From the Ground Up: Archaeology and Landscape in the Xanthos Watershed

From the Ground Up: Archaeology and Landscape in the Xanthos Watershed

§1 The Lycian region of Turkey possesses a multicultural history equally as rich as its landscape. Seton Lloyd describes the region in a traveler’s guide to ancient Turkey: “In the confines of this strange highland with its narrow approaches and elevated interior, an indigenous people, speaking a language of their own, are already to be found in the Bronze Age and surviving until the Christian era, maintaining their cultural traditions with obstinate tenacity.”[1] The Xanthos Valley, in particular, presents a spectrum of settlements united by the flow of the ancient river. The diversity of its historical settlements, from broad-beached harbors like Patara, to the steep-cut cliffs of Pinara, offers a diverse archaeological assemblage. In order to understand better the ways in which the inhabitants adapted to the unique topography of the region, we produced a Google Map of the Xanthos watershed using extant GIS data annotated with personal observations. Through this teaching and learning study, it became evident that Xanthos residents have strategically responded to the limitations and opportunities presented by the landscape. A nascent initiative, “From the Ground Up,” builds on our study tour’s preliminary efforts by seeking to model the flows and dams of people and resources in the Xanthos watershed.

§2 Prior to departure, we conducted a background study to identify the major sites of the Xanthos Valley region. The works of George Bean, Ekrem Akurgal, and John Freely provided information regarding specific locations, including historical data and visual depictions, as well as information about each site’s size and public features. Information about spatial positions and arrangement allowed us to postulate how specific sites responded to the landscape during construction and development. For example, signs of defensive walls, aqueducts, or particularly high acropoleis indicate residents adapting natural landscape features to fit the needs of urban communities. While these general sources were useful for understanding archaeological remains at specific sites, they provided minimal contextual data about interactions between sites and the regional landscape.[2] Other contemporary scholarly publications have typically remained limited to iconography and architecture, rather than integrated, macro-level analyses. A focus on structures such as theaters and baths, while valuable, does not provide readers with a thorough understanding of the dynamic interactions and interventions between the environment and ancient populations.

§3 The majority of the in-depth scholarship on the Xanthos watershed focuses on the prominent sites positioned at the river delta. The work of Eric Fouache et al., however, particularly “Paleogeographical reconstruction and management challenges of an archaeological site listed by UNESCO: The case of the Letoon shrine and the Xanthos plain (Turkey),” departs from previous scholarship focused on individual site features by consciously treating the development of the delta plain of the river and its cities and sanctuaries as co-dependent. Patara’s location at the southeast seaside corner allowed for an easy flow of people and resources to and from ships passing the coastline. Bean, Akurgal, Freely, and Fouache et al. all emphasize the vast importance that Patara’s harbor played for trading and as entry point to the Xanthos Valley. Whereas Patara was well known for its prominent harbor, Letoon — a site of massive ritual significance — had a completely different character. This site, located on the west bank of the Xanthos River, was probably located on a large lagoon full of marshes. Fouache et al. argue, “Gradual alluviation pushed the marshy areas towards the edge of the lagoon, which was gradually shrinking. It is thus in a landscape composed of lagoons and marshes that the shrine came into existence.”[3] Although natural forces created the landscape, the topography “enhanced the religious value of the shrine, thus conferring a symbolic dimension upon the environment.”[4] As a natural hill in a waterscape, Letoon provided a place for residents to use their mythology about Leto, the namesake of the site, to account for the unique environment. According to one version of the myth, wolves allowed the goddess Leto to drink from a pool at the site. She was so grateful that she renamed the region Lycia after the Greek word lykos (wolf). Thus, she became the patron deity of Lycia, along with her children Apollo and Artemis.[5] The marshy landscape not only contributed to the mystical qualities of the site, but also factored into Lycian cult identity, allowing them to utilize the location as a point of uniqueness and regional pride. Whereas Letoon and Patara are at sea level, Pinara, a site only 27 kilometers away, possesses a precipitous acropolis. According to Akurgal, Pinara was directly accessible by a main north-south road through the river valley, and held significant power in the confederational Lycian government.[6] One distinct feature of Pinara is its large number of rock-cut tombs. Hundreds of these tombs are carved out of cliff faces surround the city. This is an indication of the important effect a site’s landscape has on those who settle there, and reveals how people took advantage of topography to advertise the resting places of their ancestors. The examples of Pinara, Patara, and Letoon, all located in a coherent region, exhibit evidence of the Lycian people utilizing variables such as proximity to the Xanthos River and elevation as sources of distinctive regional and civic identity.

