Nevşehir Municipality
Nevşehir Municipality

Archaeologists Unearth More of a Massive Underground City

Nevşehir Municipality
Nevşehir Municipality

In 2013, construction crews in the city of Nevşehir, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, were demolishing low-income housing ringing a Byzantine castle when they unearthed something astonishing: entrances to a massive underground city.

Dating to at least Byzantine times, the vast network of tunnels and rooms had been carved into volcanic ash rock called tuff that gives Cappadocia—famed for its otherworldly “fairy houses,” cave churches, and evocative geologic formations—its singular terrain.

It’s not the first underground city to be discovered in the region; there are some 250 known subterranean dwellings of various sizes hidden within the fantastical landscape. The two biggest are Kaymakli and Derinkuyu; the latter is estimated to have been able to house up to 20,000 people. Both cities have been known for decades.

But this new underground town, hiding beneath a centuries-old castle on a hilltop right in Nevşehir, just might be the biggest. One early estimate by geophysicists put its area at nearly five million square feet and its depth at 371 feet. If those estimates are accurate, the city may outsize Derinkuyu by a third.

In the past year alone, archaeologists have brought to daylight a huge multistory complex with at least five levels. This largely self-sustaining underground metropolis had everything from churches and workshops to living spaces and fresh water channels.

Before you read on, take a look at this (dramatically scored) aerial video to get a sense of the scale, location, and sheer awesomeness of the site.

Dünyanın En Büyük Yeraltı Yerleşimin Nevşehirde Kale altında olduğunu biliyormusunuz ?

Posted by Nevşehir Platformu on Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why was it constructed? For many centuries, such underground retreats were safe havens for the region's inhabitants, who were early adopters of Christianity. (The apostle Paul visited in the 1st century CE, and by the 4th century its bishops were power players in the newly Christian Byzantine Empire.) Muslim invaders, Seljuk Turks, and Ottoman rulers all swept through, with the Ottomans eventually ruling all of Anatolia—and far beyond.

The complexity, diversity, and size of the most recently discovered underground city is yet more evidence of how seriously the locals took these invasions. The inhabitants could live underground for some time if need be. They had fresh water and access to replenished supplies. To keep the outside world out, all they had to do was roll heavy stone-disc doors across the tunnels to seal themselves in.

FIVE LEVELS UNEARTHED IN THE PAST YEAR

Previous excavations revealed living spaces, kitchens, wineries, chapels, staircases, and bezirhane—linseed presses for producing lamp oil to light the underground city—that were likely in use from the Byzantine era through the Ottoman conquest.

In the past year archaeologists have excavated five more levels, or terraces, of the city. This intensive digging is helping them to piece together how the massive complex was organized and structured. “Most of the areas that have been brought to daylight are places where people lived their daily lives,” archaeologist Murat Gülyaz, director of the Nevşehir Museum, which oversees the excavation, tells mental_floss.

On the topmost level there are rock-cut tombs, religious altars, short tunnels, storage depots, and a small but spectacular church. “This terrace looks as if it was the location for religious activities,” Gülyaz says. The church is partially caved in and is plagued by high humidity; as a result, its frescos are peeling in places. Nevertheless, the unusual frescos, which include depictions of Christ’s baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion, are colorful and vibrant, if still partially obscured by earth and stone.


Gülyaz says the church may date to the 12th or 13th century (though other archaeologists believe it could be older), making it slightly younger than the many other underground churches in the region, which today can be visited at places like the Goreme Open Air Museum.

The second level has living and storage spaces, and passages leading to the third level, where metalworking took place in the late Ottoman period. Archaeologists have found furnaces used to forge metals, and within them are processed iron slag and debris. They also found rock molds used for iron casting.

This level has three separate air ventilation systems, each one carefully designed for a specific need. One ventilates the rooms for breathing air. Another serves as an exhaust system for the furnaces. “In the rooms with the casting furnaces, the air ventilation funnels are made longer in order to reach temperatures high enough to melt metal,” Gülyaz says.

The fourth level is the main one, where most people would have lived day to day. It’s large, multipurposed, and located at the very heart of the city. There are large stables, depots, workshops, and residences here. It was also the main artery to the outside world. Cappadocians living underground would need access to the surface to maintain some contact with the outside world to replenish supplies.

“This terrace is like an entrance hall for visitors and locals living inside,” Gülyaz says. “It’s also the place where trades and logistic activities occurred … where outgoing caravans were sent from and the incoming ones were unloaded.”

They also found a tunnel nearly 2 feet wide and 6 feet tall that has two entry points, but because of a collapse in the tunnel, they’re not sure where it leads or what its purpose was. They suspect it was used for water transfer or transport.

Excavations on the fifth level only just began in January. Right now, the level is choked with earth, debris, and litter left behind by modern visitors, but the excavators are beginning to reveal the rock-cut rooms within. “More cleaning work needs to be done before we can have an idea about this terrace’s function within the complex,” Gülyaz says.

CARVING OUT THE TRUTH

One puzzle archaeologists will try to solve is how different sections of the city changed in design and function over time. Cappadocia’s tuff rock is easy to carve, but it's also easy to alter, both by natural processes and the hands of people. While that's good news for the Cappadocians who a thousand years ago carved underground refuges and today create hotels, shops, and restaurants that draw millions of tourists, it presents a challenge for archaeologists trying to figure out who did what when.

The view is especially complex in areas of the city that are closer to the surface; over the centuries, these rooms were reused and sometimes reconfigured. “These rock-cut places have been changed from their original functions. So their uses were transformed over time accordingly," Gülyaz says. “For example, a room first carved to be used as a depot was later used as a sitting room, a stable, a bathroom, etc. Or a stone-disc door could later be used as a wall.”

However, the deeper the researchers get into the structure, the more they find its original construction. “We can tell the original functions of the inner places more precisely and can gather more meaningful data about their periods,” Gülyaz says.

The winter cold and snow haven’t stopped excavations; the researchers have mostly just retreated to the interior. When the weather warms up, they’ll continue digging out the underground city. Gülyaz says there are more levels to be excavated above, below, and beyond what has been found so far. There's still so much that's unknown about the city.

Here's one last look inside, from October 2014—long before the latest finds were made. The interior was fantastic then, and it was only a fraction of what archaeologists can see now.

All images and video courtesy of Nevşehir Municipality

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]

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