How should an ancient site, once excavated, be preserved and presented to the public? At Ephesus an entirely new solution to this problem has been put forward by erecting a huge new cover building over an entire insula of the Roman town, forming one of the largest and most extensive restoration projects anywhere in the world – and with an ingenious system of temperature control to provide a form of natural air conditioning for the huge space.
Ephesus is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world with over 1.5 million visitors – nearly twice as many as Stonehenge. It is ideally situated not far from the coast where passengers from the tourist ships calling into nearby Kusadasi can make a quick visit; its position, nestling between hills, means that tourists can be dropped in the upper city and then walk down the marble lined streets to be picked up by their coaches in the lower city, having viewed the huge theatre where St Paul preached one of his more controversial sermons.
There are in fact three cities at Ephesus. The oldest is that founded by King Croesus in the sixth century BC around the huge temple of Artemis which was to become one of the Seven Wonders of the world. But the ground water was rising and the city and temple were becoming waterlogged, so around 300 BC, Lysimachos founded a new city on the slopes of Mount Coresus a couple of miles away. The Romans made the new city the capital of Asia Minor and it grew to become the fourth largest city of the eastern Roman Empire, after Alexandria, Antioch and Athens. However by the 7th century AD, malaria was threatening, so once again habitation moved to around the church of St John in what was to become the modern city of Seljuk. Thus Ephesus offers the prime example of an essentially Roman city unencumbered by the earlier Greek or later medieval habitation.
Since 1895 Ephesus has been excavated by the Austrians who have made it into one of the most visited sites in the world. This is partly due to its layout and position but also to their policy of anastylosis or the setting up again of pillars which has made it so realistic for visitors. Anastylosis changed from a casual system of re-erection into a positive policy from 1954 onwards and it culminated in the restoration of the Library of Celsus. This has been so successful that it has become one of the most photographed sites in the world and everyone thinks it must have miraculously survived in this shape. In fact like everything else it had been destroyed, but the excavators realised that some 80% of the original façade still survived. So from 1973-78 it was rebuilt, with initial funding from the building firm of Hochtief Essen but mostly by a private individual, Anton Kallinger-Prskawetz.
Meanwhile excavation had been continuing. In particular, private dwellings were investigated, notably two insulae in the centre of the town adjacent to the Library of Celsus. Although they were central in the town, the insulae were built on a very steep hillside so that although they were bounded by roads to the north and south, they were bounded east and west by steep flights of steps from which the individual houses were entered. From 1960-68 Insula I was excavated and then from 1969-86 Insula II was excavated.
It proved to be exceptionally rich. The Insula itself was largely redesigned in the Augustan period, in the early first century AD, over the remains of earlier Hellenistic houses. However, in AD 262, Ephesus was shattered by a huge earthquake. These two insulae were ruined and as a result they were buried almost as effectively as were the houses at Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius. There was, indeed, a certain amount of later occupation, but for the most part the houses remain as they were in 262.
When the riches of some of the wall paintings and mosaics were first revealed, they were cut out and taken to the local museum. However it seemed a pity not to leave them in position and thus a policy of roofing over the individual houses was adopted until eventually the whole insula was covered by a series of higgledy piggledy roofs. Was this enough? In 1995 the decision was taken to roof the entire insula with a single roof; Professor Fritz Krinzinger was appointed director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute to make this into a reality.
The first job was to raise money. In Austria as in Germany most such projects are done on a 50:50 principle, so that whatever money is raised from private sources, the government will equal, and there is thus a great incentive to raise money from private sources. The Society of Friends of Ephesus persuaded twelve, mostly Austrian, companies to sponsor the work and eventually over £2 million was raised, which was then matched by the Austrian government.
The whole structure is a triumph of modern lightweight building techniques. The building is supported on a framework of stainless steel girders, the roof is covered by a plastic membrane, not in fact PVC but a derivative known as PTFE (‘Sheerfill’) which is strengthened with fibreglass and has a Teflon coating. It is extremely lightweight and tough, lets through a high degree of light but only 5% of the heat. The walls of the structure are formed of louvers which allow the air to circulate freely. Indeed the only problem has been that they also allow birds to circulate freely so that bird droppings are the major problem of the building.
The real triumph has been in the temperature control. A computer model of the whole building was made by the University of Graz which has proved highly successful. Ephesus is on a windy site – the wind is blowing for 93% of the time. This means that the cooler air enters through the lower louvers, circulates through the building, rising while doing so and finally leaves as hot air through the louvers at roof level. As a result of this thermal buoyancy, the building is very effectively air conditioned by wholly natural means.
The insula consists of six houses, three entered from the street on either side, one was later subdivided. Despite the inconveniences of the steep hillside, the houses are so central (and cool?) that they were very attractive, and thus they were occupied by some of the richest inhabitants, who poured money into their homes. The houses are all built in the typical ancient style, centred round a peristyle – an open courtyard surrounded by columns, approached by a narrow entranceway from the street and with rooms leading off.
The largest, and wealthiest was House 6, which an inscription tells us was occupied at the end of the 2nd century by one Caius Furius Aptus, who was one of the leading citizens. He was, among other things, a priest of Dionysus, and he was able to indulge this to the full. He purchased part of the adjoining House 4 in order to make a large marbled hall opening off the peristyle. From this an entrance hall led to a huge ‘private basilica’. This was dedicated to the cult of Dionysus, and originally had a pool at the centre, later replaced by a hypocaust, and here he and his friends could no doubt indulge in the usual Dionysiac pleasures. At an early stage in the restoration, the arch of this basilica was restored to full height, and as a result dominates the whole restoration: is this perhaps a case where the restoration should be ‘unrestored’?
The finest single room is in the top eastern corner – House 1, room 6: this was covered with fine wall paintings of nude figures and has been called the ‘Theatre Room’ – perhaps it was simply a private dining room.
The other house that is difficult to interpret at first sight is house 7, at the bottom. Here a huge ‘bastion’ cuts away the western side; this was built in the 6th and 7th centuries when the whole building was a ruin. However the water supply, fed from the aqueducts, was still functioning and so a whole series of mills was constructed on the eastern side of the Insula, which resulted, at the bottom in House 7, in the construction of a huge bastion jutting out into the former house. This housed what must have been the greatest insult of all to the earlier occupants, that is a saw mill with a stone cutting saw to cut up what remained of the former glories.
The rooms were formally opened in 2000 but the conservation work continues, and therefore only temporary access is possible by wooden walkways. Unfortunately it is not feasible to open the rooms to all the visitors. As Ephesus receives some 1.5 million visitors a year, a limit of 800 a day has had to be put on the numbers visiting the terraced houses and inevitably an additional charge of £10 per head has had to be imposed. This has hitherto been successful in keeping numbers within limits.
Already the building has been so successful that imitations are proposed, notably at Akrotiri on Thera where the Minoan town destroyed by the volcanic eruption is to be roofed in a similar fashion. The splendid new roof is already a major addition to the tourist attractions of Ephesus and will surely find further imitators in other parts of the world.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 1. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply