After Six Decades, Penn Archaeologists Carry on a Tradition of Research and Discovery in Turkey

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Media Contact:Katherine Unger Baillie | | 215-898-9194January 14, 2013

In 1950, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology sent scholars to a site in central Turkey, about 50 miles southwest of Ankara. There they began an effort to uncover — literally and figuratively — details about the societies and cultures of the people who lived there hundreds to thousands of years before.

That site, Gordion, has been the source of countless discoveries, and Penn Museum archaeologists are still at work there today, contributing to an ever-growing understanding of the capital of the ancient kingdom of Phrygia.

Brian Rose, a professor of archaeology and classical studies at Penn, took over as co-director of the University’s Gordion Project in 2006. His experience in Turkey, however, goes back more than 30 years, having supervised excavations of Greek, Roman and Byzantine artifacts at ancient Troy along the country’s northwest coast.

Upon assuming a leadership role in Penn’s involvement in Gordion, Rose noted that, although excavations have been carried out at the site for decades, written scholarship hadn’t kept pace with the discoveries. To make up for the lean publication record, Rose put a moratorium on new excavations to ensure his colleagues devoted sufficient time to writing up their findings.

Since then, the group has put out seven new monographs, with one just out this month from Penn Press, “The Archaeology of Phrygian Gordion, Royal City of Midas.”

Rose notes that much has changed since the early days of the Gordion Project. It’s a common saying in archaeology that in order to reconstruct history, you have to destroy it. But archaeologists can now apply modern technology to their investigations, which often helps focus the work, save time and even preserve valuable artifacts and structures.

For example, to assess what may underlie a given patch of earth, researchers needn’t wield a shovel. Instead, they can walk over the ground with an instrument that measures variations in the magnetic field, revealing a rough picture of what is buried below.

“You can learn an enormous amount of information about the city without excavation,” Rose says.

Based on this technique, magnetic prospection, along with radar data and archaeological information from previous digs, the Penn team has put together a “map” of ancient Gordion at various times through history, beginning around the 8th century B.C.E.

“The diagram depicts the location of buildings, streets, gates and outer fortification walls,” Rose says.

Penn researchers have also used magnetic prospection to evaluate tumuli, the earthen mounds that conceal tombs of prominent people.

“You can use it to locate the tomb chamber,” Rose notes, resulting in a tremendous time saving, as tombs were typically placed off-center in the tumuli to confuse potential looters.

Recent work by Rose and colleagues that combines high-tech analyses with more-traditional archaeological techniques has led to a revision of the date at which Gordion experienced widespread destruction, from 700 to 800 B.C.E. Their findings also suggest that the damage resulted from an uncontrolled fire, as opposed to a foreign invasion, which scholars earlier believed was the cause.

Such shifts can have interesting implications for understanding Gordion’s past. A relatively recent revision in the dating of what is known as the “Midas Tomb,” for example, indicates that the structure was built not for the Phrygian king famous for his supposed golden touch but for one of his predecessors.

Rose’s colleague Patrick McGovern has helped paint a detailed picture of what the culinary life of this buried man and his contemporaries may have looked — and tasted — like. By performing advanced chemical analyses on residues from pottery vessels found in tombs and other sites, he has learned about meals and beverages that were consumed thousands of years ago.  

One of McGovern’s more exciting discoveries came at the so-called Midas Tomb. He characterized the menu of what appears to have been a “funerary feast” held to honor the deceased.

“We found evidence there for a barbecued lamb or goat and lentil stew that was spiced,” McGovern says. “We could identify compounds that were related to barbecuing and sheep or goat and a lot of cholesterol and other compounds that pointed to maybe the meat being marinated in wine and olive oil.”

Making this find even more noteworthy, according to Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann, a research scholar at the Penn Museum, is that a similar stew continues to be on the menu at marriage ceremonies in the region today.

Alongside the stew, McGovern’s studies suggest that the beverage served in the Midas Tomb was “a mixture of grape wine, honey mead and barley beer,” he says.

