Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Visit to Yeni Kapı

This past weekend, there was a conference at the Research Center that was focused on the conservation of archaeological sites. There were speakers invited from all over the world, and the keynote was given by Jerry Podany, the head conservator at the Getty Villa, someone that we know from LA. As a part of the conference, the speakers and the Research Center Fellows (and Peter) were taken on two fieldtrips to see some things in Istanbul that we would otherwise never have had access to.

The first was the archaeological conservation lab here in Istanbul, one of only three in the country. In a country with such a rich archaeological heritage, there should be more, and the conservators at this one are quite overworked. It was very interesting to visit and hear the types of work that are going on there, and the types of legal and governmental red tape they have to routinely work through! The lab is housed on the grounds of Topkapı palace, in the old Ottoman mint. Of course it was interesting to see the building, which is big and old and quite creepy looking on the inside, especially filled with all kinds of vials, bottles, tubes, and other scientific equipment. The most interesting pieces we saw in the lab were a Hittite helmet and a shield that was recovered from the tomb of one of Alexander the Great's generals. It was originally leather on a metal frame, with metal decorations. Of course the leather is long gone, but the conservators were working on the metal components. There was one detail that none of us (or any of the conservators at the conference) had ever seen before: on the inside of the shield were three small, incredibly detailed metal animals that looked for all the world like armadillos -- Candace was not the only one who thought so. They are probably actually a type of rat. I wish we had an image of this shield, but we were not allowed to take photographs of anything they were working on.

The second fieldtrip was even more interesting. We were taken to the ongoing excavations at a site called Yeni Kapı, or "New Door." This is the site of one of the most important excavations ever to take place in Istanbul. Several years ago, the city of Istanbul decided to begin building a tube that will run beneath the Bosphorus and connect the continents of Europe and Asia. The train will carry approximately 75,000 people an hour from one side to the other. However, when they began sinking holes in an area where the new station on the European side will be constructed, they hit massive archaeological remains. They had discovered the site of the Byzantine Harbor of Theodosius, which archaeologists and historians previously knew only from texts. This harbor, which was at one time of course linked to the Bosphorus but is now well inland, was incredibly important as the landing-spot for merchant and military ships.

Following Turkish law, the contractors who had been hired by the city to build the tunnel now became financially responsible for funding rescue archaeological operations on the site (I'm sure they were less than pleased about that). Since the tunnel project still needs to move forward quickly, the archaeological dig has been unprecedented in size, scope, and speed: up to 500 workmen have been laboring there, often 24 hours a day, aided by massive floodlamps. The results have been spectacular: not only have they discovered the remains of several docks (you can see the wooden piers sticking up out of the ground), they uncovered multiple buildings, including a church, and, below the Byzantine layer everyone was already excited about, archaeologists found a group of Neolithic burials. This completely changed the story of the city that is now Istanbul. Prior to this discovery, no one thought that the area had been occupied at such an early period. But there were the obvious remains of a stone-age settlement. In the conservation lab on-site we were stunned to see almost perfectly-preserved wooden oars used by the neolithic residents to paddle up the river Lykos, which flowed into the Bosphorus at the point of the Byzantine harbor. It is really, really rare for wood to survive that long, but the situation was just right at Yeni Kapı, where the ground has remained very damp even long after the harbor silted up.

Because of these conditions which are ideal for the preservation of organic materials, the archaeologists were also able to recover an astonishing record of the Byzantines' trade and military power: thirty-three wooden ships, ranging in size from a small boat used to patrol the harbor to large merchant vessels. All but two of these have now been carefully taken up out of the site, and the other two are in the process of removal, so we were very lucky to see them when we did. They have erected temporary shelters over them, and rigged up a system of water nozzles that continually but slowly drip water onto the wood to prevent it from drying out and disintegrating. Peter asked the archaeologist how long they have after uncovering wood to moisten it to prevent it from turning to dust and he said only 15 minutes! There are huge tanks on-site where pieces of the ships are kept constantly submerged in water that is always constantly circulating to guard against freezing. The ships will all be preserved and, eventually, displayed. The process of de-waterlogging the wood, done both through chemical means and by freeze-dyring, is painstaking though, taking up to 16 years per ship!

We were not allowed to take pictures except at the site of one of the ships, a merchant vessel. We are very, very grateful to the nautical archaeologist (from the Texas A&M nautical archaeology center's Turkey branch. That's him in the maroon sweater in the background of the photo -- Gig 'Em!) for allowing us to take this photo:

Be sure to click on the picture for a more detailed view.

The ship in the picture was a merchant ship. What remains is only the very bottom section of the vessel -- according to the archaeologist, it would have had about 30 more slats up each side. In the picture above, the rust-colored spots that you can see on the wood are just that -- the rust is all that is left of the metal nails that held the timbers together. As you can see, not only were the ships preserved, but their contents as well, in many cases, were still intact. Along with hundreds of amphora (storage jars which you can see in this picture, especially at the far end of the ship) whose contents can now be studied, the merchant ships yielded other items that tell us much about Byzantine society. We saw some of them in the lab, such as combs which, like our modern combs, have larger teeth with more space between them on one side and smaller teeth with less space on the other, so the person could use the part more appropriate for the thickness of their hair. Another interesting type of object that made a frequent appearance at the site were leather shoes. The archaeologists recovered 400 pairs of them! In the lab we saw the soles of two pairs, with the tiny nails still visible in them -- one was for an adult, and one was for a toddler. And yes, baby shoes are just as cute when they are 1300 years old!


Anonymous said...

Candy, What an interesting sight!! Who took the picture?Peter? It is amazing how often yours and Peter's paths have crossed with people from the Getty. Maybe Peter can get on with some of the preservation crew.Hum! Anyway, I am glad he could be with you.Thanks, nonnie

Dan N. said... brain was totally meant for me to be a professor...the absent minded kind! I either read or saw some info about this a while back and about the involvement from A&M! I think it may have been on TV. Curse my unorganized mind!

Totally cool.

Wonder if rats were some sort of lucky totem?

Candace said...

Nonnie ("Anonymous") -- Peter did take the picture. And I'm sure he would love to work with the preservation crew, but he's lacking a few years of chemistry training I think!

Dan -- About the rats -- One of the conservators said something about the rats being sacred to Alexander the Great. I wonder if they are a reference to Apollo, who besides being the sun god was, as you probably know, the bringer and the curer of plague.

Anonymous said...

So very cool. I love reading about y'all's adventures! :) Teddi