Liman Tepe: A bridge between worlds

For over 30 years a pioneering project has investigated the prehistory of the Izmir region of Turkey. What has it discovered? Vasıf Şahoğlu told Matthew Symonds an epic tale of rise and fall, connectivity and technology, and the long shadows cast by devastating natural disasters.


It is the sea that will draw the eye of most modern visitors as they travel west from Izmir city. To the north, a gulf of the same name opens up, presenting a great conduit into the Aegean world. Ahead, a huge promontory shaped a little like a flexed arm reaches far into that sea, hemming in the gulf. And just as the land swings to the north, at the place where the mountains meet the coastal plain, travellers will find the arcs of two sweeping bays. They are divided by a gentle headland that nudges into the water just opposite Karantina Island. On either side, the coastline is colonised by the modern town of Urla. It is a settlement with a remarkable history. Once it was the Classical Ionian city of Klazomenai. Before that, it was a long-lived prehistoric site now known as Liman Tepe. As late as the 1930s and ’40s, part of Liman Tepe survived as a prominent artificial mound rising from the headland, but over the course of the 20th century the needs of agriculture and housing saw this edifice whittled away, doubtless taking many ancient occupation levels with it. This loss is not the only way in which the site’s prominence has diminished over time. Once, Liman Tepe was a major regional player that, in the Bronze Age, probably surpassed in size its contemporary – and rather more famous – neighbour to the north: Troy.

The remains of prehistoric Liman Tepe, exposed on a headland dividing two bays on the Gulf of Izmir. Settlement in the vicinity has a long history, stretching from the Neolithic through to the modern town of Urla, via the Classical city of Klazomenai. 

But, as much as the Aegean Sea captivates visitors, it only goes halfway to explaining the Bronze Age power of Liman Tepe, and indeed Troy. Both cities also benefited from trade routes that snaked far inland, running through Anatolia to Mesopotamia. It was this ability to provide a lucrative gateway to both maritime and terrestrial trade networks that brought prosperity and prestige to the major commercial centres on the western Anatolian coastline. But the story of Liman Tepe is not just one of a burgeoning Bronze Age centre. Its origins can now be traced back to the Neolithic period, in around 6700 BC, long before any known activity at Troy. In part, the lingering prominence of Liman Tepe can be explained by its enviable location on the Gulf of Izmir. But, to understand the site fully, it is essential to set it within knowledge of the wider region. That has been the task, for 30 years now, of the Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project (IRERP). This remarkable archaeological project has laid bare how Liman Tepe has repeatedly been called upon to negotiate radical change: in coastline, technology, trade, wealth, hierarchy, and climate. For all that the settlement still endures as modern Urla, it has known many rises and falls along the way.

Trade and technology

‘Up until the 1990s, the prehistory of the region was simply not known,’ says project director Vasıf Şahoğlu. ‘Liman Tepe is sandwiched between two terms – western Anatolia and the eastern Aegean – because it lies at the intersection of both. Pre-Classical cultures had never been a research priority in the region, with the single exception of Troy, which was the only dot on the map of prehistoric sites around the eastern Aegean until the mid-1990s. So, while we knew all of the major Classical sites, it almost looked as if this region had been empty before then. The aim of IRERP was to change this by understanding the pre-Classical cultures of the western Anatolian coastline. It was really the first regional project of its kind to focus on the prehistoric era. By doing this, by adopting a regional approach, by making it interdisciplinary, and by having international involvement, I think we have opened up an important new perspective on the Aegean world.’

The Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project was started by the late Hayat Erkanal, seen here back in 1992. Its focus on prehistoric rather than Classical sites was pioneering for the region.

‘The project started in 1992, when my late professor, Hayat Erkanal, initiated excavations at Liman Tepe. It was also my first year as a student, so I started my archaeological life at the site. From the beginning, though, we didn’t want to excavate just one site. We realised that, just like today, each settlement in the past – regardless of how close they were – would have their own dynamics and character. Sure enough, excavating at different sites allowed us to see this variation, with some settlements flourishing while others languished and vice versa. Even so, Liman Tepe has remained our key site. It has the longest stratigraphy, with the earliest settlement on land dating back to the 5th millennium BC. Our research underwater has recently pushed this date back even further. It revealed that the Neolithic settlement lies submerged about 500-600m from the current coastline. This shift in sea level is just one example of the huge environmental changes that we now know have affected the area. We can also see that the Neolithic site was already plugged into Aegean trade networks, because it was receiving obsidian from the island of Melos.’

