In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much a container of place as place is a container of the soul, and both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction.
– Robert Pogue Harrison
Public Burial: Göbekli Tepe, Jerf el-Ahmar, Karahan Tepe, and the Ness of Brodgar
I remember the early morning when I first came across photographs of Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000-year-old prehistoric temple complex discovered in southeastern Turkey in 1994. The region is seeded with ancient sites, remnants from the beginnings of civilization. Just a hop away is the Fertile Crescent, where farming and sedentary life are believed to have overtaken the footloose perambulations of hunter-gatherers. Unable to sleep, I had Googled “world’s oldest stone structure” and up popped an image of a thickly walled ovoid, populated with startlingly strange sculptural forms called T-shaped pillars. Anxieties from the 21st century had kept me awake, but as that first limestone pillar came into focus, I felt a cold shadow cross my soul. The rough beast that William Butler Yeats describes was slouching towards me. The quip about the Druids in This is Spinal Tap (“No one knows who they were / Or what were they doing”) came to mind, but I did not laugh. What they were doing was exhibiting elemental human behavior — placemaking, structure-building, ritual observance — but so far from us in time as to look and feel nearly totally alien. I felt I was seeing things not meant to be seen. I was enthralled, and could not look away.
They were exhibiting elemental human behavior — structure-building, ritual, placemaking — but so far from us in time as to look and feel nearly totally alien.
Göbekli Tepe was built when homo sapiens were supposed to be low-impact foragers and hunters, content to camp with portable architectures (skin tents and the like), unable to organize or engineer large-scale building projects. According to prevailing archeological theories, the layered site — comprising dozens of chapels or sanctuaries, some built on top of earlier examples — is not supposed to exist. Yet Göbekli Tepe was a hot spot, a regional center. The chapels lack hearths and domestic middens, although recent excavations have unearthed cisterns for collecting rainwater and stone tools for grinding grain. 1 Whether settlement, cultic center, or both, the site was active for about 1,000 years. Then it was covered over, and for several more millennia, it existed only as a bulbous lump in an overwhelmingly horizontal landscape. Locals called it “potbelly hill.” In the early 1960s, the tops of a few T-shapes were noticed by a local farmer, but when archeologists investigated, they deemed the site a “medieval cemetery.” Suspecting that the tepe (or hill) was not natural — nor medieval — German archeologist Klaus Schmidt conducted a proper excavation in 1994. He came to believe that the oldest buried buildings had been erected circa 9600 B.C. (For comparison, the Step Pyramid of Djoser dates to approximately 2780 B.C.; Stonehenge to about the same era.) Schmidt called the site, grandly, a “cathedral on a hill … the first human-built holy place.” 2
Whatever went on in those walled ovals served the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe for a millennium until, for reasons we will never divine, they buried it, deliberately, incrementally. Lower chapels were interred, and stones repurposed as new chapels were erected on top, until the site in toto was decommissioned by the progeny of those who first established it. It bears repeating: a people who were not supposed to know how to achieve something so massive built these structures from locally quarried limestone carved into ten-ton megaliths, and then their distant offspring systematically backfilled the layered buildings and their immediate surrounds. Which is to say, the archeologists who had hastily categorized Göbekli Tepe as a cemetery were not wholly wrong. In essence, this is a building graveyard. One imagines that nearby communities continued to receive lore about the place for hundreds or even thousands of years, until, eventually, it was forgotten completely — save for that lump in the landscape.
To study the human need to tie up a place in memory by withdrawing from it is to study a kind of poetic object-language.
Waves of imaginative chill swept over me as I thought about that lump, the sculptures and walled enclosures standing there, encased in dirt and stuffed with rubble but otherwise intact, as something like 400 generations went about their lives, oblivious to the tremendous presence. Imagine a cross-section of the hill and the resulting sigil, a thunderously deep and haunting emblem of beliefs lost, mourned or repudiated, awaiting re-revelation. I had the feeling that the T-shapes, now uncovered, might sprout legs and stride down from the hill to teach contemporary humans about Nature, and to lecture us on our underestimations of early humans’ capacities to organize and build. Or to scare us all half to death.
Such building-burying phenomena go by various terms: decommissioning, ritual abandonment, ritual termination, even dominasthesia or domicide. The ancients — in Anatolia, the Levant, and Scotland, among other places — buried both public and private structures, though probably not for exactly the same reasons. Often, the burying was preceded by purposeful demolition — the knocking over of upright structural slabs or orthostats, the smashing of vessels, the decapitating of statuary: all time-consuming, strenuous activities that telegraph the importance of the project. Before a building’s interment, it might have its entrances and exits blocked with rubble. Some buildings were burned before being buried.
