2002 Associate Laureate, Cultural Heritage
United Kingdom, Born 1950
Whether he was seeking vengeance or merely demonstrating his power, the leader of the army that 2,550 years ago, sacked the great Iron-Age city at Kerkenes on Turkey’s Anatolian Plateau, was clearly bent on its complete destruction.
After setting the city ablaze, the invaders toppled the upper courses of the 7km-long, 5m-thick stone wall around its perimeter, an exhausting task that would have taken considerable manpower, according to Geoffrey Summers.
Winner of an Associate Laureate Award, Dr Summers says the attackers "wanted to make sure the city would never be used again, and it wasn’t".
Summers and his Mauritian-born, architect wife Françoise head a small team that began surveying the buried city in 1993. Before beginning major excavations in 2000, Summers’ team spent seven years using remote sensing technologies to map the city, which sprawls across 250 hectares atop a low, granite mountain known as Kerkenes Dağ (Mount Kerkenes).
The ruined city lies just south of the latter-day Turkish town of Sorgun, 300km east of Ankara. Over the past 2,550 years, the shells of the burnt buildings have decayed and collapsed. Foundations and floors now lie beneath a grassy, flower-strewn landscape.
Then, as now, Kerkenes Dağ is at a strategically important crossroads where east-west routes between Europe and Asia intersect with north-south passages between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
For Summers, one of the project’s most thrilling moments came in 1993 when he ascended in a hot air balloon for a first bird’s-eye view of the site, and realised the magnitude of the task ahead. Subtle, linear shadows cast by the tops of decaying walls just beneath the grass revealed not the expected stone-fenced fields of an ancient farming community, but a vast network of streets, major structures, public buildings and dwellings.
Using sophisticated, remote sensing techniques to obtain maximum information for minimal cost and effort, the team identified buried structures likely to be most informative about the city’s history and the daily life of its inhabitants.
The team used magnetometers to map the outlines of streets and other buried, man-made structures from faint anomalies they create in the Earth’s local magnetic field. A resistivity survey, which involves measuring different levels of resistance to an electric current during spring when the ground is still damp, revealed buried buildings with remarkable clarity. All the data collected was melded into detailed three-dimensional simulations of what remains of the city by using a Global Positioning System to take 1,400,000 individual readings.
These innovative, non-invasive techniques, increasingly adopted at other major archaeological sites around the world, helped earn Summers his Rolex Award in 2002. Apart from a few exploratory trenches dug in 1996 and 1998, his team delayed major excavations until 2000.
For their first dig, the team chose the Cappadocia Gate, biggest of seven portals that once opened into the city wall. This part of the stone rampart was preserved, but was covered by stone from the upper part of the wall and flanking towers, toppled when the city was destroyed.
Further excavation of the gate in 2003 — funded by the Rolex Award — led to the surprise discovery of a stepped monument topped by a stele, or stone idol, carved from solidified white volcanic ash, in the faceless form of a deity. According to Summers, cult idols of this form are known from Phrygia, to the west, but unexpected in the centre of the Anatolian Plateau.
An Ancient Capital
Everywhere they excavated, Summers’ team found blackened soil and loose aggregations containing large amounts of collapsed stone and burnt mud brick mixed with ash and charcoal. This evidence of a conflagration, combined with the timing and systematic manner of the city’s destruction, has convinced Summers that the ruined city is Pteria, an ancient capital that somehow came under the rule of the Medes, a mysterious people who emerged from north-western Iran — ancient Persia — at the end of the 7th century BC.
The writings of 5th-century BC Greek historian Herodotus suggest the Medes used Pteria as a forward base for their forays into northern Anatolia. He also describes the city’s fall and destruction, but his rambling accounts of events are incomplete, with inconsistencies in his chronology. Although ancient Assyrian texts also mention the Medes, Summers says some archaeologists still doubt that the Medes were capable of creating and administering an empire.
But Summers’ logic in deciding that this is indeed Pteria is forceful: how many other large Iron Age cities on the Anatolian Plateau were sacked and burned in the 6th century BC, when, according to Herodotus, Pteria was destroyed. Herodotus also states that the Pterians’ fire-wielding nemesis was Croesus, king of Lydia, in western Anatolia, and according to Greek legend, the richest man of the ancient world.
Summers’ team has a "dig house", a laboratory and depot in the village of Shamuratlı, at the foot of Kerkenes Dağ, where they live during the summer work, which begins every June and lasts for six weeks. Over the years, rooms in the house have been given over to computers and remote-sensing equipment, so some team members sleep in tents nearby.
A Difficult Climate
He describes the climate at Kerkenes as harsh, with short, dry summers and long, cold winters. Snow can reach a metre in depth, remaining on the ground as late as April.
"The weather varies tremendously," Summers says. "Even in midsummer, we can get early-morning frosts, and it’s always cool at night. But on days when the hot winds blow up from Cappadocia and the Mediterranean, temperatures can reach the high 30s."
The extreme climate is strong evidence for Kerkenes’ strategic importance. Why else, asks Summers, would people have chosen to live in a city built high on a rugged hillside, exposed to freezing gales and blizzards that can send winter temperatures plunging to -20°C, or to -37°C with the added chill factor of an 80km/h wind?
"With its high walls and huge buildings and terraces, [the city] would have been visible from a great distance, so its construction was a deliberate act of power and imposition," the British archaeologist points out.
The city’s construction would have required a huge labour force, probably recruited from the surrounding countryside. "Although the city is very large, with many buildings, my guess is that it supported only 15,000 to 20,000 souls," Summers declares. "With the cold and the high wind-chill factor, they needed to store lots of food and fuel, and fodder for their livestock."
Permanent streams, rising from springs within the city’s walls, provided water to the city, stored in several substantial reservoirs.
The extensive charcoal deposits the team has found are from black pines (Pinus nigra), a locally common conifer. Massive pine beams and joists supported the city’s larger stone structures. Rich in highly flammable resins, the pine timber burned fiercely enough to glaze the surfaces of the granite blocks and sandstone facings they supported, indicating that temperatures exceeded the 1000°C melting point of sandstone.
The past two seasons have yielded convincing evidence that the city existed for only a few generations — perhaps less than a century — before it was destroyed. There are no obvious remains of older, overbuilt structures typical of ancient Middle Eastern cities like Troy.
The faceless deity and other new evidence rule out the Medes as its founders, however Summers has not shifted from his conviction that the city is Pteria. But if the Medes did not build the city on Kerkenes Dağ, then who did?
A remote sensing survey had revealed, near the Cappadocia Gate, the remains of a large, walled and 280m-long complex, with a monumental entrance. Excavations in 2003 and 2004 have uncovered an impressive stone pavement, flanked by two huge towers of stone and wood, leading up into what appears to have been a great audience hall within a palatial complex.
When they began excavating on a large scale, Summers’ team was surprised to discover the architecture and art were west Anatolian in origin, not Persian.
Fragments of a sculpted relief featuring griffins and human forms, which may have represented deities, and a winged sun disk are being painstakingly pieced together. The work carried inscriptions, including a dedication in Old Phrygian, which is a western Anatolian cousin of ancient Greek as well as the language of King Midas. All this suggests Western, rather than Eastern influence.
"The writing is not restricted to monuments," Summers says. "We’ve also found graffiti, also in Old Phrygian, scratched on pottery, giving us an insight into the everyday language spoken at the end of the city’s life."
In another major find in 2004, the team unearthed a statue, about a metre tall and comprising two-thirds of a human figure that provides a glimpse of Pterian fashion. The bare-headed figure is wearing a ribbed or pleated skirt and a plain top, and carries what appears to be a weapon or staff over the right shoulder. Resembling no other sculpted figure found in northern Anatolia, it is an important clue to the identity of the city’s inhabitants.
How the Medes came to dominate the city demands further research. One possibility is that Pteria was founded by a local ruler and was subsequently "Phryganised" with the expansion of the Phrygian empire into northern Anatolia in the late 7th century BC.
Excavation of Kerkenes Dağ will continue as long as Summers can find the funds. He credits the funds from his Rolex Award with keeping the project alive. The Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where he lectures in archaeology, has little money for research, and, as a resident of Turkey, he is ineligible for most research grants from his native Britain.
The provincial government recently sealed the road between the main highway and Kerkenes Dağ, providing access for tourist buses that are bringing wealth into the area. The Turkish government and several businesses have provided help in kind for Summers, but funding for the project remains uncertain and scarce.
The Kerkenes excavation is not the biggest in Turkey, but its pioneering use of non-invasive, remote sensing techniques is now widely emulated around the world. Summers’ team has broken new ground in archaeology, and is making progress in solving a major riddle in the early history of human civilisation.
Published in 2005