Archaeology in Turkey - 2016 in review

Archaeology in Turkey - 2016 in review
Archaeology in Turkey - 2016 in review

2016 has been a year difficult to sum up in just one sentence, and this applies also to the area of archaeology in Turkey. Numerous fascinating discoveries have been made, often by chance, and we have gained a better understanding of past civilizations that once inhabited Asia Minor. On the other hand, Turkish tourism sector has been in steep decline since 2014, and this negative trend has also affected the income generated by the most popular museums and archaeological sites. Several scandals have been revealed, shaking the archaeological world as well as the general audience. Let us take a look at these ups and downs of 2016 and at the perspectives for 2017.

Mosaics galore

The most exciting archaeological discoveries of 2016 have been, without a doubt, several beautiful ancient mosaics. In April, a mosaic with Greek inscription was found in the southern province of Hatay. Its initial interpretation as an ancient motivational meme which reads “be cheerful, live your life” was later questioned by the experts. Nevertheless, the so-called skeleton mosaic that belonged to the dining room of a house in the ancient city of Antiocheia, from the 3rd century BCE, is a very important and rare artifact.

In September, there was news about the continuation of excavations in Konya’s Beyşehir district. In 2015, a 1,400-year-old floor mosaic with human and animal figures, was discovered there. The main theme is a warrior fighting against a lion. It also depicts a very big vase and dried tree branches in it. There are also figures of fish, pomegranate, mountain goats, gazelle, partridge, two lions, and a vulture.

In October, another beautifully preserved mosaic was unearthed, this time near the Balıklı Lake in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa. This floor mosaic dates back to the Kingdom of Osroene (i.e. the 1st century BCE), and it features Syriac inscriptions and fine engravings.

Ancient goddesses and powerful women

Archaeological discoveries in 2016 have shed more light on the role of women and female deities in ancient Anatolia. In September we learned more about the content of the clay tablets unearthed during excavations at the Kültepe Kaniş/Karum in the province of Kayseri. Scholars revealed that Anatolian women played an active part in administration and trade 4,000 years ago. One of them even traveled 1,000 kilometers to Assyria in order to seek her rights in court as she failed to collect her money.

Also in September, an unusual discovery was made in northern Ordu province on the Black Sea coast. Archaeologists have found a 2,100-year-old marble statue of Cybele, the mother goddess of Anatolia. The goddess is shown sitting on her throne. This is the first marble statue found in Turkey in its original place. It has a weight of 200 kilograms and is about 110 centimeters tall. This discovery attracted crowds of tourists, surprising the local authorities as culture tourism to archaeological sites, especially those predating Ottoman and Seljuk rule is not very popular in the country.

September was a very fruitful month for archaeologists working in Turkey as another great discovery was made in the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük. Archaeologists unearthed a unique complete female figurine, measuring 17 centimeters and weighing one kilogram. It is considered unique due to its intact form and fine craftsmanship and it dates back to about 5500-8000 BCE.

Underwater discoveries

Many exciting archaeological discoveries have been made underwater in 2016. In January, Turkish researchers discovered a 4,000 year-old shipwreck in Hisarönü Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea. This Minoan shipwreck is the oldest of its kind to be found in Turkey. This discovery is a part of the "Research on Turkey's Underwater Heritage" project, which was launched in 2007.

In June, a chance discovery was made in the waters of the Marmara Sea. An amateur diver photographed an underwater ancient city 20-25 kilometers off the shore of the northwestern province of Çanakkale’s Biga district. He recorded large columns and sarcophagi that may have been part of a temple.

Also the Black Sea has revealed some of its secrets in 2016. A stunning discovery revealed over 40 mysterious shipwrecks in the depths of the Black Sea, including remains of ships known from historical sources, but never seen before. The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project's main aim is to carry out geophysical surveys and the wrecks are a complete bonus, according to the principle investigator, Professor Jon Adams.

Let us get back to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea where a huge shipyard, believed to be the oldest in the world, was discovered on Dana Island in Silifke district. 274 ships could be built at the same time in this shipyard. Researchers estimate that it was used around 1200 BCE, in the Late Bronze Age. It this claim is confirmed by further studies, the discovery can shed some light on the "Sea People invasion" mystery and the Dark Age that followed.

Hittites, cave paintings, tumuli, and ancient seeds

Among numerous archaeological discoveries that have been made in Turkey this year, we have selected the most fascinating ones that offer a better understanding of deep past of Anatolia and Thrace. The first such discovery takes us back some 8,000 years. In the Marmara province of Balıkesir, a number of paintings were found in Baltalıın and İnkaya caves during a field study. These paintings depict hunting scenes, a shaman, a fetus growing in the womb, and a dead human without a head offered to the vultures.

In May 2016, perhaps a bit too prematurely, the Istanbul Archeology Museum announced that they had made the largest archeological discovery of the year. It was revealed that a 5,000-year-old tumulus, "the oldest ever found in the country", was found in the Istanbul district of Silivri. The tumulus most likely belonged to a prominent Bronze Age warrior who came from the north, as he was buried with a spearhead.

The unusual find of 5,000-year-old grape seeds will help the researchers to gain some insights about western Anatolian culture. These seeds were discovered in Yassıtepe mound in İzmir’s Bornova district and are believed to be the seeds of the Bornova Misket grape.

In the south-east of the country, in Şanlıurfa, a large number of expansive rock tombs were discovered in July 2016. They may be the part of the world’s largest necropolis. One of the newly found tombs, larger than the others, might have belonged to the nobles of Edessa King Abgar’s family.