Archeologist Julia Schönicke, whose work centers on Göbekli Tepe, describes analysis of site abandonment as concerned with what she calls “people-place disentanglement.” 3 This clinical-sounding phrase obscures what can only have been an acutely emotional experience, and I linger here, at this seam between the material world and human emotion — poetry’s place. In the absence of written language, the buried buildings telegraph psychological and feeling-based events; these archeological composites communicate, still, the imaginative power of those who assembled them. The violence of building burial, even if it was done out of respect and love, reflects, I think, the grief, confusion, and violence experienced when things end — a loved-one’s life, a belief system, a romance, or the house you were born in. To study this “disentanglement” from place — the need to tie up that place in memory by withdrawing from it physically — is thus to study a kind of poetic object-language.
These ancient material-and-imaginary ideograms comprise visions of the sites in use, and more intensely, of the buildings after being buried.
All archeological materials, including the physical arrangement of disinterred artifacts, constitute dream-gifts from the past. But no other images are as meaningful to me as these ancient material-and-imaginary ideograms, comprising visions of the sites as they must have been in full use, and still more intensely, the images into which the buildings morphed after being buried. Glued to my computer, paging through the archeological writeups, I receive traces of these archaic places as akin to the most annihilating poetic images in literature: I feel I am looking into T.S. Eliot’s “fear in a handful of dust,” or William Blake’s Tyger “burning bright” in its perfection. In the face of these preserved victims of domicide, these ghosts of dominasthesia, I recall Emily Dickinson’s description of how it feels to encounter a snake: “zero at the bone.”
It is worth examining what they buried.
At the center of each chapel at Göbekli Tepe stand two T-shape pillars (measuring eighteen to 22 feet tall), while smaller T-shapes are embedded in the walls. (The smallest chapels are 20 feet across; the largest is 65 feet. 4 ) The T-pillars are a study in right angles, but the central examples are to be read anthropomorphically. The horizontal top block (the T) is the pillar’s “head.” Interestingly, terrifyingly even, these heads are blank: no eyes, mouths, noses, ears, or hair. (I think of them as “hammerheads.”) Yet some of the uprights — the bodies — have been scored in bas relief to wear belts, and to show arms bent at the elbows with hands whose fingers wrap around the edges of the pillars to the front. Each pillar wears a fox-pelt at the groin, strange modesty for a place rife with penis imagery. These central pillars may have supported a biodegradable roof of reeds. Or the chapels may have doubled as observatories, rendering roofs obstructive. The central paired T-pillars are thought by archeologists to depict famous tribal leaders, or supernatural beings, or, generically, “the ancestors.” Their blankness renders them otherworldly, as if made by another race with a direct connection to the center of the earth.
Were the architects animists, as some think? Were these sculpted beings tribal emblems? Is this hunting magic?
Elsewhere at the site, elements are more readily recognizable, if still madly bizarre: sculptures of animals, and human heads with basic features (eyes, noses, mouths). These occur in bas relief and as freestanding carvings, some placed at the base of pillars in this or that chapel; vultures, alligators, leopards, hyenas, bulls, and spiders mix with seemingly more benign creatures such as gazelles, cranes, and wild donkeys. Individual chapels seem dedicated to specific animal types: enclosure A is reigned over by snakes (so many snakes); enclosure C is rife with boars; enclosure B is all about foxes, and D depicts several species of birds.
How did the builders — the artists, the worshipers — view these creatures? Were the architects animists, as some think, and is the site a “gateway to the afterlife,” its iconography “revolving around the inevitability of the death of all creatures, animals and humans”? 5 Did they believe in the souls of storks? And scorpions? Or where these sculpted beings tribal emblems (i.e. this is the chapel of the fox tribe; that’s where the duck tribe prays). A number of carvings show predators, mostly big cats. Here they appear on men’s shoulders: are they pouncing or being carried? There they hold human heads between their paws. Several other pillars depict dead animals, such as an aurochs with its tongue sticking out, and a slit-eyed boar. Is this hunting magic?
My favorite pillar by far — and I love them all — depicts a dead fox with snakes exploding out of its belly, and other snakes streaming and fanning out from its back legs, as if representing an anima fleeing the carcass, or, possibly, the deflation of decomposition. It is a surreal and gorgeous totem, and we would do well to recall what Ezra Pound said of the poetic image: “The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.” 6 This image has tumbled in my mind for years now, and I am in pure poetry as it tumbles. In a few instances at Göbekli Tepe, researchers have located tantalizingly abstract forms or symbols — H-shapes bracketed by what resemble parentheses, for example — that might conceivably indicate a written language. 7 But, overwhelmingly, the place and its poetics are dedicated to that nonverbal matrix we call Nature.
