New lecture series introduces research at ancient Sardis

Although not as well-known as the ruins of Athens or Rome, the remains of the ancient city of Sardis, capital of the Iron Age empire of Lydia in what is now Turkey, offer a wealth of clues to Greek, Roman, Byzantine and other cultural histories.

A new biennial lecture series, sponsored by the Department of Classics with support from the dean’s office in the College of Arts and Sciences, is reintroducing the Cornell community to this archaeological site, where Cornell researchers have led investigation for decades.

Researchers from Cornell and Harvard initiated a long-term excavation at Sardis in 1958. Professor Emeritus Andrew Ramage, in history of art and archaeology, was the associate director of the excavations for decades and made important discoveries in the art and architecture of the Lydians, including the city’s mud brick walls and a site for gold refinement. Sardis is still a hub for ongoing, collaborative research in many disciplines, with graduate students joining faculty members to work on various projects.

Nicholas D. Cahill, left, professor of Greek and Roman art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and director of the Sardis excavation, speaks with Cornell’s Annetta Alexandridis, associate professor of the history of art and visual studies, during the inaugural Sardis Lecture, March 6. Credit: Jason Koski/Cornell University

“Situated at the crossroads between the Mediterranean in the west and the Anatolian plateau in the east, the Lydian city of Sardis was a meeting place – a site of conflict and of fruitful exchange – between many different peoples, languages, cultural traditions and religions over centuries,” said Annetta Alexandridis, associate professor of the history of art and classics, while introducing the inaugural Sardis Lecture on March 6.

“Given the importance of the site and the long-term archaeological engagement with it, I felt that Sardis did not have the prominence within the Cornell population it deserved,” she said.

The inaugural Sardis Lecture was given by the excavation’s current director, Nicholas D. Cahill, professor of Greek and Roman art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“Last summer marked the 62nd anniversary of the beginning of the Harvard-Cornell archaeological expedition, one of the longest-running American excavations,” Cahill said in his lecture. “It’s a pleasure to fill you in on just the last few years, a drop in the bucket of generations of scholars and students who have worked here.”

Sardis offers an opportunity to explore how perceived cultural divisions that arose in the ancient world still frame political geography today, he said. Cahill’s talk offered insights into the Lydian period, the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. The Lydians were known for great wealth and for economic innovations, such as coinage, yet had a fraught relationship with the Greeks to the west and the Persians to the east.

One of the richest and best-known periods in Sardis is the Roman era, the first century B.C. through the fourth century A.D., Cahill said. At that time, it was one of the major metropolises of Asia, with a temple of Artemis as well as baths, theaters and other institutions of a Roman city.

Early Cornell research efforts in the 1950s and 1960s rebuilt both a gymnasium complex and the largest synagogue in the ancient world, Cahill said, serving as a model for later reconstructions at other sites. Cahill also detailed recent excavations of the city walls, acropolis and even a Persian-period garbage pit.

“One of the advantages of this site not being [more overbuilt] Athens or Rome is that so many historical layers are visible or can be explored and excavated,” said Alexandridis, who specializes in Greek and Roman art and archaeology. At Sardis, evidence is accessible from the Bronze Age (the third millennium B.C.) through today.

As part of her research on funerary culture in Sardis, Annetta Alexandridis reassembles a marble sarcophagus from the third century A.D.

Ben Anderson, associate professor of the history of art and classics, hopes the lecture series will give Cornell a look inside this fascinating site and lead to collaboration opportunities in many disciplines. He studies Byzantine architecture, and his current project focuses on the city’s acropolis.

Anderson and Alexandridis will teach a course on Sardis in spring 2021.

“The importance of the site for archaeologists is definite, but also for other communities at Cornell,” he said. “This is an exciting moment at Cornell for archaeology in general because there is a lot of collaboration around material science.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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 Segment of wall on the Sardis acropolis