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Emeritus Professor Marc Waelkens “I have had a fantastic life”
Depth interview

Emeritus Professor Marc Waelkens “I have had a fantastic life”

His name will always be inextricably associated with Sagalassos. Emeritus Professor Marc Waelkens reflects on his rich and eventful career.

8 minutes
27 October 2020

Professor Marc Waelkens retired seven years ago, but his life’s work, the excavation and reconstruction of the ancient city of Sagalassos in western Turkey has always remained close to his heart. His health is now starting to fail him, but, he says: “You’ll never hear me complain. I have been very fortunate.”

When did you realize that you would become an archaeologist?

“When I was six. I had read a comic strip in Robbedoes about Heinrich Schliemann, the nineteenth-century discoverer of Troy, who as a little boy told his father that he would later prove that the cities Homer wrote about had actually existed. I was so impressed that I went to my own father and told him that when I grew up, I also wanted to do excavations in Turkey.”

“The comic strip is framed above my desk. It was a gift from my students when I retired. It is strange how a little four-page story can determine a life… And I have lived mine entirely in function of that dream. I studied in Ghent, which was unusual in that period for a boy from a West-Flemish secondary school, but it was the only Belgian university that did excavations in Turkey. The first time I was allowed to go there as a student, I fell in love with it completely. It lived up to all my expectations. In those days, Turkey was much more exotic and oriental than it is now, but also much less conservative and more cosmopolitan.”

How did you end up in Sagalassos?

“After my doctorate, I spent years on international excavations in Syria, Greece, and also Turkey. In the early 1980s, I befriended Stephen Mitchell, who worked in Ankara on the Pisidia project on behalf of the British Institute. The purpose of that project was to document the visible ancient remains in that region of the Taurus Mountains. Around that time, increased tourism had led to the building of roads from the interior of the country to the coast, exposing many remains that needed to be protected. I still remember the day that we visited the site at Sagalassos for the first time, on 23 August 1984, at half past eight in the morning. In the almost twenty years that I had done excavations, I had never seen anything like it. Because the city lies at the top of a mountain and there are no roads, the site was completely untouched. The abandoned city was covered with metres of erosion material, which had sealed all the remains, as it were. We discovered an almost entirely intact theatre with seating for seven thousand spectators, the remains of temples and thermal baths, and part of the street plan was visible… There were shards of glass, ceramics and coins everywhere; we didn’t know where to put our feet… I was utterly transfixed.”

“After spending two years documenting everything that was visible on the surface, I was given permission to do excavations under the auspices of the museum in Burdur. In the meantime, I had discovered a potters’ quarter from which it became apparent that Sagalassos had been a major centre for the production of ceramics. In 1985, I had moved from Ghent to Leuven. In 1990, with Mitchell’s support, I was given a personal licence from the Turkish authorities to conduct digs at the site. A few years later, we were obliged to consider the surrounding region as well; more than 12000 square kilometres. As a result, we studied the city within its broader setting from the very beginning.”

Waelkens MG 7474s hori web

What fascinates you so much about archaeology?

“When many people think about archaeology, they imagine finding hidden treasure like Indiana Jones. But that is not what actually happens. Archaeology attempts to reconstruct a society in all its various dimensions: economics, religion, politics, environment, food, artisanal production… It is more comparable to a detective novel. Every object you find, every page you turn, you have to revise your hypotheses. The difference is that for an archaeologist, there is no final page and there will always be unanswered questions because you only have a fraction of the material. But that is precisely what makes it so interesting.”

“At Sagalassos, you can find information about every aspect of ancient society and that is exceptionally rare. Sites that are more accessible have been plundered for building materials over the centuries. With the exception of a few columns that had been rolled away, nothing had disappeared from Sagalassos. But from a logistical point of view, it was of course an enormous challenge to be the first to start digging there. There was a reason that the site was completely untouched. There was no electricity, no water, no telephone line… In the early years, we had to drive a land rover up the mountainside. Initially, we would move blocks of stone on tree trunks. We later recruited workers from the factories in the area to make materials, like components for pulleys. At the beginning, we had to carry everything seven kilometres up the mountain. Trucks were only able to get up the mountain once we had built roads using the excavation rubble.”

