Category Archives: TURKEY

Historical artefact from AD 250 returns to Türkiye after 140 years

Historical artefact from AD 250 returns to Türkiye after 140 years

Discovered 140 years ago and taken to England from Türkiye, the Eros Head was put in its place at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum as a result of the initiatives of the Culture and Tourism Ministry.

The artefact, which was brought to Türkiye on June 10, was reunited with the historical Sidamara Sarcophagus to which it belonged.

The Sidamara Sarcophagus is considered one of the largest sarcophagi of the ancient world. The sarcophagus, which is weighing tons, was discovered in 1882 in the ancient city of Sidamara in Ambar Village of the Central Anatolian province of Karaman by British Military Consul General Charles Wilson.

The sarcophagus was buried under the ground again because it was too heavy to be carried. Sometime later it was understood that it was “Eros Head,” one of the reliefs separated from the sarcophagus, that had been taken to London.

The sarcophagus, which was rediscovered by a villager in the ancient city of Sidamara in 1898, was reported to the Müze-i Hümayun, which is now the Istanbul Archeology Museum.

As a result of the Ottoman archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey’s investigations in the region, the giant sarcophagus was decided to be moved to the museum in Istanbul. Then it was carried to the centre by buffaloes under the conditions of the time.

The magnificent work, which made a gruelling journey in specially arranged train wagons, reached the Istanbul Archaeology Museum in 1901.

The “Eros Head” relief in London was donated by Marion Olivia Wilson to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1933 in memory of her father, Charles Wilson.

A plaster copy of the Eros Head was placed in the giant sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum as a result of the negotiations with the Victoria & Albert Museum officials in the 1930s.

With the research of archaeologist Şehrazat Karagöz, who brought the issue back to the agenda in 2010, the Culture and Tourism Ministry and the Foreign Ministry made talks with the Victoria & Albert Museum for the display of the Eros Head to be exhibited together with its sarcophagus.

As a result of the meetings between the ministry and the Victoria & Albert Museum Director Tristram Hunt and his team, the Eros Head was reunited with the sarcophagus. The Eros Head was transported from London to Türkiye on 10 June with the support of the Foreign Ministry and Turkish Airlines (THY).

With scientific studies jointly carried out by the expert restorers of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Eros Head was placed in the giant sarcophagus, which weighs more than 30 tons.

The columned sarcophagus, dating back to 250 B.C. in the Roman era, is now open to visitors in its original form at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum today.

Turkish hilltop where civilization began

Turkish hilltop where civilization began

Where exactly did our civilization emerge? Some will say our modern civilization emerged in Mesopotamia. Others will say there are underwater ruins much older and predate the Sumerian civilizations. Yet, another group will argue the first traces of civilization can be found in entirely different places.

Turkish hilltop where civilization began
Göbekli Tepe.

Is it really possible to say where civilization started? A team of scientists is confident a  hilltop in Turkey is arguably the most important archaeological site on Earth and the place where civilization began. Known as Gobekli Tepe, which means “Potbelly Hill” in Turkish this place is home to the world’s oldest known religious sanctuary that is slowly giving up its secrets. Thousands of our prehistoric ancestors gathered around its highly-decorated T-shaped megalith pillars to worship more than 7,000 years before Stonehenge or the earliest Egyptian pyramids.

“Its significance is hard to overstate,” Sean Lawrence, assistant professor of history at West Virginia University, told AFP.

Some years ago, scientists discovered evidence of a mysterious 12,000-year-old skull cult at Göbekli Tepe. As previously reported on, “three odd early Stone Age skulls carry artificial modifications of a type so far unknown from contemporaneous sites. The discovery now raises the question of whether inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe were involved in religious rituals related to death, midsummer, or midwinter. The carved skulls deepen the mystery surrounding the ancient site.”

As reported by AFP, ”academics believe the history of human settlement began in these hills close to the Syrian border some 12,000 years ago when groups of Stone Age hunter-gatherers came together to construct these sites. Gobekli Tepe, which some experts believe was never actually inhabited—may be part of a vast sacred landscape that encompasses other nearby hilltop sites that archaeologists believe maybe even older.

