Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.18

Catherine M. Draycott, Geoffrey D. Summers, Kerkenes Special Studies 1: Sculpture and Inscriptions from the Monumental Entrance to the Palatial Complex at Kerkenes Dag, Turkey. With a contribution by Claude Brixhe and Turkish summary by G. Bike Yazicioglu. Oriental Institute Publications 135.   Chicago:  The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008.  Pp. xxiv, 89; 98 p. of plates.  ISBN 978-1-885923-57-8.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Lynn E. Roller, University of California, Davis (
Word count: 1743 words

Full text (PDF)

The excavations conducted at Kerkenes Dag, located in Yozgat Province in central Turkey, have substantially enlarged our knowledge of settlement patterns and cultural development on the Anatolian plateau during the middle of the first millennium BCE. The impressive ruins of Kerkenes have long attracted scholarly notice, and the site was briefly explored by Erich Schmidt and a team from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1928, who determined that the site was post-Bronze Age and pre-Classical. Given his strong orientation towards Hittite studies, Schmidt had no further interest in the site and so it was left untouched until 1993. Since then the investigations at Kerkenes have been sponsored by Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara under the direction of Geoffrey Summers, ably assisted by Françoise Summers and an international team. Early years were devoted primarily to survey work, including a thorough aerial survey by balloon and a resistivity survey of the central portion of the settlement. This was an effective means of reconnaissance, given the large size of the Kerkenes settlement, whose wall circuit is over seven kilometers in length. The survey enabled the creation of an accurate map of the site and its fortification walls, and further identified an area where several large architectural structures were concentrated as the most profitable place for excavation. The investigations also determined that the site's period of habitation was fairly brief, approximately seventy years, and that it had been thoroughly destroyed by a military action that had deliberately pulled down the defensive walls and fired the entire settled area within the walls. The material found at Kerkenes suggests a date in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Based on these circumstances, together with the site's location, Summers supported the identification of the site as ancient Pteria (first proposed in 1929 by Przeworski), a strongly fortified city east of the Halys River that, according to Herodotos 1.76, was captured and destroyed by the Lydian king Croesus as part of his campaign against the Persian ruler Cyrus in the 540's BCE. This remains the most plausible identification for the ancient site.

The chronology of the Kerkenes settlement and its location east of the Halys River placed it within the boundaries of the Median Empire, as described by Herodotos. When the METU team first started its work at Kerkenes, the expectation was that this was a Median site. The excavations, however, revealed a settlement that showed strong affinities with Phrygian culture. Excavation at the site has been concentrated in the area near the southeastern gate, termed the Cappadocia Gate by the excavators, and among the material found there was an architectural complex with a large building in the typical plan of a Phrygian megaron, inscriptions in the Phrygian language, and an aniconic cult idol within the Cappadocia Gate that has a rectangular body and disc-shaped head, a close match for the many cult idols found in the Phrygian Highlands and elsewhere in Phrygia. While the portion of the ancient city that has been uncovered remains small, further excavations have confirmed the Phrygian character of the site, revealing a monumental entrance complex and courtyard adjacent to the megaron and extensive examples of bronzes and stone sculpture that display strong affinities with Phrygian style and subject matter. Thus it appears that Kerkenes was an outpost of Phrygian settlement within Median controlled territory, and that it retained its cultural identity, and perhaps also its political independence, after the rest of Phrygia west of the Halys River had come under Lydian control. Given that most of our information about Phrygian architecture and urbanism before this time had come from Gordion, the discovery of a new monumental Phrygian city is very exciting. Indeed, the excavations at Kerkenes have forced scholars to rethink the cultural landscape of central Anatolia during the mid-first millennium BCE, the critical period of the formation of the Achaemenian Empire. Throughout, the excavations have been conducted with great care and annual reports have been promptly published in the Kerkenes News, in several publications on Anatolian archaeology, and on the Kerkenes web site. Many of these reports, however, have not received as wide circulation as they deserve, and so the present volume, published under the auspices of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, draws welcome attention to this important project.

