The Byzantine harbour

Constantinople (Istanbul): excavating the great Byzantine harbour

How do you get from London to Baghdad by train?  The traditional route is to come to Istanbul, take a ferry across the Bosporus and continue your journey by another railway to the east.

Now Grand Design, known as the Marmaray project, is in progress to build a railway tunnel under the Bosporus.  However when they were building the approach to the tunnel on the southern shores of Istanbul they found that the approach cut right through the great Byzantine harbour, originally built by Theodosius, and the main harbour of Constantinople  from 5th to 7th centuries AD.  Work had to be stopped, the archaeologists set to work and have so far excavated no less than 36 ships sunk in the floor of the harbour, many of them complete with their cargoes.  The railways are now two years behind schedule, the archaeologists are very unpopular, but 36 ships have been excavated and are awaiting study.  What has been discovered so far?


This aerial view of Istanbul shows the excavated area in the centre.  The railways can be seen to the right sweeping round the periphery of the ancient town to a station on the north side facing the Golden Horn. The excavations are not on the northern side as one might expect, but on the southern side where the 15 km long tunnel plunges under ground, and passes underneath the heart of Istanbul before going under the Bosporus to emerge in the far distance.

The modern harbour can be seen to the right and everyone thought that the line of the railway would be well inland of the ancient harbour too, but the silting up and land reclamation has been much greater than expected, and the excavations are indeed right in the middle of the Byzantine harbour.

View over the excavations that have been in two parts: the Great Main Railway project, known as the Marmaray Project (Marmara after the Sea of Marmara and Ray the Turkish word for railway), but there is also the Metro project where a great new interchange station will be built between the mainline and the Istanbul metro, which is badly in need of upgrading.

Here the nearly complete Marmaray line can be seen in the shed in the background while the current excavations are taking place on the site of the Metro interchange station. In the far corner of the excavations a shed can be seen which houses the last of the boats to be excavated. (Double click on the picture to see details).


Panoramic view (three photos stitched together) to show the main extent of the excavations with the mainline project now completed and covered in the background


Down to the earliest 20th century the area was market gardens. The first archaeology to be discovered was a totally unknown church of the 12th century AD seen here.  There was no evidence of any superstructure. Although the foundations were of stone, the building itself was probably of timber.


The thirty-sixth ship to be excavated is still preserved under temporary housing with sprays running twenty-four hours a day to keep the timbers damp. The decking and cargo have been removed to reveal the side of the ship.


The ship is in fact lying on its side and the keel runs to the left.  In the foreground some of the side of the ship can be seen and also the end of the keel.

This was a merchantman, a sailing ship, the masthead in which the mast had been set has been preserved and has now been removed.




Photo of one of the ships preserved with its cargo – now totally excavated and removed, the timbers being placed in storage.

(Double click to see details)

One always expects the amphorae to have contained wine, but examination of the contents showed that many of them contained fish bones, showing that they contained garum – the fish sauce that was the Roman equivalent of Marmite – and was wildly popular and was even more valuable as a cargo than wine.


The boats were not clinker built as were the contemporary Viking boats to the north, but were built by the traditional Mediterranean habit of fastening planks together with wooden pegs.  Here is a joint between two planks which is barely visible.  (Double click to see details)


Plan of the excavations.  The mainline Marmaray project runs diagonally across, where as the Metro project is at the top right.  The position of the individual boats is marked.

A number of jetties projected out into the harbour.  Here are some of the stakes driven into the harbour bed to support a jetty.






Here viewed from above the long line of one of the jetties can be seen, marked by the projecting stakes.





Horses were intensively used in unloading the ships and carrying their cargo to the warehouses.  The horses were mostly young, but were worked very hard as the abrasions on their mouths indicate.  When they dropped dead, as many of them did, they were unceremoniously dumped into the harbour.  Here is the skeleton of one of these horses.


Underlying the Byzantine harbour there were still earlier remains of an extensive Neolithic settlement.  This is one of the most spectacular Neolithic remains.  The crouched burial of a young lady aged 20 – 30, one of three such burials studied in the course of the excavations.  She was enclosed in a wooden coffin, but just outside the coffin was a large urn containing the remains of a cremation.  Both appeared to be contemporary and it appears that inhumation and cremation rites were practised side by side.


Our guide who showed us round the excavations, Seda Ulger, is a Neolithic specialist and here she shows one of the Neolithic pots that have been excavated.

Neolithic finds are made extensively in Istanbul and it would appear that the peninsular was intensively occupied in the Neolithic period.  But these excavations have provided the first opportunity for a proper excavation of these Neolithic finds.

In addition to the urns there were numerous bone objects such as spoons, and also numerous pottery mouldings of the legs of animals preserved as pottery fragments.


But the most surprising Neolithic discoveries were numerous footprints placed in the wet mud along a stream and then immediately covered by a flood.  Over 500 footprints have been discovered and excavated, most of them as here wearing sandals.





The excavations have produced huge numbers of finds, some of them complete vessels from the cargo of the ships and also from the living vessels of the mariners.  But huge numbers of ordinary finds are stored in these finds boxes, stacked two meters high awaiting eventual examination.


The huge task of publication lies ahead together with the provision of a museum to display all the boats when they are finally conserved.

Here Wendy leaves the excavations walking between the high stacks of finds boxes.  The fines cleaned and labelled, awaiting further study.

We will be hearing reports about the results of the work for many years to come!

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