None of which anyone would have guessed before the German archaeologist and pre-historian Klaus Schmidt began to bring the first discoveries to the surface in 1995. German and Turkish archaeologists have been labouring in the sun there since, with lengthening queues of tourists now joining them to ponder its many mysteries.

When exactly it all began is even unclear.

“Exact years are nearly impossible to verify,” Lawrence said.

“However, the oldest Egyptian monument, the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, was built around 2700 BCE,” more than seven millennia after Gobekli Tepe.

“This was the end of what is often thought of as Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies and the beginning of settled societies,” Lawrence added.

“There remain endless mysteries surrounding the site, including how labour was organized and how the sites were used,” he said.

Gobekli Tepe has even inspired the Netflix sci-fi psychological thriller series “The Gift”, which turns on one of the ancient inscriptions on its pillars.

Schmidt—who often wore a white traditional turban on the dig—puzzled over the megaliths carved with the images of foxes, bears, ducks, lizards and a leopard for over two decades until his early death at the age of 61 in 2014.

‘Zero point in time’

The site was initially believed to be purely ritual in nature. But according to Clare, there is now “good evidence” for the beginning of settled life with some buildings similar to those of the same age found in northern Syria. Turkey—which in the past has not been renowned for making the best of its vast archaeological heritage—has wholeheartedly embraced the discoveries.

The items excavated from Gobekli Tepe are shown in the impressive archaeological museum in the nearest city, Sanliurfa, which is itself so ancient that Abraham is believed to have been born there. Indeed its new museum built in 2015 boasts “the most extensive collection of the neolithic era in the world,” according to its director Celal Uludag. “All of the portable artefacts from Gobekli Tepe are exhibited here.”

“This is a journey to civilization, (to the) zero point in time,” said Aydin Aslan, head of Sanliurfa Culture and Tourism Directorate.

“Gobekli Tepe sheds light on pre-history, that’s why it’s a common heritage of humanity,” he said proudly.

‘Go deeper

Last year Turkey’s culture ministry boosted funding for further excavations in the region as a part of its “Stone Hills” project, including cash for the Karahan Tepe hilltop site—around 35 kilometres from Gobekli Tepe—which some suspect is even older.

Reproduction of the central pillars of Enclosure D.

“We will now go deeper because Gobekli Tepe is not the one and only,” Culture Minister Nuri Ersoy said last year. The extra funding “gives us a fantastic opportunity to compare our results from Gobekli Tepe with new sites in the Sanliurfa region of the same age,” Clare said.

Gobekli Tepe has also breathed life back into a poor and long-neglected region, which has been further hit by the civil war just across the border. Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of Sanliurfa’s population. Over one million tourists visited Sanliurfa in 2019 and the city expects to reach pre-pandemic levels this year.

“Today Gobekli Tepe has started directly touching the economy of the city,” Aslan said, who hopes that its glorious past could be a key part of the city’s future.”

Possible Medieval Children’s Cemetery Found in Southern Turkey

Possible Medieval Children’s Cemetery Found in Southern Turkey

Possible Medieval Children’s Cemetery Found in Southern Turkey

A furnace for commercial production and a child’s grave with glass bracelets and gifts inside has been found for the first time during this year’s excavations in the ancient city of Kelenderis, established on the Mediterranean coast in the southern province of Mersin 2,800 years ago.

Located next to a fisherman’s shelter in the Aydıncık district on the Mersin-Antalya highway, the excavation and restoration/conservation works started in 1987 in the ancient city of Kelenderis and have been ongoing for 35 years uninterruptedly.

For the first time, the skeleton of a child, who was buried with four solid glass bracelets on his arm, gifts, clothes and a wooden coffin, has been unearthed in the ancient city, where nearly 150 tombs have also been found around the Odeon over the last 35 years.

In addition, during the excavations conducted in the region, a furnace, which is thought to be used for tile production, was unearthed for the first time, documenting commercial production.

Speaking about the exciting discovery, the head of the excavations Mahmut Aydın said, “Excavations continue for 12 months of the year in the ancient city of Kelenderis. This year, we have completed the excavation and consolidation of the caves, the sitting area, and the supporting walls behind the Odeon structure.

Now we found a furnace that excites us. We knew for years that there was production here, but we couldn’t find the oven.

