In a compelling essay, Lucas Stephens explores the recursive relationship between human places and nonhuman spaces in ancient Anatolia in Part 3 of Before the Anthropocene. Stephens argues that humans change and interact with "accumulative," physical landscapes through time--and that their social, political, and economic lifeways are in turn shaped by their ecological and environmental surroundings. Ultimately, Stephens' work demonstrates that the temporality of anthropogenic changes to physical landscapes proceeds at a much longer timescale and slower pace than human time can register.
The Road More Traveled: Movement and Monumentality in Ancient Turkey
The study of archaeological landscapes provides a method of analyzing the entire space of past human activity in a given place. Humans start to transform their landscape in recognizable, patterned ways from the first moment they come to inhabit it. People do not simply adapt to environmental conditions, but rather interact with the accumulated landscape of previous generations to manage and create the contemporary landscape. Gordion, the Iron Age (950-550 BCE) capital city of King Midas, sits in a landscape dotted with over 120 ancient burial mounds (or tumuli) of the Phrygian elite – monuments that funneled movement to the site and remain a powerful testament to the ability of cultures to construct their own space.
Introduction to Landscape Archaeology and Monuments
Humans transform the landscape through the production of space, and the landscape in turn modifies human actions in a recursive cycle. The built environment clarifies social roles and relations, the same forces that govern its creation (Tuan 1977:102). We build our spaces, they build us, then we modify them, and on and on, until at some point there is abandonment. Even ruins continue to affect practices, and are in turn modified. The process continues ad infinitum and similarly has no real beginning. Following Lefebvre, “(social) space is a (social) product” and every society produces its own space (1991:31). Keeping this maxim in mind, the focus of landscape archaeology is the actual production of space and not merely things in space. Such analysis emphasizes the relationships between people and the spatial worlds they inhabit, rather than the essential properties of either (Smith 2003:69).
Monuments can be thought of as “symbolizing kernels” – specific places that authorize certain practices (De Certeau 1984:105). By siting specific events in a physical environment, monuments fix “social and individual histories in place” (Knapp and Ashmore 1999:13). What can be seen designates what is no longer there. “[Landscapes] recall or suggest phantoms - the dead who are supposed to have disappeared (De Certeau 1984:105).” In this way, the accumulation of human transformations to a landscape imparts to a society its sense of history by which it defines its identity. The relative permanent nature of monuments means that they continue to affect people as features of a cultural landscape long after their initial construction. The built environment not only reflects existing social and political relations at the moment of its creation or modification, but also persistently reinforces these structures by physically affecting the movement of people, activities, and goods. Connection to the past through focal points on the landscape imparts authority and legitimacy, no matter how much practices change over time (Bradley 1993:115; Rosenwig and Burger 2012:12). The afterlife and re-use of monuments is thus a creative process by which the significance of the past is constantly reinforced and reinterpreted (Bradley 1993:93).
Movement is a key activity in this process of creating and activating meaning. In order to navigate space, humans learn a succession of movements rather than a spatial configuration or map (Tuan 1977:70-73). This knowledge is fundamentally relational, based on the appropriateness of actions to recognized landmarks. Both physical and perceptual experience combine to familiarize space, impart value onto it, and transform space into place. Yet not all individuals have the same ability to modify the landscape (Smith 2003:70). There are constraints on both the mobilization of labor and the construction of meanings associated with places. The asymmetric power to produce space is heightened by the recursive ability of the landscape to affect practices, leading to all types of unintended consequences. Tying authority to spatial action is therefore critical to any understanding of political life. Authority is often acted out in the landscape in the form of monuments, whose meaning is constantly renegotiated in changing political and social conditions (Osborne 2015).
Stigmergy, a term originally used in entomology formed from the Greek words for sign and action, is a helpful concept for explaining this recursive and instrumental capacity of the landscape. Stigmergy describes the coordination of actors embedded in a shared environment, whose state they both sense (to guide their actions) and modify (as a result of their actions) (Parunak 2006). It captures the notion that an individual’s actions leave signs in the landscape, signs that are sensed by others and that determine their subsequent actions (imagine ants slowly forming lines through the grass). All landscapes are stigmergic to some extent, but those with large, permanent monuments imbued with political significance are particularly so. My study of the Gordion landscape seeks to understand the practice of tumulus construction and the ways in which these monuments structured movement and social activity.
