versions of my names into Google search, although for some reason the number of hits have dropped dramatically of late. Whereas I’m not concerned regarding people knowing who I am, declaring my email is kept to a minimum, as there are other ways in which contact can be made, such as at Academia(dot)edu.

        i respect your position on this issue.

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  2. Oliver and Jens,
    I thought you might like to go out tonight, if you are at the GT site, as the weather report sounds favourable for viewing. Sagittarius will be at the southern meridian at 11.00 pm, with Saturn to the west. Here are two images which you can download and print off, and which will give you details of the scene to be seen.
    https://farm5.staticflickr.com/4308/35611941060_6257fee0d3_b.jpg (Stellarium)
    https://farm5.staticflickr.com/4314/36000685045_362f6d9662_b.jpg (Skymap)
    One is in negative format. Please could you confirm if the horizon profile is reasonably accurate.
    If not tonight the scene will be similar for a few days – Moon rises at 2.00 am.

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  3. Apologies:
    I have entered the wrong details for the Lagoon Nebula in my image. It should read M8 and Magnitude 6. Also below it the star should be HIP 89153 (not HIP 89513). If anyone spots any other such mistakes in any of this and other of my images please advise. At present with other commitments, I do much of this late at night or early hours of the morning! Thanks.

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