Theater of predation: beneath the skin of Göbekli Tepe images
Can the enclosures of Göbekli Tepe be seen as examples of the earliest recognized shrines, even temples, that completely exclude domestic functions? What was the social organization of the community that gathered their eﬀorts to carve out large pillars, up to 7m tall, and occasionally to dress them with elaborate images of mainly wild and male animals? To what end was such a large labor pool mobilized? How big was the area around the site from which people were drawn in order to construct and/or visit this particular place? Was there a connection between broadly contemporaneous examples of intentional intensiﬁcation in the use of wild plant resources across the area of the Fertile Crescent, eventually leading to their domestication, and aspects of life and ritual that surrounded what was going on at Göbekli Tepe during its earliest phases? Over the past two decades, the excavator of Göbekli Tepe, Klaus Schmidt, has
attempted to answer some if not most of these questions (e.g., Schmidt 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010). Very recently, however, other authors have also started questioning certain basic assumptions we have come to cherish about Göbekli Tepe, such as the site’s role as a place for sacred ritual gatherings and the use of enclosures as shrines
rather than houses (Banning 2011). But as many other scholars would agree (e.g., Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris 2011; Kuijt 2011; Verhoeven 2011), we may still be far from a comfortable place in answering many of these key questions. Despite years of hard work, signiﬁcant surprises at this important site are still possible. This suggestion in particular refers to future excavations of the lowermost levels at the site, more reﬁned absolute dating of its numerous features, and the opening of ﬂoors and stone benches, which potentially store numerous human remains. These inevitable future research eﬀorts at Göbekli Tepe, and continuing work at other regional, broadly contemporaneous sites (Figure 3.1), should help to better inform future discussions about the site’s place in a constellation of other sites, the nature of its use, and changes that aﬀected it over the several phases represented by its stratigraphy. While current evidence from Göbekli Tepe might be insuﬃcient to address the
changing nature of the site and the activities taking place therein, the rich repertoire of animal and other non-ﬁgurative depictions to be found carved onto large stone pillars and into sculptures using the same type of locally available stone,
invites us to attempt an analysis of this imagery. This striking imagery already has provoked interpretations by the site’s excavator and his collaborators (e.g., Peters and Schmidt 2004; Schmidt 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010 and references therein) as well as other scholars (e.g., Hodder and Meskell 2010; Verhoeven 2002). In this chapter, I contextualize the imagery from Göbekli Tepe, ﬁrstly within its
local ecological and cultural milieu, and secondly in relation to discussions regarding depictions of animals among hunter-gatherer societies world-wide. The latter goal will explicitly be connected to recent discussions about diﬀerent non-Western ontologies (e.g., Descola 1996, 2005; Viveiros de Castro 1998, 2004) that explore the usefulness of some recharged labels of older ethnographies, such as totemism and animism, and the currency that the notion of perspectivism has gained in recent years. This chapter takes as its main goal to understand whether the iconography and narrative structure of animal depictions at Göbekli Tepe, with similarities in the visual vocabulary seen in other broadly contemporaneous sites, can be read through a particular ontological key, and how we should best understand the function of such depictions. It is argued that this can be achieved even before deciding whether the site was a ceremonial center, and whether its exceptional features provide clues as to the site’s assumed sacred nature.