8,500-year-old footprints rewrite İstanbul's history

8,500-year-old footprints rewrite İstanbul's history

A team of archaeologists work at the Yenikapı Marmaray construction site in this 2011 file photo. (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

April 27, 2014, Sunday/ 04:02:01/ CUMALİ ÖNAL / ISTANBUL
Archeologists had thought that the history of İstanbul began 2,700 years ago, but 8,500-year-old footprints and graves discovered during excavations along the Marmaray subway route are forcing a rethink of the city's timeline.

Speaking at a conference titled "İstanbul as an Archeological Site" held by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Anatolian Culture and Art Research and Implementation Center (AKSAM), archeologist Aksel Tibet said that the footprints are the most exciting archeological find in recent history.

Claiming that the excavations are rewriting the history of İstanbul, Tibet said that research would be conducted into these finds to learn more about İstanbul's past.

Accompanying the Marmaray project -- an undersea tunnel linking the Asian and European sides of İstanbul -- archeological excavations were launched as a rapid response project to save finds that were unearthed along Marmaray's route. These excavations proved highly rewarding, as they led to the discovery of tens of thousands of artifacts and other finds. Archaeologists discovered the fourth century Theodosian harbor, which contained relics from the Ottoman, Byzantine and Neolithic eras such as 37 shipwrecks as well as ropes, skeletons, leather and wooden sandals, wooden cups, amphorae and reels.

The finds that were most exciting for archeologists and other people are certainly some 1,500 footprints and wooden tombs containing human skeletons.

These footprints and skeletons are believed to date to 6,000-6,500 B.C. and disprove the thesis that the first human settlements in İstanbul date back 2,700 years.

The arrangement of the footprints suggests that they were made during a ritual, and archeologists suggest that they might have been preserved thanks to an unusual natural event. The ritual might have been held in a riverbed, where the ground was muddy. Footprints formed in this way can dry out and solidify. Later, floods might have brought silt or alluvial deposits that covered and preserved the prints.
 
The sizes of footprints range between the European shoe sizes 35 and 42, and anthropologists believe these footprints might have been made by the human skeletons found at the same site. The excavations also found two well-preserved tombs that are believed to be from the same period.

The archeological digs of the Marmaray project covered an area of 60,000 square meters and, in some places, went to a depth of 9 meters below sea level.

Archeologist Sırrı Çömlekçi, who was responsible for the Marmaray excavations, notes that researchers discovered only some of the evidence of prehistoric life in the area. The fact that the parts of the area had been used an agricultural site since the Ottoman era ensured the preservation of the finds. "In this locality, the buildings were not tall and didn't require deep foundations. Thanks to this, it remained İstanbul's best-preserved archeological site," he says.

Numerous shipwrecks were discovered during the excavations, which made İstanbul the city that has the highest number of ancient ships in the world. A shipwreck known as "Yenikapı 35," discovered in June 2011, is especially important. The shipwreck is 15 meters long and five meters wide, and archeologists believe it dates to the fourth or fifth century B.C. Its most important characteristic is that 127 intact amphorae were retrieved from it. These amphorae contain walnut shells and fruit kernels.

The site might be transformed into an archeological theme park after the archaeologists have completed their research.

However, how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's attitude toward the archeological excavations will affect the project is yet to be seen. Impatient with the four-year delay the archeological excavations caused the Marmaray project, Erdoğan once said, "They have put obstacles before us using such pretexts as archeological excavations or amphorae and the like."

Visiting the dig site, however, President Abdullah Gül wrote in the guest book: "It is clear that the archeological finds discovered on the site will shed light on İstanbul's glorious past as well as on various epochs in humankind's historical adventure."