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Digging Turkey

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
July 6, 2011

Courtesy photos

Gregory McMahon is a Kansas boy. Given that, you’d think the village of Çadır Höyük in central Turkey would feel about as foreign as foreign can get. And yet the associate professor of history says he is more at home in that country, with its fields and fields of golden wheat, its cotton and hazelnut and sugar beets crops, and 100-degree days, than he is here in New Hampshire, where he has lived for the last 23 years.

That feeling of being home is part of the reason he returns to Turkey every year. The other is his love of antiquity and, more specifically, his passion for the Hittites, a Bronze Age people who lived in the area between 1800 and 1200 B.C.

On July 12, McMahon will travel to Çadır Höyük for his 17th summer, taking with him, as he does every year, a group of UNH students who will work on an archeological dig where evidence of the Hittites and other ancient populations has been found. The group will spend eight weeks trying to unearth new clues to a way of life that goes back more than 4,000 years.

Evidence of the Hittites’ existence in Çadır Höyük is made more exciting by the fact that, until 100 years ago, no one knew they existed. Now, McMahon’s excavation team finds fragments of their pottery during every dig—more than 100 pieces a day. A paleozoologist on staff studies the thousands of uncovered bones.

McMahon speaks of the Greeks, the Romans, of the people who gave us democracy and language and laws. The Hittites, he says, invented the treaty; the idea of diplomacy and correspondence.

“How can we know what we think, what we believe, unless we study the place where it began?” McMahon says. “All of the components of civilization go all the way back.”

The mound of Çadır Höyük

Digging at the location whose name means “tent mound” only takes place during the six to eight week McMahon is there. The rest of the year, the site is overseen by a paid guard. McMahon also hires a Turkish representative each summer who stays at the site with the crew.

Students rise at 5 a.m., are on the site by 6 a.m. and work until 1 p.m. Then they are free until 5 p.m. when they spend two hours in the lab washing the pottery, drawing pictures of the day’s finds, recording the relics with photographs.

When McMahon first arrived in the small Turkish village of Peyniryemez (which translates to “one who doesn’t eat cheese”) in 1999, he talked the mayor into giving him an old schoolhouse for a dig house. The L-shaped building has two major rooms and sleeping quarters, four bedrooms for the men on one side and four for the women on the other. The separation of the men and women was part of the deal.

For centuries, the Hittites’ history was overshadowed by that of the Egyptians; the Babylonians; the Assyrians.  But archeological digs around Turkey have revealed the significant role they played, not only with the invention of the treaty, which speaks to the ability to negotiate but they also are known to have revised lawcodes and to develop job descriptions.

“What we already know we’ve learned from other digs,” McMahon says. “But there is still so much to learn. We know a lot more about other empires. This is a new field. Our understanding of the Hittites changes on a yearly basis.”

And that is what keeps McMahon going back. He says he will continue to do so as long as he gets funding. (His research is funded through a combination of federal and private grants from such organizations as the National Science Foundation and National Geographic.)  

“I don’t want to deny myself. I worked years to acquire this ridiculously specialized training. I love it,” he says.

And he loves the people, to whom, he says, family and friends are everything.

“The Turkish people have unbelievable hospitably. That’s absolutely the best part. I get to spend the whole summer speaking Turkish, talking with them, drinking tea—it’s wonderful,” McMahon says. “My first trip to Turkey was in 1982 and I never got over it. I’ve never stopped wanting to go.”


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