As most folks who would read this blog would be aware, there is currently great attention being paid to the plundering of ancient sites in the Middle East (especially in Syria and Iraq) with the connection almost invariably made between the looting of antiquities and the funding of terrorist activities. Indeed, the EU has just passed new rules arising from and dealing with the consequences of that attention (see, e.g. EU Targets Islamic State Antiquity Plundering to Fund Terror – Bloomberg). One result of that, unfortunately, is that other, more ‘everyday’ plundering issues seem to be totally ignored, except in a ‘local’ sense. I was reminded of this the other day when my spiders brought back another item about the current excavations at Sebastopolis.
First, some background: in June of 2013, we first heard about the impending dig:
After a 22-year hiatus, archaeological excavations will begin once again in the ancient city of Sebastapolis in the Central Anatolian province of Tokat’s Sulusaray district.
Sulusaray district administrator Yaşar Kemal Yılmaz said Sebastapolis was known as one of the most significant ancient cities in the Central Black Sea and Northeastern Anatolian region.
Yılmaz said the ancient city had been the capital of a number of states in the past. “One of the leading Roman cities, Sebastapolis, is regarded as a ‘second Ephesus’ by archaeologists and experts. It is a highly significant area. But because of some technical problems and a lack of interest, the excavations that were carried out between 1987 and 1991 were insufficient. The ancient city is in a bad and idle situation. We are doing our best for the protection of ancient pieces there with the help of security forces. Excavations should begin as soon as possible to unearth these works and present them to the world,” he said. […]
A “Second Ephesus” sounds at least as good as the press-omnipresent “Pompeii of __________” and so we were heartened to read a few months later (October) of progress:
Tokat’s Sulusaray district is currently home to a new excavation project of Sebastopolis Ancient City, where excavations have resumed after 22 years. The aim of the project is to make the area open to tourism.
Gaziosmanpaşa University Archaeology department academic Şengül Dilek Ful said for a very long time Sebastapolis had not hosted any excavation project and this would be the first one for many years. The excavation works will be done with the protection of Tokat Museum officials. “Roman bath” and “Byzantium Church” buildings have been cleaned and the excavations started with this cleaning, said Ful.
The excavations are still continuing to clean the area of the heating system and in the coming years the architecture of the hamam and other buildings are expected to be excavated, she said.
Architectural pieces recovered during the diggings organized by the Directorate of the Tokat Museum in 1987 showed that the city was an important settlement during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. The artifacts recovered at the Comana Pontica (Old Tokat) are very similar to those recovered from the city of Sebastopolis, and so it is probable these two ancient cities had a close relationship in the past. […]
The tourism goal seems to have borne fruit and the site was included in Diana Darke’s 2014 Eastern Turkey guidebook (Google Books version):
“… and a building with mosaic flooring has been illegally excavated.” Awfully nonchalant that, but then again, it’s just a guidebook. Even so, it’s not the sort of thing we’d hope to be reading about. The following March, we read for the first time of another problem, which is one many excavations probably have to deal with:
The northern province of Tokat’s Sulusaray district, a settlement of 3,500 people located on top of the ancient city of Sebastapolis, is set to be moved to another location so that the site can come to light.
Sulusaray Mayor Halil Demirkol said the ancient city, which has been home to three civilizations, was located in the center of the district.
“After 22 years, excavations started in the ancient city in 2013. This year, 10 houses will be expropriated. Excavation works will continue this year, too. We are waiting for additional funds from the Culture and Tourism Ministry. The Special Provincial District is also supporting the works, too,” Demirkol said.
“The district is located on the site of the ancient city. We want to move it to an area of 500,000 square meters at the entrance of the district. The area has been allocated to Turkey’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ). People will move to the houses to be built by TOKİ. Their current houses should be immediately expropriated to unearth the historic city beneath. But since the expropriation is a slow and expensive process, we plan to move the settlement to another place,” the mayor said. […]
So after four years, they’ve figured out they have to expropriate some homes now. And at last we come to yesterday’s news, from the Daily Sabah (but it’s probably in Hurriyet too, if you’re wondering). It appears the expropriation and the ‘illegal excavating’ mentioned in the guidebook are connected:
[…] The excavations have been ongoing for five years, and today, they are taking place in an area that was destroyed long ago, but unfortunately, they could not reveal much due to other problems. There is a Byzantine church and the excavations are now suspended due to expropriations, which mean they will not continue this year. As soon as the expropriation problem is settled the excavation will start again. The architectural plan of the church could not be completed before the end of excavations.
Ful said that if the city had been founded anywhere else, it could have been very different. As there are currently houses on the excavation site, owners have been digging in their own gardens and looters have stolen many great findings. Now, the area discovered is surrounded by a wire fence. […]
We do know that the people of Sebastopolis aren’t the only ones in the Middle East whose homes sit on top of lootable sites and whose ‘efforts’ aren’t funding terrorism. Just a couple of months ago, two men in Egypt were killed while digging for antiquities in their home in Egypt (Two men killed in house collapse as they dig illegally for Egyptian artefacts – Ahram Online) and I suspect it’s a much larger problem than we might admit. Yes, we should be concerned about illegal looting funding terrorism, but let’s not forget about the more ‘everyday’ activities which might be funding more mundane things like food and clothing for a family (which is an entirely different issue).