Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Saturday, 10 January 2009

Istanbul's ancient past unearthed


Grave adds 6,000 years to Istanbul

By Sarah Rainsford
Yenikapi, Istanbul

Digging through thick mud and an ancient swamp of black clay, archaeologists in Istanbul have discovered a grave that proves the city is 6,000 years older than they previously thought.

The skeletons of two adults and two children lie curled-up, perhaps to save space. Alongside them are pots: gifts placed in the grave to use in the afterlife.

The ancient family was unearthed at the site of a 21st Century rail project.

"We found the grave, pots and other artefacts. There were signs of houses made of tree-branches and next to the settlement was a swamp where we found small tools, wooden pieces and bones," explains Ismail Karamut, head of the Istanbul Archaeology museum, which is leading the dig.

Neolithic skeleton
Neolithic graves were unearthed at the site

"It all shows there was a Neolithic settlement here in the historic peninsula of Istanbul where people lived, farmed and fished," he adds.

Historians had believed modern-day Istanbul was first settled around 700 BC. The discovery of the skeletons has revealed far deeper roots.

The Neolithic era - when man abandoned the nomadic, hunting lifestyle and settled to farm the land and raise cattle - began east of here, gradually carrying the foundations of "civilised" life west, to Europe. The new find in Istanbul helps map that transition.

"Neolithic culture changed as it moved west. Not all of what we call the 'Neolithic package' was transferred," explains Professor Mehmet Ozdogan of Istanbul University.

"Domesticated animals and some of the cereal crops came, but mud brick became wooden architecture, settlements were re-organised. The transformation is important to understand the Neolithic culture in Europe. Every new site adds data to the picture."

Past and present

Neolithic remains were discovered in two Istanbul suburbs in the 1950s and 1980s, but this is the first such find in the historic heart of the city. That has created a stir the other sites never managed.

Marmaray dig site
Archaeologists worked in shifts, covering 24 hours a day

Prof Ozdogan believes the Yenikapi settlement dates from between 6400BC and 5800BC - long before the Bosphorus Strait had formed and in the days when the Marmara Sea was a small, inland lake. Istanbul's first inhabitants appear to have lived on both sides of a river that flowed then through Yenikapi.

The excavation of Istanbul's first settlement is taking place at the site of a state-of-the-art train station on the multi-million dollar Marmaray rail project. The line will link Europe and Asia with the world's deepest underwater tunnel, 56 metres beneath the Bosphorus. The last sections of underwater tubing were joined in October.

The project has been delayed, but it's important to discover the culture here
Yasar Anilir,

Chief archaeologist at the dig

But above ground, the revolutionary project has been held up by history.

Scheduled to last six months, Yenikapi archaeological dig is still going strong four years later. The Marmaray is now expected to open in 2011 at the earliest.

"Of course the project has been delayed, but it's important to discover the culture here," argues Yasar Anilir, chief archaeologist at the dig.

"But if there was no Marmaray project we would not have been digging at all. This requires a lot of labour and money."

Archaeological delight

The team's first major discovery was a section of the first city walls, believed to date back to Constantine I.

As anticipated, they also uncovered a 4th Century port - once the busiest in Byzantium - and the stunningly well-preserved remains of more than 30 wooden ships, many wrecked in storms in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Unearthing the Neolithic settlement was an unexpected archaeological delight.

Under pressure to complete their excavations and let-in the construction workers, archaeologists have at times worked in shifts, digging 24 hours a day. The cost of the delay to construction has not been calculated yet.

"The Marmaray project is very important, but you cannot sacrifice our cultural heritage," says Ismail Karamut, who insists his team has not compromised on the quality of their work. "We're trying to reconcile both demands - to help the project, and protect the heritage."

The Yenikapi dig has now reached bedrock, so archaeologists don't expect any more major discoveries. They're still working through piles of ancient swamp mud though, which has preserved some of the oldest wooden artefacts ever found.

Marmaray skeletons
Skeletons and gifts for the afterlife were found

On the far side of the site, beyond the Marmaray station, excavation work will continue alongside construction.

"We're expecting to find more - maybe a small settlement," Yasar Anilir explains. "We have to remove the Byzantine ships first, then we can complete our dig."

This experience should be a lesson to the authorities, according to Prof Mehmet Ozdogan, who says there have been no archaeological digs for purely scientific purposes in Istanbul since the 1960s.

"Of course a city should live, you can't turn it into a museum. But we should not wait for construction projects to learn the history of a town. We should dig on purpose, just to learn," the professor argues.

"Once the past is destroyed, it's irreversible."

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