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.

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.