The volume publishes a particularly noteworthy group of finds from Kerkenes, a series of sculptures, architectural members, and an inscription found in the monumental entrance complex to the large megaron. Excavated between 2003 and 2005, this complex comprised a broad paved street that passed through two flanking stone platforms and led to the large megaron, plausibly identified as a palace. In the vicinity of the street and platforms were found the remains of a life-size sculpture depicting a human figure, a rectangular stone block that was decorated with sculptural relief and bore a Phrygian inscription along its edges, and other sculptural fragments including part of a lion and the legs and talons of a bird of prey. All of the pieces were badly damaged: all had been broken, probably deliberately smashed and scattered at the time of the site's destruction, and all showed significant traces of the fire that destroyed the settlement. The recovery and reconstruction of the sculptural fragments were clearly tasks that demanded great care and thoughtful analysis, and the authors of the volume, Catherine Draycott and Geoffrey Summers, are to be commended for the attention to detail that they brought to this undertaking.

The volume begins with a discussion of the location and geography of the site and an overview of the history of the Iron Age city, including a description of the megaron complex, termed the palatial complex by the authors, where the sculptural fragments were found, and the circumstances of its destruction. This is followed by the catalogue entries for the sculptural fragments, ten pieces in all, written by Catherine Draycott, and the catalogue entries for two architectural elements, written by Geoffrey Summers. Both sections use the same order of presentation, giving a catalogue entry with a careful description of each piece, including detailed discussions of the potential reconstruction of the work, its meaning, and relevant comparanda. Next is a general discussion of the meaning of the sculpture and architectural elements, their function and chronology, their place in Phrygian art and architecture, and their relationship to neighboring cultures. A comprehensive discussion by Claude Brixhe of the Phrygian inscription concludes the text. The plates provide a black and white photograph of every piece, along with drawings of suggested reconstructions and visual comparanda. At the end is a series of color photographs of several of the sculptural pieces and of one part of the stone inscription.

The major interest of the material presented here lies in the publication of the sculptures found in the area of the monumental entrance. The principal piece of sculpture is a near life-size statue of a standing male figure wearing a long gown and holding a rod or staff in the right hand. This is an important and unique find; very little life-size sculpture of any kind is known from Phrygia, and almost all extant examples of anthropomorphic sculpture depict a female figure, usually the Phrygian Mother goddess, the Greek and Roman Kybele. The precise identity of this male figure remains uncertain, but the piece is likely to have been a representation of a ruler or cult figure, perhaps a deified heroic ancestor. Another key find is a series of pieces belonging to a rectangular stone block that contained relief sculpture on its principal face. The relief sculpture is preserved in many small fragments and so its reconstruction is tentative, but a likely restoration presents two antithetical composite figures with human bodies and griffin heads, which stand and face each other beneath a winged sun. Both the sculpted male and the relief have numerous parallels with sculptures and reliefs from urban centers in southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria and Iraq, the so-called Neo-Hittite kingdoms, and these parallels are thoroughly explored by Draycott. Additionally, two architectural fragments, a stepped base and a series of stone bolsters discussed by Geoffrey Summers, probably also belonged to the same installation. The whole is presented in a suggested restoration comprising a stepped base, on which stood the inscribed stone block with the sculpted panel in the center, surmounted by the statue of the standing male figure. Draycott's discussion places the Kerkenes pieces in the context of Phrygian art and its relationship to the Neo-Hittite iconographic tradition, where the practice of representing dominant male figures and relief sculptures near the gates or entrances to a city was well established.

The final section, by Claude Brixhe, discusses the Phrygian inscription that was incised onto the raised edges of the large rectangular stone block. This is a summary of an earlier publication by Brixhe and Geoffrey Summers that appeared in Kadmos in 2006. Brixhe plausibly restores the inscription as a dedication by several individuals named within the text, presumably those who were responsible for erecting the monument. The inscription adds another example to the limited corpus of datable Phrygian inscriptions.

I noted a few minor points that I would disagree with. In discussing parallels for the costume of the statue of the male figure, Draycott states that the ribbed skirt of Kybele is usually shown with the hem drawn up and tucked into the belt. It is the veil of the goddess, however, that is drawn up and tucked into her belt, not her skirt, which always hangs straight down. In fact, the lack of a veil on the Kerkenes figure is a point that strengthens the figure's identity as a male. In the discussion of sculptural parallels, I would prefer to call the principal Phrygian goddess by her Phrygian name, Matar, or Mother. The term Kybele is a Greek name, one that was derived from one of the epithets of the Phrygian Mother but was never used as her name in Phrygia. But these are comparatively minor quibbles that do not detract from the overall quality of the publication. In general, the text is well written and free of errors, and the photographs are superb, especially the color photographs, which must be somewhat of a luxury in these times. The careful discussion and prompt publication of this important group of finds sets a high standard for the Kerkenes Project. We look forward to future presentations of material from this fascinating site.

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