Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Student Kevin Kay in Turkey

“This was the Alaska of the Roman world: vast, untamed, and rich in natural resources. This is where people came who did not want some far-away government telling them what to do. When the Greeks and the Romans tried, they fought back. Not much has changed since.”

This was my introduction to Rough Cilicia, now a part of the Antalya province on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, as I sat at a long table outside of Konrad’s Green Oasis Café, a hub of expatriate activity in the small but bustling coastal town of Gazipaşa.

I had come to participate in the Rough Cilicia Archaeological Survey Project. This was a regional survey in the same vein as the famous Oaxaca Valley Survey, which reshaped archaeologist’s conception of Mesoamerican civilization by filling in the 99% of the map that wasn’t covered by large, excavated monumental cities. Our objective was to cover as much terrain in the highlands and midlands of the Taurus Mountains as we could, finding any remnants of the past inhabitants of the region—from the stone ages to the 20th century—that remain on the surface. In addition, we would be collecting samples of the deep soil in various locations: pollen in these samples can tell us how the dense cedar forests have changed over the years, and by combining that knowledge with our survey data, we can recreate how the region’s vast resources were used by people in the past.

The project had two parts to it: one surveying and digging pollen cores up in the mountains, above the modern tree line, and one following leads from the locals to sites in the midlands, high enough in the mountains to be unexplored (To this day, no accurate road maps, archaeological maps, or maps of towns and villages exists for the areas above 600m in the mountains of Rough Cilicia. The locals navigate by memory; outsiders navigate with help from the locals, or more likely just avoid the region altogether.)

For the first part, we stayed in a small rented house in the tiny mountaintop village of Gökgüzlük. We alternated between days of digging pollen cores—often hacking at dense clay soil on hillsides for hours with pickaxes—and survey, in which we’d line up at evenly spaced intervals and walk across the landscape looking for any signs of pottery, architecture, or other human material remains. During this phase, we made several exciting discoveries—a pre-pottery Neolithic (Stone Age) bead-making site on an island in the middle of a seasonal lake (pushing the earliest known occupation of the high mountains back by several thousand years), a Ptolemaic-era logging camp or trading post with diagnostic Cypriot sigillata-style pottery, and the remains of an ancient forest fire, from which we were able to extract an entire carbonized tree trunk. In addition, we explored a large part of the otherworldly highland landscape, and got to meet many of the locals, some of whom (the shepherds) still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle that in many ways hearkens back to prehistoric times. We camped in the yard of the house, and in the process, became acquainted with other elements of the local population.

The evening procession of sheep through our yard to the secure pastures within the village.

Taking my turn digging a pollen trench into a road cut, just below the tree line.
During the second part of the project, we lived in Gazipasa, a quarter mile from the sea, and drove up in the team minibus (dolmus - Turkish for "all filled up") to sites in the mountains that we'd heard about from various local informants, or to survey areas where we thought sites were likely to have existed. Although we all missed the cool mountain air and the village-life feel of Gökgüzlük, this part of the expedition was when we made some truly spectacular discoveries, including a hitherto unknown fortress of some sort on a butte overlooking the modern village of Corus, with walls preserved at some points up to 5m or taller. In addition, we found Hellenistic or Roman-era native cemeteries and a Roman-era hamlet. The locals also managed to send us on a couple of "wild castle chases." We referred to the fruitless days as "The New Archaeology," poking fun at the tendency of regional survey to turn up long lists of data consisting of nothing but zeros. As Dr. Nick Rauh, our director, reminded us frequently, even a zero is data: we can say with some certainty that there are no major remains in the places we surveyed and found nothing.

Revisiting the small fortress at Doganca, found in previous seasons of the survey. There we compiled data from all of the stone-cut tombs on-site (and took a break to seek out a spectacular panoramic view from the top of the walls).
 It was thus a successful season, and also the project’s last. Over fourteen years, the Rough Cilicia Survey has located over one hundred sites spanning nearly 9000 years of history, in an area where little was previously known beyond the major coastal sites. The pollen cores we extracted will give an ecological context to all of this information, allowing an even more refined picture of one of the most rugged and understudied regions in the eastern Mediterranean, a region whose inhabitants—woodcutters, vintners, shepherds, and pirates—played an integral role in the ancient economy and who often violently opposed intrusion from outside. I enjoyed my month as a part of the expedition, and miss Turkish culture and the daily promise of adventure very much. Next summer I hope to return to Turkey for a longer stay, perhaps to study the language, or to do research at an excavation. The country is beautiful and fascinating, and the archaeology is too good to miss.

Project director Nick Rauh practicing "The New Archaeology."

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