“Nature”: I’ve written it twice now, with capital N. Forgive me. I cringe at using this word that stands for such an Ur-concept; instantly we are divided from it, suggesting that Nature is a thing outside. Obviously, we are part of Nature — but what does that mean? The Nature depicted at Göbekli Tepe is not pastoral or gentle, but neither it is being clearly dominated or husbanded. Interestingly, there is no vegetal imagery whatsoever in any of the chapels; not a single leaf, tendril, blossom, shaft, sprig, or fruit is shown. The stage is shared between humans and animals alone. Some scholars read the creatures as tutelary beings, who act as guides or helpmeets to humanity. Maybe, but what I feel is that I’m witnessing a sort of seething parliament, an uneasy and dangerous congeries without defined hierarchies between man and beast. They are jockeying for position, with no other gods as overlords.
There is no vegetal imagery in the chapels; not a single leaf, tendril, blossom, shaft, sprig, or fruit. The stage is shared between humans and animals alone.
Of the 149 sculptures found to date at Göbekli Tepe, 86 depict animals versus 38 depicting humans. Nine are composites of animal and human; three are phalli, and four are masks. (The final nine objects haven’t been deciphered yet.) The snakes swarm, seeming to work in intelligent cooperation to dominate their surfaces; on Pillar 1, for instance, from Enclosure A, nineteen snakes have woven themselves into a kind of mat that heads downward toward a resting ram. (Some read this image as a “garment,” or an example of nets or weaving. Nice try. These are snakes!) Pillar 56, from enclosure H, is covered from base to T-block with 55 animals shown in outlines; some share lines, making it hard to differentiate cat from crane. All face the same direction. Only a vulture at the center, its spread wings appearing to confront a snake, looks the other way. Perhaps it’s a well-known narrative about the day the vulture challenged the viper, a parable or allegory that any visitor to enclosure H would have understood?
Another now-famous “totem” depicts a bear or cat with rounded ears; its face has been destroyed intentionally. Its paws (or are they hands?) hold what may have been a human head, also iconoclastically destroyed. A snake slithers up the pillar on each side. Below these snakes’ huge heads is a figure that might be a woman giving birth (very rare), or (more plausible, given other imagery at the site) a man holding his phallus.
Schmidt’s archeological team also identified a few human skulls scattered on the chapel floors. Some show signs of perforation and carving; deeply scored lines at the back of each would enable the skulls to hang like picture frames. (The skulls are “osteological evidence” of burial practices at Göbekli Tepe, though no intact skeletons have been found.) One famous pillar, Pillar 43 in enclosure D, depicts a headless human body with an erection, hunkering down under a massive scorpion and behind a giant duck. On this same pillar, a vulture offers up with one outstretched wing a sun or comet — or is a faceless human head? On a fragment from another pillar, a big cat, baring its teeth, runs with what looks a vulture clawing at its back; above them, a disembodied human head rolls around the sky, untethered.
All this meaning and messaging was interred under backfill and boulders. Only ten percent of the site has been unearthed. What might the 90 percent yet unexcavated bring to light? I shudder to think, but I will also help them dig it for free, starting tomorrow, so fascinated am I by the layered concatenation that remains under tons of intentionally heaped rubble and soil.
The underground — and what is hidden there — are almost by definition uncanny. Dante’s layered Hell is subterranean, as is the Greeks’ Hades where one pays the boatman to cross the River Styx. To be buried alive is a profound human fear, hence Victorian “safety coffins” outfitted with feeding tubes, outside bells, and internal pull cords. Cats and humans alike bury what is foul — excrement, and sewer pipes, and all things dead and prone to putrefaction. Yet generative associations with the underground abound as well: seeds and roots; spring water bubbling up. In the ancient world, devotional offerings were often buried, or dropped into bodies of water — sunken places being portals to other worlds. And, of course, natural covering-over occurs as well; archeologists would be jobless without the accretion of aeolian dust (silts and clays), sands, and Holocene dirts that slowly earth up ancient sites.
The amount of energy required to establish and maintain the structures was matched by the energy expended to entomb them.
