I hope you will forgive the misleading title of this article. It’s one of my little jokes. There are many places and things in the world that are old, but that have no accompanying information regarding when they were established and created. It’s hard to tell how old they are. We use an extremely clever method to establish dates for things that are up to 62,000 years old. It’s called radiocarbon dating. I won’t bore those of you who didn’t take physics courses with the specifics, but the method is based upon the… aw, heck. Yes I will. This is for all those WP “Top Bloggers” who write about gaming in language I don’t understand. Try this on, whippersnappers!
“A large quantity of contemporary oxalic acid dihydrate was prepared as NBS Standard Reference Material (SRM) 4990B. Its 14C concentration was about 5% above what was believed to be the natural level, so the standard for radiocarbon dating was defined as 0.95 times the 14C concentration of this material, adjusted to a 13C reference value of –19 per mil (PDB). This value is defined as “modern carbon” referenced to AD 1950. Radiocarbon measurements are compared to this modern carbon value, and expressed as “fraction of modern” (fM). “Radiocarbon ages” are calculated from fM using the exponential decay relation and the “Libby half-life” 5568 a. The ages are expressed in years before present (BP) where “present” is defined as AD 1950.”
That’s from Lloyd Currie’s “The Remarkable Metrological History of Radiocarbon Dating”, the kind of thing I read before bedtime. Anyway, Willard Libby and his colleagues at the University of Chicago earned a Nobel Prize for coming up with this way of using Carbon-14 to put a date on really old things. They proved it works by testing wood from a specific ancient Egyptian barge mentioned in historical texts. The dates specified in the texts and by radiocarbon dating matched.
So, since 1950, scientists have been dating things using this method and causing all kinds of controversy. Radiocarbon dating requires some tricky calibrations. It’s accurate, but only within a range of years. Because there is this range, junk science adherents such as Creationists say it shouldn’t be accepted at all.
Take the Shroud of Turin dating controversy. This item is purported to be the cloth Jesus’ body was wrapped in after crucifixion. Before extracting one tiny piece from a single corner of the cloth, they had to argue over test method protocols for decades. The 1988 test results indicated a date range of 1260-1390.
Shroud Skeptics : “See? Fake. Told ya!”
Shroud Supporters : “Nuh-uh! Carbon got added by burning candles around the holy relic, and they mixed up the real cloth with the control samples, and you’re lying because you aren’t believers!”
Do I think the shroud is the real deal? Beats me. The older I get, the more I appreciate a good mystery. Mysteries are deeply attractive to us sapiens. Our need to reach out for an understanding of the “why” in everything might just be the original human trait, the distinguishing behavior of our species. However, until recently archeologists and historians thought our drive to create technology pre-dated our examination into the nature of life and the universe by many centuries. Up to now we thought things happened in this order:
1.) Agriculture / The Cultivation of Wild Grains
2.) Settlement / The Establishment of Villages
3.) Societal Class Diversification
4.) The Establishment of Organized Religious Rituals
An archeological time bomb went off in 1994. No one is arguing over the dating this time, but the discovery is forcing us to revise our theories about how civilization began, and what motivated the earliest societies.
In 1964 a hill in South Eastern Turkey was ascertained to be artificial. Researchers assumed that a Byzantine cemetery lay beneath it. Thirty years passed, until a lone Kurdish shepherd uncovered a stone pillar. A German archeologist named Klaus Schmidt began excavating, and radiocarbon dating indicated the site was much older than expected. It’s a huge temple complex, with layers of ringed stones, symbolic carvings and limestone megaliths in careful alignment. It’s at least 11,000 years old, more than twice the age of the Pyramid of Giza, and thousands of years older than Stonehenge. They call it Gὃbekli Tepe.
The carvings provoke as many questions as they provide answers. Though there are many kinds of animals depicted, a catalog of the variety living in the area at that time, there are also carvings depicting outstretched arms, and hands clasped in a gesture that can be called prayerful. There are animal skins arranged and hung, and piles of their bones, possibly sacrifices.
The reason this requires us to re-think our concept of the earliest phase of human culture is that there were no villages 11,000 years ago. Those who used the temple lived at the end of the Ice Age, nomadic hunter-gatherers. So far as we know, their only tools were flints and stone axes. As an engineering feat, this would be equivalent to completing the Empire State Building using sporks. Did they have technology we know nothing about? These people must have been tremendously motivated to want to construct a complex site, miles away from water, one where no one resided, a designated gathering place in which to express their longing to understand things at a deeper level.
The riddle of Gobekli Tepe doesn’t end there. It appears to have been expanded and used for thousands of years, then buried intentionally. We don’t know why. Did they become disillusioned with their original cult’s precepts? Did they wish to preserve it from discovery by invaders? Most of the site still hasn’t been excavated. The answers will take time.