Exhibition reveals Istanbul's unknown rich animal history

Istanbul University is set to open a new exhibit featuring animal bones discovered during excavation work for the Marmaray project, which will connect Istanbul's Asian and European sides via an undersea commuter train line, at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine building in Istanbul's Avcilar district at the end of May.

The excavation of the 58,000 square-meter Marmaray site has unearthed the bones of many animal species that are not native to Turkey. Today's Zaman got the chance of taking a tour in the museum and talking to Professor Vedat Onar before the exhibition's opening. Onar said over 60,000 pieces of animal bones have been examined so far since the excavations began about nine years ago. He noted that the Marmaray digs revealed that 55 different animal species lived in Istanbul's coastal Yenikapi area. The bones found belonged to animals such as the camels, red deer, elephants, vultures, turtles, bears, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins, weasels and red fox. “Yenikapi had been used very actively since the 3rd or 4th century A.D. The bones might have come here with alluvial deposit carried by the Lykos (Bayrampasa) stream. I was surprised to see such a bone collection in the city center,” he said.

A large number of horse bones were discovered during the excavations. “Horses were both used in transportation, trade and for military purposes and they were consumed by humans. We made an interesting finding about sheep, goat and buffalos. The brains of these animals had been taken out of their skulls in one attempt with a very careful cut. Taking their brains out as a whole increased their value. We discovered many buckhorns used as accessories,” Professor Onar explained. The excavations revealed some interesting results such as the remains of an elephant, which is a species that is not known to have existed in the country. “We saw cuts in two elephants' bones. They would probably be food for other animals,” Onar noted.

According to Onar, the remains of bears suggest that forcing bears to dance in public was common during Byzantine period as well as it was for Turkish settlers of the city. “We found evidence of pressing on their skulls,” he said, referring to the harsh methods applied to tame bears. Onar highlighted that the excavations might be close to completion, but examining the items found will take many years to truly determine what the animal population of the city was like. “We keep samples. We'll work on their DNAs in the future. We'll then know the relations of these animals with today's species and how they went extinct over time,” he said.

Everything that is found during the excavation for the Marmaray project is examined by experts. Some findings date as far back as 8,500 years ago. Among the finds at the site was the fourth century Port of Theodosius, which was part of the ancient Constantinople harbor of Eleutherios. The findings included footprints, remains of houses and graves from thousands of years ago.