The oven is 1,300 years old. We think that roof tiles were produced inside the furnace. Because during the excavations we carried out last year and this year, a large number of roof tiles, dated to the seventh century, were found around the furnace.

Since the roof tiles were faulty, we found them scattered around it. When we completely empty the inside of the furnace, we might find even more faulty roof tiles.”

Speaking about the child’s grave, Aydın said, “We have previously uncovered nearly 150 tombs here, but none of them had burial gifts. In this one, we uncovered four glass bracelets, an inscription on a ceramic piece and a cup. This was a first.

At the same time, there were several baby graves around this child’s grave. We understand from here that a part of the Odeon was used as a children’s burial area.

When the carbon 14 analysis results come, we will be able to identify them more clearly. But we believe that this area was used as a burial area in the Middle Ages. As it is different from other burials, we will only be able to determine exactly when the child died with carbon 14 analysis.”

Rare Byzantine Plates Found Off Coast Of Southern Turkey

Rare Byzantine Plates Found Off Coast Of Southern Turkey

One of the world’s richest plate sets from the Eastern Roman Empire has been discovered off the coast of the southern province of Antalya’s Adrasan district. 

Rare Byzantine Plates Found Off Coast Of Southern Turkey

“We were not hopeful of finding anything considerable,” said Selçuk University Archaeology Department academic Hakan Öniz. “Just then, we found a solid, very beautiful plate with its own colours. It made us very happy.

We were amazed by the designs on it. As we found the others, we were surprised by the motifs on each plate. There are fish and flower motifs unique to the era. The workmanship was very good. All of them were 800-900 years old.”

Rare Byzantine Plates Found Off Coast Of Southern Turkey

Among the most striking plates in the set are unique ones that are in the same design and colour but in different sizes. The ship that was carrying the plates is thought to have sunk after hitting a rock sometime in the 12th century.

The Byzantine Empire underwater excavations started in 2014 in collaboration with Dokuz Eylül University, Selçuk University and the Antalya Museum. 

The finds are being cleaned of salt at the Antalya Museum Directorate’s laboratory. When the work is done, the plates will be displayed at the Antalya Museum. 

Öniz said the plates off Adrasan were scattered over an area of 15 to 20 meters. 

“The ship was loaded with plates from two different plate factories. We don’t know where these factories are. I say two different factories because there are two different techniques used on the plates. We see that the plate set existed 900 years ago, too, and that women took care of their sets,” he said.

He said they had found the plates underwater on top of each other. Most of them were broken, while some had been taken by people, he added.

There are a number of other plates along the coasts of Antalya and Mersin, but many are too deep to retrieve, he said.

He said the ship carrying the plates had possibly been caught in a storm while en route. “The region where the ship wreckage was found looks like a harbour in which to shelter during storms. These harbours are called false harbours because when you look at these harbours, you would think they would protect you from the storm. The captain of the ship thought it was a safe place and anchored there, but even though the wind stopped, the current did not, and the ship hit a rock and was broken into pieces.”  

‘We have not reached the ship’ 

Öniz said they had not yet reached the wood of the ship during the underwater excavations. “There is a type of worm called Teredo Navalis in the Mediterranean Sea. It eats the wood. If wood is close to the surface, this worm will eat it. For example, you can find all artefacts in the Baltic Sea in one piece because this worm does not live there, but it does in the Mediterranean.” 

The academic said they had found an unbroken plate during work in 2014. “The plates on the surface were broken as if some people had used a hammer when trying to remove them from the rocks. 

Largest one in the world 

The plates that were discovered are exceedingly rare, Öniz said.

He said a plate set excavation had also been conducted underwater in Greece but the set in Adrasan was one of few rich plate set wreckages in the world. 

He said 100 unbroken and 300 broken plates had been removed and highlighted the importance of the laboratory at the Antalya Museum. 

“The materials like an amphora and ceramic plates have micro holes, and salt piles up in these holes. When the plate is left under direct sunlight, the salt swells and breaks the artefact. The plates removed from under the water will be cleaned from the salt over the next months and then become ready for display,” Öniz said. 

He also said diving had been banned in the region of the wreckage 10 years ago by the Culture and Tourism Ministry. “It has been under protection for 10 years, but how can it be protected in a cove? Maybe some people came and dove here after this ban.”

