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An archaeological dig in Turkey has uncovered artifacts dating back 1,000 years


We take you now to southern Turkey, where an archaeological dig has been turning up a trove of ancient artifacts. Some date back thousands of years. NPR's Peter Kenyon went to the site and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The site, known as Zerzevan Castle, is generally known as a Roman-era military garrison. But as archaeologists have painstakingly excavated the site, it has yielded up underground living areas with layer after layer of artifacts that are far older, some of which appear to be unique to this site. Aytac Coskun heads up the excavation team. He says it was nearly 20 years ago, while on a visit to the nearby city of Diyarbakir, that he came upon this place and knew he had to start digging.

AYTAC COSKUN: (Through interpreter) I first came to Diyarbakir in 2005. And in 2006, when I saw this hill, I saw some pieces of artifacts. And I knew this is an old settlement, and no excavation had been done before. So as soon as I saw it, I knew it had to be a dig because there must be something significant underneath.

KENYON: Coskun says the initial excavation at the southern end of the site revealed, among other things, the remains of an ancient church that was gradually being exposed to the elements and needed protection. He says as they moved on to the northern section, they also found a temple known as the Mithras Temple, dedicated to a god popular among Roman soldiers. After several years of work here, Coskun says he's convinced the layers of artifacts here will keep this site on the archaeological map for a long time.

COSKUN: (Through interpreter) The digging we're doing inside the castle walls is 57,000 square meters. It's a huge area. And outside of it, including here, is, like, 10 million square meters. And right now, Zerzevan Castle and Mithras Temple are in the temporary World Heritage List of UNESCO. We are working to get the site included in UNESCO's permanent list of World Heritage sites.

KENYON: Among the important finds, he says, is a beautifully preserved and ornately decorated Roman-era bronze baptismal bucket. That's on display at the Diyarbakir Archaeological Museum. He says they also found an Assyrian-era stamp, a kind of official seal carved into stone, that Coskun says dates back some 3,000 years.

Coskun and his colleagues point out more of what's been found here - an underground church, a huge rock altar, a long water canal and more. He believes perhaps 1,500 or more people, military and civilian, may have lived here in times of peace. And during wartime, it's possible 10,000 or more people from the surrounding area sought shelter here. That, he says, could explain the underground living areas. He says based on what's been unearthed so far, it's not an exaggeration to say the Zerzevan Castle-Mithras Temple site has the potential to change our understanding of this part of the world and its archaeological and architectural history. And there's more to come.

COSKUN: (Through interpreter) It's totally open to new discoveries. That's for sure. We don't know what else we'll find. We've only dug around 10% of the area on the surface within the castle walls. And beyond the castle walls, you see more living areas - an 8-kilometer water canal, the necropolis where the leading families buried their dead and ceremonial areas. So there will be more to come.

KENYON: As an example, Coskun says, so far, they've excavated six residential complexes within the castle walls. There are 99 more still below the surface. That's just one reason he believes this site will continue to offer up contributions to human knowledge of times past for many years to come.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, in Diyarbakir Province, Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.