Accidental archaeologists

By Katherine Smith

Anzacs at Gallipoli found two ancient cities and settlement at Lone Pine

Anzacs landing at Gallipoli in 1915 discovered classical ruins from antiquity while digging trenches, and uncovered evidence that Lone Pine – now a place of pilgrimage for many Australians – was already a place of special significance to people in the ancient world.

Associate Professor Chris Mackie, from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Classics and Archaeology says that soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign found ancient Greek and Roman remains while digging during 1915, and in the years immediately after the fighting.

“At Suvla Bay after the August 6 offensive the British found two Roman inscriptions written in Greek, together with various coins and other finds,” says Associate Professor Mackie, who has extensively researched the classical history of the Gallipoli Peninsula, Hellespont and the Dardanelles.

“Collectively, the soldiers’ finds identified the ancient Greek city of Alopekonnesos. This city had been known about from ancient sources, but the finds during the 1915 campaign identified with some certainty it was located at Suvla.”

Professor Mackie says there were numerous finds of ancient artifacts at Cape Helles, at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula.

“A British engineering unit found an important inscription dating from the second century BCE referring to another struggle for control of Gallipoli, while the French forces authorised a complete archaeological excavation of a cemetery site at Helles, uncovered when the soldiers’ picks kept striking ancient materials,” he says.

“These finds helped to identify the important ancient city of Elaious, located at the very tip of the peninsula looking across at the Asian side.”

But Professor Mackie says perhaps of most significance to Australians reflecting on ANZAC themes this year is literary evidence that Lone Pine, where so many soldiers on both sides lost their lives, had been a place of special meaning for people in antiquity, and perhaps in the period since then.

“The heights above Anzac would seem to have housed ancient settlements,” he says.

“We know from the diary of the Australian sapper Sergeant Lawrence that he came upon ancient pots or sarcophagi during his work digging trenches at the Pimple in 1915. Charles Bean, the official historian of Australia’s participation in World War 1, also found a coin on the path between the Nek and Russell’s Top on a visit to Gallipoli in 1919 (although he lost the coin before he could identify it).”

But he says an unpublished document now reveals something more significant.

“Colonel Crouch, who fought at Gallipoli during the campaign, returned to Turkey afterwards for a visit, and was invited by Colonel Hughes, an important member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, to re-visit the peninsula. In his thoughts on the visit written in 1924, Crouch pointed out that ‘it will interest the Lone Pine defenders to know that when the Commission was digging for the site of the obelisk, they discovered a Roman camp, old Roman remains, and coins, and some old skeletons’.

“So visitors to the Obelisk, while sensing the pathos and historic significance of the Lone Pine site, will now be aware that other people, from other millennia, had lived, fought and died on that very place,” he says.

Read next: Dead Man’s Penny

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