Gordion and its Landscape
The archaeological site of Gordion is located on the central Anatolian plateau, modern day central Turkey, just 80km southwest of the modern capital of Ankara.
The city sits on the western edge of a floodplain of the Sakarya River, just south of its confluence with the Porsuk River. To the east stretches a 15km long valley system extending to a ridge some 600m higher than the Sakarya, and to the west lies a broad arid plateau rising 100m above the level of the river. The landscape supports a modern agro-pastoral economy based in several small villages with fields of wheat, onions, and beets, and herds of cattle, sheep, and goat. Archaeological features include mounded settlements, quarries, road surfaces, and tumuli.
Gordion emerged as a regional center during the 11th-10th centuries BCE during a time of migrations, changing populations, and communities redefining themselves after the collapse of the Hittite Empire at the end of the Bronze Age.
In the 8th century Gordion became the capital of a Phrygian Kingdom under King Midas - of legendary golden touch, but a real historical figure who fought with the Assyrians during an age of multiple kingdoms jostling for power over Anatolia.
During this period, just before and during Midas’ reign, the archaeological site came to have the features which we are still investigating today – a raised Citadel Mound, a Lower City surrounded by a fortification system, and an Outer City – in all covering an area of 108 hectares. It was also during this time that over 120 tumuli – conical earthen burial mounds, each containing the burial of a single individual – were built scattered around the landscape.
Route Case Study
To showcase the relationship between movement and tumuli, the route between Gordion and another nearby, contemporary, mounded settlement - Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük – is presented here.
Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük is a large mounded site (5.75 ha at its base, 10 m tall) located 9 km to the northeast of Gordion. Collected sherds provide evidence for occupation in EBA, MBA, LBA, Phrygian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods – a settlement history that matches Gordion’s closely. The site is just under 4 hours walking time from Gordion. The combination of large mound and what can be called a lower town makes Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük the largest Iron Age settlement aside from Gordion in the local region.
Least Cost Path analysis reveals 2 main routes connecting Gordion and Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük. One (the fastest – represented in dark green) follows the course of the Sakarya River valley north for around 4.7 km, then turns east after passing Kızlar Kayası (a cliff at the western edge of a long ridge between the two sites), and then north again avoiding ridges and hills to reach the Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük.
The other major route splits off from the river valley to traverse a ridge along a more or less direct line northeast towards Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük. This route is considerably shorter in length than the first (8.4 km to 10.2 km), but in travel time the two are relatively equal – a difference of less than 6 minutes over a journey of 4 hours on foot. This incongruity can be explained by the increased elevation gain experienced as one crosses the ridge lying between the two sites.
The quicker route along the river valley was likely used only seasonally due to frequent flooding of the Sakarya River before its channelization in the 1960’s. Even if not underwater due to the rising river levels, the road would have been muddy and difficult to travel during the winter months, and would have required much more maintenance due to rising ground levels caused by alluviation. The land along the river was also prime agricultural land and was likely irrigated, creating wetter conditions for a majority of the year and impeding travel. Therefore I consider the route which traverses the ridge to be the primary one.
At each juncture and at significant topographical points along both routes tumuli were constructed:
1. Where the route over the ridge (A) diverges from the route along the river (B) and begins to climb the ridge to the NE, there are two, now rather plowed over tumuli.
2. As one walks route A, visibility of the road in front is limited by the slope of the ridge in the direction of Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük, so that one cannot see farther along the road past where two more large tumuli sit to either side of the route. The elevation profile shows nicely how there are a number of abrupt changes in elevation along route A – these are all marked by monuments. Visibility along the route changes significantly at these points.
3. At the crest of the ridge before descending towards the valley in which Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük sits, there is another mound placed just to the south of the route. This mound is flat on top and irregular in its dimensions.
