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Sirius and the project of the megalithic enclosures at Gobekli Tepe

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Abstract

The megalithic enclosures of Gobekli Tepe (Urfa, Turkey) are the most ancient sacred structures of stone known so far, dating back to the 10 millennium BC. The possible presence of astronomical targets for these structures is analysed, and it turns out that they may have been oriented, or even originally constructed, to celebrate and successively follow the appearance of a new, extremely brilliant star in the southern skies: Sirius.
Sirius and the project of the megalithic enclosures
at Gobekli Tepe
Giulio Magli
Faculty of Civil Architecture - Politecnico di Milano
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32, 20133 Milan, Italy
Giulio.Magli@polimi.it
The megalithic enclosures of Gobekli Tepe (Urfa, Turkey) are the most ancient stone-built sacred
structures known so far, dating back to the 10
th
millennium BC. The possible presence of
astronomical targets for these structures is analysed, and it turns out that they may have been
oriented or even originally constructed - to “celebrate” and successively follow the appearance of
a “new”, extremely brilliant star in the southern skies: Sirius.
1. Introduction
Gobekli Tepe, a hill in the province of Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, is the first “temple” about
which we are aware of (Schmidt 1998,2001,2006,2010). It is composed by a series of circular
enclosures (of which only a few are excavated yet) whose project is based on a megalithic “unit”: a
huge T-shaped pillar, usually finely engraved. Two such pillars stand in the centre, parallel to each-
other, while a series of other pillars is placed around the contour of the circle. Most carvings
represent dangerous or anyhow wild animals: felines, foxes, boars, vultures, spiders, snakes, and
scorpions. The site is dated to the so called pre-pottery Neolithic (PPN), and was in use between the
10th and the 9th millennium BC; successively, it was left abandoned and intentionally obliterated.
Gobekli Tepe is not unique as other Neolithic sites with T-pillars have been documented (see e.g.
Celik 2001).
The antiquity of this sacred place is so astonishing that it is extremely difficult to put forward
hypotheses on the religion and on the cults which were practised there. In recent years, however,
Archaeoastronomy – used with due caution - has proved to be a quite powerful tool in gaining
better understanding of the symbolic world of many ancient cultures (see e.g. Ruggles 2005, Magli
2009). In this paper, a preliminary analysis of possible astronomical references at Gobekli Tepe is
therefore attempted.
2. Discussion
Astronomy is a familiar presence in megalithic sites (although its role has been sometimes stretched
too far in the past). Interestingly, and although it may seem strange, there is no doubt that the
ancient places which bear the most striking similarities with Gobekli Tepe are the astronomically
oriented sanctuaries of Menorca, built some 8000 years later. These are oval-shaped enclosures
centred on a huge, T-shaped object (commonly referred to as a Taula) composed by a huge pillar
and a transverse capital. Such sanctuaries were very probably oriented to the brilliant stars of the
southern sky, those of the Crux-Centaurus group, which were slowly disappearing from the
Mediterranean sky due to precession (Hoskin 2001). Is it possible that a stellar reference was
present at Gobekli as well?
As far as the present author is aware, there is no scholarly work published on the archaeoastronomy
of the GT enclosures, while a rectangular building there has been identified as being orientated to
the cardinal points (Belmonte and García 2010). On the enclosures there are, however, two non-
scholarly publication which are worth considering (Schoch 2012, Collins 2013), In the first, a
possible role of the rising of the stars of Orion's belt to the south-east is proposed, while in the
second the opposite orientation, identified as targeting the setting of Deneb and of the Cygnus
constellation is put forward. Bot these analyses are, in my view, not convincing. Orion indeed
would lead to too a high dating for the structures. Regarding a northern orientation, it is in a sense
unnatural, as the enclosures are rather open to the south-east; all orientations of “shrines” we are
aware of are from inside to outside (a few examples: the temples of Malta, the Taulas of Menorca,
the Greek temples, the Christian Churches…). Further, there actually exists another possible stellar
target which seems to have been overlooked so far. In fact, simulating the sky in the 10
th
millennium BC, it is possible to see that a quite spectacular phenomenon occurred at Gobekli Tepe
in that period: the “birth” of a “new” star, and certainly not of an ordinary one, as it is the brightest
star and the 4
th
most brilliant object of the sky: Sirius. Indeed precession, at the latitude of Gobekli
Tepe, brought Sirius under the horizon in the years around 15000 BC. After reaching the minimum,
Sirius started to come closer to the horizon and it became visible again, very low and close to due
south, towards 9300 BC.
