“The Big Dig,” by Elif Batuman. The New Yorker, 8/31/2015.
(This article is a prime example of an article I had initially passed over as lying outside of my sphere of interest, but one I later got drawn into during a final check before I discarded the issue. It turned out to be much more interesting than I had expected.)
The ancient city of Istanbul (once Constantinople, and earlier, the Greek colony of Byzantium) is divided by the Bosporus Strait that badly needed a tunnel for a high-speed train to connect the halves, one geographically in Europe, the other in Asia. Istanbul is not only one of the fastest growing cities in the world, it also has one of the worst traffic problems.
With such a long history, almost any construction project uncovers artifacts that, by law, halts the construction until the site can be studied. The site of the tunnel was specifically selected to avoid any important archaeology, but they were not so lucky.
Almost immediately they uncovered ancient wooden ships that were preserved by the soft sand. These were important finds because they showed the progress of early shipbuilding technique from the laborious “outside-in,” (building the shell first, then reinforcing it as needed), to the more efficient “inside-out,” (beginning with the frame and building the shell onto it). After these ship remains were laboriously excavated (they have the fragile consistency of feta cheese), they reached the bottom of the ancient seabed and were ready to resume construction—they thought.
A final check, however, revealed a Neolithic dwelling dating from 6000 B.C. when the strait was much shallower. (You could hear the groans of the taxpayers.) The earliest habitation was previously thought to be 1300 B.C., so this was an important find. It took another five years to excavate the layer, which yielded graves, huts, wooden tools, and some 2,000 human footprints preserved in the mud. Every find, no matter how small, had to be classified as museum quality, study quality, or non-interesting. All those classified as “non-interesting” were reburied.
Animal Bones: Throughout the entire archaeological study, many animal bones were found and these are stored in a special building. Unlike the Romans, the Byzantines ate their horses that could no longer work. Stories of the nobles eating bears and donkeys were true. Dancing bears were a popular entertainment, and their skulls showed compression fractures from being hit during brutal training. On the other hand, dogs and cats seem to have been well-treated. A dog’s foot was found that had been broken, then set, so even lame dogs were cared for. “You can tell a lot about a society from the way it treated its animals,” said the local archaeologist.
Atatürk and Turkish Mythology: The Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of WWI, and the Turkish Republic of today was founded by Mustafa Kemal in 1923. He took the name of Atatürk (“Father Turk”—dictators everywhere love to be called “father.”) and invented a mythology to validate his new Turkish state. Turks are usually seen as barbarian invaders, but in his upside-down story, the original Turks were a prehistoric tribe settled around a Central Asian inland sea who invented all of the characteristics of civilization (money, laws, commerce, writing, specialization of labor, etc.) by themselves out of thin air. When the inland sea dried up during the Ice Age, the Turks were forced to split up and migrate throughout the world where they spread their civilization.
The Sumerians? They were Turks. The founders of Chinese civilization? More Turks. The Mayans? Turks again. Any other ancient civilizations yet to be found? Must have been Turks.
Who knew! By this story of the early Turks, he kept the national identity separate from both the disgraced Ottoman Empire and the Muslim caliphate. The story is far-fetched even to many Turks today, but it explains the importance of archaeology in their culture.
(The tunnel was finally completed, and anyone can now travel between the halves in about four minutes. The European station is reached by a 20-story escalator, which must be an experience in itself.)