This post is mostly based on an original press release by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, published on October 28. Copyright for all photographs, unless otherwise indicated, belongs to the Austrian Archaeological Institute/Photographer: Niki Gail (© ÖAI / Foto: Niki Gail).
Nearly exactly seven years ago, in November 2015, we posted about new excavations at Ephesus, where a well-preserved Byzantine taberna, or wine bar, had just been unearthed. It was fascinating and evocative by itself - but in hindsight, it was just a prequel to a much more extensive find nearby, rightly hailed by the excavators as the most spectacular discovery made at the famous site in many decades. The 2022 finds are not just impressive, but they add a major aspect to our understanding of the city's history.
The new excavations are located in what was assumed to have been an open area or plaza fronting the monumental first-century-AD Temple of Domitian, basically a point of transition on the city's main traffic artery, linking the Upper Town and Upper Agora with the famous Kouretes Street that leads down to the city's Lower Agora and harbour, and their many spectacular monuments. It turns out that the area was built over some centuries later, becoming an area of workshops, storage places and outlets, in other words, a small commercial quarter. That was not unexpected: it is well-known that the use of urban spaces in Late Roman/Byzantine cities changed substantially around the middle of the first millennium and elucidating those changes was the objective of the excavations.
You might be wondering what's so spectacular about some Late Roman shops, especially at a site famously rich in vast marble monuments. What was unexpected and makes the new find highly unusual is its remarkable state of preservation. The shops were not found in the condition that would result from gradual abandonment and eventual decay, namely as mere foundations with a smattering of broken artefacts. Instead, the archaeologists happened upon a veritable time capsule, a living urban context frozen in time, with vast amounts of objects still sitting in situ where they were meant to be seen, used or consumed, sold and bought. Even many of the coins used for such transactions were still there. Sabine Ladstätter, director of the excavation, compares the state of preservation to that encountered at Pompeii.
If a site is left frozen in time in such a fashion, this indicates a destructive event. Some catastrophe befell this thriving quarter, leading to sudden abandonment, fire and destruction, apparently not preceded by any attempt to salvage or conceal most of the goods and valuables, nor followed by a systematic effort to retrieve at least the most precious material from the collapsed structures - although we know that Ephesus continued to exist as a settlement. The time capsule character of the finds also permits a fairly accurate dating of the event: of the many coins recovered, none can be dated later than AD 614/615, a terminus post quem for the destruction.
So what happened? Sometimes, such sudden changes can be ascribed to natural disasters; earthquakes or urban fires come to mind. In the case of Ephesus, the evidence suggests something more deliberate: arrow points and spearheads found in the collapse suggest warfare. This supports what was a hypothesis so far. It has been understood for some time that the urban nature of Ephesus changes in the seventh century, as does that of other cities in the region, entailing a loss of affluence and a reduction in population. Many different factors can contribute to such developments - economic, sociopolitical, environmental etc - but none of those are sudden. For the west of Asia Minor, there has, however, long been speculation that cities were raided by Sassanid Iranian/Persian marauders around that time - and while the new finds do not quite prove this, they provide the first hard evidence to support it at Ephesus. The Sassanids, led by Khosrau II, were at war with Byzantium at the time and had the upper hand for some decades, followed by a major Byzantine counteroffensive under Heraclius that began just a few years after the Ephesian event!
This is important and interesting and part of World History - but I am equally fascinated by the very nature of the finds, and by what they reveal about Ephesus (or at least this part of Ephesus) just prior to the destruction. As is so often the case, what was a disaster for the inhabitants of that time is a boon to archaeology!
The shops and storerooms contained thousands of pottery vessels, among them many cups and small bottles, but also bowls with seashells and amphoras filled with salt mackerel! Charred fruit, pulses and olives were likewise among the finds. One shop produced and sold oil lamps and a specific type of pottery vessel known as a pilgrim flask - it contained about 600 of them! These were typical items carried (or worn around the neck) by Christian pilgrims, presumably containing materials taken from sacred sites. The several hundred copper coins (plus a few gold ones) found are surely the proceeds from goods and services sold here.
Thus, a close look reveals that this new-found commercial quarter was catering, quite literally, for visitors! Pagan Ephesus had already attracted travellers from far afield, coming to see the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the venerable (and weird) statue of the goddess within it. It is interesting to remark that early-seventh-century Ephesus, over two hundred years after the banning of pagan cults and the probable destruction of the temple, likewise used its association with central characters of the now-dominant religion, Christianity (both Mary and Saint John the Apostle, essentially the two individuals most closely associated with Christ, were said to have died there), to attract visitors and trade.
And of course, that is what Ephesus does to this day. You will be able to cast a glance at the new excavations during our Cruising to Ephesus, a gulet cruise that takes in some of the key archaeological sites in Western Turkey, next year!
[For more images and at higher resolution, see the English version of the original press release.]