This importing of obsidian was a conspicuous feature, too, of the earliest settlement levels found above modern sea level on the Liman Tepe headland. These date back to the 5th millennium BC, a period known as the Middle Copper Age or Chalcolithic. Sure enough, these early levels have also revealed a heavily worn object that appears to be made of copper, indicating that Liman Tepe was a participant in the newly minted metal trade. Indeed, the existing trade links with the Aegean would have been a major bonus as this market developed, because the Izmir region is rich in a range of metal deposits. Sadly, the later landscaping and truncating of Liman Tepe in the Bronze Age and Roman period have removed much of the structural evidence to go with these finds. This is true of the Late Chalcolithic settlement as well, although one major advance made at Liman Tepe is the resolution of a longstanding riddle. It is widely appreciated that there is usually a sizable intermission – spanning many centuries – between Middle and Late Chalcolithic activity in Western Anatolia. The question has always been: why?

 The shifting location of the shoreline has had a major influence on activity at Liman Tepe. Here we see how it has risen and receded over thousands of years from the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age.

‘We’re looking at a gap of about 600 years,’ says Vasıf, ‘so it’s a huge break. At Liman Tepe, we have been able to introduce a new perspective to debate about this, because our geoarchaeological work shows that it was during this period that the Aegean Sea rose to its highest level. Because Liman Tepe lies on a headland, it is probable that following the Middle Chalcolithic in the 5th millennium BC, this became a small island, so it was no longer feasible to live on it. Instead, it seems likely that the inhabitants relocated. We haven’t been able to prove this archaeologically yet, but our reconstruction of the geomorphology suggests that somewhere on the coastal hills would make sense as a successor site. Then, when the sea level dropped down again, in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, people returned to the Liman Tepe headland and started living there again.’

A selection of obsidian from Liman Tepe. This material was sourced from the island of Melos, testifying to Liman Tepe being plugged into Aegean exchange networks.   

Despite the paucity of surviving structural remains from late Chalcolithic Liman Tepe, remains of a destroyed wattle-and-daub structure known as the ‘burnt house’ probably provide a taste of the general construction method in use. This possibility is supported by the results of excavation at another settlement: Bakla Tepe. It lies inland from Liman Tepe and to the south of Izmir, on a small hill overlooking a fertile plain. This location left its inhabitants well placed to exploit the abundant gold, silver, and copper deposits in the wider hinterland of Bakla Tepe. Rescue excavations from 1994 to 2001 revealed exciting details about the nature of this Late Chalcolithic site, as well as the value of adopting a regional approach, because knowledge gleaned from some sites can help fill gaps in knowledge at others.

Excavations under way on the Chalcolithic levels at Liman Tepe. Later activity in the Bronze Age and Roman period has removed much of the structural evidence for this period. 

‘Bakla Tepe is one of the best researched settlements of this period in the entire Aegean,’ says Vasıf. ‘It has also produced the earliest evidence for metallurgical activities in the region. We have found evidence for both mineral-extraction and metal-production in the settlement, as well as a developed textile industry. All of this was under way in the late 4th millennium BC, and we can see that the foundations for the more organised Aegean societies that are usually associated with the Bronze Age in the 3rd millennium BC were already being laid in the Late Chalcolithic.’

‘Bakla Tepe was an open settlement during the Late Chalcolithic, populated with wattle-and-daub residences known as grill-plan houses. These match the remains of what we found at Liman Tepe – as well as several other sites – suggesting the existence of a regional architectural style. We think these buildings were designed to have raised wooden floors, which would allow air to circulate underneath, making them perfect for storing grain. Sadly, it was not just air under the floors, as this was also where the inhabitants were burying infants. Our studies show that these babies were suffering from Mediterranean anaemia, resulting in a very high death- rate at around the time of birth.’

Bakla Tepe was founded inland from Liman Tepe, and lay in a region with an abundance of metal deposits. 

‘Although we can see that cultural elements continued to develop beyond the end of the Late Chalcolithic, this was still a time of great change at Bakla Tepe. At the close of the Chalcolithic, the settlement had grown to about 300m in diameter, making it a huge site by local standards. But then there was a devastating fire, and in the aftermath Bakla Tepe shrunk to roughly 100m in size. This new, much more compact Early Bronze Age settlement was also heavily fortified, while within the defences the residential architecture was transformed, with the earlier wattle and daub replaced by mud brick on stone foundations. We can see something very similar happening at Liman Tepe. The Early Bronze Age settlement there was once again set within strong fortifications and contained blocks of houses divided by a street system. So all of this points to an important change in the nature of life in the region, perhaps associated with the expansion of advanced metallurgy. This would have brought unprecedented wealth, with measures to protect this newfound prosperity perhaps helping to explain the dynamics of the region.’

Left: Excavations under way at Bakla Tepe. The Late Chalcolithic settlement featured buildings known as ‘grill-plan houses’, several of which are visible here. Such structures are a feature of the wider region and seem to have incorporated a raised wooden floor. Right: Early Bronze Age Bakla Tepe. This settlement was heavily fortified and much more compact than its Chalcolithic predecessor. Internal buildings known as ‘long houses’ are similar to structures built at Liman Tepe during the Early Bronze Age. 

