The Secret Treasures of Zeugma (2000)

BBC Horizon

Mosaic from Zeugna. Louvre archaeologists consider the city the 8th wonder of the world for its astonishing richness of mosaics and works of art displayed both outdoors and at the city museum.Source:
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The Secret Treasures of Zeugma

BBC2 9.00pm Thursday 9th November 2000

Bronze candle-holder representing the god Mars In the summer of 2000, one of the great frontier cities of the Roman Empire, the city of Zeugma, all but disappeared from the face of the Earth under the flood waters of a dam. In a bid to modernise, the Turkish government has embarked on one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world, building a series of dams on the Euphrates over the past twenty years. Almost every dam threatens ancient remains that lie below in one of the most archaeologically rich regions of the world. The completion of the Birecik dam, featured in this film, has flooded the valley where Zeugma is buried. The city on the flat plain has entirely disappeared and the waters have now risen to cover 30% of the city on the hillside.

'Horizon' tells the story of the archaeologists' fifth and final visit, struggling to save what they could before the dam waters rose. It witnesses the uncovering of some of the most beautiful examples of Roman art ever found. The team’s discoveries at Zeugma caused an international outcry and further excavations were hurriedly put together.

Since 1995, French archaeologists Pierre Leriche and Catherine Abadie-Reynal have taken up the challenge to save what they can from the city before the dam is finished. The archaeologists have two main tasks - to uncover the history of this desperately under-excavated region of Turkey and to remove what treasures they could from the site before they were lost forever. On this, their final excavation, they had to work against the clock: they only had a permit to dig for six weeks

Zeugma was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Seleucia Nicator, and prospered under later Roman rule. It became one of the major cities of the Roman eastern frontier with a garrison of over 6,000 soldiers. The city’s bridge across the Euphrates made it one of the most critical trading cities in the region, on the silk routes to the East. The archaeologists know that the city contains vital clues to the history of the region. Previously looted exquisite mosaics have hinted at the treasures of its past that must be buried somewhere in the vast site.

The part of the old city on the Euphrates flood plain, Apamea, was the first to go. But the archaeologists didn’t stand a chance of excavating it in such a short amount of time. So using a technology originally developed for finding oil and mineral deposits, they instead generated a picture of the buried city just as it lies below ground. They discovered a preserved ancient Greek city, laid out in a perfect grid. Meanwhile, in the remains of a Roman villa across the river, the archaeologists had an extraordinary stroke of luck.

With only five days left on the excavation permit, Catherine Abadie-Reynal unearthed a masterpiece: a beautiful Roman mosaic floor. The discovery caused an international outcry and hit the headlines across the world. The archaeologists were granted more days to excavate, but they could not stem the tide of the dam project.

With time running out, they uncovered more stunning mosaics in the villa. They were dug out from the site and sent to a local museum at Gaziantep - just in time. By mid June 2000, the newly uncovered fourteen room villa disappeared underwater. By October, the level of the water finally settled to form a vast, still lake in the valley. All excavations at the site ceased.

There's recently been a move by the Turkish government to declare Zeugma a site of special archaeological interest. The remainder of the ancient city on the hillside could, in theory, still be explored.

The dam will not only erase much of Zeugma from history. It will also displace 30,000 people, mostly Kurds, from the villages they have lived in for generations. For many, the loss of Zeugma is a tragedy.

Source: BBC


The Secret Treasures of Zeugma

Bronze candle-holder representing the god Mars NARRATOR (JACK FORTUNE): This summer a remote region of Turkey hit the headlines. On the banks of the Euphrates archaeologists have discovered extraordinary examples of Roman art buried in a forgotten ancient city, but it is all about to be lost for ever under the flood waters of a new dam. This film charts the archaeologists' race against time as they struggle to rescue what they can before the waters rise. Dawn at Belkis village, eastern Turkey.