At Göbekli Tepe as at other such sites, a special variety of architectural death occurred, either by euthanasia, by murder, or by sacrifice. The intentional destruction of buildings represented a kind of killing, and this necessitated burial. The act of burying, however, not only eradicated the built forms but preserved them. The amount of energy required to establish and maintain the structures was matched by the energy expended to entomb them. Such memorializing of devotional exertion is central to the double-sided gesture: for the buriers, the new place was now imbued not only with their ancestors’ activity, but with their own. As they shut the site down, they ensured their historical relationship to it.
Often, artifacts were specially arranged before the burial, to create what is called a “closing deposit” or “terminal deposit,” a special bit of magic whereby the sealing-in and entombing — that negative act of closing — is commemorated: the building is buried, but these deposits act as epitaphs, if only we could read their material language. There are also “foundational deposits,” sometimes involving burials of humans or animals in floors, or beneath thresholds, or at the bottom of post holes; and “occupational deposits” laid down while a structure was in use. I think of these symbolic caches of bones, stones, and other objects as akin to a Zen koan or Biblical parable, or a great example of Earth Art: you can’t understand all at once. You need to keep turning the images over and over in mind, and for this activity, it helps to think associatively, like an artist. Eliot’s “shred of platinum” suggests itself:
When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless, the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. 8
We will never know if we are right in catalyzing new meanings out of lost holistic context in this way. We remain adrift in a kind of Cloud of Unknowing. But within that ignorance, my skill is to interpret images (and compose them), and I take these layered, palimpsestic, broken caches, these oxymoronic remnant wholes, as images in the literary sense, assemblages to be read associatively — preferably through the logic of a dream.
Approximately 20 miles from Göbekli Tepe is Karahan Tepe, a site possibly older and even stranger. Found in 1997, Karahan began to be excavated in 2019, when archeologists discovered a vast public complex carved from the limestone bedrock, complete with what appears to be a throne-like chair flanked by two T-pillars. Two more very tall T-pillars lay smashed on the floor. Most astonishingly, off this circular central room was a ritual-bathing pit fed by channels cut into the limestone to deliver water — or perhaps blood. There is evidence of circular chapels, and roughly 250 (mostly unadorned) T-pillars. The same ferocious animals seen at Göbekli Tepe threaten here, mostly foxes, leopards, snakes, and bulls. But the ritual pit and the large room ringed with bench-like seating add a public dimension not seen at Göbekli, where the chapels were not spacious enough for large audiences. (Some think of the Göbekli enclosures as “family chapels” where a select few officiated or partook in devotions.)
Off the circular central room was a ritual-bathing pit fed by channels cut into the limestone to deliver water — or perhaps blood.
Karahan Tepe’s ritual pit reminds me of a baptismal font, and I imagine scores of people — congregants, initiates — lining up to use it. It’s not very big, 23 feet by 20 feet, but it is impressively occupied. 9 The pit contains ten pillars, each the size of a person and carved from limestone in the shape of a penis, all presided over by a single bearded stone serpent, the eleventh pillar. 10The whole array is overseen by a sculpted human head the size of a beach ball, with prominent lips, deeply carved eyes, a pronounced brow ridge, and a thick, thrusting neck. (This head has become a symbol of the site and the surrounding tourist region, Tas Tepeler, which means “stone hills.”) When the communal site was no longer needed, statues of both men and animals were decapitated, their heads placed at the pillars’ or statues’ bases and their faces turned toward the walls. Then, like Göbekli Tepe, the entire site was filled in with rubble and buried. 11 As with Göbekli Tepe, only a fraction of the site has been uncovered, and I offer to work to reveal the remaining 33 acres with a spoon and my fingernails, until I am dead.
I plan to do a burlap-tree burial when the time comes, by the way, and if that tree burial happens in modern Turkey, so be it. Though Orkney (about which more below) might be a more appropriate place for this bag of bones to mingle with the earth, since many of my ancestors come from the British Isles. Perhaps I will have a small grouping of items included in my burlap sack: my own tiny gold-hoop baby earrings, my brother’s sterling-silver baby cup, my mother’s tiger-eye pin from 1950s Mexico, my father’s prep-school gold-filled bracelet charm. All artifacts built to last longer than our perishable “bone-houses,” which is what the Norse in their literary sagas called the human skeleton. How lovely if the tree grew up with these artifacts embedded in its trunk, or dangling off the tips of its branches like tiny fruits.
Another example of communal-building burial is Jerf el-Ahmar, a 9,400-year-old Neolithic site in what is now Syria, discovered in 1995. (It has been underwater since 1999, thanks to the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River.) During excavation, the skeleton of a headless young woman was found “facedown” on the floor of what might have been a large grain-storage structure. Her limbs were sprawled out wildly, as if she’d been flung from a height, and the image of her prone skeleton in this unnatural position is upsetting. She had been covered with layers of infill or rubble from the demolition of the building; forensic archeology suggests that this was done soon after her death, but not before the building had been burned.
