Gobekli Tepe
© 0meer/Shuttestock
The remains of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. It is one of the oldest settlements in the world.
Last September Eric Betz published an article on the Astronomy and Discover websites. These are popular websites, with a lot of readers. Now, I have no idea who Eric is. I think he's a journalist, not a scientist or archaeologist. But anyway, he wrote this bad article. I contacted the Astronomy website editors to point out its errors but got no response whatsoever. Hence this response.

Let's take a look at what Eric Betz said in his article.

Gobekli Tepe: the world's first observatory? He asks? And then he says 'Pseudoscience and genuine archaeological mystery surround humanity's oldest known temple. But was it the World's first astronomical observatory?'.

Ha, well, immediately my hackles are raised with his use of the word 'pseudoscience', and I wonder where he's going with this piece. It just sounds like sloppy journalism. Now, the problem with this word is that its often thrown around willy-nilly by people who are not scientists and who really have no idea how science really works. And they use it to claim that people with a view contrary to theirs are just talking nonsense. And I think this is how Eric is using it - simply as an attempt to undermine the position of people he disagrees with.

Now, sometimes, actual scientists will use the word in connection with studies like homeopathy or telekinesis or perpetual motion and so on. And here it has a real meaning - because these kinds of study contradict basic laws of physics. But I don't think Eric is using it in this sense. He's just using it to be offensive and to try to undermine his opponents, I think.

But who are Eric's opponents? Who is using pseudoscience, as he sees it? Whose arguments does he disagree with so strongly, and think are unsupported by any logic or evidence? Let's see.

Well, he starts by repeating as a matter of fact that GT is the world's first megalithic temple, which is not actually known for sure - although I agree it is very likely - and it was built by hunter-gatherers. But then in the next paragraph he then practically contradicts himself - he essentially says the biggest mystery of the site is who built it and why? But didn't he just say it was built by hunter-gatherers? Maybe, 'hunter gather' not specific enough for him. Or does he not actually believe it was built by hunter gatherers? Anyway, he's right that the biggest mystery here is WHY was it built? What prompted these people to construct this amazingly anomalous site at this most difficult of times, probably within the Younger Dryas period over 12,000 years ago, not long after the Younger Dryas impact event.

To look for clues, he moves on in his next section to the possibility it has astronomical significance. And immediately, he's back into sloppy talk of conspiracy theories - 'from aliens to 'technologically advanced civilisations'. But, why make this connection? There's no reason to connect ancient astronomical knowledge with aliens or an unknown advanced technological civilisation. This just seems to be his tactic to muddy the water.

He then goes on to say 'some scientists' have speculated that GT was actually an astronomical observatory, 'or perhaps even the biblical Garden of Eden'. Now, that's another strange statement. Yes, several groups of archaeoastronomers, including myself with Dimitrios Tsikritsis in 2017, have suggested that GT was, among other things, an astronomical observatory. But to my knowledge, none of us have ever connected GT with the Garden of Eden. Indeed, I don't know any scientist who would claim that. And as Eric doesn't provide any references, it's really not clear who he's referring to. However, we do know that Andrew Collins has claimed this - but he's not a scientist. Now, either this is another deliberate muddying of the water, and Eric is trying to deceive the reader by lumping genuine scientists together with Andrew Collins, which is unacceptable, or it's a genuine mistake - which is then only sloppy journalism. Either way, I think Eric should clear this up. Which group of scientists does he think have associated GT with the Garden of Eden?

He then goes on to mention the possible alignment of GT's central pillars with the stars, particularly Sirius, and the possibility that GT records the YD impact event. Correct, all of these claims are published by scientists in academic journals.

But, he says, these claims have been rejected by the site's excavators. That's true, and he gives some of the reasons for their scepticism. First, he says that some of the pillars are likely not in their original positions. But, this is largely irrelevant. The orientations of the enclosures at GT are determined by their central pillars, and in turn these are generally fixed by their sockets in the bedrock, and have therefore never moved. So the movement of some of the surrounding pillars is probably irrelevant. Likewise, the positions of the pillars play no role at all in our decoding of the pillars' symbols. And Eric would have known this if he'd actually read our rebuttal of the archaeologists' comments on our paper in the same journal issue. But instead Eric then goes on to say some of the pillars are broken - which is also true, but just as irrelevant.

However, Eric then states as a fact that this makes it impossible to know if Gobekli Tepe had any astronomical significance at all. But this is clearly wrong. For a start, there are obvious sun and moon symbols on Pillar 18.
Pillar 43
© PreHistory Decoded
Clearly, we can expect they have astronomical significance. Moreover, the circle here, which very likely represents the sun, is repeated on Pillar 43. Which means we can expect the animal symbols have an astronomical significance too - probably as constellations. Indeed, given the presence of the Scorpion here, we can even ask whether GT's builders' used the same constellations as us today. In fact, this was the whole point of my paper with Dimitrios in 2017 - to assess the probability of this hypothesis. We demonstrated that Pillar 43 could be analysed scientifically, and that if our view of the pattern matches between the animal symbols and our modern constellations can be confirmed, then our interpretation of them is almost certainly correct. Note, that the suggested pattern matches, between the animal symbols and constellations is something that can be made scientific in principle through digital image analysis. However, in our paper we stopped short of this.

Now, for the record, Andrew Collins first suggested a link between GT and the YD impact event in his book from 2103. And Graham Hancock, based on the ideas of Paul Burley, previously suggested the animal symbols might represent our modern constellations in his book from 2015. And although these guys were basically guessing, our work shows they are very likely correct.

But Eric continues with more evidence to doubt any stellar alignment for GT by quoting the archaeologists' expectation that GTs enclosures had roofs. Actually, I agree. If the structures were roofed it would limit their function in terms of stellar alignment. Trouble is, there isn't any reliable evidence they did had roofs. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't. Maybe the enclosures were built without roofs, but roofs were added later. We just don't know. Whatever, this is a really weak argument against the possibility of stellar alignment, and it has no impact whatsoever on our interpretation of the symbolism. And again, we wrote about this in our rebuttal to the archaeologists' comments. But again, Eric has ignored that.

In the next section Eric discusses the possibility that religion motivated the construction of GT, and that agriculture developed later as a necessity. Essentially, religion begat monolithic construction, which in turn begat agriculture, overturning the prevailing archaeological paradigm that agriculture came first. This is all fine - but the mystery remains. What was their religion - and why did it suddenly appear at this specific time? Eric doesn't explain this, because the archaeologists have no explanation for it either. For Eric, there is no satisfactory answer. Yet our interpretation of the pillars provides ample explanation - which is that the Younger Dryas impact inspired a new comet cult. You see, it is often said that a good theory has a lot of explaining power. And our theory explains almost everything about Gobekli Tepe in one neat package - as well as explaining millennia of earlier European cave art and more art at later sites like Catalhoyuk, and even Pictish symbol stones (see an earlier blog post).

So, what does Eric think of this radical zodiacal hypothesis? Will we find out in his next section where he goes on to describe the ornate carvings at GT? Well, first, he again repeats the standard archaeological view that the carvings represent actual animals. But there's not a shred of evidence to support this. Indeed, on Pillar 33 we see snakes emanating from the bodies and legs of a fox and some birds.

Pillar 43
© PreHistory Decoded
Now, this makes no sense at all if these symbols represent actual animals. But it makes perfect sense in an astronomical context - where the snakes represent meteors radiating from the direction of constellations. And then we have Pillar 43 where we can expect the circle symbol is the sun, and therefore it makes no sense at all for actual animals to be surrounding the sun. But what does Eric think of this?

We don't find out yet, because he first repeats the comments of the site's archaeologists, who think this level of astronomical knowledge is far-fetched at such an early time. But notice they don't supply any actual evidence for this. It's just an unsubstantiated opinion and not a scientific argument.

But then Eric moves on to Graham Hancock. You can see where this is going. This is where, for Eric, the science becomes pseudoscience. His first gripe is with Graham's suggestion in his books of a system of numbers embedded in widely dispersed myths associated with precession of the equinoxes. Now, this is certainly possible. But is it true? I have no idea, but myths involving the Pleiades are thought to have an extremely ancient common origin. And in the 1970s a couple of Professors of the history of science, namely de Santillana and von Dechend, published their book 'Hamlets Mill' which essentially says it's completely obvious that many widely dispersed ancient myths encode knowledge of precession of the equinoxes. So it's a reasonable suggestion by Hancock. Indeed, if we had an unbiased database of ancient world myths, we could analyse it for the frequency of specific numbers related to precession, and compare with other numbers. So in principle it's even a testable hypothesis. But for Eric this kind of talk has gone too far. Why? He never says.

Instead, Eric's ire moves next to the possibility that Pillar 43 represents a map of our constellations and a date using precession of the equinoxes. Eric calls this 'fantastical'. I agree, it's fantastic, but it's certainly not fantasy. We showed in in our Fox paper in 2017 and subsequent paper on Palaeolithic cave art its very likely correct. But for Eric, this is too much. Why? Again, he doesn't articulate. But he does quote Graham Hancock who suggested the date, based on the winter solstice, was close to today's date and therefore the people of GT 'deliberately sent forward into time - in this time capsule - a picture of the sky in our age'. Now, I agree, this is almost certainly wrong, and the date on the pillar very likely uses the summer solstice instead to write the date of the Younger Dryas impact itself, circa 10,850 BC. But apart from that error, Graham had essentially provided the key to cracking the meaning of Pillar 43.

So why is this a really bad piece of journalism? Well, because it's a biased mess. It confuses who said what - perhaps as a deliberate tactic. It states as facts things which are not known with any certainty - they are often just the unsubstantiated opinions of archaeologists - stated without any evidence. Moreover, he ignores obvious counter-arguments to their opinions, clearly stated in our rebuttal, which he seems to have ignored. And some of the things which he states are pseudoscience are actually supported by very strong evidence, or are at least scientifically valid testable hypotheses. The only problem it seems, as far as Eric is concerned, is that these radical hypotheses are not made by archaeologists. So, it seems to me that Eric favours whatever the archaeologists say simply because they are archaeologists, and not because of the evidence. Well, that's not how science works. Evidence is key in science, and Eric should know this.