Then came the host of graceful-living Lydians who control all the mainland race.

Princely commanders, Metrogathes and noble Arcteus, and Sardis rich in gold set these in motion mounted up with numerous chariots. In various squadrons...they are a dreadful sight to behold. Aeschylus, The Persians, 41-47

George Hanfmann in 1961, contemplating a portrait head of the late third century c.e.©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

To judge by the hundreds of known references, poets and historians of antiquity were endlessly fascinated by "Sardis rich in gold," in western Asia Minor (now part of Turkey), the mighty capital of the Lydian empire that once stretched from the Aegean Sea to central Anatolia. It was said that the god Dionysus had been born there and that the descendants of Heracles had ruled there. And legends proliferated about the fabulously wealthy Croesus, king of Sardis from 561 to 547 b.c.e. The river Pactolus, wrote Dio Chrysostom, swirled down from the heights of Mount Tmolus laden with gold dust, right "through the middle of Sardis," bringing unimaginable riches to Croesus just "for the taking."

Such stories fed the curiosity of the late George M.A. Hanfmann, future professor of fine arts and curator of ancient art at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, during his rigorous classical education in Germany between the world wars. (Born in Russia in 1911, he became an American citizen in 1940.) And in a sense, that unquenchable curiosity led, in the hot summer of 1958, to his first breaking ground for the Harvard-Cornell Archaeological Exploration of Sardis.

Hanfmann, who in 1971 was named the Hudson professor of archaeology, used to entertain his students and associates with the old Sardis stories around the dinner table at the excavation site. Never far from his side was his beloved wife

Architectural terra cotta depicting a Lydian, ca. 550 b.c.e.©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

and official recorder, Ilse, whom he called Meter Kastron, "mother of the camp." His favorite storyteller was the fifth century b.c.e. historian Herodotus, still the principal source for Sardis buffs. Perhaps the practical and congenial Hanfmann appreciated the way Herodotus brought the Lydians down to earth. They were, after all, says Herodotus, "the first people we know of to use a gold and silver coinage and to introduce retail trade, and they also claim to have invented the games which are now commonly played both by themselves and by the Greeks."

Fourth to fifth century c.e. marble slab from the synagogue, incised with a menorah©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

They were excellent horsemen, too, a fact that paradoxically led to their stunning defeat in 547 b.c.e. by the army of Cyrus the Great. According to Herodotus, in a story Hanfmann loved,

When Cyrus saw the Lydians take up battle positions on this plain, his fear of their cavalry led him to adopt a suggestion of Harpagus, one of the Medes; this was to get together all the camels...unload them and mount men armed as cavalrymen on their backs....The reason for confronting the Lydian cavalry with camels was the instinctive fear which they inspire in horses. No horse can endure the sight or smell of a camel....The ruse succeeded, for when the battle began, the horses turned tail the moment they smelt and saw the camels--and Croesus' chief confidence was cut from under him.

Locally made cup in Protogeometric style, 1050-900 b.c.e.©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

ground of

After the rout, says Herodotus, Croesus, watching the Persian soldiers sack the town, asked Cyrus, "What is it that all those men of yours are so intent upon doing?" "They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures," came the reply. "Not my city or my treasures," Croesus answered. "Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing."
Medallion from a mosaic floor, ca. 400 c.e.©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

Hanfmann returned to these stories repeatedly. They were good stories, including even the occasional whopper. He mischievously framed his enthusiasm for Sardis within just such a one.


My own interest in Sardis had been kindled long before by an occurrence in the history of Lydia as famous as Croesus or Saint John but much more obscure. In one of the most violently disputed chapters of his history..., Herodotus tells how the Lydians in times of a legendary king Atys, son of Manes, had a dreadful famine; how to forget hunger they invented dice and all sorts of games; * and how The Tmolus Mountains finally one half of them took to ships, sailed to Italy, overlook the acropolis of and became the mysterious Tyrrhenoi or Etruscans. I Sardis. ©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard had started my archaeological career as an University Etruscologist and like so many others I had the optimistic hope that Lydia might yet yield the key to the mystery of the Etruscan language and the origins of the people.

