Decoding Göbekli Tepe: Secret Society AND Space Observatory?
A paper by authors Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, titled 'Decoding Göbekli Tepe with archaeoastronomy: What does the fox say?' published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry , vol 17, no. 1. (2017) proposed that a key purpose of the Göbekli Tepe site was to serve as an astronomical observatory to monitor comets and their meteor showers, principally of the Taurid system. They maintain the site is sky-centric and that reliefs and symbols on its pillars share vocabulary in recording events connected with the observation of this stream. Pillar 43 of Enclosure D, the cryptic ‘Tauroctony’ of Göbekli Tepe, received focus as a cenotaph remembering the cometary encounter proposed for causing the Younger Dryas event.
Reproduction of Göbekli Tepe enclosure D. Credit: Alistair Coombs
Before Sweatman and Tsikritis published their research, it was not evident they were challenging any pre-existing interpretation that linked the reliefs and symbols to a cohesive pattern of ideology held by the current excavators. However, their statistical case for an astronomical significance of the site clashed with pre-defined notions and specialisms of the excavators whose interpretive orientations prioritize the site as a processer of social complexity and group identity building, following current archaeological trends. These activities explain how the site was used (e.g. food production/feasting) and what reliefs and symbols most likely mean (e.g. social status/clan emblems). Against this, ‘coherent catastrophism’ would fail to gain traction since it restructures these assumptions, together with an unfounded claim that constellation mythologies can only be expected to remain stable over several thousand years, at fundamental levels. The former head of excavation, Klaus Schmidt, was not personally keen on archaeoastronomy but he nevertheless made statements conducive to its interpretation.
Temple, Fair House, Observatory
For Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe was primarily a sacred site. Its built environment was a nondomestic communal space within a geography of Stone Age pilgrimage, like a Greek amphictyony for hunter-gatherers. Its pillars were non-structural monuments depicting ancestors or supernatural beings. This status of the site as a seasonal, non-residential sanctuary was challenged by Ted Banning, a specialist in domestic and sacred buildings of the Neolithic Levant. Drawing from a resource of ethnographic examples, he demarcates the permeability between sacred buildings and residential living spaces and though he agrees the site had a sacred aspect, Banning believes it was predominately a settlement, that its enclosures were housing units. Absent from the considerations of Schmidt and Banning is the notion of an observatory.
- Göbekli Tepe & The Great Year
- The Secret of Gobekli Tepe: Cosmic Equinox and Sacred Marriage - Part 1
An observatory harmonizes the house-shrine, sanctuary-settlement disparity since, amid other factors, this function of the site would service seasonal gatherings yet accommodate a smaller personnel residence more permanently.
Both Schmidt and Banning compare the humanoid-pillars of Göbekli Tepe to the ancestor statues of Easter Island known as moai. Their comparisons are limited to the logistics of construction/ambulation and their bearing as objects of competitive tribe status. A more qualitative and, one would argue, fundamental dimension of the moai ‘images’, however, was to mediate ancestor spirits at astronomically determined times of the year when the statues would become endowed with life in their ceremonial centers. Not as commonly referenced in Easter Island are its astronomical houses known as tupa. These were mentioned by Katherine Routledge in her The Mystery of Easter Island (1919) and in her unpublished writings. These observatories are built on a north-south or east-west axis and placed at key vantage points over the island. Despite their mundane, observational use for stargazing, these buildings intersect the secular and supernatural as they were entered by crawling through disproportionately narrow entrances to prevent evil spirits gaining access to their spaces.
Masons hauling a pillar about the size of the Vulture Stone. Credit: Alistair Coombs
The fact the Göbekli Tepe structures may have been roofed under pole and thatch for small or longer periods does not negate their function as observatories given the site’s hilltop vantage. Moreover, from the perspective of the Upper Paleolithic, which was Schmidt’s ambitioned way of interpreting the site, stellar observations were reproduced in cave art. Building upon the observations of Alexander Marshack and other Paleohistorians on notational artifacts and cave art as astronomic systems, Brian Hayden and Suzanne Villeneuve make a strong case for complex hunter-gatherer groups of the Upper Paleolithic forming secret societies and carrying systems of astronomy and ritual occultism into the Neolithic. With developed calendar systems, these clandestine hunter-gatherer societies would host feasts and control access to the supernatural through initiation. Emerging from this occult ritual activity at the dawn of civilization, seasonal and other astronomic esoterica would be expected to appear on hunter-gatherer monumental architecture.