Archeologist Rémi Hadad observes that a kind of “staging” happened here at Jerf el-Ahmar. In the Neolithic period, he explains, there was a “general tendency to destroy buildings and to produce remains in precise ways” in the service of commemoration. The violence of the woman’s death marked the death of the building. A shared location had been modified into a new kind of architectural container; the building had ceased to be an active resource for the community, and became a monument, an aid for reminding and remembering. Hadad likens this domicide (with its attendant femicide) to dramaturgy, noting that the burning and burying of buildings are theatrical acts that become fixed in matter. Jerf el-Ahmar, he writes,
is not only a scene of destruction, but it is also a staging — a mise-en-scene .… The building lives on. It continues to exert an influence and to incite acts of preservation. Whether it is remembrance of avoidance, animosity or attraction, the meaning … is composed — inseparably — of the building that was; the event which destroyed it; and what remains of it. 12
The attributes of the site itself, imagined alive and inhabited, in all its richly activated iconography, constitutes one image. Then all that is buried, and the new image to be held in mind is constituted in the site underground. The tableau created by the priests or architects of Jerf el-Ahmar — the woman’s violent death at the center of a destroyed structure that once held essential nutriment for the tribe — reverberates. What hermeneutic tools do we have with which to decipher such a composition? Perhaps decipherment is not the point. It haunts, as a powerful image should.
Ness of Brodgar
The last (for now) in my tour of Neolithic communal sites that were deliberately decommissioned is the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, Scotland’s northernmost archipelago. The 5,000-year-old walled temple complex was in use from 3300 B.C., but circa 2200 B.C. it was ritually destroyed and buried. In 2003, this two-and-a-half hectare site (a little more than six acres) was discovered when two retirees began to prepare the land for planting a wildflower meadow. Up was heaved a strangely notched paving stone: one side had been worked into shallow scallops by a human hand. Archeologists were called in, and the giant complex was partially uncovered. The Ness is older than the Pyramids of Giza, older than Newgrange in Ireland.
Built when the first farmers settled in the Orkneys, the site occupies what is now a liminal strip of land between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray. (One day this site will, like Jerf el-Ahmar, be flooded, although when the Ness of Brodgar drowns it will be due to sea-level rise rather than construction of a dam. Such inundation is a problem for much of Orkney’s archeology; no doubt there is important material under both lochs already.) What is now the Brodgar peninsula connects the 37-stone Ring of Brodgar with the Stones of Stenness, a smaller but older circle two miles away, which is itself related to the nearby Neolithic “village” of Barnhouse. In Neolithic times, the Loch of Stenness was probably a wetland; people from another nearby settlement, Skara Brae, could have walked to the Ness of Brodgar, watched or taken part in rituals, and walked home within a day. 13 Other important sites in the vicinity (among them Maeshowe, the Ring of Booken, and the Urstan chambered cairn) make this a bona fide ritual landscape of prehistoric monuments.
The Ness was at the center of it all for nearly 1,000 years. Then what happened? Did the ancient Orcadians turn on the religion celebrated in these buildings? Had its deities become malevolent? Where the people angry at a celestial abandonment? Or, instead of allowing their religious complex to wither on the vine and fall to pieces, did its waning community lovingly close it down, to visually as well as spiritually and materially eradicate it from the landscape, preserving its integrity while de-activating its juju?
In what is called Structure Ten, there is evidence that a ritual feast accompanied late stages of decommissioning the Ness. Structure Ten had been a grand building, with walls nearly fifteen feet thick. Before it was interred, a deeply carved cupule stone (pocked with cup-like depressions that had been chipped out with stone hammers) was set into the hearth. Beside the stone was laid an upside-down cow skull. The walls were then reduced in height, and rubble and midden material (ancient garbage) deposited, completely filling in the structure. Next, the ruin was surrounded with the skulls and split tibiae of 400 head of cattle; the cracking of the bones indicates that the animals had been eaten, their marrow dug out. The decommissioned monument remained in the memory of Orcadians, and they returned to leave offerings — and to rob stone. At some point in the Bronze Age, carcasses of red deer were laid about the cattle bones. Eventually, all 38 buildings now known at the Ness were buried. 14 By 2200 B.C., a passerby would have seen only a hill.
The site itself, alive and inhabited, constitutes one image. Then all that is buried, and the new image held in mind is constituted in the site underground.
