Rivista di cultura filosofica
Beyond Biblical Archeology, toward a new vision of Neolithic Age
by Leonardo Tonini
14 dicembre 2016
I have met Massimo Izzo during his conference on Gobekli Tepe, the past 15 October, at the “Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Metzger” in Turin, Italy. The discovery of Gobekli Tepe, whose systematic digging is begun only in 1995, has overturned completely the reconstruction, until then assumed, of the evolutionary sequence of the humanity towards sociality and modernity. Finding his approach interesting, I have interviewed him for Kasparhauser Magazine-
I. IN YOUR CONFERENCE YOU HAVE MENTIONED THAT IMPORTANT CHANGES IN THE HISTORICAL-ARCHAEOLOGICAL FIELD HAPPENED FROM THE NINETEENS ON, WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT? YOU DIDN'T ONLY SPEAK ABOUT NEW DISCOVERIES, BUT ALSO ABOUT A METHODOLOGICAL CHANGE, HOW SCHOLAR’S OUTLOOK CHANGED?
R: The recent years have carried remarkable changes in the way an historical analysis is done, for two main reasons: a new rigorous and scientific methodological approach to the interpretation of historical and archaeological data, like the “New Archeology” for example, and the use of technologically advanced instruments in the archaeological research.
The first aspect, the methodological one, has swept the tendency of the scholars of the past to make interpretion of the data according to their personal cultural background. For the periods of my competence, from Neolithic to Iron Age, there are always numerous “holes” in archaeological and textual data: the desire to fill those voids with the scholar own personal intuitions, in the aim of suggesting elegant unitary pictures, has often jeopardized historical reconstructions.
Not only: sometimes scholars of the past have been bearers of personal agendas or of interests of ideological groups and this has polluted some historical picture. Today is very difficult for such a thing to happen, even if a field as Biblical Archaeology demonstrates that is not impossible, but basically hopeless.
To adhere to what is possible to infer from the data is the modern attitude. Today only what is there can be under discussion, and not what it could be, but is absent: a very different approach from the past. Not necessarily the deriving interpretation will be absolute truth, but it’s the only one that is legitimate to infer, until new data are coming. This different attitude has caused important reinterpretations of some ancient history.
II. LET’S MAKE SOME EXAMPLE, YOU HAVE MENTIONED BIBLICAL STUDIES AND THE TOTAL REFORMULATION OF CONDITIONS AND EVENTS THAT HAVE CARRIED THE SAPIENS SAPIENS TO EXIT FROM PREHISTORY IN ORDER TO DEVELOP COMPLEX SOCIAL SYSTEMS. WHAT YOU MEAN?
R: The examples mentioned are symptomatic of what I have suggested in the previous answer. The academic vulgate that prevailed in Biblical archaeology in the ’60s and ’70s, coming from prestigious scholars, had given support to an alleged historical consistency of the more ancient parts of the Bible. To clarify, we are talking about the primordia of Abraham, of the Jews in Egypt, of the great kingdom of an united Israel prospering under Davidic and Salomonic rule, all episodes considered historically reliable. In the ’60s, a popular book of a journalist, titled The Bible was right and based on those assumptions, even became a bestseller.
As a matter of fact, using an objective and rigorous approach to the analysis of historical and archaeological data, came up that no people of Israel existed at all in those remote times, neither has never existed a great davidic or salomonic empire in the near east. The truth is that the Bible was produced by the people of a little mountain kingdom of the late iron age.
A literay product, as has been shown by archaeology and bible studies, that begins to be organized and mostly composed after the destruction of the small kingdom of Judah in the 5th century a.C. Equally remarkable is that many of the most important and famous Biblical episodes have turned out to be copies, often only slightly modified, of mesopotamic and also probably Egyptian production, including a good part of the behavioural codes that constitute the corpus of the laws of Jewish religion.
The very figure of Yahweh, that we tend to consider like an Israelite specific god, has revealed its face from modern archaeological and textual analyses, betraying the sources: its origin is in the pagan pantheon of the ancient near east and in that milieu are to be found its characteristics and even its feminine companion. Even the monotheistic idea have shown its foundations in historical materialism, whose political and social meanings emerges by now rather clearly.
III. WHAT YOU MEAN FOR HISTORIOGRAPHY POLLUTED BY IDEOLOGICAL AGENDAS? CAN YOU MAKE AN EXAMPLE?
R: Sure. Right in biblical archaeology the phenomenon has been obvious. One of the more prestigious american archeologist and scholar of the ’50s-’60s, widely responsable of popular keywords as The Bible was right, was the methodist reverend and archaeologist W. Albright, whose personal activity of proselitism was obviously in conflict of interest with the historical truth. Unfortunately, having obtained huge support and research financing from religious agencies and private americans, his infuence became so powerful to be able to interrupt careers of scholars supporting analysis in contrast with his own.
