©The Archaeological Settlements of Turkey - TAY Project

Yarimburgaz Magarasi

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Yarımburgaz Mağarası
20 m
Investigation Method:


Location: This double mouthed cave lies approximately 22 km northwest of the city of Istanbul in the district of Küçük Çekmece; about 1.5 km north of the northern shore of the Küçük Çekmece Lake. It is 1 km north of the shantytown of Altinsehir (now a district of Istanbul); northeast of the road from the village of Samlar; which is north of Altinsehir; to Kayabasi; on the east bank of the Sazlidere (Azatli) River which empties into the Küçük Çekmece Lake. Because the cave has two mouths; the site is also referred to in the plural as the Yarimburgaz Caves.
Geography and Environment: The Yarimburgaz Cave; created by the erosive power of a subterranean river on the western flank of a hilly limestone formation facing the Sazlidere River; has two interconnected chambers differing in elevation; size and shape. Each chamber has its own entryway. The caves are between 11-18 m above the Marmara sea-level. The upper section of the cave; oriented roughly northeast-southeast (Upper Cave / Gallery B) appears to be a large hall; approximately 15 by 52 m and presently 10 m high. It is likely that parts of the cave were leveled and that the space was used as a church in Byzantine times. Holes in the cave walls indicate that the cave also supported a tile-paved loft. It is certain that the monasterial structures outside the cave are associated with this occupation phase. To reach the lower chamber (Lower Cave/Gallery A) from the upper cave; it is necessary to descend an incline near the mouth of the cave. What appears to be a gallery develops into tunnel shaped meandering passages with occasional large halls. In contrast to the upper chamber; which quickly comes to an end; the lower chamber continues for approximately 600 m. 240 m beyond the entrance of the lower cave; the passage forks into two. The right branch continues further than the left; funneling to a narrow impassable corridor. The formation of the cave is probably related to the valley running perpendicular to the Sazlidere River. In the Lower Palaeolithic; this wadi may have been an extension of the cave. Bedrock was reached in the Yarimburgaz excavations near the entrance only. Consequently; the original height of the cave chamber could not be determined. The formation of the cave is believed to be very old. It is further assumed that the environmental conditions in the Palaeolithic times were very different than today. Due to its proximity to the Istanbul city center; the Yarimburgaz Caves have attracted the attention of picnickers; treasure hunters and other illegal explorers; speleologists and amateur archaeologists. This increased after Kansu and Kökten began excavation. Perhaps the foremost reason for this interest is the fact that the caves were used as a church in their final phases. The caves have also been used by movie and television makers as a film setting. The Ministry of Culture has neglected the caves by allowing a grader into the cave to level the ground for a mushroom farm. In order to stop these destructive activities performed by various people; organizations and especially by the treasure hunters; the caves have been closed off by iron bars since the Arsebük excavations. This has decreased the amount of damage.
Research and Excavation: The site first gained academic importance as a geological and speleological interest in the mid-nineteenth century. The prehistorical importance of the site was recognized by Sevket Aziz Kansu of the Ankara University DTCF Department of Archaeology; who dug a sounding which cannot be called a proper excavation; in 1959. Excavations: The first excavations carried out at the site; under the leadership of Sevket Aziz Kansu and Kiliç Kökten; in the entrance of the lower cave in 1963 [Kökten 1963b:277-278] were later continued more systematically under the direction of Kansu; Kökten and N. Dolunay in 1964 and 1965. They divided the cave into a grid of squares (referred to by Kansu as "parcels")[Kansu 1966:491-492]. The damage the site suffered in the twenty years between 1966 and 1986 instigated a second round of excavations which were carried out in 1986 for the Istanbul Archaeological Museum by Mehmet Özdogan of the University of Istanbul; Faculty of Letters; Prehistory Section; and a team of excavators from this university. Following this salvage excavation; which established that the oldest occupation in the cave dates to the Lower Palaeolithic; a third phase of excavations was undertaken in order to further understand Turkey's Pleistocene Archaeology. They were conducted jointly by another member of the University of Istanbul (Faculty of Letters; Prehistoy Section); Güven Arsebük and by F. Clark Howell of the University of California at Berkeley (Anthropology Department) between the years 1988 and 1990. The Stratigraphy as determined by the excavations: In the first set of excavations carried out in Gallery A of the lower cave; beneath a 40 cm top layer consisting of dung; and a second 60 cm level with Byzantine sherds; a third yellowish silty and sandy layer with pebble tools and debitage was unearthed. According to Kökten; this stratum dates most probably to the Middle Palaeolithic. Bedrock was reached 370 cm below the surface; even though later excavations have questioned this. Kansu and Kökten report that teeth and bones of Ursus spelaus; cave bear were found in association with Moustérien coarsely-made points in this third stratum. In the excavations in the upper cave; referred to as "Gallery B"; the first stratum; a layer of dung 30 cm deep was followed by a second 45 cm layer of Byzantine material culture. According to the excavation directors; the stratum beneath this is a 200 cm thick Chalcolithic deposit. Due to the restricted extent of excavation in this upper gallery; it has not yet been determined whether the Chalcolithic material originates from a large pit. In the southern part of the trench; the Palaeolithic layer of yellowish silty sand starts at 480 cm below the surface and continues down to the bedrock. Kansu has not specified which part of the Palaeolithic this layer belongs to. In the north of the trench; bedrock appeared at a deeper level. It is not surprising that the second phase of excavations in 1986 were more detailed and systematic. A very different stratigraphy emerged in this excavation; which was directed by Özdogan. Excavations were now concurrently conducted in the upper and lower caves; and all the cultural phases present in the Yarimburgaz caves came to light. Upper cave strata 15-12 and lower cave strata 12-3 were dated to the Lower Palaeolithic. Finds of pebble tools suggested that these Yarimburgaz strata belonged to the beginning of the Middle Pleistocene and earlier. This was proven wrong in the third phase