Ephesos: More than 1,400-year-old area of the city discovered under burnt layer

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A sensational find was made during excavations in Ephesos: archaeologists from the Austrian Academy of Sciences were able to uncover an early Byzantine business and gastronomy district. It is the most important discovery in the city since the now famous Terrace houses were found 50 years ago.

View of the excavation area at Domitian’s Square, on the left the adjacent upper agora, on the right Curetes Street [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

During this year’s excavations in Ephesos, Turkey, archaeologists from the Austrian Academy of Sciences discovered an excellently preserved early Byzantine business and gastronomy district. As it seems, the area was suddenly destroyed in 614/615 AD.

Domitian’s Square, originally a large Roman square, was partially covered by shops and workshops in Late Antiquity. These could be entered via a portico in front, which separated the area from the street [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]
So far, a small-scale structure consisting of several business premises has been uncovered on an area of about 170 m² [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

All the household goods in the rooms were sealed by a thick burnt layer and thus preserved for posterity, making it possible to get unique snapshots of ancient life today. This makes the find comparable to the archaeological site of Pompeii ‒ although it is to be dated differently.

Excavation at Domitian’s square in the city centre

The newly discovered district is located on Domitian’s Square, a prominent public place directly adjacent to the political centre of the Roman city, the Upper Agora. The excavations carried out here in 2022 are part of a large research project dedicated to the changes in the city between the Roman Imperial period and Late Antiquity.

A storage room was also discovered, which was full of vessels that could still be found with their original contents. In addition, a cash box with over 400 copper coins was found in this room [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]
In the storage room, the objects lay on top of each other, so that shelf walls can be reconstructed. Other vessels were stored in large bowls, like numerous small jugs [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

“That the originally large Roman square complex was built over by shops and workshops in Late Antiquity was to be expected. What was completely unexpected, however, was the state of preservation as well as the exact time of destruction and the implications for urban history that can be derived from it”, says Sabine Ladstätter. She is the director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Academy and has been in charge of the excavations in Ephesos since 2009.

Amphorae with mackerel, shop tills with gold coins

So far, a small-scale structure consisting of several business premises has been uncovered on an area of around 170 square metres. The entire building complex was in full bloom until the year 614/615, as evidenced by the coins found there. Individual rooms of this quarter are preserved up to 3.4 metres high and were completely sealed by a massive destruction layer.

Amphorae were also found in large quantities, some of them from Ephesos (brown), others imported from North Africa (beige) [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]
In the storage room there were numerous small jugs and cups, which can be assumed to have formed a set. Filled with wine, they were served to the clientele in adjacent rooms (tabernas) [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

An incredibly rich inventory came to light under the layers. Countless pieces of crockery were found, numbering in the thousands, including whole bowls with the remains of seafood such as cockles or oysters, as well as amphorae filled with salted mackerel. Also found were stones from peaches, almonds and olives, but also charred peas and legumes.

These small cups were obviously the usual drinking utensils from which wine was consumed [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]
Numerous oil lamps were unearthed in one of the shop rooms. They were sold together with lighting utensils, such as wick holders, and Christian pilgrim ampoules [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

Particularly spectacular are four gold coins (solidi) belonging together and several business tills with over 700 copper coins. The excavated rooms are a cookshop, a storeroom, a taberna, a shop for lamps and Christian pilgrim souvenirs, and a workshop with an attached salesroom. A unique find is the discovery of around 600 small pilgrim bottles that were sold to Christian pilgrims here and could be worn around the neck.

Destruction of the district and the Sasanids

“The archaeological findings show us a destruction by massive fire that must have been sudden, dramatic and momentous,” explains Sabine Ladstätter. “It will no longer be possible to determine the exact day of the destruction, but the evaluation of the fruits found will at least clarify the season.”

Numismatist Nikolaus Schindel analysing the coin finds [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]
A bronze ceremonial lamp with a mount with a cross in openwork, standing on a candelabra [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

Was it an earthquake? There are no indications of that. Neither have walls shifted, nor have floors heaved up. No human remains were discovered either. However, several arrowheads and spearheads were excavated, indicating a military conflict.

The Christian pilgrim ampoules were only a few centimetres in size and could be worn around the neck. They contained sacred substances, such as holy dust, which could thus be taken away from Christian pilgrimage sites [Credit: © OeAW-OeAI/Niki Gail]

It is fitting that coins dating to the same time were also found in Sardis, around 100 kilometres from Ephesos, proving destructions within this Turkish city. These were previously associated with invasions of western Asia Minor by the Persian Sasanids, but this has so far been disputed in research.

Mystery of the history of Ephesos could be solved

The new finds at Domitian’s Square could now solve a riddle in the urban history of Ephesos. Sabine Ladstätter: “Although it has so far been possible to observe from the archaeological evidence that the city became smaller by leaps and bounds in the 7th century and the standard of living dropped significantly, the reasons for this were not clear.”

General plan of Ephesos: The Byzantine business and gastronomy district at Domitian’s Square is marked in red. The square lies directly below the Upper Agora, the political centre of the city, and is closed off to the south by the temple to the emperor Domitian, and to the east it borders on Curetes Street [Credit: © Birgitte Danthine]

Coin circulation also plummeted, falling to a much lower level than in the centuries before. »We will now probably have to link this caesura in the urban history of Ephesos with the Sasanian Wars,« says the archaeologist of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Excavation team

The evaluation of the finds and findings is being carried out by a team of researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences led by Sabine Ladstätter: Helmut Schwaiger (archaeology), Alfred Galik (archaeozoology), Andreas G. Heiss (archaeobotany) and Nikolaus Schindel (numismatics).

Source: Austrian Academy of Sciences [October 31, 2022]

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