NARRATOR: Over the past 4 years this dedicated team of French and Turkish archaeologists have been coming here to the site of a forgotten ancient city to try to survey and explore its remains.


NARRATOR: This is their last chance to explore the site. In a matter of months it will be flooded, but by the end of this last dig the team will have discovered some of the greatest examples of ancient art ever found, discoveries that would stun the world. Buried somewhere in the valley below them, on the banks of the Euphrates, is a city which was once one of the treasures of the Greek and Roman empires, the city of Zeugma. It was once the most important crossing point of the Euphrates and a thriving centre of the great trade routes between east and west. Zeugma was founded by the Greeks in 300BC and quickly grew to become a major city. It then flourished under later Roman rule when a legion of 6,000 soldiers guarded its vital bridge and protected its trade routes on the path of the great Silk Road. It was to become fabulously wealthy, a small piece of Rome on the Euphrates. Over the centuries a few priceless mosaics have been looted from the buried site, a tantalising glimpse of the wealth that must still lie buried in the valley, but Zeugma has never been properly excavated and now it may be too late. Soon it will disappear from the face of the earth. This is the Birecik dam, part of one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world. For the past 20 years the Turkish government has been building a series of dams on the Euphrates. The plan is to generate electricity and irrigate an area of farmland the size of Wales. This dam is now close to completion and when it's finished the whole valley will become a reservoir. The local villages will disappear under its waters and more than 30,000 people will be displaced from their homes. What will also disappear are the hidden houses and treasures of Zeugma. They will be drowned under the waters of the Euphrates, unless the archaeologists can get to them first. Pierre Leriche is heading the team of rescue archaeologists who have been given one last chance to find and save whatever they can of this fabulous buried city before it's too late. Over the past 4 years they've been preparing for this final excavation. Now it's the 11th hour and they've only been given a permit to dig for 6 weeks on a vast site that would normally take years to excavate.

PIERRE LERICHE (Archaeologist): Here we are on Belkis Tepe overlooking the site of Zeugma and the Euphrates. The river flowing below us is being blocked by the construction of the dam which will create a reservoir which will flood everything in the valley.

NARRATOR: Under this flattened mound lie the foundations of a temple. Nearby the grassy terraces of a stadium. Clearly the city was once opulent and this area must be full of villas and grand mansions, if only they could find them in time.

PIERRE LERICHE: The wealth of the ancient population allowed them to build magnificent villas on the same scale as most of the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Antioch. The tragedy unfolding here is that this remarkable area will soon disappear beneath the waters of the dam, which is now close to completion. The water will completely flood the left bank and the ancient site on that side of the Euphrates will disappear as will a large section of what lies below us. It's a tragedy.

NARRATOR: 2,000 years ago this hillside was covered with the houses and grand public buildings of Zeugma, rich with artefacts, statues and fabulous mosaics that would today be priceless. The question is: where are those villas and mansions now? The goal for the archaeologists is to find within 6 weeks at least one villa to excavate out of the scores that must lie buried here.

PIERRE LERICHE: We therefore have to work as fast as possible to save what we can for scientific study as there are some areas that will be lost to research forever.

NARRATOR: Day 1 in Zeugma. This small team of French and Turkish archaeologists have to split up to cover the site on both sides of the river. They have 6 weeks to map the entire site and to learn what they can and rescue what they can from the ancient city. Little do they know that by the time this dig is over they will have found treasures beyond their wildest dreams. Zeugma is actually two cities on opposite banks of the Euphrates. On the hillside is Seleucia, the wealthy Greco-Roman part and on the flat plain is the ancient Greek city of Apamea and it's Apamea that will disappear first under the flood waters. One team sets off across the river for Apamea, crossing at the point where the ancient bridge might once have been. The scale of their task is huge. The site stretches for 125 acres and none of it has been excavated before. Their first job is to find the actual outline and structure of the city. To do this they will have to find evidence of the thousands of metres of perimeter wall, now mostly buried or destroyed. In a few places sections of the wall are still standing, evidence of just how strong the fortifications of the city once were.

