Archaeologist argues world's oldest temples were not temples at all

October 6, 2011, University of Chicago

Ancient structures uncovered in Turkey and thought to be the world's oldest temples may not have been strictly religious buildings after all, according to an article in the October issue of Current Anthropology. Archaeologist Ted Banning of the University of Toronto argues that the buildings found at Göbekli Tepe may have been houses for people, not the gods.

The buildings at Göbekli, 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 Şanlıurfa 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 Göbekli 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 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.

"The presupposition that 'art,' or even 'monumental' art, should be exclusively associated with specialized shrines or other non-domestic spaces also fails to withstand scrutiny," Banning writes. "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."

Archaeological evidence for domestic art from the Neolithic period exists as well, Banning says, such as the wall paintings at Çatalhöyük, another archaeological site in Turkey.

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."

"If so, they would likely have housed quite large households that might provide an extremely early example of what the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, called 'house societies,'" Banning said. "Such societies often use house structures for competitive display, locations for rituals, and explicit symbols of social units."

Banning hopes that more excavation at the site will ultimately shed more light on how these buildings were used. In the meantime, he hopes that researchers will not automatically assume that the presence of art or decoration in structures at Göbekli and elsewhere denotes an exclusively religious building.

"It is … likely that some of these buildings were the locus for a variety of rituals, probably including feasts, mortuary rites, magic, and initiations," he writes. "Yet there is generally no reason to presume a priori, even when these are as impressive as the buildings at Göbekli Tepe, that they were not also people's houses."

Explore further: A complex of monumental buildings has been located outside the Roman fortress at Caerleon in South Wales

More information: E. B. Banning, "So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East." Current Anthropology 52:5 (October 2011).

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4 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2011
I was watching "Ancient Aliens" yesterday on television, and they showed the "airplane" episode again.

They showed the "bird" that isn't a bird from an Egyptian tomb, and a golden "insect" that isn't an insect from the S. American.

When the archeologists scaled them up they found that they FLY exactly like modern aircraft and gliders. They are perfectly aerodynamic and look exactly like swept wing aircraft.

It is neat how the ancient people knew things that we consider them not to have known, regardless of where they got the knowledge.


Finding evidence of food preparation is tricky at ancient religious sites. Remember, people made "food offerings", just look in the Bible at what the Old Testament suggests for offerings: whole animals, wheat offerings, wave offerings, bread, turtle doves, etc, with elaborate instructions, in some cases similar to meal preparation, or a part of it was for the priest to eat anyway...
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 06, 2011
The priests in Israel lived in the Temple complex and kept the fires of certain vessels and altars burning non-stop, day and night, and of course performed a daily animal sacrifice at 9:00a.m. (the "3rd hour of the day") and 3 p.m. Pretty sure this one was a lamb.

Other cultures may have had similar temple complexes and similar temple rituals.

Many ancient cultures had these animal sacrifices and food sacrifices, and again, the priest may or may not have gotten a portion of the sacrifice for personal food.

And speaking of ancient cultures knowing things we didn't realize, some of the oldest example of quarantine and a knowledge of pathogens is in the Bible. While they didn't seem to know exactly what micro-organisms were, it's clear they knew molds, funguses, and other creatures, as well as infected blood, skin, dwelling places, and clothing were the vectors of disease.

1 / 5 (1) Oct 06, 2011
not rated yet Oct 06, 2011
IMO it was site of some boss, who lived there. The religion was tightly connected with tops of social hierarchy that time.

5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2011
I have always wondered what people of the distant future would think if they A) had our knee-jerk "Look! A Temple!" mindset, where every statue is assumed to be an idol, and B) stumbled across a near-perfectly preserved American MegaMall (Galleria, whatever) frozen in time.

The locations would obviously be (at the very least) "temples of commerce". OK, that can probably already be said.

I wonder if they'd try to figure out which mannequins represented which god, and whether they'd accuse us of carrying on ancient Aztec- or Mayan- like religious butchery, given that so many mannequins are missing arms and/or heads...

Would they find it odd that we practiced gladiatorial hockey right in the very hearts of the temples? What would they think of the Zamboni machine?
not rated yet Oct 07, 2011
there is also a possibility that the sites were in use after they were abandoned.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2011

What if they found a stack of comic books! "These people believed in an alien who was harder than steel and could fly!"

For some reason, I thought of "zombies ate my neighbours". I think that's a video game, never played it though.

Your point about our interpretation of history is true though, pretty much everything gets interpreted as some form of idolatry.
not rated yet Oct 09, 2011
I would agree with Jayded that these structures might have been built as temples, but after a few generations the temple builders might have been replaced by invasion or cultural revolution, and the temples could then have become dwelling places. (Just one of several alternate theories.)

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