Report from the Field | Professor Nick Cahill from Sardis!

This fall semester has begun with Professor Nick Cahill teaching remotely from Sardis, Turkey, where he is the Director of The Archaeological Exploration of Sardis. He was kind enough to share more information about the on going project to build a protective roof over the remains of the fortification wall around Sardis from the 7th–6th century B.C.! We hope that you enjoy this report from the field.

“We’re building a protective roof to cover the fortification wall that enclosed Sardis in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. This was discovered in 1976, and we dug archaeological trenches there for the next 30 years or so, it’s so big—65 feet thick at the base and still standing 20 feet high. The fortification was built in about 600 B.C., and was by far the largest ancient fortification in Turkey, Greece, and the Mediterranean in general; it was built, we think, on the model of the fortifications of the mega-cities of Mesopotamia like Nineveh and Babylon, and used similar technologies like fired brick, which was the only time this material was used in the Mediterranean before the Hellenistic period. Unfortunately they didn’t build enough out of fired brick, which is expensive; a lot of it is made of unfired mudbrick, which doesn’t last nearly as well and is a notoriously difficult material to conserve—not only does it melt in the rain, but even just rising damp will cause it to flake and spall. So we’ve had a team of conservators, architects, and engineers working on this for 15 years now. The lead architect is Troy Thompson of SmithGroup LLC (who also designed the UW–Madison Alumni Park, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Conservation and Research Center of the US Holocaust Museum, the White House Visitor Center, and a bunch of other projects); working with him are Nate Schlundt of Building Conservation Associates, Phil Stinson (University of Kansas), and Brianna Bricker (UW–Madison/Sardis Expedition). Conservators include Michael Morris and Hiroko Kariya (both private practice), and engineers Teoman Yalçınkaya and Taner Kurtuluş. I dug a lot of the fortification when I was a graduate student and then continued even after I came to UW, before I became director of the project.

In 2021 we built a similar roof over the Synagogue, the biggest synagogue in the ancient world, completely paved with mosaic pavements, which were being damaged by rain and weather. This was also a big project—bigger (about 20,000 square feet) than the Lydian fortification (a mere 13,000 square feet). We always envisioned these as parallel roofs, establishing a consistent architectural vocabulary that was lightweight, interesting, but unobtrusive. The Synagogue roof was a success, and we’re now restoring the mosaics using ancient techniques and modern materials to fill gaps and bring the patterns together (photo). We have a team of 7–9 local women whom we’ve trained in laying mosaics, and they’ll be at this for who knows, 5–10 years or more. A bit of explanation here:; go down to the bit about conserving and restoring the synagogue.

The Synagogue roof was a much easier project—although a larger roof, it doesn’t have the immense archaeological complexity of the Lydian fortification, which is buried very deeply and surrounded by Lydian and Roman houses, deep trenches, and soft materials that are very susceptible to rain and flooding. So finally after 15 years we are constructing the roof over the Fortification. This involved digging sondages last summer for the column foundations to make sure that there wasn’t anything of great archaeological significance at the points where we wanted to put the footings. This summer we poured the concrete foundations, and then raised the 18 steel columns. Today we are raising the last of the trusses—there are eight of them, all different (much to the construction engineers’ annoyance), up to 86 1/2 feet long. They jog up and down to allow air and light in and to break up what could be a monotonous design—Troy called them ‘dancing roofs.’ The steel trusses hold a translucent membrane, and then we have to add bird netting, complex gutters and downspouts, all kinds of other junk. From the beginning we’ve had to factor in climate change and over-engineer anything that might fail; in the past 5 years or so the weather has changed dramatically and we’ve had terrible and damaging floods in June, which this year almost wiped out the olive and grape harvests that many people here rely on, and just a couple days ago we had another terrific downpour that damaged the drying sultanas which are a big product of this region of Turkey.

Major construction is done by a firm coming from Izmir, bringing cranes of various sizes—the big one is 100 tons, and blocks the road for days. Most of the other construction is done by our workmen, who are very skilled in many different aspects of excavation and construction.

I’m staying here to help guide the archaeological side of the project—deal with unforeseen circumstances, problems with supply chains and delays, and with the archaeology, since I know the sector well. I’ll stay until the roof is built, which will probably be about the end of September; but the uncertainties of construction (which we’re all aware of) make it impossible to predict exactly when I will be able to get back. Until then I’m teaching remotely, and will meet in person when I get back.”

You can learn more about the project here.

Images of the current work: