Sunday, 24 July 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Ephesus and Selcuk, Turkey (September 2010)

Romans, Saints and dodgy fakes…

I can’t begin to describe how excited I was at the thought of going to Ephesus.  For anyone with an interest in Roman archaeology the site is legendary, and I’m pleased to say that it lived up to all of my expectations.

Although I deal with Roman archaeology on a daily basis, we just don’t have the scale of physical remains in England that you get in the Mediterranean and northern Africa.  Remains such as Ephesus are on a different scale to anything else, and the sense of what it must have been like to have lived in a wealthy Roman city is palpable.

I’ve done previous travel posts about our Turkey trip - about hot air ballooning in Cappadocia and about seeing wild turtles in Fethiye.  Our visit to Ephesus came as we were travelling slowly up the eastern coast towards Istanbul.

We had previously been on the hot Mediterranean coast in Fethiye, and took one of many long bus rides to Selcuk, the town just a few miles from Ephesus.  We’d been good, careful travellers, done our research on hotels and booked one that we liked the look of before we left Fethiye (especially as we knew we’d be arriving late at night).  Sadly, Turkey being Turkey, we were let down again by hotels, and arrived to find that the one we’d booked was now full as our bus had been delayed by about 30 minutes and our room given away (we had this on our very first night in Turkey too, in Antalya, when a late arrival from the airport led to a long-booked room being given to somebody else and the hotel outrageously denying any knowledge of us and pretending not to speak English.  This led to us wandering the streets at 2.30am looking for another hotel!)  What is it about Turkish hoteliers not honouring their bookings?

Thankfully, this hotelier had not entirely turned us away, but had had the kindness (or gall, I can’t quite decide…) to book us a room in another hotel run by a family member.  Despite us having looked at this hotel on the internet and deciding not to go for it, it was too late to argue or find somewhere else.  As it turned out, the room was actually rather large and lovely, so we needn’t have worried.

So the next morning we set out for Ephesus, giggling like excited schoolchildren at the thought of the sights that awaited us.  We arrived, as we had expected, into a busy bazaar of stalls and street vendors, selling only the very finest merchandise money can buy.

One thing I instantly liked about Ephesus was that the city wasn’t going to give up all its delights in one fell swoop.  Instead, as you might expect for such a large site, it revealed itself slowly, every corner turned leading to a new surprise.

We entered by one of the impressive theatres, sitting in the back row of which must have been as lovely then as it is now.

A walk through some low shrubs brought us to the most famous of Ephesus’ monuments, the Library of Celsus.  It was built in AD135 by wealthy local Gaius Julius Aquila (and named after his father Celsus) and has the unusual dual function of being both a repository for scrolls and the mausoleum of Celsus himself.

Further up the wonderfully evocative stone-lined ‘Curetes Street’ lies another of Ephesus’ treasures – the excavations at one of the high status insulae.  This requires a separate entrance fee, but if you’ve gone all that way to see Ephesus then don’t go cheap at this point, as the excavations are worth every penny.  The series of wealthy houses, complete with painted plaster, mosaics and plumbing are all contained under a purpose built roof with walkways allowing visitors to travel within the houses, but in a controlled manner.  I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves at this point, though look out for the images of ‘conservation in action’ – it was fascinating to see the conservators reconstructing and sorting marble and wall plaster as we wandered around.  And I’m not jealous in the slightest…

Opposite the insulae excavations sits the Temple of Hadrian.  It was built following the visit of the well travelled Emperor, who visited Ephesus in AD128.  The carvings on the temple are particularly interesting.  The entrance arch features a bust of Psyche, Goddess of Victory.

Inside is a relief of Medusa and friezes depicting the founding of Ephesus, though these are actually replicas.  The originals are in Ephesus museum (not that the site interpretation actually makes that clear for visitors.  Naughty!)

No Roman site would be complete without a suite of toilets to provide a good photo opportunity, and the chance to make jokes about sponges on sticks (the Roman equivalent of toilet paper).

At the top of Curetes Street we encountered another, smaller, theatre, notable for the carved animal feet decorating the steps.

Close by is an interesting monument constructed in the 1st Century by Memmius, the grandson of Sulla.  Despite being one of the great figures of the late Roman Republic, Sulla somehow seems to be virtually unknown to the general public, especially when compared to figures such as Caesar, Pompey and Mark Antony.  To those who know of him however, the monument to him is rather interesting to see.

