A journey through Anatolia’s forgotten empire

John Garstang and the 20th-century discovery of the Hittites

By Emma Harper | December 1, 2015


‘This is the notebook used by J.G. on his last trip in Turkey in 1951. I was wondering whether to throw it away, but it occurred to me that you might conceivably find some use for it in the Institute, so here it is. If you think it is no use, just throw it away. But there might be some odd bits of interesting information in it...’

So begins a letter from Oliver Gurney, the nephew of John Garstang (J.G.), to the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA). Clearly his contact found the book to be of use, for today it sits tucked beneath the letter in a display case at the Koç Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisations (RCAC) and not, fortunately, at the bottom of a landfill site. Opened at the last page, the notebook will look familiar to anyone who has wrestled with the Turkish language, a beautiful, orderly beast that somehow manages to be both consistent and complex: it contains a vocabulary list. In his neat cursive script, Garstang has jotted down English words and their Turkish translations on such subjects as the weather (‘Wind: Rüzgâr’), metals (‘Gold: Altın’) and geographical features (‘Hill: Tepe’). Seeing a man of his stature toil away at Turkish vocabulary is both endearing and riveting, and taken with the many other snippets of interesting information on display at the RCAC, a captivating portrait of the archaeologist John Garstang emerges from this compact exhibition.

The aim of John Garstang’s Footsteps Across Anatolia, an exhibition curated by Alan M Greaves of Liverpool University, is to highlight the contribution of Garstang – a man who wore many hats – to the study of archaeology in Turkey and the Near East. Garstang’s archives of delicate glass photographic negatives, many dating from his survey of Anatolia and northern Syria in 1907, have been digitised over the course of five years by a team of technicians at the university and form the basis of the exhibition.

These images rightly deserve their day in the sun, for, as the very readable accompanying catalogue explains, they ‘established for the first time the full extent of the ancient Hittite Empire and effectively laid the foundation for Hittite historical geography as we know it today’.

The photographs and other objects in the exhibition are grouped thematically and tell the story of Garstang's 1907 journey across Anatolia and of his involvement in the region until his death in 1956. Their value lies not just in what they record – a vast network of Hittite monuments in Turkey and Syria, as well as the landscapes and people of the late Ottoman period – but also in what they tell us about the funding of archaeological research in the early 20th century.

Garstang, seen here in a charming photograph taken in Egypt in 1901, was a lacklustre student of maths at Oxford and more or less stumbled into the study of archaeology. His interest in the subject, and specifically in the Hittites, was sparked by Archibald Sayce, Professor of Assyriology during his university years (1885–89). Sayce suspected that a pre-Hellenic empire was waiting to be discovered in Anatolia and encouraged Garstang to go in search of it. It was also Sayce who landed Garstang his first job in 1900 as an apprentice archaeologist on Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Abydos in Egypt. Garstang eventually worked on 20 different sites across Egypt and Nubia for Petrie, and was influenced greatly by the eminent archaeologist's field practices, especially his use of photography as an archaeological recording method. Meanwhile, in 1902, during one of his breaks from fieldwork, Garstang – all of 26 years old – secured a position at the University of Liverpool, where he would work until 1941. Today, Liverpool's museum of archaeology is named after the man who came to be considered nothing less than a local hero for his work in popularising archaeology.

For all the relative ease of archaeological excavation in Egypt and Sudan, which were under British rule at the time, the Hittites remained an object of fascination for Garstang. In 1904 he travelled on foot across Anatolia searching for Hittite sites and recording his travels with his cameras. After identifying Boğazköy-Hattuša as a potential site on this initial journey, he applied to the Ottoman authorities, specifically Osman Hamdi Bey, for a permit to excavate it.

The permit was duly granted in 1907, but on his arrival in Anatolia Garstang learned that it had been revoked and issued instead to the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler – a change of heart that appeared to be political in nature. Disappointed but not discouraged, the young scholar hired horses in Ankara and set off on a second reconnaissance mission to find and record more Hittite sites, this time venturing into what is now central and southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. Early on in the journey he would pass the ruins of a Roman aqueduct arch at Tyana near Kemerhisar, Niğde, photographed above. Little did he know that the journey would lead to the biggest discovery of his academic career: the true extent of the Hittite Empire, as documented in numerous exquisite photographs.

It is this particular journey, undertaken in 1907, which the exhibition explores in detail. We also learn about Garstang’s field work in Sakçagözü, a site near Gaziantep where he had seen evidence of Hittite sculptures on his 1907 survey. During excavations in 1907–08 and 1911–12, Garstang uncovered a Hittite palace with carved stone relief slabs which are now the pride and joy of Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. After much negotiation over many years, his plaster-cast copies of these massive slabs were eventually sent to Liverpool and displayed in the Hittite Gallery at the Liverpool Public Museum, only to be bombed and completely destroyed in the blitz of May 1941. It was also at Sakçagözü that Garstang toiled away, using photographs, maps, illustrations and drawings, at his masterpiece The Land of the Hittites (1910), which proved Sayce’s theory that the Hittite Empire had indeed been one of the great civilisations of the ancient Near East. What had only been speculation up to this point was finally proven with conclusive archaeological evidence. His book, with its maps of the Hittite Empire, also significantly contributed to the Turkish position during the negotiations for the Treaty of Lausanne and undoubtedly raised his esteem in Turkish political circles. Such a position was likely to have come in useful later when applying for excavation permits in Mersin in the late 1930s, and in setting up the British Institute at Ankara in 1948, one of Garstang’s most important legacies.

While two world wars and all the upheaval accompanying this period saw the nature of archaeological patronage shift away from artefact-driven excavations funded by industrialists towards academic institutions with a particular agenda, Garstang managed to maintain his relevance. He was nothing if not an exceptional fundraiser – one reason he was drawn to photography, for there was no more effective way to whet his sponsors’ appetites. The exhibition offers a close reading of two particular photographs that show how certain images were carefully crafted with British sponsors in mind.

Symbols of the British Empire, including a pith helmet, canvas tent, British-style enamel teapot and mosquito nets, are prominently placed in this 1908 image of the archaeologists' camp at Sakçagözü.

A 1907 photograph of Garstang sitting on the ground with locals shows a more relaxed atmosphere, without all the trappings of empire. The dichotomy between these two images shows two sides of Garstang: the clever marketer who knew how to raise funds, and the invested academic who cared deeply about documenting Hittite civilisation.

Excavation trench in Sakçagözü, with Garstang supervising work, 1908 (SG-212)

Garstang recognised the importance of the way those in power perceived his work, and also seems to have been skilled in acquiring political capital. Yet he was still the devoted academic – even something of an absent-minded professor at times. The Australian archaeologist Veronica Seton-Williams recalls how Garstang cancelled a meeting with Atatürk under the pretense that he was ill – the real reason being that he had misplaced his suit trousers. It is the juxtaposition of details such as these with Garstang’s impressive archaeological discoveries that makes the exhibition so engrossing. John Garstang’s Footsteps Across Anatolia not only chronicles Garstang’s accomplishments – and judging by his work, he should be a household name by now – it also paints a comprehensive portrait of a man who was at once so extraordinary and so human.

You can visit ‘John Garstang’s Footsteps Across Anatolia at the RCAC until Sunday, December 20.

The exhibition is featured in History on a plate in the Connoisseur pages of Cornucopia 53. The book of the exhibition is available from cornucopia.net at £20

Main featured image: the gate of a ruined palace at Sakçagözü, a late-Hittite site near Gaziantep, now in Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (all photographs courtesy of the Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool)

Posted in Archaeology, Exhibitions, History, Photography
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