of excavations led by Arsebük. Small hearths and other evidence for habitation are especially interesting. The second phase of excavations dated the Yarimburgaz caves at one million B.P. Further research; however; has made it clear that they are slightly more recent. The second lowest deposit; dated to the Middle Pleistocene by Özdogan include strata 11-8. Habitation in this period is believed to have been intermittent. Immediately above this deposit; Özdogan identified Upper Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic deposits in the upper caves in the 7th and 6th strata. The 5th stratum in the upper cave represents the Neolithic era. Following the Neolithic; again in the upper cave; strata 4-2; belonged to the Chalcolithic. Finds from this period were set into a natural depression in the interior of the upper cave. The first stratum is the only one that is the same in both caves. Stratum 1 included a dressed-stone wall built where the two caves meet. This stone structure is probably the apse of a church dating to the earliest Christian times. For several reasons; the third phase of excavations in the Yarimburgaz caves were carried out in the lower cave. The later Byzantine layers in this part had eroded due to water action; leaving not only a hard protective shell above the Middle Pleistocene layers but also relatively little Byzantine material culture. These excavations led by Arsebük aimed primarily at shedding light on the Pleistocene Epoch. Geomorphological and palaeo-ecological studies have accompanied the archaeological excavations in and around the cave area. The results have not altered the stratigraphic sequence of the second phase excavations significantly. Arsebük has categorized the Pleistocene deposits into four different geological categories. The first two of these are conglomerate layers composed of quartz rubble. The surfaces of these layers have cement-like appearances. Beneath this lies a silty; dark-reddish brown layer. This third stratum varies from the first two because it comprises the genuine Pleistocene deposits and is rich in material culture. The last set of excavations has led to the conclusion that the Yarimburgaz occupation; dating to the Middle Pleistocene; is the oldest known habitation in Turkey today. Next in importance only to the Karain cave; the Yarimburgaz Caves have a great potential for stratigraphic research. This further emphasizes the importance of the cave and its multi-disciplinary study. It was mentioned in the registered archaeological sites list prepared by Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Small Finds: Lower Palaeolithic Period: Pebble tool industry: The first occupants of Yarimburgaz made use of flint cores; chert; quartz and nodules of various sizes and other raw materials; and chipped them to produce tools for everyday use. The majority of the finds of the Yarimburgaz chipped stone industry are flake types. Examples of Acheuléen bifaced handaxes were not found. Also Levallois technique was not applied in the chipping process. 80% of the chipped-stone artifacts found consist of retouched flakes; flakes with steep retouch; simple flakes and other flake-type tools. 19 % of the total chipped-stone finds are made up of flake tools including side scrapers; denticulates; notched flakes; backed blades. The remaining 20% consists of large pebble tools; nodules; pebbles; cores; choppers from flaked pebbles; hammer stones and other types of tools. Occupation sites in Europe that have similar chipped stone industries are dated to 700;000 - 300;000 B.P. Arsebük believes that the Yarimburgaz flint-working techniques resemble the Near Eastern Tayac industry rather than their European counterparts and further argues that the people living in the second half of the Middle Pleistocene in Yarimburgaz used functional tools which lacked unnecessary details. He dates this cultural deposit to 450;000 - 130;000 B.P. Fauna: Excavators in the third phase of excavations; led jointly by the University of California and Istanbul University; screened for micro-faunal remains in order to document the palaeo-ecology of the Pleistocene and the pre-Pleistocene. Remains of bats; birds; various rodents and fish were found. The fish bones are especially interesting. It is not certain whether they were brought into the caves by humans. Also; of particular importance are the fossilized bones of an extinct variety of the modern mountain bear; Ursus Deningeri. Many of the bones from this mammal were found in association with chipped-stone tools. Arsebük believes that the cave was used alternately by bears and people; and supposes that human occupation was limited to spring; summer and fall. Jackal or fox gnaw marks on the bear bones were present; but stone-tool marks indicating human cutting or scraping have not been found. This lack of data has been taken to mean that humans did not eat bears. Bones of other herbivorous and carnivorous animals have also been found. They include animals from the canine; feline; equine; hyena-family and deer-families as well as some horned animals. Flora: Floral studies are currently still being carried out. Hopefully; this will further enlighten the climatic fluctuations in and around the Istanbul area. Socioeconomic life-style: It is assumed that the seasonal inhabitants of the Yarimburgaz Caves were mobile hunter-gatherers who lived in bands of 10-12 people including young children and elders. These bands appear to have eaten the flesh of the animals they hunted; even though such activity was very limited. Their most common source of food was carrion. This is suggested by some animal bones with stone tool cuts overlying gnaw marks. These people are believed to have dwelled in cave shelters and in hollow trees. Even though there is no evidence that they inhabited the upper cave; it is likely that this was an ideal location and that the evidence was lost following the Byzantine leveling prior to the church construction. The Middle and Upper Palaeolithic Periods: Chipped-stone technology: Even though; under the leadership of Özdogan; it was originally reported that the 6th-11th strata of the upper caves included artifacts from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Epipalaeolithic; it was later reported that there was no occupation in the upper caves between the Middle Pleistocene and beginning of the Holocene. Chipped-stone artifacts are rare in levels 6-11. Even the few flakes chipped using Levallois technique indicate that the cave was inhabited in the Middle Palaeolithic Period. It is also assumed that this technique continues into the Epipalaeolithic Period. Thus the dates of these strata are still debated. There are still undisturbed sections in the upper caves waiting for future excavations which will hopefully bring solutions to these puzzles.
Interpretation and Dating:

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