“The Unusual Story of Yenikapı Station”

Ada Kocabaş interviewed with İstanbul University (İÜ) Faculty of Literature, the Conservation of Marine Archaeological Objects Department Head and the project director of İÜ Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project who is also his father on the on-going archaeological excavations since 2005.


Ada Kocabaş: Hello. In 2004 a great salvage exaction project was initiated in the district of Yenikapı within the scope of Marmaray railway –  metro stations project regarded one of the most important transportation projects in İstanbul. You serve for the Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project initiated by İstanbul University. Could you please tell the Avaz readers about your tasks in the Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project?

Ufuk Kocabaş: The curious and extraordinary construction story on Yenikapı Station where hundreds of thousands İstanbulites pass by every single day will always be remembered. As the specialists at İstanbul University we were included in the project in 2005 when the first shipwreck was revealed. I, as a marine archaeologist and conservation specialist, worked as the Vice President and Field Director of İstanbul University (İÜ) Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project between 2005 and 2008. I have been the president of the project since 2008 on behalf of the university. The team consists of the specialist archaeologists, ancient ship experts, conservationrestoration specialists and department assistants. Our team, carrying out projects under the auspices and with the support of the İstanbul Archaeological Museums, has undertaken the documentation and dismantling of 28 of 37 shipwrecks dated to the Middle Age discovered in the excavation site, besides the conservation and restoration in order to exhibit in a museum. Moreover, the lecturers and assistants at Istanbul University’s Department of Conservation of Marine Archaeological Objects, of which I am the founder and head, make contributions to the important project. Our team consisting of approximately 30 specialists has carried out field work for eight years. During the process I directed for the scientific strategy of the team, the development of the methodology used and the promotion and introduction of the research to the academic world through the articles and to the public opinion through the documentaries. After the excavations were completed, I am responsible for the maintenance of the conservation and restoration of the shipwrecks at the lab that we have founded.


Ada Kocabaş: What are the coastal regions where the excavations were performed?

Ufuk Kocabaş: The archaeological excavations, named “salvage excavations’’ were carried out at the historical districts of İstanbul including Yenikapı, Sirkeci and Üsküdar where Marmaray and Metro stations were constructed. In these three excavation fields it was encountered with many cultural remains that enlighten the archaic history on İstanbul. Especially during the archaeological excavations in the district of Yenikapı, the shipwrecks of Theodosius Harbor, namely Portus Theodosiacus which was one of the biggest harbors of Constantinople dated to the Byzantine period were discovered. The harbor, one of the most important commercial harbors, was used between 4th and 11th centuries AD and had important role for the transportation of the wheat carried by the ships from the Egypt and Alexandria. After being silted it was called “Langa” during the Ottoman period and used as a vegetable garden.


Ada Kocabaş: It is known that the most ancient site of İstanbul was at Yenikapı dating to 8 thousands years ago. What was found in relation to the first İstanbulites in the archaeological excavations?

Ufuk Kocabaş: The excavations were carried out from today’s Yenikapı to the last layer of Byzantine harbor embankment, which is approximately 5 meter cultural layer. The archaeologists who drilled to check for any cultural remains beneath the harbor embankment encountered with some cultural remains about 6 meters below sea level. When these remains were investigated, it was understood that they were not similar to the artefacts of the Byzantine era but belonged to another culture. The archaeologists who decided to work on the larger areas dated the remains found to the Neolithic Age mostly known as New Stone Age which dates back 8,500 years ago when mankind commenced settled life, agricultural practices and stockbreeding for the first time. In the investigations conducted, it was revealed that there had been a Neolithic village consisting of small huts with round plan. Moreover, the skeletons in fetal position which we named “Hocker” position and their grave gifts, which were dated to those period, were found. One of the most important findings belonging to the Neolithic layer was the footprint which was well-preserved and above 3,500. The organic artifacts found such as wood, ivory, bone, and leather said a lot about the daily life in the Neolithic period. The Neolithic findings enabled us to change the establishment date of İstanbul which was known as the 7th century BC, as the 6th century BC. As a result of the excavations, it was understood that the Sea of Marmara had been a lake at that time and that Neolithic people had settled around this lake.