Besides the dramatic heap of cattle bones, the Ness of Brodgar is dotted with other carefully arranged closing deposits. These include what are known as manuports, natural objects carried by human hands from their original environments to distant locations: a well-worn petrified sea urchin, for example. There are also artifacts of human skill: a carved stone ball, and exquisitely polished mace heads of gneiss and rhodochrosite. One mace head is made of whale bone, an utter rarity. Then there are deposits assembled from pieces and parts of creatures: the wing of a white-tailed sea eagle, a complete set of human infant bones, a human femur, and two human ulnas, possibly from the same young woman.
I try to imagine such a fate befalling a contemporary sacred public structure, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Jesus and Mary and all the saints would be decapitated, their stone heads laid at their stone feet, and then that grand interior would be filled in with broken pews, twisted tapestries, loads of hymnals, and heaps of devotional candles, their little glass pots smashed to smithereens. The church’s marble columns would be chipped at, their decorative parts lopped off. The toppled pulpit might be rolled to obstruct a staircase. Piles of wrenched-down organ pipes would be dragged to block the bronze doors facing Fifth Avenue. Crowds watching might throw in their half-eaten hot dogs, candied peanuts, and street kabobs. Perhaps, for sentimental purposes, a beloved’s lock of hair or a widow’s wedding ring might be tossed in. Someone would arrange a closing deposit of a crucifix jammed into a thurible ringed by sidewalk weeds — dandelions and purslane. Perhaps a rite of wine and bread would be offered to all involved, and the drinking glasses ritually hurled into the mix.
All this would then be buried with dirt trucked in from New Jersey. Over time, robbers with good memories might dig through the fill and emerge with trophies to sell on eBay. We would have a very steep “potbelly” hill in the center of our metropolis, an intrusion from or a thorn stuck into Time. Maybe, in 1,000 years, New Yorkers of the future would remember vaguely that there had been a church there. To be sure, our phones take care of memory-prolongation, and the destruction and burial would have been ubiquitously documented — but digital decay is also a phenomenon. One day the spires of St. Patrick’s might poke though the mound, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes or the T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe.
These four communal structures, Göbekli Tepe, Karahan Tepe, Jerf el-Ahmar, and the Ness of Brodgar, are separated by significant geographical distance and about 6,000 years, yet all four were buried. The reasons are unknown and unknowable — and yet we can’t help asking. Why would people bury buildings, especially grand buildings made of stone that cost their users, and their users’ ancestors, so much time and thought; that exacted such an expenditure of calories and muscle to organize tribes under one abiding system of belief; to create a place for all of them to go, century after century? Though the stones could have been reused and the sites retrofitted, these public architectures were special enough that they had to be eradicated from the landscape. Since nothing was constructed on or around the mounds, the sites continued to emit their presence, signaling to those who came next: Do Not Rebuild Here. And no one has. In essence, such places have been saved the indignity of crumbling. Once covered, they could not be subject to exposure or other ruinous forces. Therefore, they did not fall into ruin, but remained nearly perfectly preserved for us to find.
There is no hard evidence that ancient peoples had such thoughts. But the act of decommissioning implies that the buildings in question possessed consciousness or bio-spiritual life and that, in time, their humans expected them to die. At the Ness and elsewhere, even the objects buried in the buried buildings were deliberately broken — as if, deactivated, they were being given forever to the site and its gods. I think of a rock star smashing a guitar on stage. The divine show is over.
Domestic Burial: Çatalhöyük, The Cairns, The Links of Noltland
It was not only ancient public buildings that were buried. Ancient domestic structures were as well. At the 9,000-year-old proto-city Çatalhöyuk, about 300 miles west of Göbekli Tepe, for example, houses were regularly filled in, and a new home built on the footprint. The homes themselves were grave-like, even in active use. Çatalhöyuk buildings were entered through the roofs via roughhewn wooden ladders; inhabitants would descend into even newly constructed houses, some beautifully appointed with bull horns and paintings and sculptural reliefs arrayed in windowless dark. Bodies were interred inside the home, too. When a new body needed to be added, the graves were opened and older bones pushed aside. 15 But, in a strange development, recent scholarship has determined that the bodies in these home burials are not necessarily related; indeed, among children buried in this way, biological relationships were relatively rare. One researcher explains:
We are still far from fully understanding the early Neolithic communities, but their organization was certainly significantly different from the structure based on biological kinship or patriarchal kinship relations. The basis of social organization was probably a complex system of socially regulated dependencies and connections linking individuals and groups of people living in individual households. 16
As images go, that of living people sleeping (that death-in-life state) above those who have died is startling, necromancy-ish, Shakespearean and Freudian. Above all, it is poignant. The home burial deposits at Çatalhöyük of course belonged to an overarching ritual culture. Yet they cannot help but be evidence, too, of intensely personal improvisation. Occupational and terminal deposits found across Çatalhöyük include pieces of obsidian, clay balls, antlers and antler tools, animal bone, clay figurines, pottery fragments, and grindstones. Special deposits have been found that include such rare items as a human baby’s legbones, crystals, a badger mandible, and a pendant made of a human tooth. Whose baby leg is that, poor darling? Whose tooth, the most enigmatic (and portable) of body parts? What did the badger mean to this family? What did teeth mean to them, for that matter?