But fortunately also the religious milieu has changed attitude, at least in its more illuminated individuals, and a teaching rabbi of a religious hebraic university like David S. Sperling, wrote recently articles on the historical non existance of jewish people in Egypt in the New Kingdom period and of the consequent mosaic traditions of the Exodus.
Ther’s also the political motivation, tied to the birth of the State of Israel in the post-wwII period. Other partisan analyses came in fact from the general and archeologist, Yigael Yadin. In the same period when Albright took care of the abrahamitic history, he took care instead of the great United Kingdom of Giuda and Israel, interpreting the archaeological data as confirmation of its historical existence. No need to say which political importance would have the demonstration of the existance of an ancient great territorial control that goes from Syria to the desertic borders of the Nile’s Delta, under Israelite power. Control and reign that never existed in antiquity. Another enormous conflict of interest with the religious and political laicism that should characterize historiography.
IV. WHAT EXACTLY HAS BEEN DISCOVERED IN TURKEY AND WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT?
R: All the reconstructions of the oriental neolithic, the most ancient neolithic of the world, has had a deep review from the ’90s on, widely due to new archaeological discoveries between Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.
In more recent years, it’s the Southeastern Turkey that has again changed the picture of the origins of the neolithic, revealing itself like the area in which the neolitisation process is begun, starting from dates that were not even imaginable until 15 years ago, the 10th millenium a.C.
The discovery of a fundamental site of the first society of nomadic hunter-gatherers that manifest strongly innovative behaviors from the point of view of social organization, Gobekli Tepe, has shaken deeply the existing historical picture, in every sense. However we cannot talk about this site without mentioning that the last 10 years have carried the discovery, to almost an annual rhythm, of a large number of other sites of this same civilization, that for the time being we can call “the T pillars civilization”. Of all these sites, basically no one is yet dug, except Gobekli Tepe, whose diggings begun in 1995. Therefore we are talking about a work still in progress and we know already that in the next few years a wealth of new data will be available for processing. No wonder therefore that the analyses of serious scholars are for the time being very cautious and concise in order to avoid misleading anticipations.
In order to describe the reasons of astonishment that has hit the community of historians, we can say that Gobekli Tepe is a monumental site, in its more ancient archaeological level dated 9500 a.C., characterized by an high number of structures in stone of collective and ceremonial character, of oval form, up to 30 meters in diameter. These structures are fitted with megalithic pillars up to 6 meters in height, perfectly refined and decorated with bas-reliefs of narrative and symbolic content, in their way to be decoded.
Actually there is no trace of private housing in the site nor, at the moment, there’s any identified in the surrounding coeval sites: therefore we must consider, for the time being, that this mysterious site was built by a number of people who lived a nomadic life, typical hunter-gatherers with previous social structure similar to the Paleolithic model, evidence that was completely unexpected.
The evidence of this site demolishes in a blow the linear vision that we had previously of the Neolithic like a period in which sedentarization, agriculture and breeding had contributed to throw the bases of more complex expressions like art and ritual relationship with the supernatural, the latter beeing a character that strongly animates the stones of Gobekli.
The importance of this discovery is therefore multiple, but between the many reasons of astonishment, it must be said that the existance of activities of ritual, communitarian, socializing, artistic and symbolic meaning, appears to be the primary motors for sedentarization and creation of form of control of alimentary sources, which is revolutionary. It would be the opposite process relative to what we have always believed.
V. FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF PRIMITIVE PSYCOLOGY, OF WHAT TODAY WE CAN HAVE CERTAINTY AND WHAT INSTEAD IS SPECULATIVE?
R: It is a beautiful and interesting question. What comes down directly from the discovery of Gobekli, comparing it with older archaeological evidence, indicates a heavy, focused psychological and cognitive evolution in a short time span, that obtained long-lasting effects and that will consolidate in time, albeit in other places, guaranteeing that it was’nt an occasional historical phenomenon but an evolutionary step for the sapiens sapiens towards the “Homo socialis”.
Without a doubt, the evidence of creating social cooperation about common projects and the sharing of practices in relation to death, to the dead and to the forces of nature, are the subjects of this psychological transformation.
It’s interesting also to mention a mystery that soon appeared and that also explains the reason why an entire ancient civilization escaped to our attention until recent times: this culture disappears from history around 7500 a.C and a seemingly cultural transmission of its symbols is to be found in the site of Catal Huyuk, always in Turkey, that until the ’80s was considered the birthplace of the oriental neolithic.
The reasons of this disappearance will be only investigated when also the other sites of this culture will be dug, and this could show if adverse psychological and social reactions took place to that deep cultural and cognitive revolution, like already the site of Gobekli seems to indicate with some trace of seemingly violent episodes.
In any case I would conclude pointing out as, after all, the changes shown at Gobekli are the true first evidence of the exit from a paleolithic lifestyle and the beginning of the modern civilization, intended as a wide communitarian institution. Gobekli is between a before and an after that changed forever the relationship of man with nature and its fellow beeings.
VI. HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR JOB OF SCIENTIFIC POPULARISER?
R: There have been topic like the neolithic discoveries and the interpretative revolutions of Biblical Archaeology that has made me realizing that the great public was completely unaware of topics that potentially could be not only of generic cultural interest but also of personal relevance. At the same time I realized that also many scholars and professionals in humanistic and historical fields were unaware of these innovations, due to tendency toward specialisation.
From this I have elaborated my personal formula as a scientific populariser: trying to find a language and an intelligible structure for anyone, but uncompromised for the quality of the reference and also for the degree of the details. The hope is to give a firm introduction on the fundamental concepts to the folk that cannot elaborate upon high degree of details, like the great audience, but at the same time offer a relevant amount of selected data, so to satisfy who have any interests to deepen his knowledge taking no information for faith, the very ones that can elaborate some form of contributions coming from various fields collateral to historiography.
VII. WHICH ARE THE DIFFICULTIES TO GET THE INFORMATION FROM THE WORLD OF ACADEMIA AND WHY SHOULD BE IMPROVED THE CLARITY OF THE PRESENTATION OF THESE ARGUMENTS?
I do believe that a form of historical information of scientific level, not organized for the specialist, have today a great importance that i would like to emphasize. We are in an age of marked specialization and the institutional task of historians and archeologists in the academia is to make, in texts and speechs, presentations strongly concentrated on the data, addressed in a specific way to the colleagues and taking for granted their base knowledge of the historical contexts under scrutiny. Is therefore obvious that the higher level works are poorly manageable, and often poorly available, not only to the great public but also to the scholars of collateral disciplines that could give interesting contributions, if they only knew the existence of certain arguments or updates.
For example, in relation to your previous question, Gobekli Tepe has seen a first attempt of interpretation in terms of Depth Psychology, in a specialized publication, by the swiss analyst Theodor Abt: this kind of contribution would be precious and they can only come from outside the world of historiography. Other example, the work of the Max Planck Institute on the genetic identification of the ancestors of modern wheat and emmer from the Turkish nucleus of Gobekli civilization, through analysis of the DNA.
The analysis of a fundamental site as Gobekli would need many other specialists, but if the material and the history of the site are not introduced in terms that takes in consideration the limits of the reader, giving the more general historical context and highlighting the details scientifically more important, I think is difficult that a wider interdisciplinarity can be developed.
Same thing relatively to the (not-)historical truth of biblical events: how many knows the Bible texts in detail and are able to appreciate archaeological indicators of which they do not know the relevance? That’s the way I do see the work of a scientific populariser: considering the reader in a position to understand any data and consideration, providing the reader is not overwhelmed by the presentation and quantity of the data themselves and providing clear historical contexts, illustrating them with a work that starts to give the wider and more comprehensive outlook and progressively zooming on more and more specific details, leaving the freedom to stop the study to the chosen degree of detail without losing the general understanding of the hystorical phenomenon.
FOR FURTHER READING
M. Liverani, Oltre la Bibbia, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2003.
Th. Romer, L’Invention de Dieu, Seuil, Paris 2014.
K. Schmidt, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel. Das rätselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjäger, Verlag C.H. Beck, München, 2006
I. Finkelstein, N.A. Silbermann, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, New York, 2001.
Massimo Izzo born in Naples in 1961, lecturer in Italy and foreign countries, runs specialistic courses in Marche and Emilia Romagna area.
M.A. with honors in Marine Engineering at the University Federico II of Naples. B.A. with honors in Science of Cultural Heritage, archaeological curriculum, University of Pisa M.A. with honors in Archeology of Egypt and the Near East, with honors, University of Pisa. As Engineer and Egyptologist he's been part of University of Pisa archeological mission in Egypt, Dra Abu El-Naga, TT14 Theban tomb, Luxor, under the direction of Prof. Marilina Betrò. Since 2005, teaches at the Open University of Pesaro and other institutions devoted to popularize historical knowledge. The subjects of teachings and conferences ranging from Egyptology and archeology of the ancient Near East, including biblical archeology, on a time frame from Neolithic to Iron Age. Website: http://corsi-egittologia-orientalistica.blogspot.it
Gobekli Tepe, Turchia, 9500 a.C., Pilastro decorato, Struttura D, Pil.18, calcare, altezza 5,5 mt. (Copyright DAINST.org)