That intoxicating brew captured the attention of not only the scientific community, appearing on the cover of Nature in 1999, but also purveyors of alcoholic beverages, inspiring a new recipe for a Dogfish Head beer called Midas Touch.

Where McGovern’s specialty is food, Naomi Miller’s is plants. Her field is archaeobotany, or the study of the ancient remains of plants and plant materials. A research project manager at the Penn Museum, Miller has illuminated how cultures both ancient and modern used plants in their daily lives.

The charred remains of wood used for fuel as well as other vegetative remains, for example, have enabled Miller to reconstruct what the area’s woodlands may have looked like, scenes she has captured in paintings of the region.

Discoveries of preserved seeds, meanwhile, reflect the crops grown through the centuries around Gordion or obtained through trade with farther-flung communities. Tracking the abundance of certain seeds can help archaeologists infer how agricultural trends and practices changed through time. For instance, Miller has found more moisture-loving plants dated to periods when irrigation began to be used by Gordion’s agriculturalists.

Agriculture is likewise a major focus for the Museum’s Gürsan-Salzmann. Her ethnographical research on the strategies of modern farmers and herders help tell a story of what agricultural and pastoral techniques may have been practiced by Phrygians thousands of years ago.

“I use both the contemporary situation as well as near-historical material from pre- 1950, before mechanization took over in the valley, to learn about the prehistoric situation,” she says.

Among her observations from 16 seasons spent in the field since 1994, Gürsan-Salzmann has seen how mechanization has led to changes in socioeconomic and sociocultural aspects of communities surrounding Gordion. Whereas younger people once stayed in the area’s villages to learn the techniques practiced by their parents and ancestors before them, for instance, many now venture out to larger towns and cities to find employment.

Gürsan-Salzmann has also witnessed the re-emergence of a possibly ancient herding practice: the raising of angora goats. Some of her research suggests that these animals — valued for their soft, shaggy wool and nutrition-packed milk — were likely introduced to central Anatolia around the 15th century B.C.E. from central Asia. And archaeologists have found the burned remains of something that could be angora wool in ancient workshops from the 9th century B.C.E.

Still other evidence indicates that the animals’ presence in what is now Turkey may go back much deeper into history.

“There is a plaque from Nippur which goes back to the 4th millennium B.C.E. with animals that appear to have enormous amounts of shaggy wool,” she says.

Many area herders gave up on raising the goats, however, possibly due to their finicky nature; they’re fragile, don’t eat well and must be shorn within a narrow window. But recently a Gordion-area herder is among a few new pioneers in the region who have taken up the practice once again, planning to sell the wool, milk and milk byproducts.

“This man sold all his sheep and bought 350 angora goats and now has about 500,” she says.

Naomi Miller notes that reintroducing the angora goats may trigger other changes in the landscape.

“Perhaps they could lead to pasture becoming more valuable than irrigated fields,” she says, allowing a return to a more ancestral land use in the region. “There are ways to add value in a modern economy while still preserving the past.”

Finding this balance between past and present, between embracing tourism and maintaining modern livelihoods, has been a focus for the Penn team, many of whom have been involved with ensuring that the treasures of Gordion persist for generations to come. In July 2012, Gürsan-Salzmann and Miller spoke with the mayor and officials of Polatlı, the municipality that oversees Gordion, to underscore the importance of preserving the site’s tumuli and landscape.

To that end, one of Miller’s aims has been developing an “eco-park” that will reduce erosion on the burial mounds and teach locals and tourists about the unique ecology of the region. Gürsan-Salzmann, meanwhile, helped launch a women’s cooperative market where members sell handicrafts, including jewelry, knitted clothing and traditional foods. These efforts are helping ensure the sustainability of the site as both a tourist destination and a place where residents can make a living in a global economy.

For those members of Penn and and Philadelphia-area community who can’t travel to Turkey to see Gordion’s sights in person, the Penn Museum is planning a substitute: Come 2016, the Museum will host an exhibit featuring artifacts from Gordion on loan from the Turkish government, including a collection of items from the Midas Tomb.