Painted reliefs from Nicomedia: life of a Roman capital city in colour
The city of Nicomedia
Nicomedia, once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, lies just below the industrial city of modern İzmit in Turkey (Figure 1). Despite ancient literary sources that consistently recount the magnificent buildings of the imperial city (Or. 61.7–10; Norman 1965; De Mort. Pers. 7.8–10; Creed 1984), archaeologically, little is known about Nicomedia. During salvage excavations in 2001 and 2009, polychromic reliefs and statues of an impressive Roman structure were discovered within the basement of a modern building in the Çukurbağ neighbourhood of İzmit (Figure 2). Our ongoing project involves the stylistic and iconographical analysis of the Çukurbağ reliefs and statues, and 3D digital reconstruction of the structure to which they once belonged. The two main aims of the project are to shed light on the art and history of Roman Nicomedia and to learn more about the technical aspects of polychromic relief sculpture in Roman art more broadly.
Nicomedia was founded in 284 BC as the capital of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Bithynia (Geography 12.4.2; Hamilton & Falconer 1854–1857). Despite several destructive earthquakes, its strategic location made the city a significant trading, military and artistic centre throughout the ages. Although it was once one of the four largest cities of the Roman world, there has been no systematic excavation of ancient Nicomedia. What we know about the city comes principally from ancient literary sources, chance finds in the heart of modern İzmit and recent topographical surveys (Çalık-Ross 2007). A thorough investigation of the Çukurbağ reliefs, which are decorated with several historical and mythological themes concerning Nicomedia, and of the building to which they once belonged is therefore crucial, both for a better understanding of Nicomedia and of the wider Roman world.
A striking aspect of the Çukurbağ sculptures is their well-preserved and lively painted colours—a rare example in Roman art (Figure 3). Our project applies scientific methods such as portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (pXRF) scanning and 3D laser scanning to the Çukurbağ find. These will not only illuminate aspects of the colouring and gilding of Roman relief sculpture, but also provide information on many technical aspects, such as the recycling of stone (spoila), the use of sculptors’ and painters’ tools, and building construction techniques. Ancient textual sources also imply that Nicomedia was the centre of a significant marble industry and served as a major outlet for the export of processed Proconnesian and Phrygian Docimion marble (Ward-Perkins 1980; Güney 2012). The Çukurbağ sculptures are of Proconnesian marble and will contribute to an understanding of the Nicomedian sculptural workshops, which formed part of this industry.
The Çukurbağ sculptures
The finds from Çukurbağ consist of 40 relief blocks, fragments belonging to at least four colossal statues, and dozens of architectural elements (Figures 4 & 5). Historical scenes represented on the reliefs include a military expedition, battles, captives escorted by Roman soldiers, a triumphal parade and a meeting of Roman generals. In addition to mythological figures such as Heracles, Athena, Roma and Nike, who can be easily identified from their attributes, reliefs also portray aspects of daily life at Nicomedia including gladiator games, chariot races and theatrical performances.
Following their discovery during rescue excavations, the coloured reliefs were immediately taken to the Kocaeli Archaeology Museum to avoid further exposure to air. They are now kept in special boxes in a gallery inaccessible to the public; they still lack detailed museum inventories. Our ongoing work includes the lifting of the reliefs and statues, taking extensive measurements and photographs, 3D laser scanning and the application of pXRF on select surfaces. Our project also involves the thorough analysis of the architectural elements left in situ at the excavation site in the Çukurbağ neighbourhood and the preparation of plans showing the findspots of each element. In due course, we intend to publish a comprehensive book including a catalogue, technical and iconographical analysis of the finds, and a virtual anastylosis of the building to which the reliefs and statues once belonged.
An article, which briefly examines the reliefs and statues found during the rescue excavations of 2001 suggests, mostly on stylistic grounds, that the Çukurbağ sculptures belonged to a victory monument built in honour of Septimius Severus in the late second century AD (Zeyrek & Özbay 2007). Yet our initial examination of dozens of further reliefs discovered during the salvage excavation in 2009 suggests that the Çukurbağ finds might belong to a victory monument, with reliefs and niches built during the time of Diocletian, when Nicomedia was an imperial capital (between AD 284 and 330). Just as with the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, some of the Çukurbağ reliefs are made of recycled, or spoliated, blocks from earlier buildings and they thus possess earlier stylistic features; some reliefs bear examples of motifs that became standard in Tetrarchic art (Figure 5). The well-preserved bright colours on the reliefs indicate that the Çukurbağ monument was destroyed shortly after it was built, possibly during a strong earthquake (perhaps in AD 358).
The introduction of the Çukurbağ sculptures to a wider audience will not only promote the archaeological potential of Nicomedia, but will also contribute to a new understanding of Roman art and history. This project will further enable the two coloured relief blocks, which were illegally taken during the salvage excavations in Çukurbağ in 2009 (Figure 6), to be reintegrated with the other finds from this important site.
I would like to thank İlksen Özbay and Rıdvan Gölcük from Kocaeli Archaeology Museum for sharing these fascinating archaeological finds with me. Our project is granted by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK project number 115K242).
- ÇALIK-ROSS, A. 2007. Nicomedia. Istanbul: Delta Publishing.
- CREED, J.L. 1984. Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- GÜNEY, H. 2012. The resources and economy of Roman Nicomedia. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Exeter.
- HAMILTON, H.C. & W. FALCONER. 1854–1857. Strabo, Geography. London: Henry G. Bohn.
- NORMAN, A.F. 1965. Libanius, Autobiography. London: Oxford University Press.
- WARD-PERKINS, J.B. 1980. Nicomedia and the marble trade. Papers of the British School at Rome 48: 23–69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0068246200008357
- ZEYREK T.H. & İ. ÖZBAY. 2007. Statuen Und Reliefs Aus Nikomedeia; Statues Und Reliefs From Nikomedeia. Istanbuler Mitteilungen 56: 273–316.
* Author for correspondence.
- Tuna Şare Ağtürk*
Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Department of Art History, Çanakkale 17100, Turkey (Email: tunasare [at] gmail.com)