JUSTINE GABORIT (Archaeologist): All along the banks of the Euphrates cities were built with very strong defensive walls to protect them. Here, they built a wall that was even stronger as they were out on the flat plain and very vulnerable to attack. That's why this city wall had to be so massive. These uneven stones are a defence against bombardment. When hit, the surface might shatter, but the wall would stay standing.

NARRATOR: Their task for the next few weeks is to search the whole of Apamea for fragments of the wall. Its pieces lie scattered across the site like a vast jigsaw puzzle, but there are huge gaps in their knowledge. Thousands of metres of wall are still buried under the ground. Ideally they would dig out the walls to get a clear picture of the structure of the city, but this is just not possible in the time they have. To speed things up the archaeologists need the help of the local people. This Kurdish family have lived amongst the ruins for generations and they are able to point Gerard Thebault towards a disused well deep below the ground. This is a well that the archaeologists knew nothing about before, but it reveals a crucial long stretch of the city's fortifications.

GERARD THEBAULT (Topographer): Down in this well, we can see a section of city wall. Luckily we didn't have to excavate to find it. The wall is 3.5 metres thick and is very strong. It shows this was a very important city indeed.

NARRATOR: Piece by piece everything they've surveyed is drawn up onto paper and gradually the walls and towers begin to take shape. It is clear that the founders of the city shows the most sophisticated building scheme of the time to ensure its defence. The walls weren't built in simply, straight lines, but at sharp, defensive angles. Now they have the outer limits of the city, but what lies buried within these walls? Under these trees is an entire city - streets, houses, markets and temples. It's impossible to uncover it all in the time they have left. There is no question of excavating layer by layer as they would normally do. Archaeologists would spend a lifetime trying to uncover the city that lies buried here, but there is another way. They ask for the help of Albert Hesse and Christophe Benech, two scientists more used to seeking out oil and mineral deposits than finding lost cities. They have brought with them a machine that could change everything. This strange device can measure any tiny variations in the Earth's magnetic field. Normally this magnetic field is at a constant, local background level, but any large, solid rock or pieces of metal under the soil will cause the level to vary minutely.


NARRATOR: The two sensors at the end of this pole monitor any changes in this background level. The ancient city is covered in over 3 metres of very fine sedimentary soil and the constant flooding of the Euphrates. There are no natural rocks in the soil which means that any big underground stones registered by the machine are likely to be the foundations of the city. Buried roads, houses, temples and so on will all register as tiny fluctuations in the magnetic field. Christophe Benech has to walk in perfect time with the beeps of the machine as the data is fed down the wires to a recorder on his belt. It takes days of surveying to cover the site, but it will be worth it. Once the data is fed into the computer a detailed picture of exactly what lies below the soil begins to emerge. These shadowy blocks represent houses, walls, cobbled streets, the foundations of a city deep below the earth.

CHRISTOPHE BENECH (Geophysicist): You can clearly see the city wall. It's about 5 metres thick, like the ones we've seen on site. There are living quarters next to it. There's a road here and these white sections are the walls of houses alongside it.

NARRATOR: In a matter of days they get results that would have taken years of digging.


NARRATOR: At night the archaeologists pour over the pictures trying to make sense of them.


NARRATOR: Slowly the city under the soil is revealed as if by magic. A complete picture of a buried city with virtually no digging. Back at the Birecik dam the building work is nearing completion, but for the archaeologists time is running out. The teams exploring the Roman side of the city have been trying to pinpoint the most promising place in the vast site to excavate in detail. They have just 4 weeks to go and yet there is still little sign of Zeugma's buried treasure. They have no chance of mapping this part of the city. Here the machine that worked so well on the flat plain of Apamea is unable to distinguish the natural rocks of the hillside from the stone foundations of the houses. In previous years, while searching for a place to excavate, the team have dug small exploratory sites all over Zeugma in the hope of striking a villa, rich in ancient artefacts, but now they have to commit to 1 or 2 sites and do some proper digging. There's no more time to keep on searching. This is one of the two sites they've chosen to focus on. Its walls look promising, but at this stage they have little idea whether this will turn out to be a grand villa, or a simple house. After several days intensive digging they are still struggling to understand the site.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX (Archaeologist): Normally we'd have to remove all of this to learn anything. It'll be a huge amount of work - if we ever get that far.

