Report 8: Ordinary Lydians at Home: The Lydian Trenches of the House of Bronzes and Pactolus Cliff at Sardis (2021)

by Andrew Ramage, Nancy H. Ramage, and Gül Gürtekin Demir



The ancient city of Sardis, capital of the kingdom of Lydia, was famed in antiquity for its gold, and for luxurious textiles and fast horses. Its most famous king, Croesus, was so wealthy that “rich as Croesus” has become a household expression. He was wealthy enough to send tons of gold to the oracle at Delphi, according to the historian Herodotus (I.92).

Croesus was the last of the Lydian kings, who was overthrown by Cyrus the Great of Persia. The story is shrouded in legend because it is claimed by Herodotus that none other than Apollo saved Croesus’ life. Croesus had been put on a funeral pyre and was to be burned to death, but Apollo sent a huge rainstorm that quenched the fire just in time. This event, which took place in the middle of the sixth century B.C., is the point at which this book ends. It begins in an era shrouded in even more darkness, but one that is beginning to take better shape through the illuminating light of archaeology. The material here begins in the Late Bronze Age, approximately the twelfth century B.C., when Sardis was not much more than a small village. It was only later that it became one of the great cities of Asia Minor. But it is not Croesus or his royal predecessors who are the subject here; rather, it is the humble workman, farmer, and craftsman, and their womenfolk, who lived and worked in small houses, that are our subject.

In two areas of the city where these people made their homes, the Sardis Expedition found buildings with walls made of stone foundations, sometimes topped by mudbrick; streets and alleys between the buildings; and the contents of these houses, sometimes lying about as if the inhabitants had just left. Not only pottery, but also metal knives and tools, objects made of bone, and the occasional terracotta were found here. It was our job to try to make sense of the masses of finds discovered in over a decade of digging in these two archaeological areas.

The first and larger of these sectors is called “The Lydian Trench at HoB,” for the Late Roman House of Bronzes that had been discovered nearby (1958–1960) and that had shown the first indications of Lydian occupation beneath its floors. The Lydian Trench was excavated from 1959 to 1970, mostly under the expert supervision of Gustavus F. Swift, Jr., and again in smaller probes in the 1980s. Our account details the features found from archaeological layers covering more than 650 years, ca. 1200 to ca. 550 B.C.

The second, and much smaller, sector is called “PC,” for Pactolus Cliff. This was a small area on an eastern bluff by the Pactolus River. This site came to light when some sculpture from a Roman sarcophagus and large marble blocks fell into the streambed over the winter months of 1958 and 1959, instigating work here that took place in the summers of 1959 and 1960. In the excavation, overseen by Mario Del Chiaro, the Lydian remains were found beneath Roman tombs.

In these two areas of Sardis were excavated the humble homes of local people. In some periods, only small traces of their lives emerged, but enough to enable us to try to make some sense of the history of the site. The Lydians were a little-known people before the investigations of the Harvard-Cornell Expedition, which began in 1958. The long-standing excavation has elucidated many aspects of ancient Sardis; this volume reports on two areas that revealed Lydian occupation, giving us a picture of everyday Lydians—their housing, streets, and domestic objects—in an effort to make sense of the stratigraphy and finds documenting the lives of these ordinary Lydians at home.

As the city grew over time, it traded with its Greek neighbors to the west, and its Anatolian neighbors to the east. These foreigners had a noticeable influence on the Lydians, especially on their pottery. One of the best ways of determining these influences is to study the shapes and decoration on Lydian pots, and this has been one of the major thrusts of the book. To set the guidelines, the first chapter addresses issues concerning the ceramic output of potters at Sardis: first a description of the shapes of Lydian pots, followed by observations on how pottery was repaired and reused; then, an explanation of the body fabrics; and finally, the types of decoration and techniques used on Lydian painted pots. The introductory chapter thus discusses Lydian pottery as a foundation for the study of the stratigraphy and the interpretation of the finds from HoB and PC.

Following the pottery chapter, the authors bring together observations about this area of Sardis, including the overall topography of the site, with a concentration on the physical factors that have shaped the north flank of the Acropolis, and the alluvial deposits that helped to form the landscape. The remainder of Part I deals with the stratigraphy of sector HoB, and then Part II with that of Pactolus Cliff. Finally, in Part III, we present a catalogue of the finds, first from HoB and then from PC. After the catalogues, the reader will find an appendix with a summary of scientific analyses, the bibliography, illustration credits, concordances, and the index.

We start the Lydian period in the Late Bronze Age (1100–1000 B.C.), which is not to say that there were no Lydians before then, but that is when the majority of the evidence for people living in Sardis itself begins to appear. We do know that peoples earlier than this were living around the Gygaean Lake just to the north of Sardis, and that there was a great city, newly discovered, at Kaymakçı, on the western side of that lake. But this current book deals with Sardis itself, and that is why our earliest finds are from the Late Bronze Age. These were retrieved from the lowest levels of three deep soundings, excavated in 1960, 1962, and 1966, each of which is discussed in detail. Among the exciting finds at those low depths were the floor of a hut, a pithos burial, walls, pottery, and metal objects as well as, remarkably, the skeleton of a donkey.

The centuries following these earliest levels are divided into four periods, Lydian IV through I, ranging from the eleventh to the mid-sixth centuries. Each of these periods is discussed as appropriate, both for sector HoB and for sector PC.

Not much of Lydian IV survives, but there are traces of walls and some pottery with Greek Geometric influence. Lydian III is distinguished especially by widely evident signs of a major conflagration as well as of death and disastrous destruction. Quite a few human skeletons, including that of a small girl, tell of violence in this period. The date of this destruction has been identified as late eighth century, based on the pottery of this level. Who the attackers were is not clear.

Lydian II is the period when we have, for the first time, considerable evidence of how people lived at Sardis. A series of houses that may also have served as workshops was found within an enclosure wall on the western side of the trench. In several of these structures, pottery and other artifacts were found on the floor as if the inhabitants had just left the house. Built-in structures for storage, cooking, and workshops, as well as streets and alleys, survived from this period. The inhabitants of Sardis in Lydian II made use of large pits that they dug into the ground for storage or garbage (or both). The bottoms of many of these pits, or bothroi, showed on the floor levels of Lydian III because the diggers had cut through the thick layer of gravel that had been deposited on top of the burned layer of Lydian III.

In the period of Lydian I, far more evidence of living arrangements and types of activities conducted in the houses could be read from the surviving remains. In evidence were not only the walls of houses and pots on the floor, but also artifacts from a bone-working establishment and the making of loom weights. It was a floor and walls of this period, found beneath the Roman House of Bronzes, that first alerted the excavators to the fact that remains from the Lydian period lay just below the Roman floors.

At sector PC, beneath the Tomb of the Lintel and two Roman vaulted chamber tombs, Lydian walls began to appear so close to the later levels that in one case, a Hellenistic wall in the Tomb of the Lintel was built right on top of the Lydian Wall 9. PC had many walls, as well as floor levels, that had to be sorted out as to their chronology. In general we can say that the period under discussion is similar to that of HoB, although it doesn’t start as far back. Lydian IV is the earliest level at which material was found in sector PC.

Neither HoB nor PC seems to have flourished after the fall of Sardis to Cyrus the Great. HoB may have become something of a dumping ground and, in the northern section, an industrial area. Little of the Persian period showed up in PC.

This book sets out for the first time a comprehensive study of Lydian pottery in the context of the floors and buildings where it was found. The pottery here is intended to work hand-in-hand with the stratigraphy, the walls, and the other remains in order to paint a picture of the work and life of ordinary people in a Lydian town over the centuries.