The current excavations in the area are expected to finish next year.

Shattered Skeletons of Man and Dog From Eruption and Tsunami 3,600 Years Ago

Shattered Skeletons of Man and Dog From Eruption and Tsunami 3,600 Years Ago

The remains of a young man and a dog who were killed by a tsunami triggered by the eruption of the Thera volcano 3,600 years ago have been unearthed in Turkey. Archaeologists found the pair of skeletons during excavations at Çeşme-Bağlararası, a Late Bronze Age site near Çeşme Bay, on Turkey’s western coastline.

Shattered Skeletons of Man and Dog From Eruption and Tsunami 3,600 Years Ago
The skeleton of a man killed in a tsunami after the eruption of the Thera volcano is the first found in its archaeological context.

Despite the eruption of Thera being one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history, this is the first time the remains of victims of the event have been unearthed. Moreover, the presence of the tsunami deposits at Çeşme-Bağlararası show that large and destructive waves did arrive in the northern Aegean after Thera went up.

Previously, based on the evidence available, it had been assumed that this area of the Mediterranean only received ash fallout from the eruption of Thera.

Instead, it now appears that the Çeşme Bay area was struck by a sequence of tsunamis, devastating local settlements and leading to rescue efforts.

Thera — now a caldera at the centre of the Greek island of Santorini — is famous for how its tsunamis are thought to have ended the Minoan civilisation on nearby Crete.

Based on radiocarbon dating of the tsunami deposits at Çeşme-Bağlararası, the team believe that the volcano’s eruption occurred no earlier than 1612 BC. The study was undertaken by archaeologist Vasıf Şahoğlu of the University of Ankara and his colleagues.

The remains of a young man unearthed in Turkey near the skeleton of a dog, both were victims of the mega-tsunami tidal waves caused by the Santorini Thera eruption or Minoan eruption.
Archaeologists spent 10 years excavating the site, but it was only relatively recently that its destruction was attributed to tsunamis from the Thera eruption.

‘The Late Bronze Age Thera eruption was one of the largest natural disasters witnessed in human history,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.

‘Its impact, consequences, and timing have dominated the discourse of ancient Mediterranean studies for nearly a century.

‘Despite the eruption’s high intensity and tsunami-generating capabilities, few tsunami deposits [have been] reported.

‘In contrast, descriptions of pumice, ash, and tephra deposits are widely published.’

Amid stratified sediments at the Çeşme-Bağlararası site, the researchers found the remains of damaged walls — once part of a fortification of some kind —  alongside layers of rubble and chaotic sediments characteristic of tsunami deposits.

Within these were two layers of volcanic ash, the second thicker than the first, and a bone-rich layer containing charcoal and other charred remains. 

According to the team, the deposits represent at least four consecutive tsunami inundations, each separate but nevertheless resulting from the eruption at Thera.

Tsunami deposits associated with the eruption are relatively rare — with three found near the northern coastline of Crete and another three along Turkey’s coast, albeit much further south than Çeşme-Bağlararası.

Traces of misshapen pits dug into the tsunami sediments at various places across the Çeşme-Bağlararası site represent, the researchers believe, an ‘effort to retrieve victims from the tsunami debris.’

‘The human skeleton was located about a meter below such a pit, suggesting that it was too deep to be found and retrieved and therefore (probably unknowingly) left behind,’ they added.

‘It is also in the lowest part of the deposit, characterized throughout the debris field by the largest and heaviest stones (some larger than 40 cm [16 inches] diameter), further complicating any retrieval effort.’

The young man’s skeleton — which shows the characteristic signatures of having been swept along by a debris flow — was found up against the most badly damaged portion of the fortification wall, which the team believe failed during the tsunami. 

The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A rare 2,300-year-old tomb in Istanbul holds a partially cremated body

A rare 2,300-year-old tomb in Istanbul holds a partially cremated body

A 2,300-year-old brick tomb contains the cremated remains of an individual whose body was likely placed in the tomb and then set on fire, archaeologists in Istanbul have announced. A tomb-like this is a rare find, archaeologists say.

A rare 2,300-year-old tomb in Istanbul holds a partially cremated body
This photo shows the cremated remains found in a 2,300-year-old tomb in Turkey.

