November 26th, 2015
The Austrian Archeological Institute (OAI) has unearthed a 7th century Byzantine-era tavern in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus one mile southwest of the town of Selçuk, Turkey. The tavern was discovered by accident during work to protect one of the three main roads of the city, the Embolos (the OAI call it the Kuretenstraße), from landslides. In its heyday during the Roman imperial era, the road linked the Commercial Agora with the State Agora and ran through the valley between the two hills that framed the city. It was paved with marble slabs and decorative mosaics, lined with colonnades, funerary monuments to prominent citizens, public fountains, shops, a brothel and overlooked by luxury homes on the slopes. When those buildings collapsed from earthquakes, sacking and abandonment, the denuded hillsides became subject to erosion and landslides. In order to protect the archaeological remains of the city, the OAI team regularly monitors their condition and takes necessary measures to prevent landslides, like shoring up the slopes and building dry-stone retaining walls to make the site safe and legible for visitors.
They were building just such a wall when they unearthed the tavern. While the street was dotted with many shops, archaeologists were able to identify this one as a tavern because they found an exceptional collection of more than 100 vessels — cups, bowls, plates, amphorae — in perfect condition. Archaeologists even found a shelf with dishes stacked on it ready for service. Low benches, chairs and small marble tables (probably recycled from earlier buildings in ruin) were also found.
According to Sabine Ladstätter, OAI’s excavation director of Ephesus, the discovery increases our understanding of the road as a community lifeline and center of communication in late antiquity when the once-dominant city was in steep decline. The main focus of public, social and economic life in the city moved from the Agorae of old to the streets and the businesses that lined them. The tavern served local food and wines as well as beverages from further afield. The amphorae were found to contain local grape varieties and ones from Gaza and Cilicia, which means that trade was still active enough and there was enough money in the citizens’ hands to make it worthwhile for the pub to stock premium brands.
The tavern’s fate was indicated by coins found in a highly destructive fire layer. A greater than average number of large denomination coins were discovered in the tavern, left behind in a fire so severe that people didn’t even bother trying to recover valuable cash in an era when monetary circulation dropped precipitously to a tenth of its previous quantity and coin was scarce. This was during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641 A.D.), who was engaged first in fighting off a Persian invasion, and then the forces of the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I. The Persians sacked Ephesus in 616, two years after an earthquake had brought down a significant portion of the city.
Whether it was the Persians or fires in the wake of earthquake that caused the destruction of the tavern, it was never rebuilt. It wasn’t even pillaged for supplies. It was just closed and left to decay as were the other shops along the street. The street itself was swept and kept clear of debris for centuries after that, probably because it was a useful connection to the port before it silted up irredeemably and a straight shot for Christian pilgrims to use when visiting shrines.
The Austrian Archeological Institute assumes that duty now, which is how it found the tavern. The OAI has a long, strong connection to the city of Ephesus. In fact, the organization was founded specifically to excavate the ancient city. German archaeologist Otto Benndorf started excavating Ephesus in 1895, financed by a large donation by Austrian businessman Karl Mautner Ritter von Markhof. Benndorf founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute in 1898, with the excavation of Ephesus as its first brief. The Institute had been digging and conserving the site ever since, pausing only during both world wars.