"Lost Roman Treasure"

PBS Airdate: October 8, 2002
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: In this tiny village in Turkey, as layers of soil are removed, the past comes alive. Thousands of years ago, there was a city that was the crossroads of the ancient Roman Empire, a civilization where culture and prosperity went hand in hand, where wealthy citizens built grand villas filled with precious art. But the city met a catastrophic and mysterious end.

Today, its remains lie buried in this ancient river valley. And a team of French and Turkish scientists have been working for four years, sifting through the sands of time, inch by inch, painstakingly separating treasures from trinkets. These are the remnants of a lost world—the ruins of fabulous villas; the remains of ancient art; clues about the families who lived here, their stories and their names carefully decoded letter by letter. They hint at more spectacular finds waiting to be uncovered.

But time is running out, for this lost city will soon be buried under the floodwaters of a new dam. With only days remaining, the archeologists will risk everything to find the greatest prize this ancient world can offer. Up next on NOVA, Lost Roman Treasure.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

This program is funded in part by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation. Some people already know Northwestern Mutual can help plan for your children's education. Are you there yet? Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.

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And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: The Euphrates River is the cradle of civilization. Today, many people here live much as they did thousands of years ago. Two thousand years ago, as this great river flowed across the plains of Eastern Turkey, a handful of ancient cities of the Greek and Roman Empires flourished. Buried somewhere in this remote valley is one of the most spectacular of those cities, a treasure of Ancient Rome, the City of Zeugma.

But this ancient world is about to come up against the forces of modern technology. This is the Birecik Dam, part of an ambitious program by the Turkish government to encourage economic development. The dam will generate electricity and irrigate farmland. It's almost finished. But its benefits will come with a cost.

This entire valley will be flooded. The local villages will disappear under water, and more than 30,000 people will lose their homes. What will also be lost are the hidden treasures of the ancient City of Zeugma. They will be drowned under the waters of the Euphrates, unless archeologists can get to them first.

An international team is here to try to rescue Zeugma. Archeologists, geophysicists, experts in mapping and excavation have all joined forces to find the treasures of the ancient city. They've been digging in this area for several years, but now their work takes on a new urgency.

Pierre Leriche is heading the team. They have only six weeks to dig before the dam goes into operation. This is their last chance to save whatever they can of the buried city before it's too late.

PIERRE LERICHE (Archeologist): Here we are on Belkis Tepe, overlooking the site of Zeugma and the Euphrates. The tragedy unfolding here is that this remarkable area will soon disappear beneath the waters of the dam, which is now close to completion. The water will completely flood the left bank and the ancient site on that side of the Euphrates will disappear, as will a large section of what lies below us. It's a catastrophe.

NARRATOR: In ancient times, Zeugma was a thriving city, the center of trade routes that spanned the Roman Empire. It stood at the intersection of roads that carried spices, slaves and riches from Persia to the west and India in the south. The only bridge across the entire Euphrates River was at Zeugma.

PIERRE LERICHE: The bridge connected the Euphrates river valley to central Asia and the Orient. This was critical to the development of the Great Silk Road, and trade brought prosperity to the city.

NARRATOR: Zeugma was originally settled by the Greeks in 300 BC, but entered its golden age many centuries later when the Romans took over. It then became a vital center of commerce, art and culture. An army of 6,000 soldiers guarded the bridge across the Euphrates to protect the crucial trade routes. It was a fabulously wealthy place, a jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire.

Previous exploration has revealed important clues about ancient life in Zeugma. Under this flattened mound is the foundation of an ancient temple—nearby, the grassy terrace of a stadium where Roman citizens would gather for theatrical and sporting events. The city had an educated, elite population.

The most prominent ancient Romans lived in extravagant, richly decorated villas. Over the centuries a few priceless mosaics have been looted from the area around Zeugma. They offer a tantalizing glimpse of the riches that might still lie buried in the valley.

PIERRE LERICHE: The wealth of the ancient population allowed them to build magnificent villas on the same scale as most of the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Antioch.

NARRATOR: Centuries ago, the hills surrounding Zeugma were likely to have looked like this: dotted with lavish houses and grand public buildings, rich with statues and fabulous artwork. Over the years, the excavation has failed to find anything of real value, yet the archeologists believe many ancient treasures still exist. Now they have just six weeks to find them.

PIERRE LERICHE: It is very important for us to work as fast as possible to save what we can, as there are some areas that will be lost to research forever.

