Archaeozoologists open “BoneLab Ephesos” in Turkey

Archaeologists from Austria have been working to excavate the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus since the 19th century.

The archaeological site, situated on Turkey’s western coast, also is the place of work for archaeozoologists from the Vetmeduni Vienna Vienna, who have been investigating zoological finds at Ephesus since the early 1990s. The University of Veterinary Medicine, together with the Austrian Archaeological Institute, recently opened the “BoneLab Ephesos” near the site. The new laboratory houses the largest scientific collection of bones and mollusc shells in Turkey. Future plans include making space available for partnership projects with other institutions.

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Ephesus was one of the most important cities in the ancient world. Founded about 5000 B.C.E., it was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Since 1895, researchers from the Austrian Archaeological Institute have been working on excavating the ancient treasures.

Zoological finds yield clues as to way of life in ancient times

Besides architectural finds, as well as pottery, metal, wood and human remains, an archaeological site also reveals countless objects of animal origin that are capable of providing valuable information on the past way of life and on animal husbandry practices. As Ephesus was originally situated directly by the sea, the archaeological traces include not only remains of domestic and wild animals but also of marine animals. The zoological artefacts cover the range from terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and snails to fish all the way to marine molluscs such as clams or squid.

Gerhard Forstenpointner, Alfred Galik and Gerald Weissengruber from the Institute for Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the Vetmeduni Vienna, are experts in the field of archaeozoology. It is their job to identify the zoological finds. Remains of bones, teeth, seashells or snail shells provide information about the species under investigation, its sex, age at death and morphology.

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“What matters to us is not only finding out which animals lived during certain time periods; we are especially interested in how animals were used, kept or hunted at the time,” explains Gerhard Forstenpointner. The research interest of the archaeozoologists therefore focuses on all aspects of the human-animal relationship that can be reflected in animal remains. Important research questions include the method of food preparation, for example. The researchers are interested in knowing how the animals were cut or carved up and which parts were eaten, but also in the role of animals in sacrificial rituals.

“The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was a sacrificial site known far beyond the borders of Asia Minor. Knowing what kinds of animals were sacrificed and which parts of the animals were used can provide us with information about certain rites and social structures,” says Forstenpointner. The researchers also analyse paintings and sculptures of animals. It is not always easy to assign depictions of wild animals or fish to certain animal species, which makes it difficult for archaeologists to interpret them. Archaeozoologists are trained to answer such questions.

New space and new facilities

The new “BoneLab Ephesos” offers more room and improved storage conditions for the bone collections. The laboratory has enough space to integrate guest researchers and students, particularly from Turkey, in scientific projects.

“With our extensive reference collection of different animal species, we can correctly assign even very small bone fragments and skeletal remains. We have also uncovered remains of animal species which are no longer found in Asia Minor, such as the pikeperch,” Forstenpointner points out. In the future, the “BoneLab Ephesos” will be used not only for research purposes, but will also offer archaeozoological training courses and workshops.

Important finds from the recent past

The so-called Terrace Houses of Ephesus were excavated between 1960 and 1985. Since then, these posh residences have been studied in detail. “Animal remains in the houses reveal that meals were rich and of the finest quality,” Forstenpointner says. “The people enjoyed tender meat from young animals, including pork, which was considered an especially exclusive food. But seafood such as oysters, edible sea snails, wrasse and grouper, as well as pikeperch, were also very popular. Some residences even had basins with running water for keeping freshwater fish for longer periods of time. This made it possible to offer guests live fish without the need for interim storage.”

Sabine Ladstätter, head of the Austrian Archeological Institute points out: “Archaeology is a highly interdisciplinary form of science and maintains a close collaboration with the natural sciences. The Bone Lab in Ephesus is an important step to generate a comprehensive reference collection and use it for scientific evaluation.”

Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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