Overview of the history of research on Miletus
The site of ancient Miletus was never a secret, as the remnants of some buildings have always been visible. During the Byzantine Empire, the city changed its name to Palatia, and the village near the ancient city is called Balat to this day.
The Theater of Miletus, 1843. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
A French team was the first to excavate Miletus in 1873; they focused on the theatre. Their primary objective was to find works of art, and the mission yielded six statues, which were later gifted to the Louvre Museum in Paris. Many objects that had been perceived as less valuable remained on site.
From 1899, a large-scale excavation was carried out under the supervision of the archaeologist Theodor Wiegand, funded by the German Emperor. Half of the finds from this “old” dig were given to the Berlin State Museums under contract. Wiegand’s declared aim was to reinvigorate the sleeping metropolis of Miletus and capture its history throughout the epochs, from the Archaic period to the Middle Ages. Most of the finds from his excavation date back to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Findings, which were useful for publications on the time of the Turkish emirate, were also brought up. The First World War put an end to the project.
Archaeologists only returned to Miletus in 1955, this time under Gerhard Kleiner. In the same year, a major earthquake destroyed the village of Balat and the magazines of the “old” dig. The village that had been located in the ancient city was moved to a site outside of its walls.
Until 1973, the archaeologists focused on exploring the Mycenaean and Archaic city. Notably, initial restoration works took place at this time. The researchers studied the buildings from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, which had been previously unearthed by Wiegand in considerable depth. The latter was largely due to the efforts of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener, who was to be the director of the Miletus excavation between 1975 and 1988. At the time, excavations and further restoration and conservation measures took place in the Hellenistic temples. The archaeologists also discovered evidence of a prehistoric settlement predating Miletus.
The bus of the Miletus excavation on the ancient site, 2019. Source: N. Lordoğlu, Miletus Excavation (Universität Hamburg)
From 1990 onwards, the archaeologists on site dedicated their time to exploring Archaic Miletus, working under the supervision of Volkmar von Graeve. Now, the excavation focused not only on the Hellenistic and imperial city center but also on the two southwestern hills, Kalabaktepe and Zeytintepe. Deposits that were identified as rubble dating back to the destruction of Miletus in 494 BCE after the Ionian revolt gave new clues into the extent and location of the Archaic city and the settlement of Miletus following the catastrophe. In the 1990s, a team from Kiel University started to research the city area using methods of the natural sciences (geophysics); their work covers nearly its entire territory today. This yielded a clear picture of Miletus’ built landscape and the division of its roads and housing blocks (insulae).
Since then, various research endeavours have explored specific aspects of the city. Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier’s long-standing project, for example, has produced a great deal of knowledge about Miletus in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. His findings corroborate the theory that the city of Milawanda, mentioned in Hittite sources, corresponds to Miletus of the early Bronze Age. The excavation director Phillip Niewöhner, active between 2012 and 2016, mostly focused on the Byzantine city. For many decades, archaeologists have cleaned, secured and restored the ancient site. Since 2018, the excavation has been under the management of Universität Hamburg and the direction of Christof Berns. For information about the current research programme, see Projects.
Text: Mark Ohlrogge