Cult Buildings in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic
Cult buildings in the Fertile Crescent are known from several sites assigned to the PPNA: for example Hallan Çemi, dated to the last few centuries of the 9th millennium BC (uncalibrated) has two rooms built into a settlement and mixed in with domestic buildings. These stone-built circular rooms contained sheep and auroch skulls, along with special constructions such as stone benches. Jerf el-Ahmar, Tell 'Abr 3 and Mureybet in Syria also have round, stone-built buildings or rooms with auroch skulls and benches, again as part of a larger settlement. These structures were generally shared by the entire community; but some were clearly symbolically and geographically set aside, at the edges of the residential communities.
By the late PPNA period, when Göbekli Tepe was built, more sites such as Nevali Çori, Çayönü Tepesi and Dja'de el-Mughara had created ritual structures in their living communities, structures that had similar characteristics: semi-subterranean construction, massive stone benches, labor-intensive floor preparation (terrazzo-mosaic or tile-paved floors), colored plaster, engraved pictures and reliefs, monolithic stelae, decorated pillars and sculptured objects, and a channel built into the floor. Some features in the buildings were found to contain human and animal blood; none of them contained evidence of everyday living.
By contrast, Göbekli Tepe was apparently only used as a ritual center: at one point domestic rubbish was used as fill to bury the PPNA structures, but otherwise there is no evidence that people lived here. Göbekli Tepe was a mountain sanctuary; the rooms are larger, more complex and more varied in the planning and design than cult rooms at PPN settlements.
In his 2011 article in Current Anthropology, Banning argues that what are considered "ordinary houses" found throughout the PPN share some characteristics with "cultic houses", in that that they also have subfloor burials and human skulls placed on pedestals. Some evidence exists for polychrome paintings and colored plaster (preservation of these elements is generally poor). Caches of groupings of cattle scapula and skulls have been found; other caches which turn up in "ordinary houses" include celts and grinders, bladelets and figurines. Some houses appear to have been ritually burned. Banning isn't arguing that there is no sacred connotation to any of the buildings: he believes that the dichotomy of "sacred/mundane" is arbitrary and should be reconsidered.