Istanbul’s city planners have a problem: too much history
August 26, 2015 8:55 AM   Subscribe

If fifteen houses are built on top of one another, which one is the most important? The Big Dig, a long read about shipwrecks under Istanbul, archaeological "surplus", Neolithic footprints, elephants fed to lions, and the collision of modern city planning imperatives with a glut of priceless antiquities. SLNewYorker.

When it came to choosing the exact location of the first tunnel spanning the Bosporus—the narrow strait that divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul and links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara—one of the principal considerations was how to avoid encountering any archeological marvels. [...] The location that was eventually chosen had conveniently spent much of antiquity underwater. In Byzantine times, it was a harbor. “What’s going to turn up in a harbor?” one official explained.

... From 2005 to 2013, workers with shovels and wheelbarrows extracted a total of thirty-seven shipwrecks. When the excavation reached what had been the bottom of the sea, the archeologists announced that they could finally cede part of the site to the engineers, after one last survey of the seabed—just a formality, really, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. That’s when they found the remains of a Neolithic dwelling, dating from around 6000 B.C. [...] The excavators, attempting to avoid traces of Istanbul’s human history, had ended up finding an extra five thousand years of it.
posted by RedOrGreen (16 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, that's fantastic. I just forwarded the link to a bunch of coworkers: it will make them feel like we have it easy by comparison....
posted by suelac at 9:36 AM on August 26, 2015


My uncle was one of the engineers working on the new Metro system built in Athens 20 years ago. The big boring machine would now and then spit out a fragment of an ancient statue, and the archaeologist would stop work to see what they had found.

The money people said, "I didn't see no fragment. Start the drill again."
posted by Repack Rider at 9:46 AM on August 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


See also the Roman metro.

As to Istanbul, here's a shot of the 8000 year old foot prints. And a more recent boat. And the early tablet computer. Oh, it's good times for those interested in Mediterranean history!
posted by BWA at 9:49 AM on August 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


My aunt studied Classics in Greece and likes to remark that "any Greek farmer digging a well had about a 50% chance of losing that piece of land"
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 10:50 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


My aunt studied Classics in Greece and likes to remark that "any Greek farmer digging a well had about a 50% chance of losing that piece of land"

I wonder if the well's in Greece tend to be much narrower, to reduce the chances of finding an artifact.
posted by el io at 10:58 AM on August 26, 2015


My aunt studied Classics in Greece and likes to remark that "any Greek farmer digging a well had about a 50% chance of losing that piece of land"

If that's even remotely true they need a better system, because that would just encourage people to not report or destroy what they find.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:38 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a device that Kocabaş described as “a Byzantine tablet computer”

I found this analogy amusing...if this had been found a few years ago, they would have giddily compared it to something like a Palm Pilot; or before that one of those big bulky DayTimer planner booklets people used to carry around. It's pretty neat, in any case.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:50 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


If fifteen houses are built on top of one another, which one is the most important?
The one actually occupied by presently living, breathing human beings. Sorry, but people's lives outrank other people's idle curiosity.
posted by Hizonner at 12:26 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


other people's idle curiosity

There's an entire article prior to the line you quoted about how currently living people's interest in the past in anything but idle.

If that's not compelling, try re-framing the question: ruins exist and living people do care about them. In the course of excavation and building new things, we can choose between destroying several different ruins, losing some and preserving others, with no particular engineering preference between them as to the new buildings. Given that living people care about the history of the area they live in -- given that people dedicate their lives to unraveling the stories of the past -- how and why do we make the choice of what to save and what to lose? Whose history gets preserved? Who gets to make those choices?
posted by cjelli at 12:57 PM on August 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


If that's even remotely true they need a better system, because that would just encourage people to not report or destroy what they find.

Fifty percent is a gross exaggeration, and it is not as common everywhere, but it does happen. You are basically not allowed to dig for any kind of new construction without the archaeological service present. Happened to some poor guy building a house two streets down from where I used to live, they had to stop construction for a couple of years while they figured out if what they found was significant.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:09 PM on August 26, 2015


RedOrGreen, from post: “If fifteen houses are built on top of one another, which one is the most important?”

Hizonner: “The one actually occupied by presently living, breathing human beings. Sorry, but people's lives outrank other people's idle curiosity.”

Indeed! I am frankly stunned by the lack of concern for the presently living, breathing humans who lived in the houses on top! Especially since those living, breathing humans must have been living underwater, since the excavation is actually just offshore. How are those poor living, breathing humans to cope, having lived and breathed in houses that were underwater their whole lives? It must be a nightmare for them.
posted by koeselitz at 2:20 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The money people said, "I didn't see no fragment. Start the drill again.""

My husband just had this conversation like six times in a row with a Fortune 500 company and their road building contractor. They NEEDED to put the new road through and he was like, "Yeah, but you have a cemetery there." They insisted they'd been assured there were no bodies in the cemetery. My husband was like, "That seems extremely unlikely as it appears as active on 200 years of survey but no bodies were reported as moved after closing." "There are NO BODIES THERE!"

Finally he signed off on the condition they dug test holes at the cemetery site before beginning full scale excavations. So they start at one end, build a bunch of road, get to the cemetery, and dig two 5x5 test holes ... and find close to 200 bodies just in the test holes.

And they wailed, "WHY WEREN'T WE INFORMED THERE MIGHT BE BODIES IN THIS CEMETERY??????"

I assume some manager/CEO was super-determined to build the road and some flunky was pressured into agreeing it probably wouldn't be a problem.

Anyway, interesting article, and I am slightly jealous of their problem, although doubtless I'd be less so if it were my problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:43 PM on August 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


I assume some manager/CEO was super-determined to build the road and some flunky was pressured into agreeing it probably wouldn't be a problem

This sounds sadly familiar to me.
posted by suelac at 4:22 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


The money people said, "I didn't see no fragment. Start the drill again."

In Mammoth Cave a large quantity of (paleo?)indian woven grass slippers were found in one section. These were burned by miners and explorers as fuel.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:04 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


It doesn't help that Istanbul has so much construction going on that most people don't really need or want - often large grandiose projects that make politicians look good, line construction company pockets but were not needed in the first place. Many locals would agree with the sentiments of this article.

And it's not just antiquities, or people, that are suffering at the hands of the construction juggernaut - the few remaining green spaces are too.

Projects include plans to cut down thousands of acres of forest to make way for the world’s largest airport, a road tunnel that will pump traffic into the city’s historic core, and an artificial Bosphorus to run parallel to the original, flanked by 100 square miles of new developments. The government claims the projects are part of an effort to turn Istanbul into a “global city”.

This is for a city that already has two airports, over 120 malls and apartments sitting empty.
posted by Megami at 11:05 PM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


This was amazingly well handled.
posted by Mitheral at 8:29 AM on August 30, 2015


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