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The Leech Pond at Kerkenes Dağ

Posted by Ömür Harmansah

Ömür Harmanşah, Brown University

"Animals, who exhibit life in highly concentrated and diverse forms, have the power to completely alter our way of thinking about ourselves and the forms we make, live in, and respond to..." (Ingraham 2006: 15)

"In some way we recognize as true, nature and culture both share and compete for space, although only culture "stages" space, which frequently gives it the advantage. Sharing space means there exists, between the human world of labor and production and the "simply appearing" nature, an often fantastical but compelling potential for crossovers, associations, and contaminations." (Ingraham 2006: 188)

I have been meaning to write about this memorable place as a case study to illustrate the intricate but ambivalent relationship between archaeological "sites" and real "places". I participated in the Kerkenes Dağ Archaeological Project in Yozgat Province of Turkey, near the town Sorgun, in the territory of the village Şahmuratlı, for many seasons as an architect and architectural historian. Along with Isthmia in Greece, this was where my teeth were cut in archaeological fieldwork. Kerkenes is a mountain-top Iron Age city to the East of Central Anatolian plateau, also identified with the sacred mountain "Daha" of Hittite sources (Gurney 1995). It is one of the largest cities ever built in ancient Anatolia. Its fortification walls stretch some 7 km. Built at a very high altitude (ca. 1500 m), it covers a substantial area of some 271 ha.

The site today is a highland cattle and sheep pasture for the surrounding villages. This is mostly true of the village of Şahmuratlı, where the project team stayed. The village had given the project an old unused school building which we collaboratively transformed into a dig house over the years (no small feat!). I remember sleeping in the first few seasons in this massive lecture hall on collapsible metal camp beds. Work transpired on a massive wooden bobbin (for electric wires), which we had amusingly carried inside. I have so many good memories of this place.

The village had suffered a large exodus in the form of its young population leaving for Europe as "gastarbeiter" over the years. The workers of this village went to Netherlands if I remember correctly. Many of the families came back to the village in the summer months, to see relatives and to have their weddings. During these months the village was always a cheerful place.

From the village, the hike to the site was about 40 minutes to an hour through vineyards. Once at the walls of the city one had to climb through these impressively well preserved granite fortifications. The place was usually very, very cold in the early morning (we were often there at 6:00 am) even in July or August, and we had to gradually peel off our multiple layers of sweaters as the day progressed. By noon we hardly tolerated a t-shirt!
In this vast site, there were a number of fascinating places, some in the imagination of the villagers (such as the so-called cemetery where the rocks were believed to move and a mysterious light traveled at night, carried by suffering ghosts of ancestors) and some created by our imagination (such as the "polo field"). In any case, perhaps the most important one of these places within the archaeological site was the Leech Pond (Sülüklü Göl), a mossy, swampy spring-fed pool literally full of leeches. This pond was lined with stones, suggesting that it is probably a large reservoir that was constructed as part of the elaborate water collection system in the Iron Age city. Following geophysical survey and ground observation of the pond, the director of the project Geoffrey Summers writes: "The pool would seem to have been created by enlarging and squaring off a natural feature and construction of a dam with a central sluice on the northern side." (Summers 2000: 62).

Villagers often visited this "pond" to dip their legs, arms and other limbs into the water so that leeches would attach themselves to the skin and suck blood. This process is believed to be one of healing for variety of diseases, the names of which now escape my mind (Wikipedia entry on leeches says thusly: "The European Medical Leech (Hirudo medicinalis) and some congeners as well as some other species have been used for clinical bloodletting for thousands of years"). How did such a site-specific practice come to be generated among the villagers? I remember people traveling to this place not just from Şahmuratlı but from far greater distances.

In the coming years, the archaeological project at Kerkenes Dağ turned out to be one of the most innovative and experimental urban survey projects in Turkey. This was largely through its use of many different scientific field methods, from GPS 3-D Modelling of the site to many different forms of remote sensing/geophysics- magnetometry, electric resistivity, and even, blimp and hot-air balloon photography, test excavations and large exposure trenches, surface mapping of architectural remains–the list continues. All these techniques were integrated in a complex mapping database. With excavations, some reconstruction work and many other archaeological activities, transformed into publications all over the world, the site has been widely distributed. And yet, I have not seen a word written about the Leech Pond beyond discussions of its ancient features.

The Leech Pond is a practiced place, where a site-specific interest of the inhabitants of the landscape has flourished with mixed feelings of healing, hope, sacredness, imagination. It is a place where animals and humans interact in a very intimate way to their mutual benefit at the site of an ancient pond. The domain of both shepherds and their sheep, in addition to the ghosts if long dead ancestors who wander among the ruins at night the mountain top is remote. But pilgrims from all over the region visit this holy place.


The photograph I post here regards the landscape from an impossible point of view. It "surveys" the place with the eyes of a Northern Renaissance landscape painter. The Leech Pond is a tiny dark speck on the photograph. Its leeches, the village women with their rolled-up sleeves, the dark green swampy texture of its surface, its eerie smell; these are nowhere to be seen or felt. What is exactly then archaeological practice's relationship with places if not make them into heterotopias, non-places, to use Marc Augé and Michel Foucault's terms? What is happening to the Leech Pond as the site becomes a tourist attraction, but this is not really my concern. Why does a contemporary site-specific practice such as the leech-pond-visit-as-sacred-healing not constitute any significance to archaeologists? My answer is straightforward: as archaeologists we are entitled to create a "distant" archaeological past, safely protected from the contaminations of modernity and the superstitious practices of the present.

The Leech Pond makes an interesting comment about Richard Bradley's distinction of natural/"unaltered" places versus monuments (Bradley 2000). Where does the Leech Pond fall in this typology with its Iron Age walls of the reservoir and the contemporary population of the leeches that have appropriated this space for themselves and started flirting with the contemporary human dwellers of the landscape? I would argue that the Leech Pond as a practiced animal-human place with a deep history and a place where a spring is framed by an architectural structure, materially re-articulated by healing pilgrimage and archaeological field practices, presents to us one of those "fantastical" localities that Catherine Ingraham refers in the epigraph, localities that offer a "potential for crossovers, associations, and contaminations".

Auge, Marc; 1995. Non-places : introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London, New York: Verso.

Bradley, Richard; 2000. An archaeology of natural places. London and New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel; 1967. "[http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias"].

Gurney, O. R., 1995. "The Hittite Names of Kerkenes Dağ and Kuşaklı Höyük" Anatolian Studies 45: 69-71.

Ingraham, Catherine; 2006. Architecture, animal, human: the asymmetrical condition. Routledge: New York.

Kerkenes Project Homepage: http://www.kerkenes.metu.edu.tr/

Summers, Geoffrey D.; 2000. "The Median Empire Reconsidered: A View from Kerkenes Dağ" Anatolian Studies 50: 55-73.