Sardis Reveals Its Riches

Looking our far and wide to the sea, Tmolus soars steep and abrupt, stretched out on either slope. On one side it reaches Sardis and on the other tiny Hypapa.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.11.86

Set at the foot of spectacular Tmolus mountain, birthplace of the wine god Bacchus. Sardis once served as the capital of the great Lydian Fmpire. Surrounded by the abundant agricultural and grazing land which was the heartland of Lydia. Sardis symbolized luxury, sophistication, and sumptuous wealth.

The Pactolus River brought gold dust from the mountains into the center of the city, where King Croesus, whose names is still associated with great riches, had it removed and turned into coins--the first known instance of coinage in the Western world Croesus's wealth and power rivalled even that of the Phrygian King Midas, his neighbor to the north, who, as the legend goes, ridded himself of his "golden touch" by bathing in the same stream.

For the last 25 years, teams of scholars from Harvard and Cornell have sifted through the remains of the opulent eastern capital at its site just southeast of ancient Troy. This week, the Fogg Art Museum winds up an exhibition and lecture series celebrating the Silver Jubilee of the Sardis exploration, an ongoing project sponsored jointly by the Fogg and by Cornell University.


In 1958, George M.A. Hanfmann, Hudson Professor of Archaeology Emeritus, led an interdisciplinary expedition to Sardis. At the time, above ground remains were spectacular at the neighboring archaeological sites of Ephesus and Bodrum in Turkey, Petra in Jordan, and Palmyra in Syria, while those at Sardis were generally deemed undistinguished.

But Hanfmann knew that the real treasures lay beneath the earth, and he and his crew began at once with the task of digging, recording, mapping and photographing every relic from the Bronze Age to the present.

Since that time, archaeologists, historians and architects have descended upon the site to dig up the foundations of the city, restore ancient buildings to their former grandeur, and unearth thousands upon thousands of ceramic remains, coins, and other artifacts. Fifty thousand photographs fill the files of their Harvard office, dozens of volumes fill the shelves, and hundreds of drawings and water colors have been made of the structures and relics of the past.

"A generation of Harvard students in the fine arts and classical archaeology have been trained at Sardis," says Jane A. Scott'53, currently director and head of publications for the expedition. Scott spent 11 of the past 13 summers at Sardis and describes the area as "fabulously beautiful." She explains that students, mostly at the graduate level, control the trenches and participate in the decision-making at the excavation each summer.

David Mitten, Loeb Professor of Ancient Art and Archaeology, went to Sardis in 1959 as a graduate student, and has returned almost every summer since. He describes the excavation as a kind of "ongoing seminar," where the research and finds are the subjects of constant discussion and the collaboration between the Americans and their Turkish colleagues is stimulating and rewarding, warding.

"We live in a permanent compound with a big central building where we eat and have a library and architectural workrooms," says Mitten. "We work there very comfortably. "It's sometimes frustrating, but it's an extremely exciting site. The chance to work on this with out Turkish colleagues is especially rewarding. We try to give students who come out for training an idea of international collaboration. That's the foundation on which the Sardis operation works."

Writers in ancient times were fascinated by Sardis. According to legend, the city was founded by sons of Heracles after the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Homer writes of the city "beneath the snowy Tmolus in the rich land of Hyde." The poet Sappho laments that she cannot obtain the colorful Lydian hat of Sardis for her daughter Cleis. The historian Herodoturs relates that when Cyrus the Great captured Sardis for the Persians after a siege in 547 B.C., he ordered that the vanquished Croesus be burned alive on a funeral pyre. (Croesus survived when Apollo intervened by sending a rain shower to put out the fire.)

Following the Persian conquest, Sardis became the Western capital of the Persian Empire, the center of command for the Greek cities along the Lonian coast. The city's wealth and importance was maintained because of its strategic location on the royal road to Susa, a corridor of exchange between East and West. Xerxes mustered his armies there intent on marching into Greece.

After Alexander the Great took Sardis in 334 B.C., Greek architecture and Hellenic culture predominated. Later development took place under Roman rule and in Byzantine times Sardis became an early center of Christianity. The "angel of the church in Sardis" is mentioned in the book of Revelations: recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a forth-century basilica.

Today Sardis is the home of about 25 American and Turkish scholars each summer. They employ modern scientific methods in their research--sediment coring erosion and land use studies--as well as traditional methods of archaeological excavation and scholarly research. None of the antiquities can be taken out of Turkey, so photographs and records of the finds are sent to the U.S. while the more glamorous artifacts are deposited in a museum in the provincial capital of Manisa.

In the home office, on the top floor of the Busch Reisinger Museum, the work goes on year round. A half-dozen academics, students from the Graduate School of Design, and an occasional undergraduate join in editing manuscripts in preparation for publication, lab analysis, and administrative tasks such as funding and supplies for the excavation. Says F. Conyers Thompson '84, who worked in the office last year: "The books put out by the Sardis group are well received by critics. The work in the field is well respected. "It's one of the more rigid sites in academic and archaeological terms."