Monuments of Aphrodisias

The Mica and Ahmet Ertegün South Agora project

The Mica and Ahmet Ertegün South Agora project is a major new undertaking. Its goals are to excavate the unique 170m-long pool, to open up the space for tourists, and to test the theory that the South Agora was not a conventional agora but a public park that contained a palm grove – one is mentioned in an inscription at the east end of the complex. This exciting excavation is generously funded by Mica and Ahmet Ertegün. Associated research is funded by the Headley Trust, Baron Lorne von Thyssen, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation.

The work was supervised by Andrew Wilson with archaeo-botanists Mark Robinson (2012) and Erica Rowan (2013), archaeologist Ben Russell, and IFA students Andrew Ward, Alisson Kidd, as well as from Oxford John Sigmier, Gabrielle Thiboutot, Valeria Riedemann, and Hazal Avcı from Istanbul.

Excavations in 2012 and 2013 investigated the environmental archaeology inside and outside the pool, revealing two long, narrow beds dug into the Roman levels, detected by their different fill and soil color. They were probably beds for planting trees. In a deposit of silt over the base of the pool, a leaf fragment with the cellular characteristics of a palm leaf was also found. Together with the planting beds, the botanical remains support the idea that there were palm trees in the vicinity. The South Agora may then have been ‘the place of palms’ mentioned in the inscription.

The excavations provided evidence to support the hypothesis that the South Agora was the ‘place of palms’ of the fifth-century inscription honouring Ampelios, and presumably also the same palm grove mentioned in the first- or second-century AD dedication by Artemidorus Pedisas. The linear planting beds or trenches are consistent, both in layout and in the nature of their fill, with the arrangements needed for planting Cretan date palms, while the organic material from within the pool confirms the presence of palms in the vicinity.
Excavation has also confirmed that the filling of the ring drain and the raising of the ground level of the South Agora are associated with each other, and occurred probably during the late fifth century AD. The date, and the nature of the large-scale remaking of the pool and the ‘South Agora’ground surface, make it strongly tempting to associate these operations with Flavius Ampelios’ efforts to restore ‘wonder and beauty to the place of palms’. Indeed, if the rebuilding of the South Agora colonnades at the instigation of Dulcitius, and the rebuilding of the Agora Gate, resulted from an earthquake (as is likely on several grounds), then a possible explanation for the archaeologically visible events presents itself: the earthquake shifted the slab walls of the pool out of alignment (this is visible for example at the E end of the S side, and by the SW curve of the pool), and the pool no longer retained water properly. Rather than cover the white marble inner face of the pool with pink opus signinum, it was decided to pack the ring drain with a clay fill to retain water in the pool, changing the overflow and drainage arrangements accordingly. But now the drain ceased to function as a means of managing the high groundwater in the area, and to avoid the place becoming a marshy swamp for part of the year, the ground level was artificially raised; this necessitated also the removal, and re-laying at a slightly higher level, of the pool seating, not always in perfect vertical or horizontal alignment. Ampelios’ refurbishment of the area evidently worked, but did not look as neat as the original design.

The pool ceased to function some time after AD 588, or even well into the 7th c. Silting, slow at first, became more rapid at some point (possibly after the collapse of fortification or retaining walls on the theatre hill, which would have provoked increased erosion off the hill and sedimentation in the depression formed by the ruined South Agora). By the 12th or 14th c. the pool was entirely filled in and field walls and other structures were built across it. Some of these property boundaries were long-lived, persisting at least until the expropriation of the site for archaeological excavation in the 1970s.