NARRATOR: In the race against time the team know they will have to compromise normal archaeological procedures. there is no time to examine each layer inch by inch. They must dig down to the foundations as quickly as possible, logging and recording what data they can on the way. Finally they uncover fascinating examples of ancient life, even 2,000-year-old drainpipes. The archaeologists are beginning to piece together the layout of a house which seems to have been preserved in an unusual way.

DANIEL FRASCONE (Archaeologist): This is where the people lived. We've been incredibly lucky here. These houses were abandoned and then suddenly covered by a landslide allowing large sections of wall to be preserved. Walls like this, for example, which has a doorway. There was probably a door here. We can go into another room through this door. There'd have been wooden steps leading down into the next room as there's a drop of 40cm between the floors.

NARRATOR: It looks like this is quite an ordinary house. There is still no sign of the richly decorated villa they were hoping for, but the discovery of a network of gullies leads the archaeologists towards a dramatic insight into the layout of the hidden city, an insight that might even get them closer to finding a villa.


DANIEL FRASCONE: Yes it is but we'll get through. Take your time, don't rush it. The next rung isn't against the wall so watch where you put your foot. That's it. Fine. Mind your head.

ALAIN: Have you seen the size of this place? It's incredible!

DANIEL: Can you see the walls? How on earth did they make this?

ALAIN: It's really something.

NARRATOR: They carefully squeeze through into a world that has perhaps been unexplored for 2,000 years. These strange, narrow passages lead them further and further under the city. The tunnels have been faultlessly built.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX: The precision is extraordinary - the blocks are all made so exactly.

NARRATOR: They're walking directly under the streets and houses of ancient Zeugma. Every passage, every tunnel takes them deeper underground. What they had discovered was the sewer system of the entire city.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX: This is the way the sewer workers would have come. They'd stand here to clear out the blockages. They'd sweep along the passages and clean them out. It was vital the sewer wasn't blocked.

NARRATOR: The construction is classically Greek and it must have been built by the first settlers of Zeugma in 300BC, but then they discover another element of its history.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX: Oh, wow! A Roman archway, very beautiful. You can see right away that it's Roman. This type of mortar didn't exist before the Romans. And the fan-shaped brickwork. It's a classic Roman arch. And this mortar is incredibly strong. It's held up well. What fascinates me is that if we could map out the main sewer as well as the adjoining ones we'd virtually have a map of the city showing all the residential areas - all the villas that supplied this sewer system. It would be the city in reverse.

NARRATOR: This is tantalising. If they could follow the tunnels and map the sewer system they would have the ground plan for the entire city. It might then be possible to identify the wealthy areas of the ancient city, as the widest streets would probably be directly above widely spaced sewers.


NARRATOR: But the mapping itself would take months, time they just don't have. They have to abandon the sewers and concentrate their efforts above ground. At the second site the digging is now well under way and they seem to be uncovering something significant. Broken columns suggest something grand. The more they dig the more they realise that this time they are uncovering a substantial Roman house. They uncover more and more sections of walls, rooms and doorways. It's beginning to dawn on them that they might well at last have found one of the great villas of Zeugma. Something this size will almost certainly contain the mosaics and artefacts that the archaeologists are also anxious to find. They're now more than halfway through their 6 week dig and the site is getting bigger by the day. They will never manage to uncover it all by hand in just 3 weeks, so they take the decision to call for the help of something much more efficient. They resort to techniques not often used in archaeology. These diggers will shift quantities of earth in one day that would take weeks to remove by hand. But there is a risk. Artefacts buried in the site could easily be damaged.

