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After a drought in 2007,Istanbul yields ancient treasure

The excavation of Bathonea,a substantial harbour town dating from the second century B.C.,has been yielding a trove of relics from the Constantinople era

Written by New York Times | Published: January 29, 2012 3:59:34 am

JENNIFER PINKOWSKI

For 1,600 years,this city,Turkey’s largest,has been built and destroyed,erected and erased,as layer upon layer of life has thrived on its seven hills. Today,Istanbul is a city of 13 million,spread far beyond those hills. And on a long-farmed peninsula jutting into Lake Kucukcekmece,13 miles west of the city centre,archaeologists have made an extraordinary find.

The find is Bathonea,a substantial harbour town dating from the second century B.C. Discovered in 2007 after a drought lowered the lake¿s water table,it has been yielding a trove of relics from the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D.,a period that parallels Istanbul’s founding and its rise as Constantinople,a seat of power for three successive empires—the Eastern Roman,Byzantine and Ottoman.

While there are some historical records of this early period,precious few physical artifacts exist. So Bathonea has the potential to become a “library of Constantinople,” says Sengul Aydingun,the archaeologist who made the initial discovery.

After the drought exposed parts of a well-preserved sea wall nearly two-and-a-half miles long,Aydingun and her team soon saw that the harbour had been equipped with docks,buildings and a jetty,probably dating to the fourth century. Other discoveries rapidly followed. In the last dig season alone,the archaeologists uncovered port walls,elaborate buildings,an enormous cistern,a Byzantine church and stone roads spanning more than 1,000 years of occupation.

“The fieldwork Sengul has conducted over the last few years is spectacular,” said Volker Heyd,an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in England who surveyed Bathonea for two field seasons. “The discoveries made are now shedding a completely new light to the wider urbanised area of Constantinopolis. A fantastic story begins to unveil.”

Aydingun’s team and researchers from eight foreign universities have found a second,older port on the peninsula’s eastern side,its Greek influences suggesting that it dated to about the second century B.C. Nearby,atop the round foundations of a Greek temple,they found the remains of a fifth- or sixth-century Byzantine church and cemetery with 20 burials,and a large stone relief of a Byzantine cross. Coins,pottery and other artifacts indicate that the church suffered damage in the devastating earthquake of 557 but was in use until 1037,when a tremor levelled it—crushing three men whose bodies were found beneath a collapsed wall,along with a coin bearing the image of a minor emperor who ruled during the year of the quake.

Because the archaeologists are at the beginning of a multiyear dig at a site not known from historical sources,they are hesitant to draw many conclusions. Even the name Bathonea is a placeholder,inspired by two ancient references: the first-century historian Pliny the Elder¿s Natural History,which refers to the river feeding the lake as Bathynias; and a work by a ninth-century Byzantine monk,Theophanes,who called the region Bathyasos.

The archaeologists know this much: The site was large. It sprawled across at least three square miles,and its sea wall is nearly half the length of the one that surrounded Constantinople itself. It was moderately wealthy; the region was a country retreat for the urban elite,drawn by its fertile hunting grounds and Lake Kucukcekmece itself,the freshwater body closest to the city. They built villas and palaces all around the region.

Roman glass and high-end pottery dating as late as the 14th century were found throughout the site. Marble,including a gorgeous milky-blue variety,lined the walls and floors of the church and at least one of the buildings. Bathonea was also well connected. Some pottery was made as far away as Palestine and Syria,typical of places with access to foreign goods. It had wide stone roads,the earliest dating to the Roman era. But its relationship to Constantinople is still unclear. “I like the idea of Bathonea as a satellite port of a major city,” said Bradley A. Ault,a classical archaeologist with the University at Buffalo who has studied ancient port cities in Greece and Cyprus. “It falls in line with Athens and Piraeus,Rome and Ostia.”

Now 13 to 65 feet deep,Lake Kucukcekmece would have been a deep bay navigable by ships of all sizes,Aydingun said. Sonar has revealed what may be six Byzantine iron anchors buried in the sand just offshore,and nails commonly used in shipbuilding were unearthed at the site. The lake is so polluted by industrial runoff that diving in it is dangerous,he said. A new water-treatment facility may make exploration possible within a few years.

The Bathonea archaeologists also hope to uncover more artifacts dating to the earliest days of civilisation. In 2007,Aydingun and Emre Guldogan of Istanbul University found 9,000-year-old flint tools at the site that could be evidence of the earliest pre-pottery farming settlement in Europe.

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