Help solve an archaeological mystery!

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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.

Ephesus one


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.

Ephesus two


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.

Ephesus three
Ephesus three


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.

Ephesus 4


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 Headshot

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.

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  • November 13 2013 at 11:21 am

    From the symbol, I'm wondering if it would be a some sort of map? or it has an important meaning to it. It could be a lost symbol like the Dan Brown Books or something to leave behind because something significant or important was in that location. It's a great mystery to solve.

  • November 13 2013 at 11:29 am
    John Linnell
    Perhaps a "gambling wind rose"....since the winds were generally the same, but not always, oddsmakers would use the windrose to lay odds and place bets on the wind.
  • November 13 2013 at 11:47 am
    I'm guessing the Arcadian Way was lined with street vendors, etc. selling their wares to travelers and the like. I would bet these notate locations designated for sale of compound foods offering savory sauces, cheeses, meats, and vegetables could be baked and divided evenly to be shared or sold on flat surfaces of a spongey, yeast-risen crust, much like today's naan or other variety of flatbread.
  • November 13 2013 at 12:17 pm

    You said that some of your students suggested religious symbolism. Is there a reason why you rejected the idea of an ichthus wheel, which was used as an ancient Christian symbol in the same way as the fish?

  • November 13 2013 at 1:25 pm
    Humans are remarkably clever, sure seems reasonable to think that these marks were meant for directions, as you pointed out, but then some enterprising chap figured out they made for a nice game board as well. But I'm confused about how the double-circle ones would work, I'd like to see a picture of those, as they sound the real unsolved mystery.
  • November 13 2013 at 2:06 pm
    Zach K
    Is it a wind rose? Is it a game board? Is it for math instruction? The answer may very well simply be: Yes! My thinking is that perhaps, over time, these carvings served all of these purposes. It seems likely that wind roses would be the original purpose of the carvings. But imagine yourself in the ancient streets of Ephesus. In particular, the Arcadian Way was a social hub, where everyone from vagrants to patricians gathered (mathematicians fall somewhere in between the two!). It's not difficult to imagine these wind roses co-opted by men with idle hands and a penchant for gambling. After all, these carvings are all over and it's not so ridiculous to think that a popular game could have emerged utilizing the carvings (a dice game? a marbles game?). That might explain why some of these wind roses had "Tycho" and other additional carvings -- only certain ones were gambling centers. It makes sense for the mathematics as well. Be you a math philosopher discussing the subject with others or a proper educator speaking with a pupil, imagine trying to explain vectors, radii, asymptotes, or any number of theorems. In order to prove your example you seek out one of the impeccably carved wind roses which grace the street. You use such circles as a reference point for your teacher, explaining and/or solving mathematical problems using them. I know this was a long answer, but it struck me that there's no reason to think the carvings served only one purpose. As I said, it's likely the original purpose was as wind roses but took on other functions over time. Just my two cents. Good luck!
  • November 13 2013 at 4:51 pm
    Dan Davis

    Chris, you're right, I shouldn't dismiss the ichthys wheel as a working hypothesis. These are, however, very rare, and they tend to exist in 3rd A.D. Rome, when Christianity was still contesting with paganism. Not so much in the provinces. The Arcadian Way was built when Christianity was the law of the land, and the graffiti must have come even later than that (we can't date them), so why the need for cryptic symbols? I couldn't find a satisfactory answer for that in my research, so I began to consider other interpretations. I'll keep searching for archaeological parallels to the ichthys circle that are contemporary with the use of the Arcadian Way. Thanks!

  • November 13 2013 at 4:53 pm
    Dan Davis

    Jeff, you're right: there's no reason to take an "either or" approach. A "both...and" approach is logical! I just wish that some ancient author specified what game it was! Like I mentioned, we know lots about ancient games, but this one is never mentioned or alluded to, alas!

  • November 13 2013 at 4:54 pm
    Dan Davis

    John! Great idea! A "gambling wind rose"! I wonder if there's any evidence from antiquity or the Middle Ages of people using the winds as the chance factor in games. I'll follow up. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • November 13 2013 at 4:56 pm
    Dan Davis

    Mark, not a bad idea -- markers for vendors selling foods, but wouldn't the stall or cart itself be the marker? Why the need for a permanent mark on the pavement? Hmmm... I'll keep thinking. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

  • November 13 2013 at 4:59 pm
    Dan Davis

    Zach, I think you have something here too. A "both and" approach, rather than an "either or." Given the longevity of the road (in use for over 7 centuries), the original use of these rather permanent pavement signs could have morphed. Perhaps they are religious gambling mathematical wind roses that mark food stalls! I just wish we had more literary evidence!

  • November 14 2013 at 6:55 pm
    John Lavender

    Most of the ancients (I use ancients very loosely) used the sun position and stars to determine direction.  The wise men followed the star in the east.  In a GPS age we are very ignorant of how direction is achieved by those who walk to where they go.

  • November 21 2013 at 9:38 pm

    They look to me like early prototypes of the "Tipi-Quick". Probably placed there to ensure that modern archaeologists will not forget how to easily and quickly sketch a stone circle.