PIERRE LERICHE: Everything will be drowned anyway, everything will be lost. Therefore in these circumstances and to further our research we have the right to sacrifice walls that'll vanish under water anyway and use the bulldozers much more freely.

NARRATOR: Every fragment of the villa is carefully drawn and catalogued, just as it is found. From the precise location of each fallen column they will later be able to recreate what the villa once looked like. By carefully examining the ruins of this villa the archaeologists hope to learn something about what happened in Zeugma towards the end of the city's Roman occupation. According to the history books, around 250AD Zeugma was attacked in the east by its old enemy, the Persians. Descriptions of ancient texts suggest that they raided the city and defeated the Roman garrison. Zeugma was sacked, burned and destroyed. Over the next century the great legion that had defended the city was moved on as the borders of the Roman Empire shifted away from the Euphrates. From then on the city was in slow decline and all this ancient history is coming to life in the ruins of Zeugma. Pierre Leriche can see evidence of the events that took place here nearly 2,000 years ago in every layer of this ruined house.

PIERRE LERICHE: In a house like this there'd normally be many separate layers piled on top of each other but here we've got an indistinct mass that's been heated up considerably. This wood has burned slowly and become charcoal. This stone has been reduced to lime. This area has turned red. This is charcoal - it's everywhere. Everything's brown coloured. All this indicates the existence of ash, charcoal and fire. We have evidence of a terrible catastrophe here. Some kind of huge collapse, a terrible fire, then it all settled down until there was a landslide and the house was abandoned.

NARRATOR: As this is an earthquake zone it is possible that the house was destroyed by a natural disaster, but the dating of these coins discovered in the ashes suggests that the fire happened at the time of the Persian raid. Philip the Arabian's head on the coins dates the destruction of the villa to around 250AD. After 4 weeks digging they have now gathered a collection of artefacts from the villa's remains. These are the everyday domestic trappings of a wealthy Roman household caught in a moment of time and buried for nearly 2,000 years. Next they hope to find the precious mosaics.

CATHERINE ABADIE REYNAL (Director of Zeugma Mission, University of La Rochelle): (ACTUALITY REMARK)

NARRATOR: Catherine Abadie Reynal is directing the detailed excavation of the villa. They now have only 2 weeks left on their permit. The team sift through the final layers, searching for more clues to what happened to this house.

CATHERINE ABADIE REYNAL: Nails, timber. When you excavate a house like this you can follow the different stages of its destruction. First there was a fire burning all the doors, windows, panelling and furniture - we've found bronze fixtures. Then the roof caved in with the nails, tiles and everything forming a thick layer. Then the walls gradually collapsed on top of everything else. You can see the final moments of a very magnificent villa.

NARRATOR: They know they have found a wealthy house, potentially filled with incredible mosaics. If they are to stand any chance of rescuing these treasures they must find them within the next few days. And now unexpectedly they discover something very rare indeed. As they brush away the earth from sections of wall brightly coloured paintings emerge from beneath the crumbling mud. The mudslide that filled the house has preserved and protected these rare wall paintings. Such preservation is exceptional. These paintings haven't seen the light of day for nearly 2,000 years. Now that the paintings have been uncovered they will have to be cleaned and removed from the site. Unexposed for centuries, they will deteriorate rapidly in the hot sun and humid air. Now the archaeologists are almost out of time. They only have 5 days left of this excavation, but they are close to uncovering the final layers of Zeugma's history. In a corner of a room Catherine and her team discover something that they've all been hoping for since the dig began. It is a mosaic floor, but it seems to be disappointingly plain, but then Greek inscriptions, the names of characters from ancient myths, begin to be uncovered.