Ada Kocabaş: You mentioned that it was reached to the Theodosius Harbor, regarded as the largest harbors of the ancient world within the scope of the Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project. What kind of findings and artifacts in relation to the city life in those days were encountered in the ongoing excavations?

Ufuk Kocabaş: In the western part of the Yenikapi excavation site, which is close to today’s Samatya district, the architectural remains were found belonging to the period of the 4th century AD when the harbor was constructed. In the archeological excavations conducted in this area, it was revealed the remains of breakwater of the harbor, a part of the dock, remains of sea walls, a secret passage and various ateliers related to the harbor. In the eastern part of the harbor there were remains of wooden jetties over 25 and remains of 2 stone jetties. Within the scope of the excavations conducted by the İstanbul Archeology Museums with a group of worker ranging from 600 to 1000 people and a specialist group of 50 people on approximately 58 thousand square meters, about 100 thousand well-preserved archaeological artefacts were found. The broken amphora fragments, expressed in millions, were considered to be the most important remaining showing the countries that the harbor had commercial relations. One of the most important findings was animal bones. More than 60 species of animals were identified in the osteo-archeological studies in which tens of thousands of animal bones were analyzed by İU the Faculty of Veterinary. The examinations made on the bones showed that some animals consumed as food. Especially when horse skulls were examined, it was determined that these animals were used for freight transport under difficult conditions. It was understood that the bridles used for riding horses caused the animals to die by piercing their palates; this indicates the intensity of trading volume and the difficulty of working conditions within the harbor.

Ada Kocabaş: You have mentioned that 37 shipwrecks were found in the excavations between 2005 and 2013. What kinds of studies were done about the shipwrecks afterwards?

Ufuk Kocabaş: The first thing done with a wreck found in the excavation site is covering it with a protective tent to preserve and installing a spray irrigation system to prevent drying of woods which are wet. The second stage includes the documentation of the shipwrecks that are excavated delicately by means of fine tools and water. After documentation such as photograph, photomosaic, digital drawing, taking visual notes, ship timber is started to be disassembled. It is required to remove the ship’s timber delicately, which is very sensitive, fragile, softened and wet, and store the timber wetly. Following that the wrecks, kept in the pools after a meticulous site work, are analyzed to understand construction technology. The parts of the ships, which are drawn in a 1:1 scale, are photographed. It was carried out by means of a digitizer by used by the experts in İÜ (İstanbul University) for the first time in Turkey. Completing the technological analysis, the parts of the ships are subjected to a series of conservation procedures. The ship tinder, being damaged under the water for hundreds of years is subjected to special chemicals and tried to be reinforced. To dry the timber, the freeze drying method (lyophilisation) is performed. It was also implemented in Turkey for the first time by the experts in İÜ. The main purpose here is to provide that each ship is in a condition that can be exhibited in museum.


Ada Kocabaş: The Yenikapı Shipwreck is the biggest ship collection found collectively today. Finally, what would you like to tell the readers about this collection?

Ufuk Kocabaş: Each shipwreck that was found is a “time capsule’’. It conveys the information concerning the period it sunk. For this reason, shipwrecks are one of the most important remains to understand the past. Besides the commercial ships found in Yenikapı, the other important group consists of the rowboats which we named galiot used in the Byzantine Navy. These galiots discovered for the first time in an archaeological excavation provided us a lot of information from seating order to shape of ship. Moreover, the wood analysis carried out by experts in the İÜ Faculty of Forestry enabled us to learn all the wood types used in the construction of the ships. Tens of scientists from different disciplines have taken part in Yenikapı salvage excavation, which is regarded as one of the most important archaeological discovery, and in researches after excavations; and they try to enlighten the ancient history of the city we live in. As a scientist, I am quite happy to be included in these researchers and part of the project that I carry out with my team.

Ada Kocabaş: Thank you very much for the information you gave.

Ufuk Kocabaş: Ada, it was a great pleasure for me. Moreover, I am honored that your first interview was with me. I hope the interview would inspire your friends about the maritime archeology.