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Uncovering Sagalassos’ secrets, one stone at a time

Uncovering Sagalassos’ secrets, one stone at a time

Thanks to KU Leuven researchers, the secrets of Sagalassos are being uncovered.

9 minutes
18 November 2019

Whether you are fascinated by the past, passionate about lost cultures or intrigued by the endless amount of possibilities interdisciplinary scientific research offers, Sagalassos, the fascinating archaeological site in the western Taurus Mountains, combines it all.

Thanks to of KU Leuven researchers’ inquisitiveness, attention to detail and – above all – boundless passion for the mysterious past, the secrets of the city’s former residents and its community are being uncovered.

Sagalassos water

Exploring the Lives of Turkish Archaeological Site’s Ancient Residents

After a bumpy dolmuş ride from Isparta to the village of Ağlasun, followed by a seven kilometre-long hike under a piercing sun, you have finally arrived: Sagalassos, one of the most complete ancient sites in existence, unfolds itself before you. Located in present-day Turkey, the site is built on various natural terraces at an altitude between 1400 and 1600 metres. You’ll soon agree that this was well worth the journey…even after you discover there’s a smooth road straight to the visitor’s centre you could have taken. No matter, however you make it here, the important thing is to be here.

Surrounded by breath-taking views of endless valleys and mountaintops, the remains of the city thus far exposed at the site comprise a colonnaded street, two agorae, a Roman bath complex, various richly decorated fountains, a couple of temples and early Christian churches, fortifications, houses, a macellum (a shopping centre), a prytaneion (city hall), a bouleuterion (the council hall), a gymnasium (including a school, among other functions), the Neon library (named after its benefactor, Titus Flavius Severianus Neon), the stadium, a theatre with a seating capacity of several thousands, several cemeteries, and much more.

In 1990, large-scale excavations were started by KU Leuven Professor Marc Waelkens and are now directed by Professor Jeroen Poblome. Owing to both directors and an multifaceted team of KU Leuven researchers who have been investigating Sagalassos ever since, the site, its buildings and a plethora of archaeological finds are slowly being restored to their former glory. In everything they do, the archaeologists’ focus is firmly on the people who used to call Sagalassos their home – more than digging up ancient constructions, the aim is to unearth their stories and learn about their everyday lives.

Sagalassos sneeuw

Hidden treasures

Currently on UNESCO’s Tentative List, Sagalassos is a site with significant potential, especially considering its role in the sustainable development of the region. Even though preserving the site is a difficult task considering the fragility of ancient remains in the Taurus Mountains’ harsh winter weather, there are a lot more ‘hidden treasures’ left to excavate and tales to discover about Sagalassos’ past residents.

The Sagalassos site is situated in the southwest of Turkey, a little over one hundred kilometres north of the popular coastal holiday resort of Antalya. Located amid the forested hills, mountainsides and valleys of the Taurus Mountain chain, Sagalassos proudly declared itself the most important city of the ancient region of Pisidia – presently, parts of the Turkish provinces of Burdur, Isparta and Antalya – named after its ancient inhabitants, the Pisidians. Surveys and excavations at the site and in the 1,200 km2 wide Sagalassos study region have taught us the region was continually occupied ever since distant prehistoric times.

The first inhabitants

The very first traces of human activity in the Sagalassos study region date back to the Middle Palaeolithic (200,000-45,000 B.C.) and are possibly related to Neanderthal activities. At the very end of the Late Palaeolithic, we see the first signs pointing towards increasing human use within the area of what would later become Sagalassos. During the Early Bronze Age (3,000-2,000 B.C.), territorial chiefdoms developed in the wider region. Recent material studies and targeted excavations have placed the origins of Sagalassos as a community in Late Achaemenid times at the end of the 5th century B.C. This original settlement can be considered part of a regional Iron Age tradition of higher-altitude settlements typical for the region of Pisidia. Urbanisation, though, was another process, one which would develop from Middle Hellenistic times onwards.

During the Achaemenid period, Pisidia became known for its warlike character. The Pisidians certainly lived up to their rebellious reputation in 333 B.C., when Alexander the Great experienced fierce resistance at Sagalassos during his invasion of Persia. As a result of Alexander's conquest, Sagalassos and neighbouring areas became part of the Hellenistic world. From about 200 B.C. onwards, under the Seleucid dynasty, the former hilltop settlement of Sagalassos started to develop as a town, which included the construction of a range of monumental buildings. In 25 B.C., Pisidia was incorporated into the Roman Empire and the city flourished, not only in its physical outlook, but also in its entrepreneurship, exemplified by its large-scale pottery production. The otherwise provincial city was doing quite well. Soon, the city saw itself as the first city of Pisidia.

Sagalassos zuil

A city in transformation

After many centuries of Hellenization and Roman rule, Sagalassos became Christian in Late Antiquity, which was reflected in the city’s architecture, among other things. Sagalassos gradually transformed from a typical city in ‘classical’ terms into a Byzantine city. Not only did the city itself change, but, at the time, the entire known world was in flux. The 8th and 9th centuries in the Byzantine Empire were characterised by turmoil in religious and political terms, yet recent KU Leuven research demonstrates that Sagalassos was able to withstand those tests of time. Significant economic changes occurred in the later Roman period, e.g. those focussing on intra-regional trade, which allowed the region and its people to keep their heads above water.

Scrutinising Sagalassos

By now it’s clear that, besides its obvious scenic beauty, the Sagalassos area is steeped in history. The untold stories of the past are the¬¬¬re, waiting to be found. That’s where KU Leuven’s Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project comes in. The project is currently engaged in several interesting research endeavours connected by one central notion, i.e. interdisciplinarity is key. Bringing together different areas of academic expertise, scientists are able to deepen, enrich and nuance the descriptions and explanations that come out of their various research projects. By actively searching for the site’s hidden stories, researchers from a wide range of academic fields are able to answer a multitude of questions and gradually fill in those gaps that remain. Let’s dive into a few of these stories.

Sagalassos archeologen

One of the current projects uses the human remains found on site to reconstruct the nature and quality of past lives, and look into the past residents’ general well-being. The experts involved are archaeologists, physical anthropologists, biologists and geneticists. The Sagalassos site serves as an interesting case study, one in which these scientists attempt to reconstruct and compare the population’s general well-being in Roman times (1st-6th century A.D.) with that in the Byzantine period (10th-13th century A.D.).

An eye to eye with the past

Recently, the Sagalassos people have actually been given a face. On the basis of a few well-preserved skeletal remains, researchers from KU Leuven – in collaboration with a team from the University of Burdur (Turkey) – were able to reconstruct two strikingly lifelike faces. One is that of a Roman man (early 3rd century A.D.) and the other is that of a Middle Byzantine woman (11th-13th century A.D.). As we have no way of finding out their true identities, the researchers named them ‘Rhodon’ and ‘Eirènè’, respectively. More than finding where and how these people lived, thanks to these facial reconstructions, we now have an idea of what they looked like. In other words, we are able to look the past straight in the eyes.

Sagalassos graafwerken

A partnership between researchers from the fields of archaeology, geography, ecology, spatial planning studies, and data analysis and information visualization, on the other hand, relies on the Sagalassos site and its study region to disclose information about the illusive notion of change in a socio-ecological context. The main question they’re tackling is, ‘How far can humankind push nature’s boundaries in order to survive?’ A significant concept here – and, in fact, in all current Sagalassos projects – is that of ‘social metabolism’, something of a hot topic in our environmentally-challenged world. Basically, this concept refers to the social metabolic interaction between man and nature: homo sapiens is able to understand the laws of nature, and to appropriate them in whichever way they wish. This changes the environment, and those changes, in turn, will have an impact on human development.

Based a broad range of historical data gathered in the Sagalassos and surrounding regions, including information on food intake, agricultural strategies, energy needs and heating systems, KU Leuven researchers want to explore patterns of human resilience in the past. Their goal is to use those insights when dealing with contemporary struggles concerning the interplay between ourselves and our environment.

Sagalassos muur detail

For posterity’s sake

The researchers’ methodological process also merits consideration. Together with a team from Ghent University, KU Leuven researchers are developing a geographic information system (GIS), a digital database designed to capture, store, analyse, manage, and present spatial and geographic data. The driving force behind the project is the need to prevent loss or even destruction of important historical fieldwork data. Relying on advanced sensing techniques on land and in the air, the complete excavation process can be documented in great detail and preserved for posterity. In another project, archaeologists, statisticians and computing scientists collaborate to tackle the seemingly obvious concepts of typology and chronology in archaeology. Indeed, with millions of data points, understanding these fundamental archaeological tasks has grown beyond human analytical capacities.

Sagalassos archeologe detail

Who’s never enjoyed a leisurely stroll through a marketplace whilst on holiday? The hustle and bustle of the people selling their wares, buying their groceries, the colourful produce, the animals, noises and smells…these sensations capture the essence of a community. A recently discovered market building in Sagalassos is part of a study that sets out to go beyond investigating these buildings’ architectural features. In collaboration with historians from Ghent University, the focus here is the economic role and function of market buildings in the cities of Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor. The researchers hope their findings will contribute to the ongoing debate on ancient, particularly the Hellenistic and Roman, economies.

Another riveting project zooms in on an area about 7 kilometres outside of Sagalassos, at Dereköy in the Taurus Mountains. There, KU Leuven archaeologists came across many previously unknown (pre)historic sites. When surveying this mountainous region, they discovered Middle Palaeolithic artefacts (200,000-45,000 B.C.), which proves the first human activities in this area can be dated much earlier than previously assumed. The team behind this project wants to contribute not only to a better prehistoric chronological framework, but also to a clearer understanding of prehistoric human activity.

For thirty years, KU Leuven scientists have been working on rebuilding the ancient city of Sagalassos. Every single day, the many exciting projects, and the dozens of enthusiastic researchers behind them, reveal more of the site’s stories and uncover more of its secrets, one stone at a time. The fact that only 5% of the city has been excavated so far offers exciting prospects. Archaeology might be a dusty old business, but it is by no means a boring one!

Discover how you can support the Sagalassos Research Project