CATHERINE ABADIE REYNAL: It's very strange. There's an inscription. Superb. It's in Greek. Icarus. Pasiphae. They're all mythological characters. Daedalus! Icarus' father! It's a family gathering! Oh, it's fantastic.

NARRATOR: Over the next 3 days 63 square metres of a richly coloured and exquisitely designed mosaic are revealed. There's no question. There must be many others still to be found in this villa.

CATHERINE ABADIE REYNAL: What's so striking is the richness of the colours. All the greens and blues, the characters' expressions with I don't know, the old man, the beautiful young woman. It's very elaborate. It's magnificent.

NARRATOR: With only 2 days left on their permit this one priceless mosaic is finally uncovered.


NARRATOR: The discovery of this extraordinary mosaic caused an international outcry and the archaeologists managed to persuade the authorities to extend their permits for another series of short digs to find more. Jean-Pierre Darmon, an international expert in Roman mosaic art, flew in when he heard about the find.

PIERRE LERICHE: Welcome to the villa of Zeugma!

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON (Archaeologist): It's one of the most original and beautiful mosaics I have ever seen from this period. It's an absolute masterpiece. We're in the presence of a great artist. It's magnificent. It embodies the artistic tradition of the Hellenistic period. It makes a fabulous picture.

NARRATOR: The mosaic tells the story of a Greek myth. It is the story of the Queen of Crete, Pasiphaƫ, who gives birth to the Minotaur and the building of the famous labyrinth.

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON: Absolutely outstanding really. It's one of the masterpieces I've ever seen.

NARRATOR: They have to remove the mosaic from the site to rescue it from the impending flood. They cover it with glue, then a layer of gauze is hammered down on the thousands of tiny tiles to hold them in place. Once the glue has dried, the mosaic has to be cut up into pieces for transportation to the local museum. Sections of floor are then prised from the ground with the mosaics on top and hoisted onto a waiting truck. For the archaeologists the search continues to discover the rest of the priceless mosaics that might still be buried in this villa. Building work on the dam has finished. In the village below local people have been told they must leave. They tear down the very fabric of their homes to salvage anything that can be used to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Doors, windows, bricks, beams are ripped out. They'll be used to build houses elsewhere. The houses that have been promised to them by the government are still not finished. 30,000 people are now on the move. Over the next 3 months the waters of the Euphrates will gather behind the dam rising daily to eventually create the vast reservoir. In just over a month Belkis village will be gone. Two weeks after that the newly discovered villa will also be gone. It's now apparent that Catherine's discovery of the mosaic was just the beginning. As the waters are rising round them, French and Turkish archaeologists unearth 14 rooms and more mosaics, each one a masterpiece.

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON: In any room of this house you have different image and you have to imagine that the child who is born in this house has all the time in front of his eyes this image. His imagination is formed by this image and the others in the house. (COUNTING IN FRENCH) That must be the ninth or tenth mosaic. What a collection! It's extraordinary.

NARRATOR: These priceless treasures are all from just one villa. There must be scores of other villas as beautiful as this buried in the lower terraces of Zeugma that will never now be found, but at this one site it's now possible to recreate what this villa might once have looked like. The central courtyard with its fountain, columns and wall paintings. The elaborate bath house. The ornate dining room with its extraordinary mosaic. The villa is the find of a lifetime. Its discovery will for ever raise the question of what else might have been found in Zeugma, if only they'd had more time. The archaeologists now have to leave Zeugma. One more dig will be allowed further up the terraces by another team and then it will all be over.

PIERRE LERICHE: When you realise what's going to disappear and all we haven't been able to do, you can't help feeling bitter. Part of Seleucia will still be here and we will be able to work on that, but everything that defines Zeugma - the ancient crossing point of the great trade routes between east and west - all of that will be irredeemably lost.

NARRATOR: It's now June 2000 and the waters have been rising for just over a month. They have now reached the villa and Zeugma. Apart from its higher terraces the ancient city, with all its secret treasures, has now vanished for ever.



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