A decommissioned Iron Age broch at a site known as The Cairns on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, has offered up other fascinating deposits that likely coincided with the “closing” of the home. 17 A broch — basically a mini-tower with drystone walls — was the tallest building-type on these islands in the Iron Age, part home, part fortress (though, in truth, the walls were a bit too short to be effective as battlements). From at least the first century B.C. until the mid-second century B.C.E., the broch’s inhabitants seem to have thrived, as evidenced by its organized interior and traces of rich food consumption. 18 But by the late second or early third century, the broch was changing. Archeologists have tracked how it was modified internally — the moving of hearths, the removal of orthostat walls — and these renovations are interpreted as signs of decline; the structure apparently devolved from being a home to a kind of workshop or smokehouse for fish.
To prepare, finally, for decommissioning, several deposits of animal bones, including parts of a large fin whale, were laid out on the broch’s uppermost floor, likely evidence of feasting when the tower was “killed.” Pots were ritually smashed and left in place. Then came the infill and the midden. As a final act of sealing, someone buried a distinctive array of objects against the broch’s outside wall, near its entrance. A fin-whale vertebra had been hollowed out; inside, archeologists found an older man’s jawbone, and parts of three newborn lambs. Two red-deer antlers had been propped against the vertebra-casket — both were left-side antlers. The entire deposit was then pinned into place using a saddle quern, a flat stone for grinding grain. (A quern is a de facto symbol of the home, and examples have been found in many structured deposits, sometimes broken, other times arranged with other objects.)
I wonder, why the jawbone and the lambs? Is this the last owner’s jaw? Old bones and young bones? Why the antlers and the whale-vertebrae vessel? Why only left-side antlers? Did they take the right-side ones away with them to retain a connection to the site, like matching keys? Did they consider how people in the future would read their time-capsule, the record of their religious observance? My so-called educated guesses might just as well be termed poetic imaginings; the facts are fascinating, but the images are art.
Links of Noltland
Further north in the Orkney archipelago, on the island of Westray, the 5,000-year-old settlement known as the Links of Noltland (contemporary to the more famous village of Skara Brae) also shows signs of deliberate decommissioning. 19 As the structure known as the Grobust House (named for the bay the site overlooks) was being closed, the floor of the main entrance passage was studded with eighteen cattle skulls and six sheep skulls; to enter the building after its ritual domicide, one would have had to crawl across these totems of death. Two more sheep skulls were jammed into the entranceway’s bar holes, where a wooden beam would have functioned as a door lock when the building was in use.
The floor of the passage was studded with cattle and sheep skulls; to enter the building after its ritual domicide, one would have had to crawl across these totems.
The foundational and occupational deposits at the Links are equally fascinating, and speak back to closing deposits like that at the Grobust House. At Structure Nine, 28 upside-down cattle skulls (and two sheep skulls) were arranged inside the foundations when the building was constructed. Moreover, these were not fresh skulls; two date from the third millennium B.C., indicating their inherited importance as ritual objects. Are the Grobust House’s closing deposits a mirror of Structure Nine’s embedded cow skulls? 20 If so, the animals were there at the beginning of the site’s life, and its end. Excavating teams also discovered an occupational deposit in the midden around the house. A scallop shell had been placed on top of a flint flanked by sheep’s horns. 21 One can make assumptions: sheep were an important source of food, as were the scallops plentiful on these North Sea islands; worked flint was arguably the most important tool for occupants of Noltland. I am thrilled by the co-presence of land and sea creatures, bound together by the flint, perhaps the tool used to slit sheep’s throats and remove scallops from their shells: humans as hinge of the animal world.
