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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Buzzwords, Bogeymen, and Banalities of Pseudoarchaeology: Göbekli Tepe - Archaeology Review

Buzzwords, Bogeymen, and Banalities of Pseudoarchaeology: Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Rolf Cosar, CC-BY-SA-4.0.

In the realm and imaginations of those who disseminate fake, fraudulent, and fantastic archaeological claims, there are some things that are just cliche in their discussions: the go-to bogeymen for blame or rancorous contempt, or just statements they find profound which barely rise to a level of trite reality.

One of these is "Göbekli Tepe," the name of a Neolithic archaeological site discovered in Turkey in 1963. It's a very special site for a couple of reasons, perhaps most notably that there appears to be monumental architecture present that precedes agriculture. Until the structures at this site were dated, it was thought that agriculture logically preceded monumental architecture in societies and, in general, it probably does. One of the supposed reasons for this is that agriculture allows for increased production and storage of food as a source of calories, and the opportunities for social stratification and skill or trade specialization.

While this may still be sufficiently true in many societies of the ancient past, Göbekli Tepe shows us that it isn't necessarily true.

Another, related, reason why Göbekli Tepe is a very special site is its age. Earliest levels of the site date to about 9600-8800 BCE. That's a little more than 11,000 years ago.

As Pseudoarchaeological Trope

In his book Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock writes this about Göbekli Tepe:

"Göbekli Tepe is the oldest work of monumental architecture so far found anywhere in the world, or at any rate the oldest accepted as such by archaeologists. […] the problem at Göbekli Tepe is the pristine, sudden appearance, like Athena springing full-grown and fully armed from the brow of Zeus, of what appears to be an already seasoned civilization so accomplished that it "invents" both agriculture and monumental architecture at the apparent moment of its birth. […] Archaeology can no more explain that than it can explain why the earliest monuments, art, sculptures, hieroglyphs, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and architecture of Ancient Egypt are perfect at the beginning without any traces of evolution from simple to sophisticated. "

Hancock, Graham (2012). Magicians of the Gods. London: Coronet, pp. 5, 10.

About both Göbekli Tepe and Egypt, Hancock is, of course, wrong.

Egyptian monuments, writing, architecture, etc. all show varied degrees of cultural evolution. Early tombs show a Mesopotamian influence in brickwork such as with the pre-dynastic tomb 100 in Hierakonpolis. Burials themselves evolve from round, pit graves with simple grave goods, to rectangular graves with increased numbers and varieties of goods. Initially jars were painted with funeral processions, which evolved later into entire temple murals.

By the Early Dynastic Period, tombs over graves began to appear as certain members of Egyptian society attained increased wealth and status. These were rectangular mastabas with burial chambers placed underground. Grave goods are even more evolved, including furniture, weapons, cosmetics, jewelry, and so on. The first pyramids begin to show up in the Old Kingdom and even these are clearly a progression of trial and error as architects experiment with style, form, and function with varied success.

Petrie's Pottery Marks
Pottery Marks from Petrie, W.M.F. (1895). Naqada and Ballas. London. Many of these
marks are clear precursors to later hieroglyphs.

Pottery of the pre-dynastic evolves from simplistic forms like the Badarian Period, to etched and painted geometric designs of the Amaratian Period, to early amphorae in the Gerzean Period complete with lugs and handles. Interestingly, early pot-marks painted and incised on vessels in Naqada very much resemble early hieroglyphs. So even these small aspects of Egyptian technology are easily observed as following a progression of development over hundreds, even thousands of years.

Contrary to Hancock's claim, Egyptian culture did not simple pop into existence. And neither did that of Göbekli Tepe. In much the same way, the site of Göbekli Tepe developed over time. Though, because of the challenges of preservation and the amount of time involved, it's less obvious.

But suppose no archaeological evidence was present to support technological and cultural progression at either site? Would this automatically be evidence that the people of either started out "perfect at the beginning?" Of course not. It would be more likely to indicate poor preservation in the archaeological record. At the very least, this would necessarily be an equal hypothesis to falsify.

It's great age coupled with it's monumental architecture makes Göbekli Tepe a site that mystery mongers want to associate with. This is probably because that great age comes with a longer period of time for nature to do its thing with site preservation. In particular, only the most durable bits of the material record are permitted to survive. Stone tools, the stone pillars the site is famous for, some stone figurines, a few bones, some pottery, and the incised or carved designs found on pillars and pottery.

Enter the Denisovans

In his book, Denisovan Origins, co-authored with Greg Little, Andrew Collins attempts several spurious connections between Denisovans and the people of Göbekli Tepe. The connections are presented as though they're obvious and "clear," a word Collins overuses in his narrative, particularly since very little is validated beyond the selection of that adjective.

For instance, Collins would have his readers believe that the culture of Göbekli Tepe is the result of Denisovan culture. In spite of the fact that precious little is actually known about this subspecies of archaic human beyond a few bones, some artifacts that may or may not have belonged to them, and that some of their DNA continues to exist in some modern humans. What we don't know is whether or not any of the modern humans that created the Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe had any of this DNA. Nor do artifacts of one culture say anything about the other.

In fact, while the distance in time from the present to the peak of Göbekli Tepe's occupation is about 11,000 years or so, the distance in time from today back to the most recent Denisovan we have material evidence for is as early as 51,000 years. If we were to draw that to scale, it would be like comparing the distance from New York to Atlanta with NYC to San Francisco. Nearly four times the distance.

Catastrophic Impactors!

And of course there are those that think the circle found on Pillar 43, the Flamingo Pillar (some call it the "vulture pillar") represents a comet that started the Younger Dryas period, wiping out the Clovis culture along with the megafauna of the day.

Let's unpack this a little. The alleged Younger Dryas impactor would have been 12,800 years ago. The Flamingo Pillar was probably erected around 12,000 years ago. The difference in time, 800 years, is long enough for 32 generations to pass. When you think about this just a little, it becomes absurd to believe that the people of Göbekli Tepe were attempting to represent a comet or meteor. There was no form of writing. And if you want to argue that there was an oral tradition that saved the information, you need only consider that, in 32 generations, a single inhabitant of Göbekli Tepe had over 4 billion ancestors. Each telling their version of the story. Ever play the game of telephone?

Göbekli Tepe has an appeal to the significance junkie in all of us: its great age; its grandiose pillars; its mysterious purpose; its pre-agrarian origin; and so on. The fact that it was created so long ago means that much is lost to the processes of nature when it comes to material record, though we're probably lucky it spent much of its time in a desert.

When there are questions about archaeological sites, artifacts, or features, there will always be the Mystery Mongers who will happily give you their preferred explanation. And, like the modern day "psychic," they'll toss a variety of these "explanations" at the wall, hoping one will stick, confident they'll be remembered for their hits and not their misses.

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