Old Bones

Sardis, Turkey
Jessica C. Salley

SARDIS, Turkey—The past, it seems, is always present here. It’s in the reconstructed ruins of the Roman gymnasium and the re-laid mosaics of the synagogue, and it’s in those piles of rubble that won’t ever again see their marvelous heights. It’s in what we dig up every day: the cooking pots, the baby feeders, the terracotta beads, the stray handles.

It’s in the graveyard that an excavator found in his trench—he cleans and opens each tomb and frees every single bone from the dirt. I photograph them, the draftsman draws them. Finally, a conservator “consolidates” the skeletons, taking them out of the ground as carefully as she can (still, the smaller things, like teeth and kneecaps, always fall out of place), wrapping them in tin foil and sticking them on a shelf.

At breakfast, we make jokes. “Ferhat, am I taking baby photos today?”

“Nah, I think this one might be an adult. Regular glamour shots will do.”

One afternoon, the excavators didn’t get to open the tomb until close to five, right when the Land Rover leaves the field and heads back to the compound where we live. I heard one of the conservators outside on the phone. “We are not having a baby today!” he said firmly. “Put him under cloth tonight. We’ll do this tomorrow.”

There are eight skeletons in that trench: three children, three men—one with a “deceivingly feminine” skull, it was decided—and two still in the dust. By next week, they will all be in the depot in a Tupperware box, next to terracotta fragments or sherds of shiny, red Eastern Sigillata B-style pottery.

The Eastern Sigillata B will get taken out every so often by a researcher who’s writing about the patterns of Roman trade, the terracotta tiles by an art historian trying to make his case about the Lydian affinity for Greek culture. The things in this room will be signed in and out constantly, artifacts to help reconstruct two thousand years’ worth of lives in a landscape now covered with olive trees and hoof prints.

Meanwhile, those ancient bones will remain in their tin foil and Tupperware boxes, resting peacefully on the depot shelves.