The British Institute at Ankara: 75 years researching Turkey

As the British Institute at Ankara celebrates a major birthday, CWA casts an eye over what it has achieved, and where it is heading.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA). It was inaugurated in January 1948, following its founding at the urging of archaeologist John Garstang and ratification by the Turkish Council of Ministers. Today, the BIAA is one of eight organisations known as British International Research Institutes (BIRIs). This group was not conceived as a set, with the two oldest – the British Schools in Athens and Rome – tracing their origins back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, while the remainder followed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Despite these varied beginnings, the motives for establishing them can generally be traced to a similar desire: the creation of an in-country base for archaeological fieldwork. One happy side- effect of this aim has been the accumulation of decades’ worth of local knowledge in the regions where they operate.

A recent BIAA project has resulted in the Psidia Heritage Trail, a 350km-long hiking route connecting 12 archaeological sites. Here we see the ancient theatre at Termessos, Antalya. IMAGE: Ekin Kazan, Pisidia Heritage Trail Project

Although these bodies receive support from the British Academy – and therefore indirectly from the British Treasury – all eight are independent charitable organisations run by trustees. Currently the British Academy grant runs to under £5 million a year, which is divided up between the eight organisations, who also seek additional funding from other sources. Over the years, their fortunes have fluctuated – not least because the institutes are not insulated from shifting political and other circumstances in the countries where they are based – but a common thread has been a widening of their focus to embrace a broader subject area. The BIAA, for instance, now emphasises its role in research in the humanities and social sciences, rather than purely archaeology. While this unlocks a much broader range of potential partners and funding bodies, a healthy interest in the past is still very much part of its present.

Archaeology and beyond

Back in 1948, Garstang’s views on the raison d’etre of the BIAA were made explicit in its original name: the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. His hand can also be felt in its location: while most foreign research bodies coveted a base in Istanbul, Garstang’s particular interest in the prehistory of Anatolia and the Hittite Empire made Ankara the obvious candidate, with the added advantage of proximity to the relevant government departments. Garstang’s nephew was another Hittite specialist, and he became the first editor of the BIAA’s flagship academic journal, Anatolian Studies, which remains essential reading for anyone undertaking serious research in the region. Another key figure was Winifred Lamb, Honorary Keeper of Greek Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the BIAA’s first Honorary Secretary. The early years of the BIAA saw a focus on prehistoric archaeology, with excavations and/or survey at a range of sites.

The ancient theatre at Selge, Antalya. IMAGE: Ekin Kazan, Pisidia Heritage Trail Project

Involvement in a rather more high-profile project followed when Çatalhöyük was discovered in 1957 and became the focus of a high-profile excavation campaign in the 1960s. This era-defining Neolithic and Copper Age site remains an archaeological household name, both for the extraordinary finds it yielded – including what are still the earliest murals known – and the precocious move towards urban living signalled by the archaeology. Sadly, early work at Çatalhöyük ended in infamy when the dig director became enmired in a scandal. It was only in the 1990s that work recommenced, this time under Ian Hodder, with the spectacular results confirming the potential of the site and providing the data to support anthropological approaches to understanding past lives.

The 1970s and ’80s saw the organisation take a step away from excavations conducted purely for research purposes. Instead, the BIAA under the direction of David French devoted its digging to rescue work at As¸van Kale (a prehistoric, Hellenistic, and Islamic site) and at Tille Höyük (a prehistoric, Classical, and medieval settlement). In both cases, new dam projects provided the stimulus for the work, while the excavations are notable for embracing a pioneering approach to sieving and flotation. Another feature of this era, though, was an increasing interest in survey work. This ranged from sites, including the Classical city of Oinoanda, through to regions, such as Pisidia, in Anatolia.

The arch at Ariassos, Antalya. IMAGE: Ekin Kazan, Pisidia Heritage Trail Project

This strength in survey work was cemented in the 1990s and 2000s, with major successes including the Iron Age city at Kerkenes Dag˘ı and the Göksu Archaeological Project – the latter once again initiated in response to a new dam. In more recent years, this legacy of survey has proven provident, as it fits well alongside work undertaken by Turkish archaeologists, which often focuses on excavation work. Another thread that became apparent in the 2000s was a broadening of horizons at the BIAA, with projects investigating topics as diverse as climate change and Ottoman house architecture. This new outlook coincided with ‘Archaeology’ being dropped from the Institute’s name.

Three examples of the BIAA’s current work showcase the fruits of forging partnerships in a range of disciplines. One emphasises the importance of cultural heritage management, a topic that is increasingly attracting interest in Turkey. The success of a project tailored to this – ‘Safeguarding Archaeological Assets of Turkey’ – is reflected in funding being secured to translate the materials from Turkish into Arabic and English, to make the information easily accessible to heritage professionals in the Middle East. Another project has tackled Anglo-Turkish relations in the 20th century, under the title of ‘Turkey and Britain 1914-1952: from Enemies to Allies’. As well as examining archive sources, this has secured oral histories of the era. The third example focuses on climate and water management, a topic that will become ever-more pressing as the planet warms. Readers can turn to p.16 to discover the results of this research in Istanbul.

Alongside this work, the BIAA is ensuring that the opportunities it supports do not just benefit British scholars seeking to study Turkey. Scholarships also allow Turkish and Black Sea region researchers to study in the UK, with twice the usual number of awards available to mark the anniversary year. The BIAA’s 75th birthday finds it closely involved in modern Turkey, and committed to creating opportunities for scholars in both countries.

Further information
To learn more about the BIAA and its anniversary events, visit