Archaeoastronomy and Gobekli Tepe

 Archaeoastronomy is one of my great interests. I am honoured to have been elected as a full member to ISAAC, the International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture. Consequently I was fascinated to read of new ideas about one of the most fascinating sites in the world, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. But new ideas need checking, as one of the archaeologists I trust most, Jens Nortoff,  points out below. As someone who has put a new idea about archaeological interpretation knows, this will all take time and debate – as it should be.

News of a new theory abut Gobekli Tepe in Turkey hit the news this week. It says, in part:

Ancient stone carvings confirm that a comet struck the Earth around 11,000BC, a devastating event which wiped out woolly mammoths and sparked the rise of civilisations.

Experts at the University of Edinburgh analysed mysterious symbols carved onto stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations.
(Click on the image or here for the full story.)

The full academic article can be found here: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, Deconding Gobekli Tepe with archaeoastronomy: what does the fox say? 

Odd things about this report concerned me, but I am not in a position to judge without a great deal further investigation. So I went straight to the authority I respect most on Golbekli Tepe, Jens Nortoff at The Tepe Telegrams. These reports are from the archaeologists in the trenches.

I will be blogging more from The Tepe Telegrams as there are quite a few reports there which I feel are really important ideas. But meanwhile, it is important to note some of Jens’s comments in his post. He writes:

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).

(Click in the image or here for the full report.)

This is the stunning pillar in question from The Tepe Telegrams post. Anyone familiar with my work will now know why I find Gobekli Tepe so intriguing.

“Pillar 43 in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

Jens concludes: “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 more thorough discussion.”

The view of the archaeologists on sites

As someone who has published a new theory for the purpose of sites such as Gobekli Tepe, Stonehenge and many others, it may be assumed that I would automatically be attracted to, and supportive of, other radical new ideas. I am. But I am also hugely respectful of the views of the archaeologists who know the details of what has actually been found there.

Consequently, it was hugely important for me to ensure that my theory was consistent with all the archaeology reported from the field. It was then an imperative to present the ideas to relevant archaeologists, as I did in the UK in February and listen to their concerns. I was delighted that there was no objection to the theory. It is now a matter for debate of the details. That will refine the theory. Getting into the academic debate is the first step.

For that reason, I congratulate Dr Martin Sweatman and the Edinburgh researchers for their work and for raising awareness of this incredible site.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I was fascinated by an email I received from Susannah Walker in the UK a few days ago. But first, a little background. For many years, a small photo has sat on my desk. It was taken by my late mother, and has the name of the circle in her handwriting on the back. But I had done no more than acknowledge it as one of the thousand or so stone circles in Britain.

castlerigg-front castlerigg-back

Susannah wrote: I have been fascinated to hear about your book, The Memory Code and am very much looking forward to reading it when I go on holiday in a few weeks time.

Even reading the reviews, however, made me think of Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. When I visited it last year, I noticed that the shapes of each of the stones mirrored the silhouette of the hills behind it, making the circle a representation of the wider landscape around. It clearly seemed to be deliberate, and your theory seems to be the perfect answer as to why. (As this article shows, I’m not the first person to have spotted this!).

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Click on the image above or here to go to the Visit Cumbria site on Castlerigg.

Susannah’s observation of the way the stones reflect the surrounding landscape is one of the Ten Indicators I use to assess whether a monument was possibly used primarily as a memory space. The descriptions online also note many of the other Indicators: astronomical alignments, a sequence of memory locations (the stones), and even the public and restricted spaces with the rectangular ‘sanctuary’ within the circle. Being Neolithic, there is no sign of a wealthy elite, and a great deal of effort has been invested for no obvious utilitarian purpose.

I love Castlerigg. Thank you, Susannah for making me take more notice of the precious photograph which has been on the desk all this time.

Why rituals and belief? Why not knowledge?

I guess this is going to be my hobby horse over the next few years: Why are enigmatic objects always associated with ‘beliefs’ and nebulous ‘rituals’? Why not knowledge?

Past Horizons is an archaeological journal often reporting very interesting finds. In a report about various objects from a mesolithic site in Poland, all of which can be interpreted as part of knowledge systems, the site is described as “a rare glimpse into the world of Mesolithic beliefs”.            




[click on image to go to the full article.]

There is ‘magic’ and ‘shamanistic ritual objects’ but no mention of knowledge systems.

There is the implication that prehistoric people lived in a fog of superstition. I don’t deny that contemporary non-literate cultures have spiritual beliefs integrated with the knowledge system. It is the emphasis I object to.  My research in primary orality indicates strongly that a great deal of ritual performance and ceremonial song is linked to repeating pragmatic and rational knowledge. This includes astronomical observations used to  retain a calendar closely related to resource availability – be it from hunting, gathering or farming. Star patterns are often used as representations of mythological characters whose stories also encode rational knowledge.

At the end of the Past Horizons article is reference to another research paper on mesolithic astronomy. I assumed that it also referred to rituals and shamans and magic supporting the tone of the previous part of the article. That surprised, given the list of contributors:


Among other familiar names is that of Clive Ruggles. Always rational and demanding significant evidence for any claim, Ruggles is my major influence in archaeoastronomy. I read the article (linked to the image above) and there is not a mention of superstition. There’s just lots of really interesting reporting and discussion.

Am I getting pedantic? I don’t think so. But it takes a whole book to present my argument fully. Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies comes out with Cambridge University Press in Fall (US) 2015. Until then, I just grumble.