I love a good mystery—especially an archaeological mystery. I teach a couple of archaeology courses every year here in Luther's Classics Department, and I'm always trying to instill in my students the value of looking beyond the artifact to unlock the secrets of the ancient world. But I didn't expect to find such a compelling archaeological mystery at a place I've studied and visited over a dozen times. Indeed, I need your help to solve it.
It was during this year's January-term trip to Greece and Turkey that I first noticed graffiti carved crudely into the main roads of the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus is located near the Aegean coast of Turkey about a five hour drive south from Istanbul. The city boasted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the temple of Artemis—and served as a major Roman capital of Asia Minor well into the Middle Ages. Over the past century archaeologists (mainly Austrians) have uncovered two main roads that served the city, one that cuts through the main civic area, the other a wide promenade flanked by columns that leads from the heart of the theater district to an immense harbor basin. This latter road is called the Arcadian Way, a half-kilometer long, column-lined promenade named after the Roman emperor Arcadius who had it rebuilt in the late fourth century A.D. Every time I've visited Ephesus this harbor road was closed by barriers, presumably to let the archaeologists work in that area unmolested by tourists. But in January the tourist traffic is light. So, on this cold, wet day, while my class rested from the long tour of the city, I took it upon myself to walk the length of the Arcadian Way down to the ancient water front, which is now a swamp. As I walked I noticed many eight-rayed circles of different sizes carved into the marble pavement, all placed seemingly at random. I lost count after about thirty. What were these used for? Why did people go through the effort of carving them? After some reflection, it hit me: these may have been carved to represent the ancient Mediterranean wind rose.
This requires some explanation. The ancients did not know the compass, so they relied on a primitive kind of ‘wind-compass’ or ‘wind rose’ for determining orientation and direction. Winds in this part of the Mediterranean tend to blow with regular frequency from the same direction, depending on the time of day and year, so ancient seafarers were able associate the origin of specific winds with specific directions. Ancient authors referred to these winds by name (like Boreas, the north wind, or Zephyrus, the west wind), and some larger cities even built octagonal towers of stone with the names of these winds inscribed on each face. A case in point is the beautiful "Tower of the Winds" built in the heart of ancient Athens in the first century B.C. Could these circles on the Arcadian Way be crude versions of the same? If so, did ancient seafarers inscribe them as reminders of the winds their ships required to depart the harbor? Perhaps as a teaching device for novice seafarers and ferry passengers? Winds, after all, served as the primary means of propulsion for those who traveled by sea, and Ephesus was a major harbor city.
Those, at least, were my preliminary thoughts, but all I could do was snap a few photos and race back to the bus. When I returned to Decorah I immediately set out to solve the mystery. I searched through the archaeological literature, but found almost no reference to them. So I asked colleagues and students for their impressions. Some suggested they could be religious signs, but I found no evidence for that. An expert on religious iconography at Vanderbilt guessed that they may be game-boards, so I followed up on the lead. It turns out that there is a game museum (the Musée Suisse du Jeu) in Switzerland, directed by a Dr. Ulrich Schädler. I contacted Dr. Schädler only to discover that he had been studying these same circles for years and was on the verge of publishing them as ancient Roman game-boards. Ah, he had solved it then, it seemed. Even so, I was hesitant to dismiss my hypothesis. After all, several ancient Roman authors described game-boards, but none (to my knowledge) had ever described a circular variety such as those I encountered at Ephesus. The key, I thought, would be in the alignments: if four of the eight rays were aligned to the cardinal compass points of the horizon, then they may well be wind-roses; but if their orientations were random, then game-boards they must be.
I had already planned a return to Ephesus in the summer, and this time I would have Daniel Faas, Luther class of 2014, with me. He and I were taking part in a deep-water archaeology survey south of Ephesus (see "Davis, Faas take on the Aegean Sea," in Chips, vol. 135.3, Sept. 27, 2013, 6-7), but we would have three days free to see some sights and visit the Arcadian Way. We asked and received permission from the Austrian Archaeological Institute to photograph each of the circles, this time with a scale and compass. It was a miserably hot, bright, sunny day when we arrived, but we set out our camera gear and scales and went to work immediately. It became obvious after just a few photos that the rays of nearly all the circles were oriented to the cardinal directions of our compass. Aha! We had wind-roses! But then we also noticed that some of the graffiti were neighbored by square "game-boards," and others were accompanied by inscriptions. Most of the lettering was illegible, but one actually spelled the word TYCHE, the name of the Greek goddess of chance/fortune. This strongly implies that the circles were used by gamblers for some sort of game.
Back to square one.
As if this didn't confuse the issue enough, several of the seventy or so circles were actually overlapping double-circles with tangents and arcs. This reminded me of the geometric theorems expounded by Euclid. Was the Arcadian Way, then, also used as a classroom for Greek and Roman math students? Did these circles serve multiple purposes? Are we to imagine an ancient street populated with sailors, gamblers and school children, each hunched over scratches in the middle of the road? Or is there some other way to account for them?
This is where I need your help! In sum, we have seventy or so eight-rayed circles, most oriented to the compass points, some with inscriptions that imply gaming, others with geometric markings that imply math instruction. Of the two major roads in Ephesus, it is only the harbor road that has the circles. How would you interpret them?
Dan Davis, assistant professor of classics, has taught ancient Greek, Latin and classical civilization courses at Luther since 2011. For the past three summers he has served as the chief archaeologist for Black Sea Deep-Water Archaeological Surveys with the Institute for Exploration and the Ocean Exploration Trust. He received a bachelor's degree in classical civilizations from the University of Iowa, a master's degree in nautical archaeology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in classics with distinction in classical archaeology from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact Davis or read more about his field work.