International Symposium on the Aegean in the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age.

13th - 19th October.

Review by Peter Tomkins.

The conference delegates.
© Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project (IRERP) 1997.

For one week in October, the Municipality of Urla, situated near Izmir on Turkey's Aegean coast, played host to a truly international gathering of archaeologists. Although diverse in outlook, all were united in their focus on the archaeology of the Aegean and its coastal hinterland. Responsibility for the genesis of the symposium lay with Professor Harald Hauptman (Director of the German Institute of Archaeology at Istanbul) and Professor Hayat Erkanal (Professor of Prehistory and Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Ankara) who saw the clear need for a re-assessment of the Aegean in the Neolithic (and indeed Palaeolithic), Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age (c. 8000 BC — 2100 BC), which reflected the very diverse, detailed and disparate research now being conducted in this region.

Recent work has provided a real opportunity to broaden and deepen discussion beyond the individual sequences of a few well-excavated 'landmark' sites, such as Troy. Thus the symposium was an excellent way both of reflecting this reality and of bringing researchers, spread all around the Aegean, together perhaps for the first time: the result was a stimulating exchange of ideas, producing both conflict and harmony, to the ultimate benefit of our understanding of the Aegean during these periods.

It would be pointless, with a such a large and diverse gathering of archaeologists, archaeometrists and geographers, to attempt to reproduce individual arguments and perspectives. Abstracts for almost all of the papers given, as well as many of those which ultimately, for a variety of reasons, couldn't be presented, can be found at the symposium home-page. In addition a conference volume is also in preparation.

A recurrent theme throughout the symposium was the idea of the Aegean Sea acting not as a barrier, but as a unifying feature (and on this subject, click here to see Graeme Warren's paper in assemblage 2), not only in the modern era of fast efficient sea transport, but also in the past, from the very earliest periods of human occupation of the region. The common heritage of the countries bordering the Aegean was constantly stressed; that is not to deny the existence of regional differences within the Aegean, so much as to emphasise their non-adherence to modern political borders.

Indeed, although only occasionally referred to publicly during the conference, there was a clear political dimension to the proceedings. Perhaps the real significance of the gathering lies not in the advancements gained within the comparatively narrow field of archaeological research, but in the presence at a conference in Turkey of over 30 Greek archaeologists and as many Turkish. Indeed a real spirit of friendship and co-operation ran through the symposium at all levels. Although this was clearly genuine on the part of all concerned, much credit must be given to the Municipality of Urla and in particular its mayor, Mr Bülent Baratali, who, along with Dr. Turhan Ozkan (Director of the Izmir Archaeological Museum), was also one of the conference organisers. The Municipality gave the whole event liberal sponsorship: there were no conference fees; accommodation and food were provided free of charge to all attending; buses were laid on to link the various venues and hotels; and at the end of the week there were day trips to Liman Tepe, Panaztepe, Bakla Tepe and Troy.

This hospitality extended to individual Urlans, who were unfailingly friendly and generous. They also displayed real pride that such an international gathering was taking place locally — all shops displayed the conference poster, which featured the impressive Early Bronze Age horse-shoe bastion from the nearby site of Liman Tepe. Liman Tepe itself appeared to be playing a part in the construction of community identity — a link with 'Urlans' of the past and a bridge to the future, both in the way that it would attract visitors and therefore income, but also, perhaps, in the way that, in its ancient international connections and Aegean focus, it has come to symbolise a spirit of friendship and co-operation with the Aegean islands and beyond. Certainly this spirit was clearly in evidence when the mayor and a large group of Urlans travelled to the port of Cesmealti to welcome Greeks arriving by boat with flowers, olive branches and welcome banners in Greek. Not that this should be seen as a one-off gesture, but rather as part of a process whereby the Municipality is seeking to build closer contacts with the nearby Greek islands of Chios and Samos.

This hope of bridging a 'divide', which will always be political and ideological rather than physical, has its archaeological correlative both in the many regional syntheses presented at the Symposium and in 'bridging' survey projects, such as that of Kyriakos Lambrianides (British School at Ankara) and Nigel Spencer (Institute of Archaeology, Oxford). They have sought to associate the development of Early Bronze Age sites on Greek Lesbos, of which much is known, with sites newly discovered as part of their survey of the nearby (less than 20km) Turkish Madra Cay Delta.

However, the fact remains that truly collaborative Greek-Turkish projects are rare. Nevertheless this symposium represents a giant first step; as Professor Doumas (University of Athens) described it in his opening speech, "the beginnings of the foundations for a platform to discuss Aegean problems". While it is hoped that Greek-Turkish collaborative projects will happen in the short term, it is with younger scholars that the real opportunity lies. If the spirit of friendship and the open sharing of ideas, which made this symposium so enjoyable, could be maintained through its establishment on a regular basis, then the opportunity would be provided for a generation of scholars to grow up in an academic environment of co-operation and collaboration. To this end the establishment of a periodical and the exchange of scholars, students and material were all proposed. However, while Aegean archaeology certainly prospered at Urla, once the sound of fine rhetoric and friendly speeches has died away, the ultimate success of the symposium will depend on such proposals becoming realities.

Peter Tomkins is a research student at the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield. He is currently in his first year of his Ph.D. on the production and consumption of Early Neolithic ceramics in Crete.

© Peter Tomkins 1997

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