As well as visiting Ephesus, we also had the chance to have a quick look around the town of Selcuk.  I’ll come to the tourist bits in a moment, but one thing I did experience is being repeatedly offered some incredibly bad modern copies of Roman coins by a local chap (who assured me that he worked on the excavations at Ephesus and was allowed to sell them).  The thing that got me was thinking just how many tourists would actually buy them.  Now, as they were bad fakes, they deserve everything they get (or rather, don’t get), but to think that people would actually buy what they believed to be genuine ancient coins of such obviously dodgy provenance makes me quite angry indeed.  As it turned out, when I got fed up of humouring the guy and told him outright that I work in a museum, have a specific interest in Roman numismatics, and that his coins were bad fakes and I definitely wouldn’t be buying any, he not only repeatedly told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, but also that western museums and archaeologists bought things from him all the time!  Lord help us all if that turns out to be true!

Dodgy fake coin peddlers aside, Selcuk is an OK place.  It’s mostly a modern little town, but it has a very nice museum displaying the finds from Ephesus, which you can see in the photos below.

Selcuk is also home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Temple of Artemis.  Sadly it’s not easy to find, and we actually ran out of time after wandering around trying to find it, and ultimately failed to see the one remaining column of this giant temple.

One site we did see was the Basilica of St John, built on a hill in the centre of Selcuk.  The story goes that, following Jesus’ crucifixion, St John and the Virgin Mary went to Ephesus to live out the rest of their lives.  When St John died, a mausoleum was built on that hill, which was later turned into the Basilica once Christianity had become the dominant religion in the 4th Century.

Monday, 4 July 2011

FAME – we’re going to dig forever…

On Friday 1st July I spent the day in York, attending a conference organized by FAME (Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers) and the SMA (Society of Museum Archaeologists) entitled ‘Trouble in Store: facing up to the archaeological archives crisis.’

For readers not familiar with the terminology, archaeological archives are the products of organised archaeological fieldwork – the documentation (reports, maps, photographs etc) and the finds (if there were any, and ranging from the finest jewelry to bits of broken building material and environmental samples such as soil and snail shells).  Most archaeology in Britain nowadays is done in advance of development (the dastardly plans of certain fenland councilors notwithstanding).  Commercial archaeological contractors tender to carry out the archaeological investigation deemed necessary by planning officers and afterwards produce the archives.  These archives are then deposited with specific repositories to be stored, cared for and used for research.  The repositories are usually museums, as is the case in my patch - Lincolnshire.

However, as the title of the conference indicates, there is a sense that a crisis faces this seemingly simple system.   The crisis lies in the fact that some repositories are now full, and are not able to take new archives.  This has led to the contracting archaeological units themselves having to retain the archives they have produced.  This is not only unfair on these contractors - keeping the archives out of a sense of professional responsibility but not able to financially support such long-term curation, but it is also not in the best interests of the public, as these archives are not accessible in the way they would be in a publicly funded museum.

The seriousness of the situation was reflected in the fact that around 100 members of the archaeological community assembled in the attractive historic surroundings of York’s Merchant Taylor’s Hall.  In fact, this was perhaps the most single-minded I think I have ever seen the archaeological world, as museum curators, field archaeologists and planning archaeologists agreed that the problem was one that required immediate attention.

The list of speakers was varied and reflected the range of specialism present in the audience.  Interestingly, however, if recognition of the problem was unanimous, identification of the details and formulation of the cure were less so.  I have grouped some of the major discussion points below.

Defining the scope of the problem

That a problem exists was recognized over and over again throughout the day, but a key stumbling block to finding a solution is simply that we are not sure how big the problem is.  Sample surveys have suggested that it may be rather large indeed, with thousands of archives not able to be deposited.  The secondary problem is that the problem is geographically imbalanced.  Some areas have no current problems in taking new archives, yet in other areas entire counties have closed their repositories’ doors.

New innovations in digital archiving

The issue of digital archiving is the elephant in the room at any discussion regarding the future of archaeological archives.  Unsurprisingly, archives are increasingly being produced in digital formats, be that through digital photographs, word processed finds lists or CAD site plans.  However, the main purpose of the archive is long term preservation, and I think people would be shocked by just how quickly a ‘normal’ printed and stapled piece of paper will degrade, especially if it is a standard cardboard storage box.  Because of this, museums produce long and detailed requirements for the materials and formatting of documentary archives – occasionally to the chagrin of the contractors who have to meet those standards. 

For documentary archives to be submitted in digital format, the issue of obsolescence has to be tackled.  File formats such as .doc, .pdf and .jpg are all well and good now, but how will they be in 20 years?  It wasn’t that long ago that you were using floppy disks.  Can you instantly lay your hands on a floppy disk drive now?  How about a 5¼ inch floppy disk readable on an old ACORN?  Even modern compact disks and DVDs have a short guaranteed shelf life for the readability of the files on them.  For digital archives to be a reliable way forward, therefore, a system of ensuring that the (potentially hundreds of) files that comprise each archive are kept up to date.  With the best will in the world, museums just do not have the resources to do that for the many thousands of archives they hold.

