10 December 2008

The pot-belly of Göbekli Tepe is no place for a navel

Göbekli Tepe, a mound in southeastern Turkey supposedly representing the "world's first temple", has become a major Neolithic site featuring stone pillars with intricate carvings of various animals. A mostly informative article by Sandra Scham in the November/December 2008 issue of Archaeology is about the recent findings in Göbekli Tepe.

Near the end of her piece, Scham translates the Turkish name of the place as "hill of the navel". Wrong.

Yes, one meaning of göbek is indeed "navel", and another is "belly". But göbekli means "pot-bellied". For example, see the translation given by From Language to Language and also the on-line dictionary of the Turkish Language Society.

Therefore, Göbekli Tepe means "pot-bellied hill". The name probably refers to the shape of the mound.

I suppose Scham doesn't know Turkish and so I can't be too critical of a little translation mistake. Alas, she didn't stop there, but, instead, continued into the realm of silliness:

...to me the site is reminiscent of other places known as sacred "navels" of the earth, such as Cusco in Peru and Delphi in Greece. Many religions use the metaphor of a human birth to describe the creation of the world, and the site where the cosmos began is equated with the place where the umbilicus was attached.
Blah, blah, blah. As far as Göbekli Tepe is concerned, this is nonsense of cosmic proportions. Does Scham really think that the symbolic association of the place with a navel—assuming that the neolithic hunter-gatherers indeed considered that association—survived for 10,000 years, even though the structures at the site had become completely buried prior to the recent excavations, and was somehow re-expressed in the present-day Turkish name of the hill?

Translations from unfamiliar languages could be tricky with unwanted results. Here is a recent hilarious example.


Anonymous said...

Dear Aydin,
Göbekli Tepe is mesolithic, not neolithic. Though neolithic people did also hunt and gather food, no mesolithic man oder woman was involved in things like animal husbandry or farming. The animal bones which were found in Göbekli Tepe all came from gazelle (which has never been domesticated). And the carvings on the T-stones do also all depict wild animals. Hope this explains my position (I am an archaeologist).
Greetings from Germany,


Many thanks for your comment. I am not an archaeologist and so when it comes to such things, I can only relay what I read. In the 1st paragraph of her article, Sandra Scham says: "one of dozens [of pillars] erected by early Neolithic people at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey." That is why I called it a Neolithic site.
The article also mentions that bones of red deer, boars, goats, sheep, oxen, birds, in additon to gazelles, were found at the site.

Anonymous said...

Dear Aydin,
I just wanted to make clear that the animal bones came from wild animals.
I think Göbekli Tepe is called neolithic in the article because it it is dated in a part of our history where we have the transitional period between mesolithic and neolithic (or Pre Pottery Neolithic as it is called in the article). Klaus Schmidt, the excavator, thinks Göbekli Tepe is one of those places where neolithisation took place. Reducing the theory into two sentences: While the men were building the temples the women were gathering wild crops and domesticating them in the course of time. Doing this they became sedentary farmers.
Journalists often deform things - turkish translations (your tender spot) and archaeological facts (my tender spot).
PS: Please excuse my terrible English...