You really don’t want to be a bird in Hierapolis

BY PAOLO MARANZANA, PhD student, University of Michigan Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

The Plutonion at Hierapolis, Turkey.

As a student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, I have at long last reached the stage in which I start planning my dissertation. I have been looking forward to beginning my research on what historians call Late Antiquity, a period that encompasses a series of events that radically transformed the ancient world. During this period, between 300 and 600 CE, Christianity emerged, classical cities disappeared, and the western Roman Empire fell under the invasions of Germanic tribes. For my dissertation, I would like investigate the causes that led to the decline of classical cities in the eastern empire (Turkey, specifically). Turkey was one of the most urbanized regions in antiquity, and it has been at the center of many large excavations, mostly run by the German and Austrian Archaeological Institutes, since the 1800s (the most famous are certainly Ephesus and Pergamon). There is, therefore, plenty of material for me to work with in my study of ancient cities and their decline.

This summer, I took a study trip to visit a number of sites that I could use as case studies for my research. My stay in Turkey was about three weeks long, and I was able to visit nine different sites. These sites will certainly form the backbone of my research. During my visit, I met with the directors of the current archaeological projects, where I was shown the latest discoveries. The most striking was undoubtedly the uncovering of the so-called Plutonion, a sanctuary built at Hierapolis (southwestern Turkey, modern Pamukkale) in honor of Pluto, god of the underworld. The life of this sanctuary explains perfectly the kind of transformations that cities underwent during this period. Hierapolis was built over a large number of underground tunnels that were filled with earth gases (mostly toxic) and thermal water. The ancient population considered the entrance to one of these underground galleries to be the gateway to the underworld, where Pluto resided. This area was therefore monumentalized with the construction of a small sitting area (for worshippers) and a pool, where the thermal water could flow, and a marble archway that led into the underground cave. Among the many statues placed around the pool was found a colossal representation of Pluto, together with a reproduction of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld. The rituals performed seem to have involved the killing of birds, which were thrown inside the cave and died almost instantaneously because of the toxic gases. Excavations have confirmed the performance of this ritual, uncovering thousands of bones belonging to small birds inside the cave.

After the emergence of Christianity the sanctuary was destroyed (6th century CE), and the statues were taken down and thrown into the pool, which archaeologists found completely filled with material belonging to the destroyed sanctuary. In what appears to be almost a ritual annihilation, all pagan material was obliterated or hidden. The area was later occupied by private residences, showing that the city was inhabited at this point but that the use of the urban space had changed dramatically.

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