§4 Once we had identified the major sites and completed a background study about their historical context, we placed the sites on a custom-made Google Map. Google’s satellite imagery allowed us to visualize the three-dimensional environments of each site more clearly, giving an environmental context to our library work. The location of each site was determined by obtaining coordinates from Internet databases, literature descriptions, and paper maps. In the cases of lesser-known sites, GPS coordinates were not available or were inaccurate. However, by scrutinizing satellite imagery in comparison with the Barrington Atlas of Greek and Roman World, we were able to more accurately pinpoint the specific locations of sites.[7] Because some sites remained obscure, we hoped to refine the coordinates during the trip to Turkey.

§5 We then focused on ancient roads in order to consider pathways of communication and travel. The Barrington Atlas of Greek and Roman World provided a few specific instances. Nineteenth-century cartography and satellite imagery on Google Maps also helped us become familiar with the topography surrounding each site of the region and to trace likely routes. In many cases, ancient roads seem to follow the same course as modern roads, indicating common travel routes subject to topographic constraints throughout history. We also began to note the presence of aqueducts in order to understand how the people acquired that most important resource for settlement and farming.

§6 After we completed the Google Map, we began to examine how residents of the Xanthos watershed region might have participated in a spectrum of interaction with their topography along the river. Through marking probable ancient roads and noting the path of the ancient river and its tributaries, pathways for the flows of people and resources began to emerge. No site stands completely isolated and independent of others, leading us to believe that all of the sites in the valley participated in a complex network of established routes. With its corrugated landscape, the Xanthos Valley both facilitated and hindered the flow of physical and cultural resources among sites and both in and out of the region.

§7 Expert observation furthered our understanding of the region. This perspective and background proved useful when observing sites and their landscape. As we traveled, we noticed important archaeological structures that may have not been visible from our Google Map. In the valleys, we considered evidence of key communication pathways, such as potential roads, and life-sustaining resources such as cisterns (proxies for roads) between sites in order to understand how each site communicated with others and sustained both its own population and that of travelers. Likewise, visual recognition of distinctive features at each site, as well as their individual surrounding landscapes, provided a human-scale perspective on the benefits and challenges of landscape niches.

§8 At each site, we considered several variables. First, we observed how the site was positioned in relation to the landscape. In other words, we noted where the settlement had been built, and considered how the landscape, including variables such as geology, vegetation, and elevation, affected the place at which it was built. Second, we discussed how people at each site would have accessed resources through proximity to roads, sources of water, and arable land. Water-rich sites along the eastern mountain range and water-poor sites in the western mountain range adapted to the landscape differently based on soil type, slope, and access to these variables (e.g., planting vegetables vs. vines vs. wheat vs. olives). Third, we discussed how the site’s landscape did or did not aid protection from potential invaders. Finally, we noted how buildings and structures incorporated the environment into their design, such as a strategically oriented acropolis or water storage areas near springs. In order to illustrate the range of sites throughout the Xanthos Valley region, we will focus on some particularly revealing sites.

§9 Pidnai, a relatively unknown and rarely visited Hellenistic to Byzantine fortress site at the mouth of the Xanthos, illustrates the interconnectedness of site and landscape. Pidnai is located at the opposite end of the Xanthos delta from Patara, the aforementioned harbor site. The size of this fortress indicates it was not the location of a large settlement; strong towers and gates imply defensive purposes and the capability to monitor people and goods. In their paleogeographical research, Fouache et al. briefly mention Pidnai and note its location on maps. There is some evidence for a small port nearby; however, as sediment flowed down the river, it began to collect in the delta region. Progressive flooding of the delta and accumulating sediment made access to the port difficult and inhibited further growth of the fort.[8] However, the site’s placement at the mouth of the Xanthos River gave it a prime location for restricting and allowing access to the Xanthos River, and by extension, sites further up the valley. Additionally, Pidnai could be reached by small craft from the regional metropolis of Xanthos at the neck of the delta, and Pidnai could communicate easily with the Letoon, not far across the mouth of the river.[9]

§10 Moving inland from the sites at the mouth of the Xanthos, mid-valley sites such as Tlos and Araxa illustrate the spectrum of prominent land-bound sites in the valley. Like Pinara, Tlos incorporates a highly defensible hilltop acropolis. It also has abundant access to water at all times of the year from mountain springs that feed the Xanthos. Tlos, which became a key site in the valley, clearly engaged in relationships with travelers along the valley, yet still thought it necessary to defend against potential hostility. In contrast, the mid-upper valley sites like Araxa tend to be located closer to cultivatable land. The further we moved up the Xanthos watershed towards the yayla (pasture highlands), the smaller and less fortified sites became. These sites were further from the opportunities and dangers near the mouth of the Xanthos. However, after a steep climb through mountain passes, the site of Oinoanda in the upper Xanthos Valley returns to the hilltop model. Oinoanda represents a fortified site near the northern extent of the river system, and it adapted to its difficult position by constructing an aqueduct. Oinoanda’s larger size indicates that it provided a link between originally Bronze Age höyük sites further inland like Eçeler and Çaltilar, which were located next to river tributaries and rich farmland, and trading sites in the southern Xanthos valley near the coast.

