I boarded a plane at the Philadelphia International Airport last Tuesday at around 10:30 am. Two layovers and 20 sleepless hours later, I landed at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Turkey, at roughly 1:30 pm local time. I found my checked bag, exchanged some US currency for Turkish Lira, and got myself a yellow cab at the taxi stand outside. While we drove, between my curious stares at the unfamiliar landscape, I quietly studied my translation book and rehearsed my phonetics for when we got to my hotel: “Te-shek-kur e-der-im” (“thank you”) and “mawk-booz al-a-bee-leer me-yim” (“can I please have a receipt”).
My bed at the King Hotel was waiting, where I collapsed into a four-hour nap. Eventually the phone rang, with Brian Rose, Director of the Gordion Project, on the other end, letting me know when I should meet him and some of the other project participants in the lobby. Brian was soon headed off to a party at the Embassy, but I sat by the hotel pool and chatted with Gareth Darbyshire, Gordion Archivist at the Penn Museum, and two other team members: Beth Dusinberre, Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Richard Liebhart, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art & Art History at Elon University. Gareth and I got dinner at a restaurant up the block (a delicious lamb dish with a heaping helping of fresh vegetables, and fruit for dessert) before heading back to the hotel, where my jet lag made me stay up until 3:30 am watching a combination of Al Jazeera news, Sumo wrestling, and occasional glances at something called “BabyTV” which was literally just footage of dangling baby toys with their wind-up music in the background. I’m surprised this hasn’t caught on in the U.S. yet.
The next day, before we headed out to the excavation site, Brian and Richard took me into Ankara, directly to one of the local carpet stores—clearly a familiar haunt for the two of them. The owner promptly served us tea, and commenced in presenting what seemed like half of his inventory of gorgeous, handwoven carpets of all sizes to Brian and Richard. Brian was looking for something to fill a specific space in his home in Philadelphia, and had me take some photos for reference, while Richard agonized over whether he could justify the purchase of yet another carpet.
We walked through the neighborhood, which felt far more like an old village than part of a city. Along the way we saw vendors of all kinds, handling and selling everything from sheep’s wool to colored rocks to handmade ornaments for minarets to be used at mosques.
Before long, we were off to the excavation site, just over an hour drive from Ankara into the Polatli District and the village of Yassıhöyük (or “flat mound”), which takes its name from the ancient citadel on which the excavations are based. Therein, the Gordion Excavation House (commonly referred to as “the White House”) awaited; Brian gave me a brief tour of the house and the property, and I was promptly greeted by the house budgie, Bulut (Turkish for “cloud).
I met the housekeeping staff and many of the project participants, of whom there were about 35 when I arrived. The team takes its “weekends” on Wednesday and Thursday, and this being a Thursday, several of them were outside playing some kind of ping pong/musical chairs mashup game. I snapped photos of them and of the resident cat family, before the bell rang for dinner—consisting of sausage, pilav, beans and potatoes, fresh vegetables, and homemade yogurt from the village. A nice sunset gave way to another relatively poor night of sleep, in spite of my comfortable sleeping quarters on the first floor.
The same bell that rings for dinner also rings at 5:00 am for breakfast—a colorful selection of mostly vegetables, fruits, and cheese. We all suited up and headed for the excavation site, just down the road from the White House, where I was quickly put to work on a surveying project. I worked with Braden Cordivari, a rising junior at Penn and one of the select few undergraduate students working on the project. We spent the morning working with the total station, which gives us readings on slope distances; this was a great first project, as it gave me a good walkthrough of the Citadel Mound, the former site of the ancient city center and the primary focus of the excavations.
One of the major undertakings on the site involves the fortification of the Early Phrygian citadel gate. It was originally built in the 9th century BCE, and was subsequently buried as a result of a major fire in 800 BCE. A second citadel gate was then built on top of it, which weakened the masonry of the first gateway; that masonry was weakened further by an earthquake in central-western Turkey in 1999, resulting in a bulge developing in one of the walls. To deal with this problem, the project developed a program to conserve the wall, which involved the erection of scaffolding around the wall, and the installation of a crane on top of the scaffolding that enables the team to lift the damaged blocks, consolidate them, and ultimately replace them on the wall. This is a five-year program, currently in its fourth year.
Nearby, the team is also dealing with the rubble fill, which was originally put in place to raise the gate around the Early Phrygian gate to raise the ground level five meters higher when the Middle Phrygian settlement was constructed. The rubble fill was excavated in part by Rodney Young in the 1950s; since then, some of the rubble fill collapsed, thereby endangering the blocks of the Middle Phrygian gate built above it. The team is working this year to lift the surviving blocks from the gate, reconstruct them in another part of the gate, and shave back the rubble fill to an angle of 45 degrees in order to give it greater stability. This includes the use of a crane on several days of the week.
The rubble fill was stabilized in antiquity through the insertion of wooden beams at various points. This was a common practice among Phrygian builders, who used wood extensively for stabilization purposes, even in stone buildings. As the excavation team shaves back the rubble, they have encountered several of these wooden beams, which were laid during the early 8th century BCE. As the beams are identified, the rubble around them is being cleared so that the beams can be removed and subjected to dendrochronological analysis, which will help to firm up the chronology of the laying of the rubble fill.
It was a very busy first day on site; the excitement, combined with a touch of jet lag, had me up well past the rest of the team’s bedtime and glued to my iPhone to pass the time. Before I could go to bed, though, news broke that a military coup was being attempted back in the capital (which ultimately failed); this news was followed by a flurry of text messages and emails from friends and family asking if I was okay. Out here in the countryside, I wouldn’t have had any idea if not for my phone; needless to say, we are all safe, and work continued like normal the next morning. But what a whirlwind of a first day on the job it was.
More to come from the Gordion Archaeological Project in the coming days and weeks.