Meanwhile, in Central Anatolia region, in Sorgun, the archaeologists were trying to solve the mystery of five-ton lion sculptures. These monumental statues were made between 1,400 and 1,200 BCE. According to local authorities, the field will be turned into an open-air museum, shedding light on a Hittite period of history.

Talking about the Hittites, a 3,300-year-old secret passage and a skeleton belonging to the Hittite period were found during archaeological excavations in Alacahöyük. The discovery of the skeleton could have significant implications for historians, as it was the first time when a Hittite-era skeleton was found.

Life is full of archaeological surprises

Turkey is one of these countries where it is difficult not to find some archaeological treasures during everyday activities such as road construction, farming, or conducting a criminal investigation. In September 2016, municipal workers trying to fix broken water pipes in Çanakkale province found three ancient sarcophagi from the 8th century BCE. One of the two sarcophagi hid golden jewelry, including a handful of gold beads, a ring, three bullet-sized gold pieces, two brooches, and a mirror without a handle. This discovery stunned the owner of the field who stated that "he never thought such historical artifacts would be found in his land."

Finally, the award for the most unexpected archaeological discovery of 2016 goes to the policemen from Iznik. While searching for a stolen truck they discovered a sarcophagus from the Late Antiquity period in an olive grove. We could not help but wonder if they also found the missing truck.

Ephesus case and other scandals

The year 2016 has also brought several scandals that shocked the archaeologists, historians, and the general public. Diplomatic tension between Austria and Turkey has brought about an early halt to this year’s archaeological excavations in the ancient city of Ephesus, which were carried out by the Austrian Archaeology Institute. It remains unknown if the Austrian team will get the permission for the next year works.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, a journalist Ömer Erbil revealed in the shocking interview that there was a serious risk of collapse faced by Topkapı Palace. During work conducted in May 2016, in the depots of the Topkapı Pavilion, which showcases world-renowned treasures, experts found serious cracks when they removed concrete from the walls. According to Ömer Erbil, these cracks are the result of decades of indifference and lack of conservation.

In Central Anatolia, an ancient stela disappeared in mysterious circumstances. There are claims that it was illegally sold for 6 million Turkish Liras. The 2,700-year-old late Hittite-era stela from Ereğli district has similar features with the famous İvriz relief. Its fate is still unknown.

A very strange thing also happened in Southeastern Anatolia. Hasakeyf Mayor, Abdulvahap Kusen, said Hasankeyf had been submitted to UNESCO years ago. However, Mechtild Rössler, the director of both UNESCO’s Division for Heritage and World Heritage Center, has revealed that Turkey did not apply for the inclusion of the ancient city of Hasankeyf on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Some 80 percent of Hasankeyf will be flooded due to the controversial Ilısu Dam project.

As it has already been said, Turkey is a country very rich in historic monuments. However, not all citizens of this country show care and respect to its archaeological riches. In March 2016, during an annual conference organized by the Antalya Chamber of Industrialists and Businessmen, archaeologist Havva İşkan Işık revealed that stone quarries were given permission to mine Mount Latmos. Moreover, workers are trying to erase historical paintings dating back 6,000 years in order to facilitate mining.

New inscriptions on UNESCO lists

While Hasankeyf has not even been submitted to UNESCO, an archaeological site of Ani was registered to the World Heritage List during the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s 40th session held in Istanbul. Between 961 and 1045, Ani was the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom that covered much of present-day Armenia and eastern Turkey. It was called the "City of 1001 Churches."

Moreover, 10 sites from the area of modern Turkey were inscribed on the UNESCO World Tentative List in 2016. Among these sites, there are some well-known ones such as Bodrum Castle and Van fortress, but also the less-known sites that will benefit from this form of promotion, like Malabadi Bridge and the ancient city of Kibyra.

Optimistic mayor of Ahlat, Mümtaz Çoban, claims that Ahlat will enter the World Heritage list in 2017. Ahlat and its surroundings are known for a large number of historic tombstones left by the Ahlatshah dynasty.

Finally, Turkey will nominate Göbeklitepe, branded the world's oldest temple, for the UNESCO World Heritage List. It's high time for this spectacular site to be on the List. Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it could profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society.

To be open soon... or what to expect in 2017

Finally, let's look at the promises Turkish authorities have made for the year 2017. If everything goes as planned, the visitors will soon be able to use the facilities of 881-year-old historic hammam in Kayseri Province. The bath, located in the Gülük neighborhood of Melikgazi district, was built in 1135 during the Seljuq dynasty, and later restored in 1210 by Elti Hatun during the Danishmend dynasty.

Speaking about bathing, a 2,000-year-old Roman bath, known as Basilica Therma, located in Yozgat Province, is expected to be open to tourism in the next few years. The pool also contains thermal waters, which have healing properties for many disorders.

A Roman basilica, discovered under the waters of Iznik Lake in 2014, will open for tourism as an "underwater museum." The Roman-era basilica, which lies under 1.5 to 2 meters of water, was discovered while photographing the city from the air to make an inventory of historical and cultural artifacts.

Although it has been possible to visit the ancient city of Kibyra for several years now, it will be officially open for tourists in 2017. The most serious consequence of this move will most probably be the necessity to purchase entrance tickets. There will be a reception center for tours, a parking lot and small shopping structures at the entrance.

Tourists are still waiting for the news concerning Nevşehir's underground city, discovered accidentally in 2014. In 2016, a historical church was found there, with frescoes depicting the scenes hitherto unseen. There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed. The big question is: when will we be able to visit this unique underground structure?