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Pavel Somov, Ph.D. Headshot

Göbekli Tepe Complex of Interpretation

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It's been said that history is written by victors. What hasn't been said - because it is rather self-evident - is that history is written in words. Words are mind's legs: not only do they walk us away from what is but also from what was.


There are many different time-points to start a story. For the protagonists of this story, this story started about 11, 500 years ago. For me - this story started yesterday - when I read Newsweek's "History in the Remaking: A Temple Complex in Turkey That Predates even the Pyramids is Rewriting the Story of Human Evolution." The known facts are simple: archeologist Schmidt is working an ancient dig in Turkey, called Göbekli Tepe, which is full of massive Stonehenge-style T-shaped stone slabs marked with so-far un-deciphered pictograms and pictures of animals. The complex is estimated to predate Egyptian pyramids by 7000 years!


As bewildering as this fact is, it is the interpretation of it that intrigues me. The spin is on: the future history of this historical find is already being written: the site has been already called a temple; the find has been already semantically placed in a religious context. How do we know that this complex was not, say, a Neolithic museum of natural history, a kind of pre-agricultural pictorial information-exchange between the generations of hunter-gatherers? How do we know that this wasn't a stone-age equivalent of MoMA or the first open-air night-club?

This kind of religious zoning of a massive archeological site is an understandable speculation that is based on the seeming correlation of size and meaning. As a civilization we have, indeed, invested great cultural resources into architectural celebration of contemporary values (e.g. the Pyramid Arena in Memphis). But just because many of the monumental buildings in the history of humanity have been of devotional and religious nature, it doesn't necessarily mean that the first had to be a church.

According to Schmidt, the site, for an unknown yet reason, was deliberately buried over with dirt about 3000 years after it was built. Schmidt suggests - you guessed it - a religiously motivated interpretation: the new world (the world that followed the civilization of Göbekli Tepe) might have failed to incorporate the cultural meaning of the complex and opted to bulldoze the old culture: "when you have new gods, you have to get rid of the old ones." As you can see the meme of Göbekli Tepe as a temple has begun to fractalize.

So, here's a word of interpretive caution before it's too late. While it might take us years to decode the original cultural purpose of the Göbekli Tepe complex from its pictograms, I'd like to borrow a bit of semantically contextualizing advice from another ancient source: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). As the world's historians work to incorporate this amazing archeological find, let us not get lost in the murky business of hypothesis-confirmation bias; let us, at least, for once, not rush to bury facts with interpretive fiction lest we end up worshiping word-gods.

Newsweek, March 1, 2010 issue