By Harmonie Toros Associated Press Writer Monday, Oct. 2, 2000; 3:24 p.m. EDT

BELKIS, Turkey –– It was a race against time – and archaeologists say they won.

Water crept in a foot a day over the past three months, slowly submerging the ancient city of Zeugma, a key transit point across the Euphrates River believed to have been more than three times the size of the Roman city of Pompeii. More than 250 archaeologists and other specialists fought to rescue elaborate mosaics and other ancient Greek and Roman remains.

The operation finishes Thursday, when the water of the Birecik Dam – part of a multibillion dollar energy and irrigation project in southeastern Turkey – is due to reach its maximum size, covering 30 percent of Zeugma.

But everyone agrees: It's a success story.

"It was one of the most ambitious archaeological rescue campaigns ever," said Robert Early, head of the Oxford Archaeology Unit team of 50 people who took part in the digs.

Teams from France, Turkey, Britain and Italy joined in the effort to excavate and record the city's ruins, extract mosaics and statues, and carefully rebury the section to be flooded for future generations to rediscover.

"We should now be able to rewrite the history of Zeugma from the third century B.C. to the 10th century A.D.," Early said.

Zeugma was founded by the Greeks around 300 B.C., and later became a headquarters of the Roman Legions. It continued to be a wealthy city until the Middle Ages.

"Through the study of Zeugma we can discover more about the expansion and administration of the Roman Empire, the crossing of the Euphrates, daily life in Mesopotamia," said Kemal Sertok, Gaziantep museum director in charge of the work.

A first section of the city was flooded in May, and a dozen figurative mosaics were rescued from the rising waters.

Three more were cut in pieces and lifted off their floors, including a 225-square-foot pastel-colored mosaic depicting three women surrounded by cupids and geometrical designs.

"It is the most beautiful mosaic I've ever worked on," said Aurea Pica of the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica outside Rome, as she painstakingly chipped the mortar from the back of part of the mosaic.

It was the discovery of the mosaics that focused world attention on Zeugma. Until then, a Turkish-French team which had been excavating the area for years had tried without success to get the funding to rescue what it was convinced were precious archaeological remains.

Widespread news coverage as the waters started covering the ruins brought in much-needed money: U.S.-based Packard Humanities Institute gave $5 million for the operation.

With funding secured, it became a race against the rising waters.

"Usually we would spend three months just on planning the excavations. Here we had three months to do everything," Early said.

Christian Schneider of the Italian team recalls working three days and two nights nonstop to carry out the necessary conservation work on mosaics about to be flooded.

This involved covering the mosaics with mortar, followed by a specifically designed fabric covering, then with sand and pebbles. Under such conditions, the art can remain intact for up to a thousand years.

Meanwhile, the archaeologists recorded each layer of earth and rock they peeled away, discovering thousands of bronze seals – used to record trade and customs transactions – as well as the remains of homes, a temple and a later Byzantine church.

The Oxford Archaeology Unit is analyzing the recorded data. Through computer-generated images, team members already have discovered that a two-story house in the Roman period was in fact a public square during the city's earlier, Greek times.

The field work in the zone to be flooded is over, although the Birecik dam company said it will not flood the last few yards until November, giving experts a little more time.

Asked why so few artifacts were extracted, conservators said it was preferable to leave the remains in their original environment.

"And we have to keep something for archaeologists of the future generations," Early added.

The remaining 70 percent of the city, which will not be flooded, still lies under hills covered in pistachio trees.

Who will carry out later excavation work, and with what money, has yet to be decided, although both Packard Humanities Institute and the Southeastern Anatolian Project – the state institution in charge of dam projects – have said they are willing to continue the work. An open-air museum is also planned, along with a mosaic museum.


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