The Pioneers of Bronze Age Archeology in Asia Minor



We owe much of our current knowledge about prehistoric Anatolian cultures to a handful of extraordinary and courageous researchers. However, those who stood up for intensified research into Anatolian cultures faced major difficulties. The pioneers in Anatolian archeology were ostracized by their colleagues at home as well as in Turkey; their achievements have been played down to this day.

Heinrich Schliemann

The German businessman, archaeologist and pioneer in field archeology Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) was the first to conduct large-scale excavations at Hisarlık, where he suspected and found the ruins of the Bronze Age palace of Troy. Schliemann’s extensive excavations at Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns and Orchomenos laid the foundation for Aegean prehistory. He was the first to systematically excavate large-scale areas, and he pioneered scientific and methodical excavation techniques. Until then, archaeological excavations had been like a kind of treasure hunt where only valuable objects were recovered. Schliemann faced vehement criticism throughout his life. He came into confrontation with German archaeologists in particular, above all the German classicist Ernst Curtius. Their criticism was by no means confined to the rigorous excavation technique that Schliemann is still blamed for – possibly rightly. He was accused among other things of espionage, and lost his license to work in Turkey. As late as 1886 The Times was writing, “… that the so-called prehistoric palace … is one of the most extraordinary hallucinations of an unscientific enthusiast which literature can record.”

Hugo Winckler

Hugo Winckler (1863-1913) initiated the first excavations in Boğazköy, which lasted from 1906 to 1912. Already during the first excavation season his workers managed to recover 20 entire tablets and 2,500 document fragments, whose contents removed the last doubts that this was the location of Hattuša, the capital of the Hittite empire. Winckler himself, however, was never offered a permanent job, and had to have his fieldwork financed privately by an entrepreneur friend. By making Theodore Makridi, the Commissioner of the Ottoman Council of Antiquities, the official excavation director, he circumvented the German Archaeological Institute. The amount of work published by Winckler is beyond imagination, and he certainly went too far with some of his interpretations. However, some of his ideas were a century ahead of their time. His scientific peers, above all the German mathematician, historian of astronomy and assyriologist Franz Xaver Kugler, mocked Winckler and ridiculed his work. Winckler died at the age of only 49. In an obituary, the editor of Memnon wrote: “In art and in science ingenious pioneers who have truly offered to the world new and important insights are exposed to the resentment and envy of those around them.”

The editor of Memnon, Reinhold von Lichtenberg, published in 1913 this obituary on Hugo Winckler. [PDF 759 KB, in German]

Emil Forrer

Emil Forrer (1894-1986) was a Swiss assyriologist, archaeologist and hittitologist, and a notable genius when it came to ancient Anatolian languages. As early as 1919 he identified the eight different languages in the Boğazköy inscriptions, and was thus the first to be able to read Luwian in Akkadian cuneiform. After 1923 he devoted himself to deciphering hieroglyphic Luwian. In 1926 he undertook a research trip through Asia Minor aiming to locate settlements from pre-Roman times. Forrer was the first to equate the state referred to in Hittite texts as Ahhijawa with Mycenaean Greece. He earned the sharpest of criticism from figures including the German classicist Ferdinand Sommer. It took Forrer three attempts to finish his habilitation thesis. After many fruitless attempts to find a job in academia, and disappointed by the European scientific community, Forrer emigrated to Central America in 1949. In addition to being a freelance writer, he made a living – by his own account – from selling his wife’s homemade yogurt on the street.

Helmuth Bossert

Helmuth Theodor Bossert (1889-1961) was a German art historian and Near Eastern archaeologist, and ranks as yet another eminent scholar who never got a job at a German university. He earned his living as an employee in publishing houses, as an independent publisher, and later as a professor at the University of Istanbul. In 1946 Bossert, together with Turkish colleagues, discovered the Neo-Hittite ruins in Karatepe above Adana. There they found the bilingual inscriptions that ultimately led to the deciphering of Luwian hieroglyphic. In addition, Bossert is the preeminent decipherer of Cretan pictographs. He realized in 1946 already that during the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE, the country Asia, designated “Aššuua” in the language of the Hittites, extended over almost the entire west coast of Anatolia. Bossert’s scholarly achievements could hardly be challenged. But his competitors, the German hittitologists Kurt Bittel and Hans Gustav Güterbock, spread allegations that Bossert had sympathized with Nazism, and that he had tried to take over the directorship of the excavation in Hattuša.

James Mellaart

Perhaps the saddest example of a pioneer in prehistoric archeology in Anatolia is James Mellaart (1925 to 2012). Already as a student of Egyptology, Mellaart was pursuing the idea that the Sea Peoples originated from western Asia Minor. Early in the 1950s he spent two years examining prehistoric sites in the Anatolian highlands. In 1954 he discovered the Late Chalcolithic settlement of Beycesultan near Çivril, which he excavated together with Seton Lloyd from 1954 to 1959. To this day Beycesultan remains the only large-scale excavation – besides Troy – of a Bronze Age archaeological site in western Asia Minor that has been published in a western language. In 1957, Mellaart discovered the Neolithic town-like settlement of Hacılar near the city of Burdur, and dug there until 1961. That year he found Çatal Höyük. The excavations there, and the results of his extensive surveys, established the Neolithic in Anatolia.

Mellaart’s demise began with a report on gold jewelry which he had seen in a private home in Izmir in 1965. Although it was Mellaart himself who gave the story to The Illustrated London News, in no time it had triggered the so-called Dorak affair. Mellaart was accused of being involved in illicit artefact trade. His license to conduct fieldwork in Turkey was permanently removed. The scandal escalated further. This affair has inspired a number of non-fiction books, and to this day has been the subject of wild speculation, including conjecture that the CIA had been involved. Mellaart himself lived for almost fifty more years in London.