The necessary art of anatomical dissection has saved many lives, and continues to do so. Without its procedures, medical science as we know it would not be possible. But we can’t really look at the image without wincing, for all the knowledge that it brings.
At Göbekli Tepe it’s a little the same. The hillside has been cut open for the sake of knowledge, revealing the layers and strata of the hidden interior, and bringing to our eyes structures that were previously unseen. There’s a certain brutality about the process. Knowing that everything removed from a site is irreplaceable, and thus that excavation is a type of destruction, the archaeologists must nevertheless dig, with deepened knowledge of the human story as the prize.
Of course, nothing is simple. The archaeologists must work under multiple pressures, and fit their painstaking activities in with the weather, with the pressure from local authorities to excavate the site quickly so as to make it available for tourism, and with the sometimes conflicting imperatives of revelation and preservation. Every generation of archaeologists finds the previous generation’s techniques problematic, as techniques get more and more refined. What for one excavator is material to be removed in order to expose the more interesting objects below, may for another present a rich trove of information through analysis of pollens or changes in dust deposition. The millions, perhaps billions, of flint tools aren’t of much interest – whereas for a British archaeologist a trove of 50 flint tools would represent a significant find.
But we all do want to know what’s in that mound, and the only way to find out, short of still-unheard-of technologies, is to dig it out and have a look.
For the spectators at the public dissection that Rembrandt recorded, the interior of the body was unknown territory, and only by cutting into the body could it be revealed:
The hillside has been stripped of its skin of living plants and soil, the connective tissue of rubble, bones and flints removed, and the walls and pillars lie revealed like organs and bones. The photos show clearly the tensions between preservation and spectacle. Preserved for all those millennia, the stones are now exposed to the weather. Those with more detailed carving, it seems, are encased in wooden boxes during the winter months. The pillars need a complicated system of wires, stays and bits of wood to remain upright. And, because of the precariousness of the whole arrangement as well as to protect the stones from despoilation by tourists, the pillars and their immediate environment are not accessible. Wooden walkways have been constructed which allow the spectator to look down on them. This gives the exact opposite experience to the intended one. The builders of these enclosures went to great pains to make big pillars and carry them to their intended site. They clearly wanted something which would overwhelm the spectator. The pillars at Göbekli Tepe are arguably the biggest things made by humans up to that time. By marking them with arms, belts etc, they were signifying that these are beings like us, and they wanted really big beings.
Seen with their heads at knee-level or below, the pillars are diminished. In any case we have seen many bigger things, and are less likely to be impressed by sheer scale than people of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.
Nevertheless I was impressed, almost overwhelmed. In the next post I’ll try to work out why.