NARRATOR: Day One begins. The scientists split into two teams to map the site on both sides of the river. With such a short time to work, it's critically important to decide exactly where to dig. All are acutely aware of what is at stake.

Zeugma is really two cities on opposite banks of the Euphrates: Seleucia, a hillside town, and Apamea, on the flat plain. It is Apamea that will disappear first under the floodwaters.

One team sets off across the river for Apamea, crossing at the point where the ancient bridge might once have stood. The task ahead is almost overwhelming. The site stretches for 125 acres and none of it has been excavated before.

The first critical step is to discern the outer boundaries and structure of the city. To do this they will have to uncover miles of the great perimeter wall that protected the city. It is now mostly buried or destroyed. But in a few places sections of the wall are still standing, and they provide a hint of how powerful the defenses of the city once were.

JUSTINE GABORIT (Archeologist): All along the banks of the Euphrates the cities had very strong defensive walls to protect them. Here, exposed on the plain, they had to build even stronger walls because they were very vulnerable to attack. That's why this city's wall had to be built with meticulous care. These stones were not cut straight, so that an attack by a catapult would cause only the wall's surface to shatter, leaving the main part of the wall standing.

NARRATOR: The first challenge is to search the entire site for fragments of the wall. Its pieces lie scattered around like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Miles of the wall are still buried underground. If there were time, the archeologists would carefully dig out all the walls they could find, to get a clear picture of the size and shape of the city. But this is just not possible.

To speed things up, the local people pitch in to help. This Kurdish family has lived here for generations, and they tell the scientists about an abandoned well deep below the ground. Finding the well unexpectedly reveals a crucial hidden stretch of the wall.

GERARD THÉBAULT (Land Surveyor/Architect): We're inside a modern well that gives us access to a section of the old wall. We're very lucky we didn't have to dig it out. It's a very long, very strong wall, and about 10 feet thick. That indicates it was a main defensive rampart and must have surrounded a very important city.

NARRATOR: Piece by piece every new discovery is recorded on paper. Gradually walls and towers begin to take shape. It's clear that the builders of Zeugma used the most sophisticated technology of the time. The walls weren't built in simple, straight lines, but at sharp, defensive angles.

Finally the outer limits of the city are revealed. But what lies buried inside the walls? Under these trees there may be streets, houses, markets and temples. But it's impossible to uncover it all. There is no way to excavate layer by layer, as would normally be done. It would take years. There must be another way.

The archeologists ask for help from Albert Hesse and Christophe Benech, two scientists more used to searching for oil and mineral deposits than finding lost cities. They bring with them an amazing machine that could change everything.

ALBERT HESSE (Geophysicist): We are all aware of the earth's magnetic field, because we all use it to orient our compasses. However, we also know that certain underground materials can upset the magnetic lines of force. Therefore, by measuring the magnetism on the surface of the ground with an instrument called a magnetometer, we can locate disturbances in the magnetic field that may indicate there is something buried there.

NARRATOR: This device measures tiny variations in the earth's magnetic field. Normally the magnetic field is at a constant background level, but any large rock or piece of metal under the soil will cause it to change. The two sensors at the end of this pole detect the changes.

Zeugma is buried under 10 feet of very fine sedimentary soil, the results of thousands of years of the regular flooding of the Euphrates. There are no big rocks in the soil here, which means that any signal picked up by the sensors is likely to be a sign of the city. Buried roads, houses or temples will all register as tiny fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field.

It takes several days to survey the site, under a sweltering sun, walking in perfect synch to the sounds of the machine.

As the information is fed into a computer, a detailed picture of a hidden world begins to emerge. These shadowy blocks represent houses, walls and cobbled streets, the foundations of Zeugma, deep below the earth.

CHRISTOPHE BENECH (Geophysicist): You can clearly see the city wall. It's about 15 feet thick, like the ones we've seen on site. There are living quarters next to it. There's a road here and these white sections are the walls of houses alongside it.

NARRATOR: After just a few days, the archeologists have results that would have taken years of digging. At night they pore over the pictures trying to make sense of them.

CHRISTOPHE BENECH: This fits exactly with your theory of the city's layout.

JUSTINE GABORIT: Oh, excellent. Now we know for sure.

NARRATOR: As the computer images accumulate, they create a three-dimensional map of Zeugma as it once existed. Now it's time to dig, and not a moment too soon. At the dam, construction is almost complete.