Others had explored Sardis. Christian pilgrims arrived seeking the city that Saint John, in the Book of Revelation, had scolded for "sleeping," shirking its high responsibility as one of Asia's seven first churches. Archaeologists and adventurers came digging, including the German consul Ludwig Peter Spiegelthal in the mid nineteenth century. But the first systematic large-scale Sardis expedition was founded and directed by Howard Crosby Butler of Princeton, from 1910 to 1914. Butler's principal accomplishment was to free the great temple of Artemis, the fourth largest Ionic temple known, which had been nearly buried under landslides. His team Sardis and neighboring sites in ancient also explored more than a thousand rock-cut Asia Minor and Greece. COURTESY UNIVERSITY MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY tombs in the steep western cliffs, most of OF PENNSYLVANIA them plundered by grave robbers. The expedition assumed quite a colorful status among the locals, who were bemused by the team's requisite formal attire at dinner and by Butler himself, who galloped about on a black steed. The Princeton campaign was halted by the First World War, Butler died in 1922, and a subsequent revival by a junior colleague the same year was ended by the Turkish-Greek war. Some surviving artifacts from the excavation were brought to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (Today all excavated material must by law remain in Turkey.) Hanfmann, a junior fellow at Harvard in 1938, was asked by George Henry Chase, the first Hudson professor, who had been a member of Butler's team, to share with him the publication of the Sardis vases. Thus was sharpened the young scholar's appetite for all things Lydian.


Finally, in May of 1948, during the spring rains, George and Ilse Hanfmann visited Sardis. He recalled the experience, characteristically, with an anecdote.
The cobbled medieval east-west highway wound across the Pactolus on a wooden bridge. There were but a few houses along the southward path up to the Artemis Temple. We sat high up above the ruins with the village blacksmith who was our guide. "Americans are rich," said he, programmatically. "No, they are not." "But you are here" (meaning, "you are rich enough to travel"). We tried to explain about grants and fellowships. He sighed, too courteous to contradict; then his eyes lit up as he looked upon the mighty temple and the red cliffs honeycombed with chambertombs. "But Croesus was a very rich man," said he triumphantly.

"I was now determined," Hanfmann then states, "that a new excavation of Sardis was needed." To which end--"under the Harvardian system of ETOB ('each tub on its own bottom'), I had to find the means." It took him a decade, but the means eventually were found, including--in addition to gifts from several foundations--grants from the Corning Museum of Glass and the American Schools of Oriental Research, both of which for many years shared the sponsorship of the excavation. (A. Henry Detweiler, associate dean of architecture at Cornell, Hanfmann's first field adviser, was president of the American Schools of Oriental Research.) A private group called the Supporters of Sardis was also formed, numbering 47 the first year. *But here Herodotus continues: "The way they used these inventions to help them endure their hunger was to eat and play on alternate days--one day playing so continuously that they had no time to think of food, and eating on the next without playing at all."


50,000-1200 BC - Prehistoric Era

50,000 Earliest evidence of human activity in Hermus plain. 2900-2400 Oldest burials in Hermus plain, along shores of Gygean Lake.

Gold earplugs from male burial©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

1300-1100 Wattle-and-daub hut and cremation burial attest to modest community at foot of acropolis.

547-334 BC - Persian Era

499 Greek raid and burning of Sardis leads to war between Greeks and Persians. 5th century Greek historian Herodotus writes about Sardis.

334-133 BC - Hellenistic Era

334-213 Alexander the Great takes Sardis; his successors battle among themselves for control. Artemis temple begun; early theater, gymnasium, and stadium built. 213-188 Antiochus III of the Seleucid dynasty captures Sardis, causing much destruction; makes reparations. 188-133 Kings of Pergamum control Sardis until Attalus III bequeaths kingdom to Rome.


33 BC-400 AD - Roman Era

46-28 Julius Caesar and Augustus decree that Jews at Sardis have a right to assemble according to "custom of their forefathers."
Subterranean tomb with painted decoration, built for Chrysanthios and his family, 340-400 AD©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

17 Earthquake causes great destruction. Emperor Tiberius remits taxes and offers substantial funds for rebuilding. ca. 90 Sardis, one of Seven Churches of Asia, addressed in the Revelation of Saint John.

211 Bath-gymnasium complex largely completed. 320-360 Synagogue takes final form; Church EA and circuit wall of city built.

400-ca. 1315 AD - Late Roman-Byzantine Era

400-575 Urban revival. Townhouses and villas; shops along south side of synagogue; Christian chapel at Artemis temple. 575-early 7th century Slow economic decline, perhaps hastened by Sassanian raids in Asia Minor (611-626). Much architecture damaged and not repaired. ca. 650 Fortress erected on acropolis, using spoils from city. 716-799 Frequent Arab raids in Lydia. ca. 1230 Church E built over ruins of Church EA.

Fresco in fifth-century townhouse ©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University


ca. 1315 AD-present - Turkish Era

ca. 1315 Sardis falls to Turks.
"Golden Horn"-style bowl, ca. 1500©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

1402 Tamerlane sends expeditionary force to attack Sardis; city probably pays ransom for its freedom. ca. 1425 Fortress on acropolis abandoned but village at foot continues to flourish.