This is where organizations such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) come in.  They store and provide digital access to documentary archives, and most museums now specify that copies of all archives are sent to them.  At the conference, two ongoing pilot projects to expand the reach and potential of ADS were presented – the Wessex Archaeology image archive, and the Southampton Arts and Heritage archive.  Both of these projects were exiting examples of how the future of documentary archiving really could be digital, and that the possibility of opening up archives to the public and researchers through the ADS website could be a reality, providing that guaranteed funding could be secured.

Planning archaeology and the deposition process

Without wishing to make them seem a scapegoat for all of the shortcomings in the archaeological process, it was recognized that planning archaeologists are the biggest constant throughout the lifespan of a project.  It was felt that they were in a prime position to promote changes to the archive process, in particular in increasing communication between the contractor and the museum at the outset of a project and in having an oversight on depositions at the end of projects.  I am pleased to say that in Lincolnshire the communication with regard to deposition is now very good indeed between the planning archaeologists and the museum, and I hope that the systems we have recently put in place might serve as an example to other areas where the relationship is not as evolved.

Problems with the archives themselves

One important element of the discussions was with regard to the archives themselves.  Are they simply too big?  Should retention of material be much more selective?  Are we creating even more storage problems for the future? When researchers use the archives, what elements of it are they mostly using?

In all honesty, answering these questions involves the use of data we currently just don’t have nationally.  To know whether the material we are keeping is appropriate, we need to know how it is being used by researchers and what potential there is for it to be studied in the future.

Fortunately, English Heritage has already begun work on a document called ‘Evaluating the archaeological resource in store: informing the future’, which will attempt to:

  • Update the national map of museum collecting areas
  • Establish the date that archives held in repositories were deposited (how quickly are archives being processed)
  • Identify areas where Archaeological Resource Centres might be a solution
  • Clarify the relationship between archaeological collections and other types of museum collection, in terms of quantity, storage space, staff specialisms etc
  • Characterise the users of archaeological archives
  • Establish the quantity of archaeological archives held by contractors and with no identified repository

Although the data gathered will not in itself solve the problem, hopefully it will provide a firm foundation to build on.


Although museums are the final recipients of the archives and only have a limited input into their creation, there are still ways in which those of us in museums can make life easier for colleagues in the wider archaeological community.

For instance, museums could be more consistent in their requirements for the preparation of archives.  At the moment, individual museums write their own guidelines almost in isolation, meaning that contractors have a completely different set of criteria to meet depending on which museum the archive is being prepared for – different sizes of box, different methods and levels of marking, and different ways of organizing the contents.  If museums can work to nationally agreed standards for other areas of museum work, such as documentation or collections care procedures, then surely it is not beyond the wit of man to do the same for archaeological archives.  After all, the material is basically the same, and the museums are managing it in basically the same way.

The other issue is around access.  Museums are generally good at telling the public about their objects, but if we’re honest, archaeological archives are not promoted and used in the same way that other objects are.  They are not seen as sexy or populist at a time when museums are expected to be sexy and populist.  Only a small percentage of finds from an archive will be deemed display worthy, but often the story of a site can be well told even when the finds aren’t that spectacular.  Museums should be making more attempts to bring the fantastic, but mostly invisible, resource contained within their archives to public and academic attention.

It was also recognized that, as archaeology is now embedded in the planning process, it is not in the public eye as it was when museums were the ‘home’ of professional archaeology.  Despite this, claims that museums do not have the archaeological expertise required to understand and interpret their archives were firmly refuted.  In fact, the combination of skills most archaeological museum curators possess puts them in the best position to make the most of the archaeological archive resource.


The main accusation levied against some (I hasten to add ‘but not all’) archaeological contractors is that archives need to be given a higher priority, not considered an expensive and annoying afterthought.  The production of the archive is a fundamental element of professional archaeology.  Digging the site is only one aspect of the project, and if the products of archaeological investigation are not written up and made available for future scrutiny then, basically, all that is happening is the vandalism of an archaeological site.

So, in conclusion, the day definitely goes down as a success, but as the first step in admitting the problem rather than solving it.  The progress of English Heritage’s research will be very interesting to watch, but I hope that every attendee will go away thinking about their own role in the process, and ultimately how they can make the entire process work more smoothly and for the greatest public benefit.  Oh, and the day only featured a very small amount of rabbit cuddling…