University of Warwick archaeologist Dr Stephen Hill has uncovered what is probably the unluckiest church in the world. It was founded on what is now a cliff top because unfortunately that is where its patron saint was martyred. It was wrecked by two earthquakes, a flood, and a landslide – all of which happened while it was still being built. It became an opium den and after its eventual abandonment ended up being washed away by the sea….
The site was discovered when Turkey's Sinop museum found pieces of late Roman mosaic washing up at Çiftik, on Turkey's Black Sea coast, in the mid 1990's. The museum asked University of Warwick archaeologist Dr Stephen Hill to investigate. He found, not just a mosaic, but the site of a large, previously unknown, 4th-century church. Analysis of his work on the site has now made it clear that the church is probably the unluckiest in the world.
Not a fortunate start - The church's founder was not a lucky man. Dr Hill has found that the evidence points to the church being a pilgrimage church dedicated to St Phocas – a patron saint of gardeners and sailors. He was a Christian hermit who dug his own grave the day before he was martyred by Roman soldiers. The church appears to have been built on what is now a precarious cliff top site as that spot was believed to be the site of St Phocas's original grave. At the time it was built the site was in a valley bottom subject to winter melt deposits and landslides where it was perhaps unwise to build anything!
Unlucky Again - Construction of the church in the 4th century AD when the Roman empire was better disposed towards Christianity. However, after much of the main structure of the church was built, an earthquake struck. Much of the west and south side of the church was badly damaged. The builders abandoned a whole section of their new building blocked by earthquake rubble. They sealed up the doors and windows to that section of the church and carried on building but they also had to reinforce the remaining walls and raise the entrance to the church as the earthquake had left the church floor below its surroundings.
It never rains but it pours – The builders managed to complete a beautiful large floor mosaic – the thing that first alerted archaeologists to the site. However not long after it was finished the site was flooded and the mosaic was abandoned - buried under a layer of sediment.
Oh no not again – A second earthquake hit the site just as the builders were fitting out the church with decorative sculpture and other decorations. The University of Warwick archaeologists found several pieces of unfinished sculptures and sculpture settings on the site. Most of the site was abandoned and what little was still usable was turned into a pottery.
Not a smart move – It was not a smart move manufacturing breakable pottery on the site as the archaeology shows that a landslide hit soon after and the site was abandoned except for…
Final opium den ignominy – The porch of the church survived for some time afterwards, and poppy seeds and part of a pipe found by the Warwick team suggest that the porch may have become a spot for opium smokers in the middle ages.
The site has not got any luckier – Dr Hill and his team have managed to put in coastal defences to stop any more of the mosaic on the site falling into the sea, but recently large ground cracks have appeared within the site suggesting that the area is still unstable....the church may not survive to see many more Friday the thirteenths….
Notes for Editors
A picture of remains of church can be found at http://warwickadmin.bit10.net/media/turkey.jpg
More on St Phoacas can be found at these web sites:
The University of Warwick were funded by The British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara