It’s all started with the project of the century: a mission to connect two continents with a $2.6bn rail-tunnel running deep beneath the Bosphorus Straits. But the modern version of that vision has hit a historical stumbling block.
When homes were cleared and excavation started for Istanbul metro’s main hub station on the multi-million dollar Marmaray rail project. Archaeologists have uncovered centuries old treasures beneath of a kind never before discovered here. Just a few meters below ground, they found Byzantium’s busiest ancient port. They also found settlements and burial grounds dating back 8000 years from our times. Historians until now had believed modern-day Istanbul was first settled around 700 BC. Neolithic remains were discovered in two Istanbul suburbs in the past but this is the first such find in the historic heart of the city.
Digging through thick mud and black clay of an ancient swamp archaeologists in Istanbul have discovered burial grounds and a settlement that proves the city is 6,000 years older than they previously thought. Several 8,000-year-old cremation urns from the Neolithic Age and a grave with skeletons of two adults and two children lie curled-up discovered. With the urns were found all the personal belongings of the dead, clothing, jewelry, utensils, and even the arrow the person was killed with were found buried with their owner inside the urns. One urn even contained the skeleton of a baby.
At the same location also found remains of an early settlement with signs of houses made of tree-branches and small tools, wooden pieces and bones.
Construction for the terminal were scheduled to last about six months, thanks to archaeological discoveries digging still going strong four years later. The Marmaray is now expected to open in 2011 at the earliest.
Under pressure to complete their excavations and let-in the construction workers, 50 archaeologists and 750 workers excavating in shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in an area the size of 10 city blocks. Yenikapi dig has finally reached bedrock in some places, so archaeologists don’t expect any more major discoveries on those locations. They’re still working through piles of ancient swamp mud, which has preserved some of the oldest artifacts and the remains of the Byzantine ships.
Archeologist, Associate Professor Necmi Karul, has described the find as “sensational” and says the site is definitely a burial ground dating back to 5800-6000 BC, the last of the Neolithic or New Stone Age, a key period in the development of human technology beginning about 10,000 BC in the Middle East.
Here they gradually carry the foundations of “civilized” life west, to Europe. The new find in Istanbul helps map that transition. Neolithic culture changed as it moved west. Domesticated animals and some of the cereal crops came, but mud brick became wooden architecture, settlements were re-organized.
Prof Ozdogan believes the Yenikapi settlement dates from between 6400BC and 5800BC – long before the Bosphorus Strait had formed and in the days when the Marmara Sea was a small, inland lake. Istanbul’s first inhabitants appear to have lived on both sides of a river that flowed then through Yenikapi.
So far, the site has yielded the stone remains of the harbor and a 43m. Wooden pier and the oldest settlement in İstanbul. They have found leather sandals with strings through the toes and around a thousand candle-holders and hairbrushes, ancient anchors and lengths of rope. They expect to gain insights into ancient commercial life in the city, once called Constantinople, that was the capital of the eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
The site’s most treasured finds are stored beneath large protective tents. Inside, water jets spray water to preserve the wooden boats were more than 1,000 years old. The dig has uncovered 22 boats including the first Byzantine galleys ever found. It may, some say, be the greatest nautical archaeological site of all time. The ships were wiped out all at once in a giant storm or a tsunami after a strong earthquake hit the harbor. These boats make up “missing link” in the history of shipbuilding because of the fusion of old and new techniques in a single boat. They found one boat with the lower part built by the ancient method, and the upper part by the modern method.
It’s a dream discovery for archeologist, but a nightmare for the Marmaray management. Marmaray Project Manager Haluk Ozmen said: “The dig is the only thing that can delay the Marmaray project. That’s why we’re working 24 hours a day to meet our deadline. Everything is in the hands of the archaeologists now.”
Officials said they plan to build a museum on part of the site and incorporate it into the massive state of the art underground hub station.