At the time this person was buried, the area was known as Chalcedon, then a flourishing city during the Hellenistic era. The tomb, which contains the cremated remains of at least one person, was found at the Haydarpaşa Train Station in Istanbul.

Archaeologists also found a terracotta goblet and a perfume bottle within it, Rahmi Asal, director of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, told the Turkish government-owned Anadolu Agency. 

“This is very valuable. It is one of the oldest finds in this area,” Asal told the news agency, adding that “perhaps this will give us many more valuable insights” into the area’s past.

The excavation was carried out prior to the renovation and expansion of the railway system in the region and has unearthed remains throughout Istanbul’s history. 

Although the individual’s body was buried inside the tomb, some of the bones survived, a preliminary analysis revealed. “I have never seen this type of a cremation tomb from the Hellenistic period,” Asal said.

Flourishing kingdom

This area shows the general excavation area where the tomb was found. Remains from throughout Istanbul’s history were found during the dig.

At the time the tomb was built, Chalcedon was a thriving city. “Chalcedon was a powerful player in international politics,” Noah Kaye, an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University who is not involved with the new excavation, told Live Science in an email. 

Kaye noted that between 235 B.C and 220 B.C., Chalcedon, along with Byzantion (a nearby city), levied heavy tolls on ships passing through the Bosphorus strait, which separates Asia from Europe, into the Black Sea.

The cities extracted the tolls with the help of Egypt’s navy, which was then under the control of the Ptolemaic dynasty. 

Despite Chalcedon’s success at the time, some ancient writers referred to Chalcedon as the “land of the blind” because there were other supposedly other areas nearby that were better suited for a city.

In the fourth century A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine founded Constantinople, a city that would eventually engulf both Byzantion and Chalcedon and become the centre of the Byzantine Empire.

The discovery of the tomb may help shed light on what Chalcedon was like, Felix Pirson, director of the German Archaeological Institute’s Istanbul branch, told Live Science in an email. “It looks like a very important discovery indeed,” Pirson said, noting that we know little about what this area was like before Constantinople was founded. 

“More information about burial customs and funerary culture in general, which sheds a light on crucial topics such as social differentiation or identities, is of utmost importance,” said Pirson, who was not involved in the discovery of the tomb. 

An underground city unearthed in Turkey may have been a refuge for early Christians

An underground city unearthed in Turkey may have been a refuge for early Christians

Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have unearthed a vast underground city that was built almost 2,000 years ago and could have been home to up to 70,000 people. The subterranean complex may have been a protected space that early Christians used to escape Roman persecution.

An underground city unearthed in Turkey may have been a refuge for early Christians
Many artefacts from the second and third centuries A.D. were unearthed in an underground city in Mardin’s Midyat district in Turkey, as shown in this April 16 photo.

The first underground chambers of the ancient complex were found about two years ago, during a project to clean and conserve historical streets and houses in the Midyat district of Mardin province.

Workers on the project first discovered a limestone cave, and then a passage into the rest of the hidden city, Gani Tarkan, the director of the Mardin Museum and the head of the excavations, told the Turkish government-owned Anadolu Agency. That said, some of the local people had already known that there were caves below Midyat, but had not known there was an entirely underground city, Tarkan told Live Science in an email.

Now, 49 chambers have been unearthed in the colossal complex, as well as connecting passages, water wells, grain storage silos, the rooms of homes, and places of worship, including a Christian church and a large hall with a Star of David symbol on the wall, which appears to be a Jewish synagogue.

Artefacts found in the caverns — including Roman-era coins and oil lamps —  indicate that the subterranean complex was built sometime in the second or third centuries A.D, Tarkan told Live Science.

And there is still a large area to excavate. Tarkan estimates that less than 5% of the underground city, now known as Matiate, has been explored so far — an area of over 100,000 square feet (10,000 square m). He thinks the entire complex may be larger than 4 million square feet (400,000 square m) in the area and would have been large enough to accommodate between 60,000 and 70,000 people.

It’s possible that the city originally served as a refuge: “It was first built as a hiding place or escape area,” he suggested. 

“Christianity was not an official religion in the second century [and] families and groups who accepted Christianity generally took shelter in underground cities to escape the persecution of Rome,” Tarkan said. “Possibly, the underground city of Midyat was one of the living spaces built for this purpose.”

Ancient geographers wrote that the southern region of what is now Turkey was inhabited by Christians before its more central parts and that Christians in the area were heavily persecuted, not only by the Romans but also by the Persians in the fourth century, he told Live Science. 

Medieval travellers in the region at times of war also reported that they’d found entire towns and cities completely empty of inhabitants, and so it was possible the inhabitants had in fact hidden underground in places like Matiate, he said. 

In the early first century A.D., Roman officials did not distinguish between Jews and Christians, because many early Christians were also Jews. But that changed in A.D. 64 when Emperor Nero blamed and then killed Christians for a fire that swept through Rome, according to Britannica. Although the persecutions were sporadic, they continued until the early fourth century; and while the numbers are debated, it’s likely that thousands of Christians were executed during this time. In A.D. 313, however, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal and ending the persecutions; and in 380 Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Lozan Bayar, an archaeologist with Mardin’s Office for Protection and Supervision, agreed that Matiate might have been used by early Christians to escape Roman persecution.

“In the early period of Christianity, Rome was under the influence of pagans before later recognizing Christianity as an official religion,” he told Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish news outlet. Such underground cities provided security to people and they also performed their prayers there. They were also places of escape.”

Hidden city

Excavation teams discovered that a cave, which was found during works carried out in the historical streets and houses in the district two years ago, opened up into underground corridors that provide passages to different places.

The ancient city of Midyat above the subterranean complex was likely first built by the Hurrians, a people who occupied parts of central and southern Anatolia (in present-day Turkey) up to 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age. The city first appears in Assyrian records in the ninth century B.C. as “Matiate” — a name that meant “city of caves,” possibly because there are many limestone caves nearby — the name that has now been assigned to the underground city.

Midyat was occupied, in turn, by Arameans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans during its long history, with each civilization building on the work of the last. As a result, Midyat is now well-known for its ancient architecture, and it draws up to 3 million tourists every year, according to Hürriyet Daily News. More than 100 traditional houses near the city’s centre are now protected because of their historical significance, and nine churches and monasteries in the city are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Tarkan thinks the hidden city of Matiate will be an additional attraction when the excavations are completed.” While the houses on the top are dated to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, there is a completely different city underneath,” he said. “That city is 1,900 years old.”

Going underground

The underground city, which is called “Matiate,” is home to many places of worship, silos, water wells, passages and corridors.

The tradition of building homes and cities underground is well established in Turkey. More than 40 ancient subterranean cities have been found there, including Derinkuyu — an enormous complex in the central Cappadocia region that was burrowed into soft volcanic rock, possibly by the Anatolian people known as the Phrygians in the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.

Derinkuyu was large enough to hold 20,000 people, and was occupied until the medieval period: for example, Byzantine Christians and Jews used it as a refuge during Arab invasions between the eighth and 12th centuries A.D. Science writer Will Hunt, author of the book “Underground: A Human History of the World’s Beneath Our Feet” (Random House, 2019) said there were many stories of people in what is now Turkey who had found holes in their land, or sometimes right inside their homes, that opened up to sprawling warrens of human-made tunnels.

“Some go down more than 10 levels and have space for tens of thousands of people,” he told Live Science in an email. “They are like upside-down castles.”

Hunt echoes Tarkan’s suggestion that the underground structures at Matiate may have been used in defence. “Beneath any settlement, there would have been an underground city, where people would take cover when they were under attack,” he said.

And it wasn’t just in Turkey: “all over the world, throughout history, whenever there is a threat on the surface, people have dark underground [spaces] to protect themselves from danger,” he said. “It’s practically instinctual.”

Major discovery: Iron Age complex found under a house in Turkey village, says study

Major discovery: Iron Age complex found under a house in Turkey village, says study

A bungled looting scheme has led archaeologists to an underground Iron Age complex in Turkey that may have been used by a fertility cult during the first millennium B.C., a new study finds.

Major discovery: Iron Age complex found under a house in Turkey village, says study
The divine procession panel, digitally highlighted in black, is found in the underground complex in Başbük, Turkey.

The ancient complex, which has yet to be fully investigated due to the instability of the structure, has rare rock art drawings on its walls featuring a procession of deities depicted in an Assyrian style.