Surveys have found no evidence of occupation, but its prominent location along this route and its unusual shape argue for it being manmade. It is placed at the highest point along the route and the last point visible from Gordion’s Citadel Mound. It controls the view along the entire rest of the route towards Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük and is one of only two features along the route which is visible from both Gordion and Büyük Hüyük – the other is the large northern tumulus - the largest of all the tumuli along the route.
4. After descending the ridge and reaching the valley floor, where routes A and B converge once again, there are two smaller tumuli placed at this juncture.
5. There is also a group of 4 low mounds at the point where route B leaves the river valley to make a 90 degree turn to the east to head up a slope towards Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük.
They are positioned at the last place visible along Route B from the Citadel Mound.
6. Finally, near the end of the route there is a large tumulus placed along the route to the southwest of Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük.
The strategic placement of burial monuments at key points along these routes between Gordion Şabanözü/Büyük Hüyük argue for a number of interesting conclusions about the connection between the two largest settlements in this region:
Tumuli acted as landmarks for people following well-traveled routes through the landscape. They were built at key junctures with visibility along paths in mind. Moreover, these routes were used frequently in the Iron Age and tied Gordion into a local communication/transportation network that included other contemporary mounded settlements. The relationship between the urban center and the landscape was a close one and depended on constant movement of people and goods along important routes.
The elite of Gordion had a large role in marking and maintaining connections between settlements. The amount of labor that went into building tumuli was likely restricted to a select, but not too small, group of elites who may have derived some of their power from control of travel and communication throughout the landscape. Even though the sites are not intervisible, the monuments built along routes phenomenologically connect the two settlements. The communities which lived at these two sites were likely closely linked socially, especially among the elite.
The routes presented in this essay are part of a much larger network of mobility and monumentalization between Gordion and several other contemporary settlements within its local region.
Without written documents we can only guess about the specific meanings once attributed to these tumuli and their locations, but it is clear that they helped structure activities (particularly the rituals associated with elite burial) and movement throughout the landscape. As landmarks built along established routes, tumuli facilitated travel, communication, and interaction between Gordion and other nearby settlements. The built environment helped to increase Gordion’s centrality in the landscape and thus the control of its elites over the activities and meanings produced there. The system was not conceived and implemented all at once, but rather developed over generations, leaving marks in the landscape that encouraged future action based on prevailing cultural traditions.
Even today routes tend to pass tumuli and field boundaries often run right next to them (the larger ones are especially difficult to plow over). The monuments continue to affect daily activities in the landscape – indeed the identification of the site as Gordion and the 65+ years of archaeological fieldwork that has been carried out there by the Penn Museum were partly due to the presence of so many burial mounds. In recent years the tumuli have spurred interactions between foreign archaeologists, Turkish government officials, and local farmers over issues of cultural heritage, intensive agriculture, and preservation. They are often seen as a source of wealth by local looters. Cultural traditions have changed a great deal in 2800 years, so our current responses to the monuments are not the same as the Phrygians’, but they continue to produce political and social consequences for those who live and work in this landscape.
Ashmore, W. and Knapp, A.B., 1999. Archaeologies of landscape. Continuities and Changes in Maya Archaeology: Perspectives at the Millennium, p.88.
Bradley, R., 1993. Altering the earth: the origins of monuments in Britain and continental Europe. Edinburgh: Society of antiquaries of Scotland.
Burger, R.L. and Rosenswig, R.M. eds., 2012. Early new world monumentality. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
De Certeau, M., 1984. Walking in the City.
Kealhofer, L., 2005. Settlement and land use: the Gordion regional survey. The Archaeology of Midas and the Phrygians: Recent Work at Gordion, pp. 137-48.
Lefebvre, H., 1991. The production of space (Vol. 142). Blackwell: Oxford. Smith 2003
Osborne, J.F., 2014. Monuments and Monumentality. Approaching Monumentality in Archaeology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), pp.1-22.
Parunak, H. V. D., 2006. A survey of environments and mechanisms for human-human stigmergy. Environments for Multi-Agent Systems II, pp. 163-186.
Tuan, Y.F., 1977. Space and place: The perspective of experience. U of Minnesota Press.
Lucas Stephens is a doctoral candidate in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Program at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the archaeology of Iron Age Anatolia and spatial organization in ancient landscapes.