Over the last 15 years, Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute and colleagues from the Şanlıurfa Museum in Turkey have been making remarkable finds at the site of Göbekli Tepe, a barren hilltop northeast of the city of Urfa. Schmidt has interpreted the buildings with enormous pillars, some engraved with pictures of animals, as the world’s first temples, some 11,000 years old, and has suggested that this large site was covered with such temples, rather than houses.
Ted Banning offers an alternative interpretation of this exciting site that challenges some of Schmidt’s claims about it. He presents the possibility that the large structures found in the earliest level at the site, rather than being temples, may be very large and impressive 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.” Such societies
often use house structures for competitive display, locations for rituals, and explicit symbols of social units.
Discerning the exact nature of this important site undoubtedly will require further excavation. Then we may know whether it was really a site full of temples, whether the monolithic structures were “special buildings” surrounded by “ordinary” houses, or whether the “temples” were large and impressive residential structures.