Across the river, the team exploring Seleucia, the hilly part of Zeugma, has been trying to pinpoint the most promising place in the huge site to excavate in the four weeks that remain. There is no way to map this part of the city. The machine that worked so well on the flat plain of Apamea can not distinguish rocks in the hillside from the stone foundations of houses.

In the previous four years, the scientists have dug small exploratory sites all over Zeugma hoping to find a Roman villa, rich in ancient artifacts. But now there's no more time for exploring. They have to narrow their search and do some serious digging.

This is one of the sites they've chosen. The walls look promising, but they have no way to know if this will turn out to be a grand villa or a simple house. After several days of hard work, they're still struggling to figure it out.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX (Archeologist): Normally we'd have to remove all of this to learn anything. It'll be a huge amount of work if we ever get that far.

NARRATOR: In the race against time, the scientists are forced to abandon normal archeological procedures. They can't afford to examine each layer inch by inch. They must dig down to the foundations as quickly as possible, logging and recording what they can on the way.

Finally they hit pay dirt. These drainpipes are 2,000 years old. They're a clue to how the house was organized and why it met an untimely end.

DANIEL FRASCONE (Archeologist): This is where the people lived. These houses were abandoned and then suddenly covered by a landslide so large sections of wall were preserved—walls like this one, for example. There was probably a door here. We can go into another room through this door. There probably were wooden steps leading down into the next room because there's a drop of 40 centimeters between the floors.

NARRATOR: This is just an ordinary Roman dwelling. There's no sign of the richly decorated villa they were hoping for. But then the discovery of a network of gullies leads the archeologists to a dramatic insight into the layout of the entire city.


DANIEL FRASCONE: Take your time. Don't rush it.

How on earth did they make this?

NARRATOR: They carefully squeeze into narrow passages that lead them further and further under the city. These tunnels were built with amazing precision, and probably have been untouched for 2000 years.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX: The precision is extraordinary; the blocks are all made so exactly.

NARRATOR: Walking directly under the streets and houses of ancient Zeugma, the archeologists realize they have discovered the sewer system of the buried city.

DANIEL FRASCONE: This is the way the sewer workers would have come. They'd stand here to clear out the blockages. They'd sweep along the passages and clean them out.

NARRATOR: The construction resembles classic Greek architecture, suggesting it was built by the earliest settlers of Zeugma in 300 BC.

But then they come across another clue to its history.

ALAIN DESREUMAUX: Oh, wow, a Roman archway...very beautiful. You can see right away that it's Roman. This type of mortar didn't exist before the Romans. And this mortar is incredibly strong. What fascinates me is that if we could map out the entire sewer system we'd have a blueprint of the town—all the villas that sent their wastewater into this network. It would be the city in reverse.

NARRATOR: By following the tunnels of the sewer system the archeologists could come up with the ground plan of the entire city. The broad streets of the wealthiest neighborhoods are probably directly above the widest tunnels in the sewer.

But mapping the tunnels would take months, time they just don't have. The scientists must leave the sewers and concentrate on the critical work above ground.

At the second site on the hill, digging is well under way. These broken columns suggest an important discovery. Perhaps these walls, rooms and doorways belong to a genuine Roman villa, a house that contained valuable mosaics and artwork—riches the archeologists desperately want to find and rescue.

They're now more than halfway through the six-week dig and the site is getting bigger by the day. They will never manage to uncover it all in just three weeks so they make a radical decision. As a last resort, they decide to bring in the bulldozers. It would take weeks to remove by hand the amount of earth these machines can handle in a single day. Still, there's a significant risk. Valuable artifacts buried in the site could be damaged or destroyed.

PIERRE LERICHE: Everything will be drowned anyway, everything will be lost. Therefore, in these circumstances, and to further our research, we have to sacrifice walls that'll vanish under water and use the bulldozers much more freely.

NARRATOR: Every fragment of the villa is carefully drawn and catalogued just as it is found. From the precise location of each fallen column they will later be able to reconstruct what the villa once looked like.

By studying the ruins the archeologists hope to solve the mystery of what happened in Zeugma towards the end of the Roman occupation. According to ancient texts, around 250 AD, Zeugma was attacked from the east by the Persians. Legend has it that they raided the city and defeated the Roman army. Zeugma was burned and destroyed. After the raid, the Roman soldiers who defended Zeugma were moved away to other parts of the empire, as the city went into a slow decline.

