The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

World's Oldest Temple?

Over the last few years there has been a flurry of reports in the popular media about a hill in Turkey known as Gobekli Tepe (which translates into "pot-bellied hill"). The hill appears to be the site of an ancient complex of stone pillars arranged in rings, possibly the earliest known temple in the world. What makes this intriguing is two things: the first is that it is a complex that was apparently built by hunter-gatherers, and the second is that (provided that the current dating is correct) the temple may be near 11,000 years old - making it the world's oldest known temple.

Media coverage has ranged from the excellent (such as a January 2008 article in Smithsonian Magazine) to the insipid (such as one article claiming that the temple is the location of the Garden of Eden). A friend sent me a link to a Newsweek article on the temple and jokingly chided me for not letting him in on the cool archaeological stuff.

So, why does the age and the fact that it was built by hunter-gatherers make this site important. Well, it's because archaeologists (like other mammals) like to construct models for the world, and in our models of the development of human social structure we usually hypothesize that people began farming and became sedentary first, and that complex social organization - complete with an elite (including a priesthood) that demands monumental architecture - came later, as towns and then cities develop. To find a temple that pre-dates agriculture by at least 500 years indicates that the sedentary (or semi-sedentary) settlement patterns and the development of social organization bent on building temples may predate agriculture. To quote from the Smithsonian article

To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

This site is very cool, and very important to archaeology.

But, it's not quite the ground-shaker that many people, especially in the media, are making it out to be.

Although there is a "classic" model for the development of social complexity and organization, it has been modified or even thrown out for many regional models of development. For example, in California we have numerous locations where the conditions were right for hunter-gatherers to develop sedentary (or semi-sedentary) societies, and they simultaneously developed both definite (and likely hereditary) elite classes and an accompanying religious hierarchy without developing farming*. Moreover, it can be argued that as there were religious organization throughout California that was non-elite (that is, everyone was a member) and elite (so that only special people could be members, or could rise through the religious hierarchy), the elite versions may be the result of a cultural evolution from non-elite versions which allowed individuals to aggregate power.

Even the creation of monumental architecture as a predecessor to and enabler of social hierarchy rather than as a result of it is not an entirely new idea. There have been many arguments made in the past that yearly rituals that didn't necessarily involve a priest more prominent than the local shaman may have resulted in the construction of at least some of the moundworks found in the Americas, eventually creating the conditions for this ritual to become the basis of a more hierarchical religious or social structure**.

Still, to have a site that appears to be unambiguously associated with hunter gatherers, and that is as old as this appear to be (keep in mind that dating sites can be tricky0, is fantastic. While the ideas introduced may not be as new as they tend to be made to sound, the presence of such a site stands as a "proof of concept" of these ideas, if nothing else. And that is very valuable.

By the way, the site was found several decades ago and dismissed as a medieval cemetery. It wasn't until another archaeologist came along years later and began digging that they found out what it really was. This is yet another example that archaeologists do question the "dogma" of our field, contrary to what many pseudo-scientists and pseudo-historians claim.

*Although there are arguments that forms of proto-farming, such as the modification of oak trees in order to produce more acorns, may have been in use.

**Myself, I am not convinced by these arguments, though they are interesting, but I bring them up simply to point out that many of the concepts that are being attributed to this mound in Turkey have been in circulation for a while.


Jairus Durnett said...

I read the Smithsonian article and was a little vague on why they decided that this was a religious/ceremonial center. How do we know what purpose the original people had for this site? Do we assume that this was a ceremonial structure because we can't figure out any other use?

Brian J. said...

Thanks for commenting on this. I'd been reading the reports on it since the story first appeared, and while the evidence seemed plausible, the sheer magnitude of chronological reevaluation was sending my skepticism into overdrive! :)

Anthroslug said...

Jairus: the reason is that it bears many features common in religious monumental architecture, but not in other forms unless those forms are intentionally aping the religious structures (such as iconography of weird beasts, circular pillars but no roof, etc.).

Brian: Yeah, I think that there is a tendency to look at specific finds as re-writing history when they usually simply are brought into existing trends. Thay may give those trends more support, and may be the information that pushes things over the intellectual edge into widespread acceptance, but they usually don't, by themselves, force a complete revision. There are, however, exceptions.

Jairus Durnett said...

So, it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck. It's reasonable to assume that it is in the duck family. I'm just suspicious because - since this predates religious monumental architecture - then it seems like there is no context for this architectural standard for this structure to imitate.

Also it would be a way cooler discovery if this ended up being the first sports stadium!

Anthroslug said...

That would be cool.

Essentially, though, yeah, it looks like other temples we've found in different parts of the world, but not much like anything else. While I understand your suspicion, there's no data available to suggest that it is anything else. However, should that change down the road...