Sagalassos is considered a model excavation…

“There are few or no excavations where restorations start so quickly… and especially in a responsible manner. If less than 80 or 85 percent of the original building materials remain, we limit our work to conserving what is left. And we do restore, we use blocks that we cut ourselves using ancient methods. We trained local labourers, ordinary farm boys, especially for that purpose. We ensure that what we restore is solid for eternity, and even earthquake-proof, and that is also quite exceptional.”

“Another special thing about the Sagalassos project is that as many disciplines as possible were involved from the very beginning. That was not common in classical archaeology at the time, though it was in prehistoric research. Zoologists and geologists, botanists, anthropologists, geomorphologists who study landscape formation, etc. Think, for example, of analysing the materials that have survived in the interior coating of ceramic objects, conducting drillings to extract ancient pollen, placing pollen traps to compare modern and ancient vegetation, using drones to identify everything between the vegetation, using radar to find out what is still hidden in the ground…”

Sagalassos was your life’s work, for which you made enormous efforts and sacrifices…

“That was necessary. We were there every summer with more than one hundred and fifty people from across the world: students, scientists from twelve different disciplines, labourers, etc. There is of course a whole team to steer the project in the right direction, but I was responsible for every minor and major problem, professionally but also personally. And it involves a whole range of activities, such as handling and storing millions of little objects per season. I remember there was one summer that I drove everyone seven kilometres up the mountain. I drove 7000 km in two months.”

People sometimes told me that I had to learn to enjoy myself, but I did. Work was never a chore for me.

You were the first person within the Humanities with a Concerted Research Action, the first with an Interuniversity Attraction Pole and the first with a Methusalem Project.

“I was the first person to dare to apply for such big research projects. But I received so much support and encouragement to do so. Emma Vorlat, André Oosterlinck, Herman Vanden Berghe, Yvan Bruynseraede… Without them, Sagalassos would never have been what it is. In contrast to other international excavation projects, we had to acquire the means for our excavations and research through project financing based on international peer reviews. Eventually I found myself spending four or five months per year writing reports and project proposals. The conservation or reconstruction of buildings is not considered fundamental, but applied scientific research, so I had to find funding for that elsewhere. So I contacted banks, insurance agencies and affluent families. I also gave about 800 lectures to raise money, and I even paid for the petrol for my car myself. It just went on and on, but I enjoyed it. To me, a good weekend was one in which I worked on Sagalassos. People sometimes told me that I had to learn to enjoy myself, but I did. Work was never a chore for me.”

“Nevertheless, it did eventually all become a bit much. I was also chair of the Research Council for four years. And of course I also taught classes. At the end, I taught about twenty hours per week and in the last years, I had to create a new syllabus every year. I would stay up until 3am every night making PowerPoints. One evening, I fell asleep at the wheel and I realized that perhaps I ought to slow down a bit. I was happy to be allowed to retire, even though I very much enjoyed teaching. Since then, I have only done the thing that made me happiest. I still publish about Sagalassos.”

You have received considerable recognition for your work. The Solvay Prize, a knighthood… And you also received the highest distinctions in Turkey.

“On the day that I said goodbye as the excavation director, the workers drove me down the mountain in a pick-up and drive me around the streets in the village in a convoy, accompanied by a little orchestra, just like they do for weddings. That was a very moving moment.”

“Now they know that I am terminally ill, my Turkish colleagues have compiled a book with an overview of my work and my publications. It is dedicated to Marc Bey, as they call me there – bey is a title that expresses both respect and great familiarity – ‘with gratitude for exemplifying how archaeological projects should be’. They describe Sagalassos as the benchmark of modern archaeology.”

“I have a tough nut to crack now that I am terminally ill, but you will never hear me complain. I have had a fantastic life. I am very happy to be able to spend my last months looking back on it; not everyone has the chance to do that. I have been very fortunate…”