Now all this ancient history is coming back to life in the ruins. There is evidence of events that took place nearly 2,000 years ago, in every part of this house.

PIERRE LERICHE: In a house like this you would expect layers of debris from settled dirt, or maybe from digging. But here we've got an indistinct mass. The whole place has been subjected to extreme heat. This stone has been reduced to lime. This area has turned red. This is charcoal. It's everywhere.

There was probably a fire—broken columns, the sediment containing coal and ash, and burned wood—there was a catastrophe here. Something calamitous happened, some kind of huge collapse, a terrible fire. Then it all settled down until there was a landslide and the house was abandoned.

NARRATOR: Zeugma lies in an earthquake zone, so it's possible the landslide was caused by a natural disaster. But the dates of these coins suggest that the catastrophic fire preceded the landslide and was probably part of the Persian raid. The image on the coin is Philip the Arabian, who was Emperor of Rome in 249 AD, right before the villa was most likely destroyed.

A month's hard work has yielded this small collection of decorative items, the remains of a wealthy Roman household, frozen in time and buried for centuries. But so far there is no sign of the fine mosaics and other treasures that the ancient city once almost certainly contained.

With only two weeks left, all attention is focused on the final excavation of the villa. Sifting through the bottom layers, the team uncovers a steady stream of evidence that this house met a disastrous end.

CATHERINE ABADIE-REYNAL (Director of Excavations): When you excavate a house like this, you can follow the different stages of its destruction. First there was a huge fire, which burned all the doors, the windows, paneling and furniture. We found burned bronze fixtures. Then the roof caved in with the tiles. It all formed a thick layer. Then the walls gradually collapsed on top of everything else. You can see the final moments of a very luxurious house.

NARRATOR: But a luxurious Roman house ought to contain great artistic treasures, unless they were destroyed by the fire and landslide that followed the Persian attack. The archeologists keep digging, but hope is beginning to fade.

And then finally they discover something that fulfills their greatest expectations. As they brush away the earth, brightly colored paintings emerge from beneath the crumbling soil. The mud that filled the house has preserved and protected several beautiful wall paintings that have not seen the light of day for nearly 2,000 years.

Now that the paintings are exposed, they have to be cleaned and removed quickly. If not, they will deteriorate rapidly in the hot sun and humid air.

The archeologists are almost out of time, but they are close to reaching the final moments of Zeugma's history. In a corner of one room is something that they've all been waiting for since the dig began: a mosaic floor. At first it seems to be disappointingly plain. But then, Greek inscriptions and familiar names begin to appear.

CATHERINE ABADIE-REYNAL: It's very strange, very, very strange. There's an's in Greek. Icarus...Pasiphae...they're all mythological characters on this mosaic. Daedalus, Icarus's's a family reunion. Oh, it's fantastic.

NARRATOR: Over the next three days, a brightly colored and exquisitely designed mosaic is revealed. It takes time, for the mosaic is large, more than 200 square feet.

CATHERINE ABADIE REYNAL: What's so striking is the richness of the colors. All the greens and the blues, the characters' expressions, with...I don't know...the old man, the beautiful young woman. It's very rich...truly. It's magnificent.

NARRATOR: How many more of these historic masterpieces will have to be left behind?

The discovery of the mosaic in Zeugma has stunned the world of archeology and prompted an international outcry. The archeologists convince the Turkish government to give them time for another series of short digs. Jean-Pierre Darmon, an expert in Roman mosaic art, comes to Zeugma to examine the remarkable find.

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON (Art Historian/Archeologist): It's one of the most original and beautiful mosaics I have ever seen from this period. It's an absolute masterpiece. We're in the presence of a great artist. It's magnificent. It embodies the artistic tradition of the Hellenistic period.

NARRATOR: The mosaic tells the Greek myth of Pasiphae, who gave birth to a beast called the Minotaur. The Minotaur was half man and half bull. Pasiphae asks Daedalus, a carpenter and the father of Icarus, to build the famous labyrinth to hide the monster from humanity.

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON: Absolutely outstanding, really...It's one of the masterpieces I have ever seen.

NARRATOR: They have to remove the mosaic from the site to save it from the coming flood. They cover it with glue and then hammer down a thin layer of gauze over the thousands of tiny tiles to hold them in place. Once the glue is dry, the mosaic is cut into pieces for transport to the local museum. Sections of floor are pried from the ground and carefully lifted onto a waiting truck.