To check if the enclosures might have been aligned with Sirius, I will consider here the 3 adjacent
structures labelled D,C, and B, which are virtually intact and also extremely similar in conception. I
stress that the analysis presented below is based on existing maps and satellite images. It must,
therefore, be considered as preliminary; a complete theodolite survey of the site and of the horizon
is certainly needed to draw more reliable conclusions. Having said that, the extrapolated mean
azimuths of the structures (taken as the mid-lines between the two central monoliths) are estimated
as follows:
Structure D 172°
Structure C 165°
Structure B 159°
As Sirius is a negative magnitude star, it is in principle visible just above the horizon; I will
however allow in what follows an altitude of ½ ° (actually the horizon at the site estimated via
satellite images looks flat towards the south-east). Then, it can be seen that the above azimuths
match the rising azimuths of Sirius in the following approximate dates:
1
Structure D 172° 9100 BC
Structure C 165° 8750 BC
Structure B 159° 8300 BC
3. Conclusions
The above arguments suggest that the structures of Gobekli Tepe were conceived to celebrate, and
then follow in the course of the centuries, the appearance of a brilliant “guest” star in the sky:
Sirius. Of course, although being fascinating, the hypothesis must be taken with due caution; in
particular, the relative chronology between the structures is unclear (Dietrich 2013). Getting more
insight in the symbolic world of the builders would certainly be of help; many of the animals are
indeed tempting as representation of constellations (Belmonte and García 2010), and – curiously
enough – one of the most elaborated stelae presents an upper register with three “bags” which are
pretty similar to the three “houses of the sky occurring in the much (very much!) later Babylonian
“kudurru” traditions. Similar analyses in other PPN sites with megalithic structures would also be of
help; further, recently discovered, inter-visible sites seem to align along a north-south direction
(Guler, Celik and Guler 2012) .
1 The program used for the simulations (Starry Night Pro) takes into account the proper motion of Sirius.
As a final observation, it should be noted that a further structure uncovered at Gobekli Tepe
(labelled F) has an estimated azimuth of 59° (if it was open to the north-east, as it seems) which is
pretty close to that of the rising sun at the summer solstice. On the pillar 43 of enclosure D a
suggestive, unique scene is represented: a sort of vulture with human traits delicately “rises up”
with a wing what seems to be a sphere, or a disk. May this be a representation of the Heliacal rising
of the newly born star we today call Sirius, which – as can be easily verified - occurred just a few
days before the summer solstice at the end of the 10
th
millennium BC at the latitude of Gobekli
Tepe?
References
Belmonte, J. and García, C. 2010, Astronomy, Landscape and Power in Eastern Anatolia
Proc. of SEAC 2010, Gilching.
Celik, B. 2001 Karahan Tepe: a new cultural centre in the Urfa area in Turkey
Documenta Praehistorica XXXVIII
Collins, A. 2013 Gobekli Tepe: its cosmic blueprint revealed.
http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/articles/Gobekli.htm
Dietrich, O. 2013 Gobekli Tepe. In PPND - The platform for neolithic radiocarbon dates
http://www.exoriente.org/associated_projects/ppnd_site.php?s=25
Güler M., Celik, B. Guler, G. 2012 New pre-pottery neolithic settlements from Viransehir
district. Anadolu / Anatolia 38, 2012
Hoskin, M. 2001. Tombs, temples and their orientations, Ocarina books, Bognor Regis.
Magli, G. 2009. Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, Springer-Verlag, NY
Ruggles, C. L. N. (2005) Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth ABC-
CLIO, London.
Schmidt K. 1998. Beyond Daily Bread: Evidence of Early Neolithic Ritual from Gobekli Tepe.
Neo-Lithics 2(98): 1–5.
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excavations. Paléorient 26(1): 45–54.
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archäologische Entdeckung am Göbekli Tepe. München: C.H. Beck
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Documenta Praehistorica 17: 239–256.
Schoch, R. 2012 Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future by
Inner Traditions, NY.
Fig.1
Gobekli Tepe. The megalithic enclosures, view from the south (image in the public domain)
Fig.2
Gobekli Tepe, 9100 BC. Rising of Sirius at azimuth 172°, a few days before summer solstice.
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