By land and sea

The Early Bronze Age is clearly visible at Liman Tepe. As the era opens, the settlement was still primarily a maritime settlement perched on the headland. Its harbour lay in the bay to the east, while finds from the settlement emphasise that it was plugged into the trading patterns of the Aegean, with particularly intensive connections to the Cycladic islands. Their dwellings were not just used for residential purposes, as they also contain workshops that produced a range of merchandise. Once again, this style of housing stock was not restricted to Liman Tepe. It has been found at Bakla Tepe, and also at Çeşme-Bağlararası, which is a coastal settlement situated close to the very western tip of the peninsula on which Liman Tepe lies. Given the superficially similar settings of Liman Tepe and Çeşme-Bağlararası, it might be expected that both acted as hubs for maritime trade. However, there is little evidence of overseas links at Çeşme-Bağlararası during this period.

 Prehistoric architecture on the headland at Liman Tepe. The first Early Bronze Age buildings here are long houses, which were used for both residential and industrial purposes (examples are visible to the left of the photograph). Later in this period the headland was reconfigured as a citadel. 

‘We can see these two settlements had very different dynamics during the Early Bronze Age’, says Vasıf. ‘Our theory is that this reflects ship technology. We know that they did not have sails in the Aegean during this period, so ships were reliant on rowers. Because the peninsula projects far to the north, it would have been difficult and demanding work to row all the way around it, before turning back south into the Gulf of Izmir. At the same time, the peninsula is fairly narrow opposite Liman Tepe, making it possible to cross overland in a single day. So we suspect that traders took advantage of this. If there was a twin site on the southern coast of the peninsula, boat crews could row there, before having the cargo unloaded and sent across land to Liman Tepe and vice versa. This removed any need to row the full length of the peninsula via Çeşme-Bağlararası, explaining why it wasn’t connected to the maritime trade network. Interestingly, if you look ahead to the age of sail in the 2nd millennium BC, all of this changes and Çeşme-Bağlararası is transformed into a major maritime entrepot.’

 The Early Bronze Age settlement shows close connections with the Cycladic islands. This photo shows some of the ceramic sherds reflecting these connections.

It was in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC that Liman Tepe’s horizons expanded. At this time, the long-standing nautical outlook of the settlement was augmented with a sudden interest in the potential of the lands to the east. This was an era when Troy – on the northern portion of the western Anatolian coastline – and Liman Tepe – at its heart – seem to develop parallel lives. Both rose to become major regional players by taking full advantage of the possibilities presented by controlling the sphere where land and sea trade met. But, while it was Troy that was destined to become the most famous settlement during this era, it was Liman Tepe that grew into the larger centre – quite possibly the largest in the Aegean world.

Later in the Early Bronze Age the headland became more heavily fortified, with the defences including the impressive bastion visible in the trench on the nearside of the road.

‘These new trade networks were staggering,’ Vasıf points out. ‘They expand all of the way from Mesopotamia and northern Syria to the Aegean coast, and from there to the Greek islands, mainland, and the Balkans. It is what I call the Anatolian Trade Network. This was a real boom time for metals, following the introduction of tin to Anatolia. We can see a package of new ideas coming from the east and taking root in the region, including the introduction of wheel-turned pottery, and seals to control ownership and therefore wealth. These developments see the character of the settlement at Liman Tepe completely change – it is the beginning of true centralisation and urbanisation. The settled area on the headland grew and became more heavily fortified. Inside it, though, we no longer see domestic houses. Instead, there are buildings with an administrative or religious character. There was also an open courtyard connected with storage facilities, and in that courtyard we found a set of phallic stones, including one with a monkey head. As there were no monkeys in the Aegean during this period, I believe it probably came from the east and is connected with the trade network. We also found a seal associated with the phallic stones, which fits with the idea of a link with objects that were being sent over long distances.’

‘We also know that the headland was now the citadel of a much larger settlement. A team excavating in the Classical city of Klazomenai were digging about 600m from our site and they uncovered a horseshoe-shaped tower dating to this period. That means there was a walled lower city, which probably spread out in a fan shape from the citadel and marks a whole new concept for settlement-organisation in Anatolia. This has to mean that we are seeing the emergence of real hierarchies – a game-changing development. Then, in about 2200 BC there was another major change, but this time a climatic one. It is known as the 4.2-kiloyear event and has been linked to the collapse of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. The impact of this event differed depending on where people were, but one consequence was an extremely severe drought. So just imagine, this was an era when the most sophisticated exchange network ever created in this region had brought settlements to the peak of their wealth. Then suddenly this climatic change strikes, and it cuts some of the links in this trading chain. And that makes the whole system collapse. At Liman Tepe, the big central buildings are burnt and destroyed, and it’s a similar story elsewhere in Anatolia. So, what we’re seeing is highly organised lifestyles collapsing into total chaos.’