The archeologists will continue their desperate search for other treasures that might still be buried in Zeugma.

The mosaic goes to the nearby city of Gazientep, where it will hold a place of honor in the local museum. Restored for the ages, protected from the floodwaters, it will give all those who live and visit here a unique perspective on the culture of the valley in ancient times—when Zeugma brought together the magnificence of the Greek and Roman Empires in a city of power, wealth, and artistic triumph.

Construction on the dam is now finished. In the village below, local people have been told to leave. They tear down their homes to save anything that can be used to rebuild their lives. Doors, windows, bricks and beams are ripped out. They don't know how long they'll be forced to live in temporary housing. The new homes they've been promised by the government in nearby areas are not finished. Thirty thousand people are now on the move.

Over the next three months, the waters of the Euphrates will gather behind the dam, rising inch by inch every day to create a vast reservoir. In just over a month, Belkis village will be gone. Two weeks after that, the newly discovered villa will also disappear.

With the waters rising around the villa, the archeologists find 14 rooms and many mosaics, each one a masterpiece.

JEAN-PIERRE DARMON: In any room of this house you have different image, and you have to imagine that the child who is born in this house has all the time in front of his eyes this image. His imagination is formed by this image and the others in the house ...huit, neuf, dix. That must be the ninth or tenth mosaic. What a collection...It's extraordinary.

NARRATOR: These discoveries make it possible to visualize in great detail what this villa looked like in ancient times—the central courtyard with its fountain, columns and wall paintings; the elaborate bath house; the ornate dining room with its extraordinary mosaic. One can imagine the family who lived here, gathering with friends for lively discussions and lavish feasts. The villa is the find of a lifetime. But its discovery will always leave the haunting question of what else might have been uncovered, if only there had been more time.

But now the archeologists have to leave. There will be one more dig, further up the hill, by another team and then it will all be over.

PIERRE LERICHE: When you realize what's going to disappear and all we haven't been able to do, you can't help feeling bitter. Part of Seleucia will still be here and we will continue to work on that, but everything that is important about Zeugma—the bridge, the ancient crossing point of the great trade routes between east and west—all of that will be irredeemably lost.

NARRATOR: With the dam completed and the flooding begun, the waters of the Euphrates River take only a month to reach the villa, and the entire site is now flooded. The precious ancient city of Zeugma, with all its secret treasures, has vanished forever.

Zeugma is not the only archeological treasure to be found. On NOVA's Website, explore other ancient sites around the world that are threatened by rising waters, at or America Online, Keyword PBS.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear. Sprint is proud to support NOVA.

This program is funded in part by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation. Some people already know Northwestern Mutual can help plan for your children's education. Are you there yet? Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.


Lost Roman Treasure

Produced by
Anne-Françoise de Buzareingues
Becky Jones
Elizabeth Arledge

Directed by
Thierry Ragobert

Narrated by
Neil Ross

Edited by
Stephanie Munroe
Bob Ede
Gilles Perru

Associate Producer
Jennifer Callahan

Eric Genillier
Frederic Beaugendre

Sound Recordist
Olivier Launay

Benoit Urbain
Ray Loring

Dennis Assor

Graphic Designers
Olivier Foucre
Amine Mehdi Gasmi
Pierre-Emmanuel Richet

Online Editor
Bernie Clayton

Mark Kueper

Audio Mix
Heart Punch Studio

Production Assistant
Christian Rodriguez

Archival Material
AKG photo Paris/Hilbich
Stéphane Compoint/Corbis/SYGMA

Executive Producer for Gedeon
Stéphane Milliere

Executive Editor for Horizon
John Lynch

Production Executive for Horizon
Anna Mishcon

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretary
Queene Coyne

Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Holly Archibald
Denise Drago
Alex Barraki
Diane Riethof

Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Gedeon Production for BBC and NOVA in association with WGBH Boston.
© GEDEON Programmes - La Sept ARTE - BBC - Le Musée du Louvre - CNRS Images/Media - 2000
Additional Program Material © 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation

Lost Roman Treasure

View the Mosaics

View the Mosaics
Take a closer look at Zeugma's famous mosaics.

Last-Ditch Archeology

Last-Ditch Archeology
Conservationist Gaetano Palumbo on salvage archeology.

Remote Excavation

Remote Excavation
Forget trowels and brushes. Think GIS, satellite imagery, etc.

Damming the Past

Damming the Past
Ancient sites threatened in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.


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