At the entrance to a mosque in Kozören, a small farming village in central Turkey, Princeton history professor John Haldon leans to the right, dips his shoulder, and cranes his neck to read the inscription on a large, cylindrical stone. In addition to being upside down, the rows of Latin letters have been scratched and eroded over hundreds of years. But Haldon requires little time to identify the marker’s original purpose. In the second or third century, long before it became a pillar for an iron gateway, this milestone stood alongside the Roman road to Amasya, a town about 25 miles east of Kozören. It is the first Latin inscription that Haldon and his colleagues have found in their two seasons of research in the region. Most local inscriptions are in Greek, the preferred language of the Byzantine Empire.
As Haldon examines the inscription, colleague Jim Newhard, a classicist from the College of Charleston, trains his eyes on a hand-held computer, zooming in on a satellite image of the region to locate the exact spot where the Roman milestone now stands. On the other side of the narrow stone road next to the mosque, Hugh Elton, a historian from Trent University in Canada, speaks with a local farmer about other inscriptions and artifacts near the village.
Within 10 minutes, villagers lead the researchers to several stones recycled for modern uses, including a sarcophagus that now serves as a drinking trough for livestock and an inscribed block that has been reused in the foundation of a barn. After thanking their impromptu guides and sipping cold ayran, a salty yogurt drink, the three men return to their rented Ford Focus to follow another lead. From the passenger seat Haldon quips, “Well, that was a good start.”
A few chunks of ancient limestone might seem pedestrian compared to the precious objects that accompany Hollywood’s portrayals of archaeology — lost cities, gold-laden tombs, and the like. But Haldon, one of the world’s leading Byzantine scholars, did not come to this area of the Anatolian plateau to search for treasure. He chose to center his research at the nearby village of Avkat, paradoxically, because “it wasn’t important.” Not in the traditional sense, at least. Avkat was the medieval equivalent of a one-horse town, occupied by peasant farmers and herders and a few state and church officials. It housed one modest landmark — the burial shrine of Theodore the Recruit, a soldier-saint once revered in the region — and produced little wine or olive oil, the region’s most prized consumer goods during ancient and medieval times.
The Byzantine Empire, depending on how one defines its beginning, spanned about 1,000 years, ending with the fall of Constantinople — now Istanbul — in 1453. At its height, as much as 90 percent of the empire’s population likely lived in small, rural towns like Avkat and its surrounding area, but relatively little is known about how these residents lived or how they communicated and traded with their neighbors. The Avkat project aims to address basic but important questions about how people lived, labored, and traveled in the region, from prehistoric times to the Ottoman era. Work is not limited to Avkat or its immediate neighborhood: Over a 10-year period, Haldon and his colleagues hope to survey parts of an area that covers nearly 600 square miles of central Anatolia. In the process, they will employ technologies like those used in Newhard’s hand-held computer to organize the information they gather and share it with other researchers.