Racing against time: salvage survey in the Göksu river valley

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The Byzantine monastery at Alahan was constructed in the 5th century AD. While long-known sites such as this pointed to the archaeological wealth of the Göksu river valley, the true range of monuments present has only become apparent thanks to recent survey work.

The decision to install a hydroelectric dam in the Göksu valley sparked a project to record its past, before the archaeology was submerged beneath rising water. Naoíse Mac Sweeney, Tevfik Emre Şerifoǧlu, Anna Collar, and Stuart Eve reveal the remarkable story of a region shaped by successive empires.

What is our heritage worth? Should we preserve the archaeological record at the expense of future economic prospects? And is there any way to balance the conflicting demands of development and conservation? Questions such as these have been at the forefront of our minds over the last few years, thanks to our work on the Lower Göksu Archaeological Salvage Survey Project (LGASSP).

In 2012, when the Turkish government unveiled plans for a new hydroelectric dam in the Göksu river valley, like many others we celebrated the economic and development opportunities that the dam would bring. Yet we also feared for the valley’s unique archaeological landscape, much of which would be submerged by the flood lake created by the dam. Cutting through the jagged spine of the Taurus Mountains in the region known in antiquity as Rough Cilicia, the Göksu river valley has played an important historical role for two distinct reasons. First, it served as a crucial channel of communication linking the central Anatolian plateau and the Mediterranean Sea: a highway along which people, goods, and ideas travelled through the ages. Second, as a fertile river basin and the main concentration of easily cultivatable agricultural land in this mountainous and difficult landscape, it also acted as the breadbasket of the immediate region. The valley’s importance is reflected in the richness of its archaeological record, from the spectacular ruins of the Byzantine monastery of Alahan to the neo-Hittite rock relief at Keben. With this in mind, we established the LGASSP project in 2013 with the aim of documenting archaeological heritage in the flood zone, preserving for posterity a record of what would be lost. Yet what we discovered was both dramatic and unexpected, radically changing the way we thought about ancient Anatolia.

The neo-Hittite rock relief at Keben, carved sometime between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, marks the key north-south road running through the valley. Originally it would have been painted in bright colours

Prehistory: a tale of two cities

The Göksu river (ancient Calycadnus) snakes its way inland from the modern city of Silifke on the Mediterranean coast (ancient Seleucia ad Calycadnum), past Mut (ancient Claudiopolis), and up onto the plateau near Karaman (ancient Laranda). Travelling along the valley today, you pass through agricultural villages that are strung along the river route like pearls – clusters of traditional Ottoman wood-and-stone dwellings mixed in with concrete buildings housing schools, teashops, and kiosks; and shady fig trees and bowers hung with vines.

In prehistory, however, the settlement pattern was less like a string of pearls and more like a tale of two cities. For roughly two millennia, settlement was concentrated on the richest agricultural land in the lower reaches of the valley – in two large fertile basins formed at the point where tributary rivers join the main Göksu stream. The more northerly of these lies at the juncture of the Göksu and the Ermenek, close to the modern town of Mut; while the southern basin is located where the Kurtsuyu flows into the Göksu, near the modern village of Kışla. At the centre of each plain are a pair of twin settlement mounds or höyüks, located either side of the river and controlling the crossing. In the northern basin, the two mounds are Attepe (west bank of the river) and Görmüttepe (east bank); while in the southern, they are Kilisetepe (east bank) and Çingentepe (west bank).

To reach the fertile Anatolian plateau from the coast requires a steep ascent through the gorge carved out by the Göksu river.

The pattern of these twinned settlements was puzzling, and we found it difficult to understand what the relationship between the pair may have been. Were they separate communities, facing off against each other across the river, both opposite and opposed? Or were they twin towns, operating independently but collaborating across the waters to suit their mutual interest? Alternatively, was each pair in effect a single community – spatially split in two but from a social and organisational perspective part of the same larger whole?

Whatever lies behind this strange doubling, it went on for a long time. Settlement mounds such as these were built up over many centuries of occupation, with each new generation rebuilding their homes on top of the remains of the earlier structures. As the main construction material in prehistoric Anatolia was mud brick, this meant that when older buildings collapsed or were demolished, their bricks were compacted and packed down, raising the level of the ground in the process. As time went on, the height of the settlement would have increased, with every new age adding to the growing archaeological layer cake. Settlement mounds that have been built up in this way are known as höyüks in Turkish, and tells in Arabic.

The cliffside along the road leading up to the Anatolian plateau has been cut into to receive tombs that seem to date from the Iron Age to the Roman period.

The höyüks in the Göksu river valley were extremely long-lived, with many occupied almost continuously from the Early Bronze Age (c.3100-2100 BC) until the Early Iron Age (c.1200-800 BC). Until now, it was assumed that the appearance of these mounds marked the first permanent habitations in this region, and that occupation therefore began in the Early Bronze Age. At the time, the valley formed a crucial part of the great caravan route that linked the Near East to continental Europe, allowing for the circulation of ceramics, high-status goods, and, perhaps most importantly, metals. However, the LGASSP team were surprised to find traces of even earlier settlement at some of these long-lived höyük sites. Along with obsidian objects, which indicate the integration of these sites into long-distance trade networks, Chalcolithic ceramics were found in quantities suggesting permanent occupation at the two largest sites in the valley – Attepe and Kilisetepe. We now think that these two, longer-lived settlements may have dominated their twins on the opposite banks of the river. Not only are both sites older than their twins, but they also seem to have been larger at key periods during the Bronze Age, with occupation spilling out from the central mound to spread across the plain.

All images: Nazlı Evrim Şerifoğlu

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 95 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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