Early Christian fish: excavations provide insights into church construction

The mosaic floor of the basilica shows a river landscape with fish, birds and pl

The mosaic floor of the basilica shows a river landscape with fish, birds and plants, all depicted in great detail. © WWU - Asia Minor Research Centre

Archaeologists of the University of Münster have uncovered an early Christian basilica in south-eastern Turkey. The team of researchers led by Prof. Engelbert Winter spent eight weeks exposing richly ornamented mosaics with images of fish as well as painted marble reliefs. "These finds cast a new light on the development of church building in the Near East between the 4th and 7th centuries AD," explains Engelbert Winter, professor at the Minor Research Centre in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Münster.

The work was undertaken in collaboration with the Turkish Department of Antiquities - and under special conditions: because of the coronavirus, the safety of the people working at the site had top priority. "We had to comply with strict regulations during our work," says the deputy head of the excavation, Dilek Çobano’lu. The researchers succeeded in completely excavating the eastern end of the basilica with a well-preserved apse. Parts of the basilica had already been uncovered over the past few years. The basilica is one of the largest intra urban churches in late antique northern Syria. "The most remarkable thing is the mosaic floor of the apse," says Dr. Michael Blömer. "It shows a river landscape populated by fish, birds and plants depicted in great detail and framed by elaborately designed ornamental bands. We find all kinds of river animals - especially fish, but also birds, and a prawn."

The walls of the church were decorated with marble slabs, and the researchers recovered hundreds of fragments of such slabs. Many are decorated with reliefs and display traces of paintings. These and other finds provide new insights into how churches were decorated. "What was also very surprising," says Engelbert Winter, "was that the church stood at the centre of a larger building complex. On the eastern side there are further suites of rooms with colonnades and mosaic floors. We don’t yet know how far they extend, and what their function is something we will be investigating next year."

Background

In 2015, an international team under the direction of the Asia Minor Research Centre at Münster University began examining the ancient town of Doliche on the outskirts of the modern city of Gaziantep in south-east Turkey. In antiquity, Doliche was a small town in the north of Syria and was especially important as a religious centre. The main god of the town, Jupiter Dolichenus, was worshipped in many parts of the Roman Empire. The primary objective of the project, carried out with funding from the German Research Foundation, is to undertake research into how the town developed and how its inhabitants lived, from the Hellenistic and Roman periods to the Christian world of late antiquity and then the early Islamic period.

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