§11 In addition to general observations, we noticed more recent proxies for ancient features. As we traveled from site to site, we gained a more detailed understanding of the road system and gaps in our knowledge of it. We noticed the presence of ancient roads not yet mapped by archaeologists. Bridges and cisterns must have marked routes along which resources moved up and down the valley. Modern cemeteries may also register locations that could have served roads in the ancient world. Cemeteries were often placed along roads for the purpose of memorializing ancestors, so modern cemeteries (often built over old burial grounds) may help fill in gaps along well-traveled pathways. Such proxies offer hypotheses to test in future studies.

§12 Our Google Maps work helped inspire a study of the flow of people and resources in the Xanthos River valley. It became evident that, although the landscape did influence how people settled, it did not seem to prevent any communication pathways. In many cases, high and remote locations overcame their topography through human intervention. The mountainous landscape of the region, however, constrained roads and communication pathways, and affected where settlements could be located. A systematic examination of the negotiation between proximity to roads and resources – and safety from danger – would be necessary to convert such preliminary observations into a formal research agenda.

§13 The team’s observations, based on the Google Map, prompted a brainstorming session for a desktop project, tentatively entitled “From the Ground Up.” A joint NSF/SBE-RCUK grant could use GIS technology in order to understand the flows and dams of the archaeological and environmental variables affecting, and being affected by, ancient settlements. Using ArcGIS, geometric networks could be built to model uni-directional flows (water, soil) while network datasets could model bi-directional flows (roads for people, goods, information) or waterways. Such a project could analyze the relationship between the environment and archaeological data gathered from existing surveys of the region, helping to fill gaps in knowledge, especially for a period of intense but variable urbanization from ca. 700 BC to AD 700. It could incorporate an understanding of trade pathways and resource movement, including food, people, and ideas, which could then be connected to well-documented historical periods such as the Hellenistic and Roman eras. This would have the potential to provide a more nuanced and rich understanding of the entire Xanthos Valley system beyond the operations of individual sites. The project could model factors such as carrying capacity, settlement density, population, and energy costs, with the intention that the model could be applied to other environments as well. If funded, “From the Ground Up” could provide a template for scholars to map out and visualize ideas before beginning fieldwork in their own areas.

§14 Our teaching and learning project about Lycia suggests that there is much to be learned about peoples’ relationship to their environment. Although the landscape can often hinder communication pathways, it is evident that the people of the Xanthos valley found ways to utilize a complex and difficult landscape to their benefit. It is equally clear that, rather than understanding sites independently, it is necessary to view the valley as a network of sites extending from the mouth of the Xanthos far into its upper valley. Our efforts have yielded building blocks for a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and landscape, one that focuses on understanding archaeology “from the ground up.”

[1] Lloyd 1989:17.

[2] Bean 1997.

[3] Fouache et al. 2012:43.

[4] Fouache et al. 2012:45.

[5] Freely 1997:221.

[6] Akurgal 1989:256.

[7] Talbert 2000.

[8] Fouache et al. 2009:45.

[9] Fouache et al. 2012:44.


Akurgal, E. 1989. Ancient Civilizations and Ruins of Turkey.

Bean, G. E. 1989. Lycian Turkey: An Archaeological Guide. London.

Fouache, E., et al. 2009. “Reconstitution Paléogéographique des Dynamiques Paysagères durant L’Holocène autour de Xanthos et Létôon dans l’Ancienne Lycie (Turquie): Premiere Résultats.” Norois 113.4:59–71.

Fouache, E., et al. 2012. “Paleogeographical reconstruction and management challenges of an archaeological site listed by UNESCO: The case of the Letoon shrine and the Xanthos plain (Turkey).” Quaestions Geographicae 31.1:37–49.

Freely, J. 1997. The Western Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Istanbul.

Lloyd, S. 1989. Ancient Turkey: A traveler’s history. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Talbert, R. J. A., ed. 2000. Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. Princeton.

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