[Digging up Turkey’s Past] Unearthing Ephesus with John Turtle Wood

[Digging up Turkey’s Past] Unearthing Ephesus with John Turtle Wood

January 19, 2010, Tuesday/ 16:15:00
Today Ephesus is one of the most popular sites in Turkey, with almost 3.5 million visitors annually. Particularly after the mammoth cruise ships have disgorged passengers in their thousands at the nearby Aegean tourist port of Kuşadası, the marble streets of this wonderfully preserved classical/Byzantine era city are thronged with tourists.

They pose for the obligatory souvenir photo in front of the immaculately reconstructed façade of the iconic Library of Celsus, take a seat in the vast, 25,000-seat theater where St. Paul was heckled by a mob of angry silversmiths and perhaps pause to admire the tomb of Arsinoe, sister of the famous Cleopatra, murdered in the city in 41 B.C. Many visitors, stimulated by the wealth of ancient remains all around them, no doubt at least try to conjure up what the city must have looked like in the A.D. first and second centuries, when its estimated that the near half a million population made it the empire’s second most populous city after Rome. Few, however, will give any thought to the Englishman John Turtle Wood, who, some 147 years ago, was the first to begin unearthing the impressive remains today’s visitors take for granted.

Wood excavated at Ephesus from 1863 until 1874, which by the standards of the time was a very long period. He was always short of money, as the funding he received from the British Museum was both insufficient and doled-out piecemeal. This sometimes compelled the unfortunate Wood to abandon the dig and work at his original profession

Indeed, although the site of Ephesus was well known to travelers in the 19th century, according to the indispensable guidebook of the time “Murray’s Handbook to Asia Minor” it was not all that impressive. “The vicinity of Ephesus to the coast has enabled many travellers to visit this celebrated city, and the memory of the past has perhaps led them to indulge their imagination too freely, while contemplating the walls that remain. Thus a visit to Ephesus will often be productive of disappointment.” Murray’s guide does talk about the Artemision, or Temple of Artemis (Diana in the Roman form), one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” Known from ancient sources such as Strabo and Pausanias to be in the vicinity of Ephesus, Murray’s wrongly ascribes some extensive ruins near the harbor as the remnants of the temple. In fact the remains lay hidden away beneath layers of silt in the swampy ground at the feet of the Ayasoluk Hill, which, crowned by the remains of the great Byzantine-era Basilica of St. John, still dominates the modern town of Selçuk. The discovery of the temple by Wood in 1869 was to win him international acclaim.

The dig begins

Wood left England for the Aegean coast of Ottoman Turkey in 1858 as an architect, not an archaeologist. His brief was prosaic -- to design stations on a new railway line between the port of Smyrna (now İzmir) and Denizli. To the Turks, however, the railway was a matter of pride, visible proof that the Ottoman Empire was modernizing and able to keep up with Europe. Indeed, in 1863 the sultan himself twice came to see the work in progress, even visiting the site of Ephesus using the new railway. In the same year, Wood, who had become less interested in railway stations and more and more obsessed with uncovering the remains of Ephesus, managed to secure both the financial backing (albeit limited) of the British Museum and permission from the Ottoman authorities to begin digging at the site -- and export any antiquities he discovered.

Trials and tribulations

Initially Wood lived in a railway shack close to the site, but soon moved to a village outside İzmir. From here to get to the site involved a mile-and-a-half walk to the station, followed by a three-and-a-half-hour train journey to reach Ephesus. Even the most committed İstanbul commuter today would balk at an eight-hour roundtrip to work, and a few months later the exhausted archaeologist took a room in Selçuk, just a short distance from the site. Even so, things went less than smoothly in the first season of the dig, as in September he broke his collarbone after stumbling into a ditch and was out of action for over a month. Fortunately, the incapacitated Wood could at least enjoy the landscape around Ephesus at leisure and was later to write glowingly, “I never became weary of the scenery by which I was surrounded, for the mountains on which my eyes daily rested changed from hour to hour as the sun travelled its course, and the desolation of the place was fully compensated by its constant and never-ceasing loveliness.”

Wood excavated at Ephesus from 1863 until 1874, which by the standards of the time was a very long period. He was always short of money, as the funding he received from the British Museum was both insufficient and doled-out piecemeal. This sometimes compelled the unfortunate Wood to abandon the dig and work at his original profession. Whilst he was absent, his workers were idle as finding “an honest, industrious and conscientious ganger [supervisor]” was virtually impossible. How he must have envied the flamboyant German self-made millionaire-turned-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, working up the coast at Troy in the early 1870s (and who visited Wood at Ephesus in 1870), who could easily fund his entire dig from his own pocket.

