In One End, Out the Other: Evidence for Camel at Gordion, Turkey

September 4, 2015

Naomi F. Miller, Consulting Scholar, Near East Section and Janine van Noorden, Leiden University and Groningen Institute of Archaeology

The Penn Museum’s Gordion project has been going on for more than half a century. Is there anything else to learn? Sometimes, new, high-tech approaches give a fresh perspective: for example, last year and ongoing, Lucas Stevens (AAMW graduate student) has been using a quadcopter to survey the site. But sometimes a relatively new approach (archaeobiology) using very low-tech visual inspection works, too:

One of us (NFM) was asked to examine a mysterious item that came out of a medieval layer at the Gordion Citadel mound. The fragment was pretty smooth on the surface, but had a glassy ‘vesicular’ (with small cavities) inner texture. We considered some type of ceramic slag, but that wasn’t quite right. As an archaeobotanist familiar with animal dung, NFM’s next thought was something fecal, but larger than sheep or goat pellets. The surface structure compared well with that of a conveniently available goat pellet, and the large diameter suggested bigger animal: camel.

a) Mystery item; b) Goat dung pellet; c) Cross-section and whole camel dung pellet (Photos by Tessa De Alacorn for modern camel dung and Janine van Noorden for ancient material)

Perhaps the inner texture was a result of some vitrification of grass stems (see picture of modern camel dung). This plausible identification of an animal presence previously unattested at Gordion remained tentative…until, a few days later, JvN, the zooarchaeologist, was called on site to investigate a pit that yielded several animal bones of unidentified species: four skull fragments of a large animal that was clearly neither cow nor horse, an articulated lower front leg, big canines, and several bone fragments of smaller animals. These unusual remains were found together with those of sheep, goat, and pig. It was discovered that all the skull fragments and the lower front leg were of a camel! Making the find even more exciting, the big canines were identified as being from a big (wild) cat, whose teeth were probably used to adorn the camel. The articulated lower leg of a camel shows clear butchery marks. In that time and to this day in some parts of the world, camels may be eaten, and this pit shows the evidence of it.

Mystery item and camel skull pieces
Mystery item and camel skull pieces, (Photo credit: Janine van Noorden)

Nowadays, you don’t see camels in this part of Turkey, but as transport animals, they evoke the medieval Silk Road trade across Eurasia. The two camel finds—possible dung and definite bones—suggest that a camel lived at Gordion. With or without the dung, at least one most certainly died there!