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Race against time to rescue mosaics from Euphrates floodwaters

Arts Society Newbury lecture: Louise Schofield: Rescuing Zeugma from the floodwaters of the Euphrates at Arlington Arts


Mythological mosaics were found intact
Mythological mosaics were found intact

AN urgent phone call from ‘Indiana Jones’, a desperate flight to Turkey, feuding archaeologists, thieves and a race against the rising waters of a new dam to save an ancient lost city were just some of the elements of a dramatic tale told to The Arts Society Newbury.

The Roman twin cities on the Euphrates known collectively as Zeugma – the Greek for bridge – had been lost for a century when Turkish workers digging the dam in the south of the country came across it. It had been sacked, buried in a landslide, leading archaeologist and curator Louise Schofield explained.

The waters for the dam were rising inexorably when an American philanthropist heard of the beautiful and complete mosaics, and gave $9m to fund the rescue.

And so Ms Schofield was hurriedly recruited to lead the attempt in a race against time.

“Mechanical diggers were clawing at the riverbank while we were trying to excavate below,” she said.

It was not all plain sailing. “All the nation groups hated each other,” she said. French and Turkish archaeologists had to be assigned to separate trenches, the dam work boss had to be persuaded by guile and threats to slow the water and guards had to be persuaded not to look the other way while thieves hacked out parts of the mosaics.

Working by day in heat up to 55ºC, and by night under arc lights the teams raced to save as much of the city as they could, some of it just three hours before it was drowned.

Zeugma had been incredibly rich in its prime, from taxes on shipping passing the only bridge of the Euphrates for 1000 miles. The inhabitants had hired the best mosaic artists to design the floors of their villas with scenes from mythology and contemporary plays.

Many of the mosaics were still complete. Many were carefully lifted in a complicated and time-consuming process.

They are now in a nearby museum, but others are still underwater – perhaps awaiting future recovery in a more leisurely way.

Next lecture: Bruegel: The Seasons and the world, April 23, Arlington Arts.

Visit theartssocietynewbury.org/uk for more details

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