Another closing deposit found at Noltland revealed a collection of deer skeletons, comprising at least fifteen animals of various ages. A codfish, one articulated gannet wing, and the humerus of a black-backed gull were arranged on top of the deer carcasses. The entire pile was then crowned with a large pair of red-deer antlers that had been naturally shed by a living animal. The antlers acting as the final seal on the deposit are especially moving to me, juxtaposing dead house with dead animals. The antlers act as a lock. This house-place was theirs; how could another family live within the same walls? Impossible. I feel the same about my childhood home in Connecticut. It should have been given a proper burial when we left it, and all its apertures blocked.
The Upper Room
We have a defunct church in my neighborhood, the giant abandoned Upper Room Baptist Church on the corner of Greene Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard. Its double lunette windows are always dark. Green-painted plywood construction hoardings have ringed the place for years; no one is to enter. An article in the New York Times in 1983 refers to Upper Room as a “foot-stomping, soul-stirring sanctuary,” and describes baptism day for a nine-year-old congregant, Nicole Anthony. Nicole’s wisdom is startling. Reflecting on the meaning of the rite, she tells her older brother: “Baptism is being a part of somebody, like God, being a part of church, being a part of everybody.” 22
Eventually, the structure on the corner became too large for a dwindling congregation to operate, and the church moved to a storefront on Rockaway Avenue. Yet since the Upper Room is situated on what remains a sacred plot of land, it is still technically charged with the Holy Spirit. I assume the Christian God is not well pleased with the state of His house. On the other hand, considering its decrepitude, it looks like He hasn’t been paying attention. On my way to the grocery store, I wonder what’s gone on inside the place since it was abandoned; God knows, but I smell suffering. The Upper Room died, so to speak, having been “buried” by gentrification, racism, and the paucity of municipal care for Black communities. The building lost the air it breathed.
Contemporary structures may be gorgeous, thrilling, or merely familiar. What we don’t enact are spatial practices whereby our buildings are alive.
The long aqua-colored tub described by the Times reporter, where once the symbolic waters of Jordon flowed, must be full of dry leaves now. A man known as “The Mayor” sweeps the sidewalk once or twice a month, picking up illegally dumped construction garbage — concrete blocks, bags of cement, paving stones. I’ve been told by another neighbor that the interior is now basically a “rat palace,” augmented by “a billion fleas.” In an off-parallel to Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe, the defunct church is dominated now by animals and insects — stray cats, raccoons, spiders. The other day, as I looked up at the wan salmon-pink structure, an imperious-looking seagull stood on its topmost chimney, facing North. The bird doesn’t know about the unnatural human social forces that emptied the building under it. So now, when I pass, I think of the place as “Gull Church,” and am pleased.
The images offered to me on the streets of Bed-Stuy in 2023 might live on to move someone in the future, I suppose — but most of my poems will wait under my bed in file boxes until I die, when my poor niece will claim them and then drag them around like 400 cow skulls. I will never achieve the genius of the image of the dead-fox pillar at Göbekli Tepe, or the profundity of the nightly ritual performed by Çatalhöyük households where dreaming bodies slept stacked on top of burials. My 21st-century landscape is cheap and exhausted, and my tiny powers can’t compete with ancient peoples’ culture-wide access to what the poet James Tate called “the mystery of the deep waters.” 23
With that said, to visit the Ness, you must hurry. Reburial begins in 2025; the last open season will be summer 2024. To protect the site for the future, the Ness will die again after its astonishing resurrection 20 years ago, carefully refilled with earth to appear again as a “green field” — though I assume a marker will keep the place from being forgotten a second time. 24 May there be Orkney-style feasting at its close!
In a far more dire transformation, on February 23, 2023 (as I was finishing this article), a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Turkey. Apartment blocks pancaked down onto living souls asleep in bed, buildings burying their people in devastating scene after chaotic and horrifying scene. This was profane burial, about not saving but losing lives and structures. By some miracle, despite the fact that the quake’s epicenter was close to Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe, reports are that both escaped damage. 25
These ancient ontological building practices are propositions about life and/vs. death, about what it means to care, to preserve, and also to deny.
As I press forward in my layperson’s study of prehistory, I swear I attempt to assume Göbekli-eyes. The ancients beat us with their ontological building practices; their relations to their structures and lands are propositions about life and/vs. death, about what it means to care, to preserve, and also to deny. But I try to imagine how the experience of building, and destroying, these sites served to cathect human, animal, stone, and land into lasting effigies of fused energies. Our contemporary structures may be gorgeous, thrilling — or they may be merely familiar. (Even a Pizza Hut accrues meaning by standing in Time). What we don’t enact are spatial practices whereby our buildings are alive.