An archaeologist at the University of Toronto is arguing that the ancient structures uncovered in Turkey and thought to be the world’s oldest temples may not have been strictly religious buildings after all.
Ted Banning says that the buildings found at Gobekli Tepe may have been houses for people, not the gods.
The buildings at Gobekli, a hilltop just outside of the Turkish city of Urfa, were found in 1995 by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute and colleagues from the Sanliurfa Museum in Turkey.
The oldest of the structures at the site are immense buildings with large stone pillars, many of which feature carvings of snakes, scorpions, foxes, and other animals.
The presence of art in the buildings, the substantial effort that must have been involved in making and erecting them, and a lack of evidence for any permanent settlement in the area, led Schmidt and others to conclude that Gobekli must have been a sacred place where pilgrims traveled to worship, much like the Greek ruins of Delphi or Olympia.
If that interpretation is true it would make the buildings, which date back more than 10,000 years to the early Neolithic, the oldest temples ever found.
However, Banning offers an alternative interpretation that challenges some of Schmidt’s claims.
He outlines growing archaeological evidence for daily activities at the site, such as flintknapping and food preparation.
“The presence of this evidence suggests that the site was not, after all, devoid of residential occupation, but likely had quite a large population,” Banning said.
Banning goes on to argue that the population may have been housed in the purported temples themselves.
He disagrees with the idea that the presence of decorative pillars or massive construction efforts means the buildings could not have been residential space.
“There is abundant ethnographic evidence for considerable investment in the decoration of domestic structures and spaces, whether to commemorate the feats of ancestors, advertise a lineage’s history or a chief’s generosity; or record initiations and other house-based rituals,” Banning writes.
Banning suggests that the purported temples may instead have been large communal houses, “similar in some ways to the large plank houses of the Northwest Coast of North America with their impressive house posts and totem poles.”
The article appears in the October issue of Current Anthropology.