Fall and rise

Phallic stones are among the finds from the citadel that developed on the Liman Tepe headland in the Early Bronze Age. This example has been combined with a monkey head, which hints at eastern influences.   

It took about 150 years for Liman Tepe to begin to rise once more. The beginning of the Middle Bronze Age in the 2nd millennium BC saw the emergence of a new set of systems. This time, oval-shaped houses were built, with separate areas of the settlement dedicated to workshops. All of the Middle Bronze Age sites in the vicinity of Izmir have produced small lead rings of a similar weight, which seem to have been used as a kind of currency. At Liman Tepe, imports from the Greek mainland suggest that its resilience was once again fuelled by a knack for capitalising on maritime trade. But the settlement’s natural foothold in this world was compromised when the natural harbour to the east of the headland silted up. This problem was overcome in a remarkable fashion during the Late Bronze Age – very recent research shows that the origins of the artificial harbour used by the later Classical city probably lie in the Late Bronze Age, making it one of the earliest partly man-made harbour facilities known.

Back in the Middle Bronze Age, Liman Tepe’s problems with its harbour may have contributed to the growing prosperity of Çeşme-Bağlararası. It became an industrial centre – with evidence for wine- and pottery-production – as well as a key hub for trade in the Minoan-dominated Aegean. History, though, was set to repeat itself. This extensive trading network was ripped apart a little before 1500 BC by another major natural disaster, when Thera – modern Santorini – erupted. This catastrophic event took a terrible toll on Çeşme-Bağlararası, and probably led to the eventual downfall of the Minoan world, too (see CWA 113).

This map gives a sense of the size of the Early Bronze Age settlement. While one bastion was found lying just to the south of the headland, part of another was located about 600m to the west, testifying to the presence of a lower walled city.
All of the investigated Middle Bronze Age sites near Izmir have produced lead rings. These are similar in weight and seem to have served as a kind of currency. 

By the dawn of the Late Bronze Age, in 1400/1350 BC, overseas connections were once again in evidence at Liman Tepe, this time in the form of eye-catching quantities of Mycenaean pottery, which makes up about 15% of the overall assemblage. Not all of this was imported, though. ‘While some pottery was shipped from the Greek mainland,’ says Vasıf, ‘the majority was probably produced in the vicinity of Liman Tepe. In some ways, it is like the earlier Minoan presence at Çeşme-Bağlararası. There you got imports from Crete and also locally produced wares in Cretan styles – so the question is what this means for how we interpret the range of people settling at the site. When we’re thinking about the Late Bronze Age, there is an additional factor at Liman Tepe, because it is in the next phase – the Early Iron Age – that the settlement becomes Klazomenai. Around most of the Aegean, you get what could be thought of as a Dark Age following the end of the Late Bronze Age, but we are beginning to see some continuity with the Early Iron Age at Liman Tepe. It has very exciting potential for our understanding of how the Classical period came into being.’

Classical continuum

Above: The submerged eastern breakwater of the Archaic-period (c.7th-6th century BC) harbour. Below: Underwater exploration is producing some extraordinary finds, including this Archaic perfume bottle shaped like a warrior’s head.

Another aspect of IRERP is the underwater archaeology that it has been undertaking since 2000, which has involved excavating the Archaic and Hellenistic harbour of Klazomenai. ‘Of course, this takes us beyond the prehistoric period,’ observes Vasıf, ‘but it is also giving us a unique chance to understand the economic heart of the settlement. The Classical archaeologists working on the material we’ve found are amazed by it. They are seeing things that they have simply never seen before – goods that were dropped during loading or unloading, small boats that were swamped and lost, all of it fully preserved. When the study is complete, it will give us a whole new picture, and a whole new story.’ In the meantime, as the excavation work at Liman Tepe continues to forge partnerships and gather participants from dozens of countries, its long-standing role as a bridge between worlds looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.


The excavations of Çeşme-Bağlararası, Bakla Tepe, and Liman Tepe continue as part of the Izmir Region Excavations and Research Project (IRERP) under the framework of the Ankara University Mustafa V Koç Research Center for Maritime Archaeology (ANKÜSAM) with the permits and funding from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The research is also supported by Ankara University; TÜBI.TAK, Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP); Ankara University, Faculty of Languages, History–Geography (DTCF); Turkish Historical Society (TTK); INSTAP-SCEC; İzmir Metropolitan Municipality, Urla Municipality; Çeşme Municipality; and Turkish Institute of Nautical Archaeology. For more information on ANKÜSAM and IRERP, see

All Images: courtesy of Vasıf Şahoğlu