In his own way, however, Wood was every bit as determined as Schliemann to overcome the multitude of discomforts and frustrations facing him. The Ottoman authorities, accusing him of treasure seeking, withdrew his ferman (permit) in 1864, and only the intervention of the British consul in İzmir ensured its resumption. Mosquitoes were rife in the marshy ground around the site, and Wood suffered recurrent bouts of malaria. The illness of his wife, Henrietta Elizabeth, forced him to return to İzmir to nurse her in 1865. Whilst there, he was attacked in the street by a “lunatic Turk.” Despite fending off the assailant with his walking stick, Wood was stabbed in the chest within an inch of his heart (his attacker was soon arrested and put in an asylum, where he later died). Whilst living in his hut on the site, he was in constant danger of attack by bandits after the pay of his employees and had to protect the more attractive pieces of sculpture and friezes littering the site from the ever-increasing number of visitors drawn to his excavation, writing, “The desire to possess fragments of ancient sculpture … may be natural, but it is most deplorable when it causes, as it often does, the utter destruction of works of art.”

A corpse in the theater

Between 1866 and 1868, Wood was busy excavating the massive theater, where many inscriptions, statues and other artifacts were uncovered. In an act of archaeological diplomacy, Wood presented one of the statues, depicting the goddess of love Venus, to the Ottoman Imperial Museum in Constantinople (İstanbul). Most of the rest of the finds were crated up and, with the help of 22 sappers, four carpenters and four marines, were moved to the Selçuk railway station. From here they were transported to İzmir, where they were loaded aboard the HMS Terrible and shipped to the British Museum in London. Then a rotting corpse was discovered in the theater, holding up excavations. By now Wood was employing more than 70 workers, mainly Turks but also some Greeks -- was one of them responsible? Eventually half the workforce was imprisoned in Selçuk for several days whilst an investigation was launched, but partly because the corpse was so badly rotted, the local authorities could not find the culprit. Wood asked if he could take his employees back and even paid (as was the custom of the time) for their lodging whilst they’d been imprisoned. The freed men were so pleased at Wood’s “loyalty” that, having “returned together along the sea-shore to Ephesus” they got “to the Great Theatre before me, and as I passed on they gave me a hearty cheer.”

A woman’s work is never done

In the 1868-1869 season, Wood came under yet more pressure. First, the British Museum threatened not to renew his funding for the following season if he failed to find the Temple of Artemis, then bandits arrived on the site hoping to kidnap him. Fortunately for Wood, in April 1869 he found the wall of the temple, and the bandits gave up their kidnapping attempt when one of his loyal workmen told them his employer was away in İstanbul. In the autumn of 1869, excavations of the legendary temple began. The unfortunate Wood, however, having badly injured his foot, was forced to watch events from his horse as his doughty wife, Henrietta Elizabeth, supervised the dig.

Defying the conventions of her era admirably, Henrietta threw herself into the task with gusto and, according to her husband, became very popular with the workers and their families. “She bestowed her care not only on myself, but on all the workmen also, doctoring them with a success which was quite marvellous. So renowned did she become in the neighbourhood … that people came from the villages in great numbers, and she has had sometimes between sixty and seventy patients in the course of the day.”

Pick of the finds

Over the course of the next few seasons, Wood unearthed evidence of the successive temples to Artemis which had been built on the site. Pick of the finds though was a massive, beautifully sculpted column drum dating back to a major reconstruction of the temple in the fourth century B.C. Many visitors today are somewhat disappointed by the paucity of standing remains at the site of the temple, just outside Selçuk and about a kilometer from the site of Ephesus. After all, this was one of the “Seven Wonders of the World” and amongst the largest religious buildings in the ancient world. According to the Roman writer Pliny, it once boasted 127 columns, 36 of them sculpted like the column drum found by Wood. Now just a single, reconstructed column and a few foundation walls mark the site. The 11-ton sculpted column drum is, of course, still in the British Museum, where it is admired by millions of visitors annually. Unlike Schliemann, Wood never courted publicity, but he got his fair share anyway following the news of his discovery of the site of the Temple of Artemis, with The Times amongst other newspapers reporting on the importance of his finds.

An increasingly unwell Wood was forced to resort to the help of his teenage son to get through the dig season of 1872 and excavations, which had by now amounted to the then not inconsiderable sum of 1,600 pounds, ceased altogether in 1874. Granted an annual pension of 200 pounds by the British government, he returned to Ephesus in 1883 but was too poorly to dig, dying seven years later in 1890. Although sometimes criticized for his methods, Wood was a devoted and hardworking archaeologist whose pioneering work at Ephesus paved the way for the archaeologists who succeeded him at what is one of the most important -- and most visited -- sites in the Mediterranean world.

Further reading: “Discoveries at Ephesus” by J.T. Wood (out of print) and “From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus” by Debbie Challis.

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