    It seems possible as well that these could be part of an ancient advertising campaign by an early concrete manufacturer? Or could they be an ancient version of the Stars on Hollywood Blvd?

  • December 20 2013 at 10:25 am

    Very interesting.  It would be great for you to publish a map of the area and where these markings have been found - i.e. the big picture.  Evenly spaced, they may be more like a trail marker.  Clustered may suggest a "station" like an approved or official site. If there are no other carvings (graffiti), then perhaps these were most likely established by the government?

  • December 26 2013 at 7:51 pm
    My guess would be inscriptions by sailors asking for or giving thanks (to the winds, to the goddess of fortune, perhaps in the name of a loved one, depending on the inscriptions along with the wind roses) for a journey's safe completion. Sort of like taking out a newspaper ad giving thanks to St. Whoever when your prayers are answered. The double circles, tangents, etc. could be designating journeys within journeys, or one particular leg of a longer voyage. As the first place a sailor would come ashore (or the last road they'd walk down before shipping out) at a major destination, carving these prayers in the Arcadian Way would be a public display of devotion and gratitude, like leaving graffiti with your name along the route of a pilgrimage. The game boards theory doesn't convince me- why would you try to gather a group of people around a stone in the middle of the busy street, instead of using a portable game board that can be set up anywhere? Same with mathematical instruction- if your students get trampled or have to move out of the way of a noble procession every few minutes, your lesson isn't going to stick very well. I guess one way to test the "sailors' prayer graffiti" hypothesis would be to check other harbor roads at major ports for similar markings, and/or examine in the literature if there was something particularly significant to sailors about a voyage to Ephesus (again, like a pilgrimage). Good luck! It sure is tantalizing to try to get into ancient peoples' heads!
  • December 31 2013 at 12:47 pm
    Dan Davis

    Hi Jennifer. Votive offerings by sailors, a reasonable idea, certainly. I've been digging deeper and deeper into early Christian symbology, and it's starting to look like these 8-ray circles serve as acrostics for ICHTHYS, which is Greek for "fish," but also abbreviation for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." All of the Greek letters of ICHTHYS conform to the different segments of the 8-ray circle. There are examples of this in the catacombs of Rome, which actually have a fish carved over the 8-ray circle! One even has ICHTHYS carved beneath the circle. So now I'm of two minds: either these were votive offerings by Christian sailors (carved either before a voyage or after a successful voyage) or they were simply marking the religion of the shops and stalls that lined the Arcadian Way, in the same way perhaps that Christian businesses today advertise themselves as such, either explicitly or using the Christian fish symbol. It's still very interesting that the vast majority of the carvings are on the Arcadian Way and not on the other major arteries of Ephesus... It would be easy to see how the one instance of TYCHE (Fortuna) was carved above one, perhaps by an antagonist of Christianity during an age in which paganism and Christianity were being contested. Game boards? I think you're right: Not very plausible. And you're also right about checking other major harbor roads of a similar date, but there are very few of these left: Ostia, Carthage, Alexandria, and perhaps Marseille. That's where my research is leading next. Thanks so much for the input and advice!!!

  • January 2 2014 at 8:48 am
    Very cool! Please keep us posted on what you find, Dan :)
  • January 11 2014 at 1:23 am
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  • July 29 2015 at 6:28 am

    Responding to your comment made on Nov 13, 2013 answering "Chris". There is at least one such symbol in Ephesus that has the words "Ichthus" engraved next to it. This removes all reasonable doubt over the meaning of the symbol. Why should it not be possible for the engravings in Ephesus to predate their counterparts in Rome?

  • November 28 2015 at 6:05 am
    Ephesus One Dollar

    Dear Dan, I have sent an email about this subject. Please get back to me when you read it. Thank you (link removed)

  • November 29 2015 at 1:57 pm
    Nina Hallett
    I just returned from Dougga (Thugga), Tunisia. In the paved square (Windrose Square) by the capitolium there is another of these circles. The square is named Windrose because there is an actual wind rose carved into it, with the names of the winds. The circle sign is to one side in a corner. We were led to believe it was a game.
  • November 30 2015 at 1:38 pm
    Dan Davis

    Hi Nina. I wish I could have gone with you to Dougga! I wrote about that wind-rose in my dissertation but have never seen it personally. One day... 

    Here's a link to a more up-to-date blog on these wind-roses/game-boards/Christological symbols found on many ancient Mediterranean sites:

    I hope you enjoy it!


  • April 11 2017 at 9:21 am
    Ken C

    The tower of the winds in Athens I believe is eight sided. The tomb of Arsinoe is eight sided. The light house at Alexandria had a part that was eight sided. Roman bread had partitions in the top crust but I forget now how many. My first thought was of bread and a bakery. The loaves being round. Anything you might add about the tomb of Arsinoe iv would be welcome. It's been a five year delight and struggle to find anything additional beyond what would fit in a short paragraph. Thanks

  • August 27 2017 at 4:40 am

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