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Unearthing the early history of Istanbul

Press release issued: 20 August 2009

An international project, led by Dr Volker Heyd of Bristol University, to excavate sites in and around Istanbul is providing remarkable new insights into the ancient history of an area that has long been the bridging point between Europe and Asia.

The research initiative on pre and protohistoric settlement of the European part of the Istanbul province is led by Dr Volker Heyd of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol with Dr Şengül Aydıngün of Kocaeli University, Turkey and Dr Emre Güldoğan of Istanbul University, Turkey.

The project, ‘İstanbul Tarihöncesi Araştırmaları’, was founded in 2007 and has expanded over the past two years to include many specialists from Turkish and international universities and research institutions.

The 2008 fieldwork campaign was primarily aimed at surveying sites along the rapidly urbanising shores of the Black and Marmara Seas, but also included the still widely wooded northwestern hinterland of Istanbul in the Silivri and Çatalca districts.  This also included the Selimpaşa Höyük, the last remaining larger settlement mound all along the northern Marmara shores. 

A cluster of promising new sites was discovered around the Küçükçekmece Gölü, a lagoon located 20km west of the Bosporus entry, in the municipalities of Küçükçekmece and Avcilar, both suburbs of Greater Istanbul.

These included the harbour and settlement structures of the Classical period on the tip of a peninsular reaching into the lake, preliminarily identified as ‘Bathonea’, and the so-called ‘Küçükçekmece A6’ site near the mouth of the Eşkinoz river.  Here, around  500m from the Classical harbour, an amazing flintstone collection was found.  These artefacts show close affinities to the Central Anatolian late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, a division of the Neolithic or New Stone Age period which began around 9,500 BC in the Middle East.  These artefacts therefore suggest that this might be one of the earliest farming communities in Europe.

This summer’s excavation campaign aims to investigate further the ‘Bathonea’ Classical harbour and settlement site to establish its size, inner structure, stratigraphy and the date of the port and its hinterland.

The researchers will also gather information on the economy and lifestyle of the ‘Küçükçekmece A6’ site to test if this is an Epi-Palaeolithic or a Neolithic society.

Further survey and prospection will also be done around the Küçükçekmece Gölü, to get a better understanding of any further sites from the Palaeolithic to the Classical periods, their environment, connectivity and setting within the landscape.

This will be achieved with the aid of international specialists in underwater archaeology, dendrochronology, various different sciences (paleozoology, paleobotany, geology, geophysics, geomorphology, sedimentology), and architecture.

Results so far, mid-way into the campaign, include the discovery of a second, larger  Classical centre with harbour, one and a half kilometres north of the first harbour/settlement, as well as several possible Palaeolithic flints, demonstrating the importance of this region for Ice Age humans.

Dr Heyd said: “This research is most timely as Istanbul, already by far the largest city in Europe, is still expanding dramatically.  In a few years, it will have reached the threshold of 20 million inhabitants.  Proper heritage management under such circumstances of unprecedented urban explosion is nearly an impossible task.

“The current city and its predecessors built next to the Bosporus – the  bridging point between West Asia and Southeast Europe, as well as the Black and Mediterranean Seas – have always occupied the strategic position at the crossroads of ideas, innovations, and achievements.  Our discoveries are shedding new light on the fascinating history of this remarkable part of the world.”

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