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All That Glitters: Uncovering Sardis, Ancient City of Gold

November 22, 2017
by Martin Snapp

Many famous names from the ancient world are mythical figures who probably never lived, like Hercules or Odysseus. Not Croesus (pronounced KREE-sus), King of Lydia, a fabulously wealthy region of Anatolia (now part of western Turkey), who ruled from 561 to 547 BCE. He was the richest man in the world and his wealth was built on gold that was present in abundance in the waters of the Pactolus River, which flowed through his capital, Sardis. The Lydians were the first people to mint coins of gold and silver and were the inventors of coinage itself during the reigns of previous kings.

But it all came to an end one day in the year 547 BCE—probably during April or May—when Croesus was overthrown and Sardis destroyed by the army of Cyrus the Great, leader of the rising Persian Empire.

After the battle, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who was writing a century later, Croesus stood beside Cyrus, watching Persian soldiers sack the city, and asked Cyrus, “What is it that all those men of yours are so intent on doing?”

Cyrus replied, “They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures.”

“Not my city or my treasures,” Croesus said. “Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing.”

Before declaring war on Persia, Croesus had consulted the Oracle at Delphi to ask if it was a good idea. The oracle replied with a typically cryptic message: “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.” Croesus assumed the oracle meant the Persian Empire, and off to war he went. But it didn’t work out the way he expected.

Afterwards, he sent another messenger to Delphi to demand why the oracle had misled him, and the oracle replied, “Apollo declared to him that if he led an army against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. Therefore, he ought, if he had wanted to plan well, to have asked whether the god spoke of Croesus’ or Cyrus’ empire. But he did not understand what was spoken, or make further inquiry, for which now let him blame himself.”

Over the centuries, the remains of Sardis were covered over and over as waves of succeeding generations of invaders—first the Greeks, then the Romans, and finally the Byzantines—built their own cities on top of its ruins.

“At Sardis, you’re digging through sterile earth with big picks until you find something, and all of a sudden you’re digging with paintbrushes and dental picks.”

It created both a problem and an opportunity for archaeologists. On one hand, those layers of debris from later empires created difficult barriers to digging. But, like Pompeii, they also preserved what was left of Sardis against the ravages of time and weather.

An archaeological team founded by Harvard and Cornell universities has been excavating at the site in present-day Turkey since 1958. They’ve found many important Lydian remains, including a gold refinery and tombs of the Lydian kings and ordinary Lydians, as well as temples, baths, houses, workshops, civic buildings, and other remains of the Greeks and Romans who followed the Lydians.

Nick Cahill writing notes in an excavation
Nick Cahill catching up on notes in the shadow of the excavations at the Lydian palace. On the right and left are two walls of the palace (oddly, of very different construction, and yet contemporaneous); behind, a later Hellenistic wall built out of blocks reused from the palace. / Courtesy of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis and President and Fellows of Harvard College

But one famous landmark, the royal palace, was still missing. After many years of following Herodotus’s description of the city of Sardis, they finally realized that they had misunderstood Herodotus’s account, and the Lydian city was actually east of where they thought it was. The central, high region was actually the palace area or, perhaps, one of a number of palace areas. Last year, after nine seasons of excavation, they discovered the first monumental standing architecture on top of one of the terraces.

“We’ve been looking for a long time, and since 2009 we’ve been working on the hypothesis that it is on two hills in the center of the city,” says the director of the Sardis Project, Professor Nicholas D. Cahill of the University of Wisconsin, who got his Masters and PhD degrees in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology from UC Berkeley. “We know where it is now, but it’s really been badly looted by Hellenistic and Roman builders, who reused the beautiful limestone blocks of the Lydian palace in their own constructions.”

Fortunately, the looters missed some priceless stuff.

Arrowheads found in an excavation
Three arrowheads found on the burned floor of the palace last summer. / courtesy of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis and President and Fellows of Harvard College

“This summer we got to the destruction level for the first time. Our photographer was in the trench—a tiny, tiny area—and in the trench wall, an earth floor burned red in a destruction. As she was looking at it, she saw something sticking out: It was an arrowhead, one of three from this small patch of burned destruction level, showing that the destruction was not an accidental fire but rather deliberate military action. It was so evocative, this one tiny object—not particularly important in itself, but in its context on that burned floor, so significant. Context is everything, knowing that an object came from a particular place at one particular point in time. We already thought this red, burned layer might be the palace floor, burned when Cyrus captured the city. Then to find an arrowhead on that floor belonging with that historical event described by Herodotus! It was really a cool moment, and we get a lot of these.

“Part of the joy of this place is that it’s so real and immediate. We’re not just talking about a distant occurrence, but particular people, places, and events. We know from reading Herodotus what the Greeks thought of the Lydians, and it’s somewhat mythologized, morphed into archetypes. So, for instance, the Greeks thought the Lydians were like them except for their ‘odd sexual practices.’ Lydian women were allowed to choose their own husbands, which was shocking to the Greeks.

“What I like about archaeology is that it gets you beyond those stereotypes. History is often about what people said they did, or their archetypal vision of what foreigners are like. But archaeology tells us what they really did, and it’s often quite different from the impression we get from Herodotus.”

Cahill is constantly reminded that he’s excavating a place where something terrible happened, especially when they uncover skeletons of soldiers—three so far—who were killed that day two and a half millennia ago.

“It was a little disturbing to be digging up the skeleton of a soldier who was my age and my height and died in horrible pain in that terrible war. It makes you realize how effective propaganda is. Cyrus is famous in part from the Cyrus Cylinder, a tablet from Babylon in which the king proclaimed how he conquered Babylon peacefully, how his soldiers were welcomed by the inhabitants, and how Cyrus allowed the conquered people to live in freedom and worship their own gods, and returned displaced peoples to their homelands. It’s been described as the world’s first charter of human rights.

The arm of a fallen soldier, killed in the battle between Croesus and Cyrus. He died still clutching a small stone in his hand, which may have been a slingstone, a few of which are ranged above. / ourtesy of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis and President and Fellows of Harvard College

“I don’t know if Cyrus was a nice guy or not, probably not, but he certainly had excellent propaganda, and that’s what we remember. But archaeology gives you a way past the spin and gives you an idea of what really happened at Sardis. He totally destroyed the city and emptied the site of its population. It was empty for the next 200 years. We never would have guessed that from the historical literature.”

The current campaign of excavations at Sardis started in 1958 under the direction of Harvard Professor George M.A. Hanfmann. In 1977, he was succeeded by UC Berkeley Professor Crawford H. Greenwalt jr., who was known to everyone as “Greenie.” He, in turn, handed the reins of the Sardis Expedition over to Cahill in 2008. “There’s a long family tradition we have there,” says Cahill. “I was Greenie’s student, and Greenie was Professor Hanfmann’s student.”

Greenie was quite a legend in his own right, famous for his amazing ability to crawl through extremely narrow tunnels dug by grave robbers millennia before and not get claustrophobic.

Former director Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr. (aka Greenie) examining one of the columns of the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, the fourth-largest Ionic temple in the world. / ourtesy of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis and President and Fellows of Harvard College

“He was a very thin man, and he was used to it,” Cahill explains. “In 1964, Professor Hanfmann wanted to excavate at a burial mound near Sardis that was still as wide as the Great Pyramid, and Greenie was sent out to tunnel toward the center. He spent three years there—during which he wrote his dissertation—supervising a team that was sometimes digging 24 hours a day in three different shifts. The whole project was overseen by professional miners who made sure the tunnels were stable, putting in shoring to keep them from caving in. On a really good day, they would dig a meter of tunnel. He dug 300 meters of tunnel and never found the chamber. It was a bittersweet ending.

“We don’t know whose tomb it was, but it must have been somebody important. Our hypothesis is that there’s an un-robbed burial chamber that still has luxury items that the Lydians were famous for. Not just pottery and sculpture, we have dreams of all sorts of things that aren’t normally found in excavation, such as perfumes and textiles; the Lydians were famous for weaving. We’ve found containers but never the contents, and loom weights but never the cloth they wove; but in an intact tomb they might be preserved. It’s not just treasure hunting.”

Geophysical survey is a great tool for finding inside structures buried near the surface, but not so much when you’re tunneling in a mound of earth 900 feet in diameter and 150 feet high. “No geophysical technique will go lower than six to fifteen feet, and we’re looking for something buried under maybe a hundred feet of earth,” Cahill says. “I was so looking forward to returning the following summer with Greenie and exploring the tomb together, and that was the year he died. So he never saw the excavation. Even though it turned out that the geophysical survey was misleading, and we never did find the chamber, he would have enjoyed the process.”

Back at the palace site, though, they are making remarkable discoveries.

“This year, for the first time, we got our first monumental Lydian architecture on the hill we are excavating. Everywhere else it has been systematically removed, leaving only fragments of blocks and tiles. For the first time, we’re getting Bronze Age material that nobody dreamed ever existed up there. That adds 1,000 years of history at the site, and we never would have suspected it if we hadn’t dug more than ten feet deep. Everyone assumed it was a natural plateau, but it turns out it was artificially terraced and leveled.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of doing an excavation is that you only get one shot. “It’s not an experiment you can repeat,” Cahill says. “Once you’ve dug it up, you don’t get to do it again.”

A fleck of Croesus’ gold from the Pactolus river. The lines below mark millimeters. / ourtesy of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis and President and Fellows of Harvard College

That was true for Heinrich Schliemann, who hastily conducted excavation in the 1870s of what he assumed was Troy. He’s been condemned by later generations of archaeologists as having destroyed the main layers of the real Troy. Some call it vandalism, but Cahill calls it an object lesson.

“Someday people are going to look back at our excavations the way we look back at Schliemann,” he says. “You can do it fast and dirty and get a lot of big information but miss out on the small stuff, which is often the most interesting. But there’s a cost to it, too, if you’re so slow and careful that you never finish excavating even one building. And you can’t always put off excavating until the future when we might have better techniques. We want to learn something and provide knowledge for the here and now. So it’s a real balancing act. At Sardis, you’re digging through sterile earth with big picks until you find something, and all of a sudden you’re digging with paintbrushes and dental picks.”

Cahill splits his time every year between Wisconsin and Turkey. From mid-May to mid-August—when he’s not teaching—he’s digging at Sardis. The rest of the year, he’s back in Madison, teaching and processing all the material he dug up over the summer. “It takes more time to process them than it does to dig them up,” he says.

Currently, the archaeologists at Sardis come from a dozen different countries, and often only meet in Turkey. They all have to be generalists as well as specialists.

One thing Cahill likes most about his profession is that it requires a willingness to learn a bit of everything. “You can’t be an expert in everything, but you can’t shy away from it, either. We find and have to deal with everything from Bronze Age pottery to Roman architecture, with specialists who come and reconstruct whole statues from a small fragment of beard, as one did yesterday. And then you have to talk with someone else about technical problems with Carbon 14 dating…And then about coins and the circulation of money in the early Seventh Century AD, when the coin supply seems to have dried up here.”

And speaking of the difference between myth and reality, how much does his life resemble Indiana Jones’s?

“Not much. It is exciting, but not in the same way, luckily. They don’t allow us guns.”

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