x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dig unearths treasures of Byzantine era and before

Beneath perfectly preserved ships and artefacts found during excavations for a rail link in Istanbul lies evidence that the area may have been a human settlement far earlier than believed.

The Turkish minister of culture and tourism, Ertugrul Gunay, examines the excavation work and archaeological finds at the site of the Marmaray project in Yenikapi, Istanbul.
The Turkish minister of culture and tourism, Ertugrul Gunay, examines the excavation work and archaeological finds at the site of the Marmaray project in Yenikapi, Istanbul.

Above ground, the Istanbul suburb of Yenikapi is a normal, modern-day bustling port on the Marmaris Sea. But beneath the waters, its newly discovered treasures are rewriting the history books. So far, 32 wooden ships, Stone Age skeletons, coins, amphorae and even a basket full of ancient cherries have been uncovered in an area that is thought to have been the first Byzantine port of the ancient city of Constantinople.

Dating from the time of the Roman emperor Theodosius I, in the fourth century AD, the finds are an unprecedented glimpse into the ancient trade and maritime life of one of the world's longest-inhabited cities. "These findings are extremely important and special for Istanbul's history," says Dr Ismail Karamut, the director of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and head of the Yenikapi excavations. "They yield a lot of important information, particularly about Byzantine ship-faring and maritime engineering."

Researchers at the affiliated institutes of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University and at Bodrum in Turkey have stressed the importance of the finds, saying they are unique because of their sheer number and ability to shed light on ancient building techniques. Nautical gear, such as stone anchors with wooden poles and ropes, have been perfectly preserved in the depths of the murky water, while entire merchant vessels from various centuries have been uncovered, some filled with ancient merchandise, such as oil and wine amphorae. Fifteen ships thought to have sunk in a strong storm in 1,000 AD were discovered at the eastern end of the harbour, revealing a high-traffic port that connected the ancient granaries of Alexandria to the vineyards of northern Greece.

Sait Basaran, the head of a team of researchers from Istanbul University, described it as a "once in a lifetime" archaeological site. Items uncovered will provide academic fodder for years to come, particularly since the geological make-up of the site has allowed objects that would normally disintegrate to be preserved. They include a woman's shoe with an ancient Greek inscription: "Use it in health, lady, be in beauty and happiness and wear it."

The site also bears relics of continued Byzantine presence after the harbour had been filled in. A Byzantine tannery and charnel house were discovered at the western end of the excavation, as well as human skulls - perhaps those of executed criminals - thrown into a well. Although researchers have known from ancient sources that a port existed somewhere in the area, they were not certain until excavations began in 2004, at the behest of the Marmaray Project, a multibillion-dollar underwater railway system that will link the European and Asian sides of Istanbul when it is completed in 2012. The project will transform Yenikapi into one of its busiest transportation hubs.

Once finished, the 76-kilometre line will pass underneath the Bosphorus Strait, with parts of it submerged at 55 metres underwater. It will also be equipped with the latest earthquake-proof technology, since it will be located 20km away from the North Anatolian Fault Zone, which caused Turkey's devastating earthquake of 1999 that registered 7.6 in magnitude and caused 45,000 deaths. It's a lofty, yet necessary ambition for a city clogged by traffic and overwhelmed by its growing population of 12 million. Although two suspension bridges currently link the city, Istanbul has struggled to modernise its transportation system for years. The earliest idea for an underground metro system emerged in 1860, during the Ottoman Empire, and was realised in 1999, when the Japanese Bank for International Co-operation co-signed a funding deal with Turkey. Feasibility studies were carried out and it was thought that the railway, which would pass under the major historical sites of Haghia Sophia and Topkapi Palace in the ancient district of Sultanahmet, would be dug too deep to unearth any archaeological sites.

And yet, beneath the water table, underneath the rib cages of hollow merchant ships and broken clay pots, lay the greatest discovery yet. In August, Dr Karamut and his team came across four ancient skeletons buried in graves six metres below sea level. The two adults, aged approximately 35, and two children under two, are thought to have lived during the Neolithic age, around 6,000-6,500 BC. The objects found with them, particularly ceramic pieces, have led Dr Karamut and his colleagues to conclude there was an ancient settlement in Yenikapi whose inhabitants lived on animal grazing and farming. Researchers have also linked the findings to the remains of an ancient settlement in Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site in southern Anatolia which was excavated in the 1960s. The similarity between the sites suggests that settlers in the Anatolian planes migrated to Istanbul's shores some 8,000 years ago.

If so, the finding reshapes the image of Istanbul as a city begun by the Romans and suggests it is much older than 2,800 years. "Istanbul's history," Dr Karamut has said, "must be erased and be rewritten." The excavations are proceeding with no sign of abating. More than 750 archaeologists continue to unearth, examine, catalogue and conserve findings in a project that began in a 58,000 square metre space and has since expanded. When all is said and done, Dr Karamut says there are plans to build an archaeological park over the site that will exhibit the finds, particularly the Byzantine ships.

mmetallidis@thenational.ae