At its most august, Ephesus sustained a population of about 300,000. At that same moment, another Roman city, also an outpost far from Rome, housed some 45-50,000 along the banks of the Thames. Both cities, like Pergamon, the third on this summer’s tour, were protected by a common deity—the Emperor Hadrian—who was complaisant enough to visit each metropolis and to bestow his countenance upon more than a few statues.
Today, Ephesus is one of the largest and most astonishing outdoor museums in the world. With understandable breaks to accommodate two world wars, archeologists have labored here since 1867, yet less than 20% of the city has been unearthed. Artifacts recovered between 1867 and 1906 made their way to the British Museum; those found between 1906 and 1923 went to the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. In 1923, Ataturk’s newly created Republic of Turkey banned the export of cultural relics from Ephesus. Now, a museum displaying the ongoing archeological finds is open in Selcuk, a few miles from downtown Ephesus.
In 1898 Otto Benndorf helped found the Austrian Institute of Archeology for the discrete purpose of exploring the ruins at Ephesus. To this day, despite the ban on exportation, Austrian teams continue their work, finding, recovering, and restoring the ancient city. Indeed, in my mind, the Austrian contribution contains the seed of what might become the best way to solve the current controversy between the ‘cultural identity’ argument of the nationalists and the ‘antiquity belongs to all humanity’ mantra of the encyclopedic museums like the Brit, the Met, and the Louvre.
What makes the Austrian experience, so much as I understand it, tutelary? First, the Austrians have demonstrated exceptional ingenuity in restoring the city. The famous façade of the Celsus library, for instance, was rebuilt by this team from stones and fragments scattered throughout the city, many of them having been reused in new buildings. Likewise, Vienna’s Ephesus Museum displays monumental friezes that celebrate the Roman victory over the Parthians. These remnants were also dispersed through the city’s ruins and have been recovered from their recycled building sites and re-assembled in acts of patient genius. Second, the most contemporary work at Ephesus has challenged the Austrian archeologists to develop a new way to dig, research, restore, and display new finds, all simultaneously, all ingeniously. To whit: in the picture that heads this blog, you’ll see the great library. Just to the left, you’ll see temporary walls and roof. This structure is both the work site and the museum for the Terrace Houses in a ritzy part of the first century town. As the pictures below reveal, the Austrian Institute has created a meandering path—steel staircases leading to glass walkways leading to steel staircases—along which we can climb, level by level, up the steeply terraced neighborhood. All the while, we look down into the houses at the mosaic floors, the muraled walls, the narrow passageways, and the work sites of the archeologists. We see the long worktables where painstaking workers sort through 120,000 shards of jigsaw puzzle marble as they try to reconstruct what must have been a single magnificent house.
The museum itself feels portable, expandable, anticipatory, as if it knows it will grow taller and deeper as the archeologists continue their work. At the same time, there’s a sense that the museum lives on borrowed time even as Ephesus, in its ponderous, weighted solidity, could not withstand earthquakes, changing trade routes, receding the coastline, and time. But the museum is bright, airy, and cheerful, and wise, like the aged ones in the Yeats’ poem:
“Their eyes mid many wrinkles,
Their ancient glittering eyes, are gay.”
These houses, with their small painted rooms, their neighborhood ambience, their purely domestic sensibility stand in elegant contrast to the monumental architecture of the library, the great agora, the long marble street leading down to the library, the great theatre where Paul preached, the vast gymnasium, the irretrievably lost Temple to Artemis–one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the context of these monuments, the domestic houses mean everything to our understanding. And in the context of these houses, the great monuments take on a human meaning that ennobles both the public structures and the private dwellings. How brilliant, then, that modern archeology so honors both the revealed artifacts and the physical place–the locus–where they took and gave their lives. How shallow, by comparison, would these rooms seem were they transported to a distant European capital to be displayed in the palatial halls of yet another dead empire!
Third, and here is were good fortune smiles, the Terrace Houses of Ephesus and the artifacts in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna can become the model for museums of Contextual Archeology, museums that do not keep a stranglehold on their ‘possessions,’ but truly exemplify the understanding that antiquity belongs to all humanity and, like all humanity, must be permitted the freedom to travel.
The galleries combining the Turkish and Viennese holdings (and this will take two separate posts to accomplish) contains pictures of:1) monumental Ephesus, and 2) some of the portable stonework held in Vienna; 3) the Terrace Houses work site in Ephesus, and 4) some of the smaller, domestic artifacts in Vienna that would so richly complete the mostly vacant rooms they once occupied.
Creating or re-deploying current museums into museums of Contextual Archeology would require no current museum to close down. Rather, for instance, the museums in Vienna and Selcuk could devise a circulation pattern that would reward second and third visits to either museum—and perhaps visits to Turkey as well. The potential increase in interest might help fund further work at Ephesus where, already, a million visitors a year come, not for the museum, but for the city and its revealed civilization. And the display of the domestic artifacts within the Terrace Houses would dramatically enhance the viewing pleasure and educational value of the museum.
The desired outcome: Paired rather than competing museums. Artifacts that circulate on, say, an eight or ten year schedule rather than lawsuits demanding the permanent return of all antiquities. A recognition that antiquity, while it may not share national or ethnic identity with the modern state, is intimately related to the physical place of its making and use. A refreshing of encyclopedic museums’ holdings as they, too, subscribe to a sustainable and equable circulation of humanity’s cultural heritage.
Now, imagine how the Ephesian artifacts currently housed in Vienna might enrich the monumental and particularly the domestic remains of the ancient city. Tell me where we might go from here.
[The gallery here contains images of the Terrace Housing project and some of the domestic artifacts held in Vienna’s Ephesus Museum. I do not know if the heads of statues were indoor or outdoor art works. They are relatively small and could have been placed indoors or on a terrace.]