This art style appears to have been adopted by local groups, indicating how strongly the culture of the Neo-Assyrian Empire — which hailed from Mesopotamia and later expanded into Anatolia — spread to the people it conquered in this region, according to the new study, published online May 11 in the journal Antiquity. 

“The finding bears witness to the exercise of Assyrian hegemony in the region in its early phases,” one of the study’s authors Selim Ferruh Adalı, an associate professor of ancient history at the Social Sciences University of Ankara, told Live Science in an email.

“The wall panel contains a depiction of the divine procession with previously unknown elements, with Aramaic writing to describe some of the deities while combining Neo-Assyrian, Aramaean and Syro-Anatolian divine iconography.”

Authorities learned about the ancient underground complex in 2017 after looters discovered it beneath a house in a Turkish village and decided to target its treasures. However, police foiled the looters, and investigating officials soon found an artificial opening the looters had cut through the floor of the two-story house in the village of Başbük, in southern Turkey.

This discovery prompted the police to notify the Şanlıurfa Archaeological Museum, whose archaeologists determined that the opening, which measured about 7 by 5 feet  (2.2 by 1.5 meters), led to an entrance chamber, carved out of the limestone bedrock, in the underground complex.

The subterranean complex dates to the early Neo-Assyrian period (around the ninth century B.C.) and features an upper and lower gallery, as well as the entrance chamber. The original opening to the entrance chamber has not yet been found.

Museum experts carried out the rescue excavation in August and September of 2018, Adalı said. However, they suspended the rescue excavation after two months because of the instability of the site. The area is now under the legal protection of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Interpretative sketches of the divine group at Basb̧ük (top) with photographs of the scene (bottom).

During the short period of excavation, archaeologists removed sediment that had fallen due to erosion in the underground spaces, which revealed a decorative rock relief carved into a wall panel.

The panel depicts a procession of gods and goddesses from the Aramean pantheon, some with Aramaic inscriptions next to them.

The excavators sent photos of the inscriptions on the panel to Adalı, who found that the panel had great historical significance.

A photo of the underground complex in southern Turkey.
The short Aramaic text for the moon god Sîn
A section of the panel depicts Hadad, storm, rain and thunder god, and Atargatis, the principal goddess of Syria.
Archaeologists found Aramaic text to the right of the storm god’s head.

The expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire into what is now Turkey inspired a cultural revolution, as the Assyrian elite used art from their courtly style to express their power over the local Luwian- and Aramaic-speaking peoples.

The wall panel in Başbük shows how Assyrian art was adapted into the Aramaean style in the provincial towns and villages, the researchers found.

Four of the eight deities depicted on the panel could not be identified, according to the study. The Aramaic inscriptions label three of the gods: the storm, rain and thunder god Hadad; his consort Atargatis, a goddess of fertility and protection; the moon god Sîn; and the sun god Šamaš. The drawing of Atargatis is the earliest known depiction of this goddess, the principal goddess of Syria, in this region, the researchers added.

“The inclusion of Syro-Anatolian religious themes illustrate an adaptation of Neo-Assyrian elements in ways that one did not expect from earlier finds, Adalı said in a statement, “They reflect an earlier phase of Assyrian presence in the region when local elements were more emphasized.”

The deities on the wall panel suggest that it was “the locus for a regional fertility cult of Syro-Anatolian and Aramaean deities with rituals overseen by early Neo-Assyrian authorities,” Adalı told Live Science. One of those authorities might have been Mukīn-abūa, a Neo-Assyrian official who lived during the reign of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III (811 B.C. to 783 B.C.). The researchers identified an inscription that might refer to Mukīn-abūa. It’s possible that Mukīn-abūa took control of the region, and that he used this complex to integrate with and win over locals, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the presence of Neo-Assyrian art in this complex doesn’t necessarily mean that the empire’s artists created this panel. Rather, it’s likely that “the panel was made by local artists serving Assyrian authorities who adapted Neo-Assyrian art in a provincial context,” Adalı said. 

He added that the team suspects further excavations will uncover more areas of the underground complex and possibly yield more examples of artwork, as only a small part of the whole site has been explored so far. A full-scale excavation is expected to take place when the entirety of the site has been prepared, according to the procedures of Turkish cultural heritage laws.