Ancient King's Legendary Gold
Archaeologists Learn How Ancient King Made His Money, Literally
John Noble Wilford/The New York Times
This mountain in western Turkey, with a citadel on top, rises over the ruins of Sardis, the seat of King Creosus and his storied gold treasures. It has lured armies of marauders and looters, and generations of archaeologists.
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Refining Gold the Old-Fashioned Way (500 KB)
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A Daily Rhythm, a Lifetime Passion|
SARDIS -- After first
light, though not by much, the encampment of archaeologists wakes
to the cooing of doves in the pines, the
barking of dogs and the early call to
prayer from a mosque down the valley.
Everyone, some 20 professors and
students straggling into the dining
room, has hot tea, bread and cheese
and some fruit. By 7 a.m., they scatter to their pottery shards and marble inscriptions in the laboratory, to
the trenches into the scant remains
of the city of a famously rich king,
Croesus of Lydia, who lived more
than 2,500 years ago.
John Noble Wilford/ The New York Times, top; Michael J. Okoniewski for The New York Times
Dr. Crawford H. Greenewalt Jr., top, the Sardis field director, at the site, and Dr. Andrew Ramage, associate director, in Ithaca, N.Y., are part of the first generation to work on the digs. Two generations have followed.
They work in the intense heat till
noon. Back at the compound called
excavation house, spartan but old-shoe comfortable, they lunch and
rest, and it is off again at two o'clock
to their tasks. The day's work ends
around five, in time for tea and chatter about this or that spadeful of triumph or mystery. A visitor is interrogated about news from home,
mostly important things like baseball standings.
After showers (only cold) and a
change into fresh shorts and T-shirts,
everyone relaxes, reading or recording notes on the day. Dusk brings a
gentle breeze and the cocktail hour,
followed by dinner at nine, about an
hour or two before bedtime.
This daily rhythm of a summer's
dig by the Harvard-Cornell Sardis
Expedition has been repeated with
little variation since 1958. Some archaeologists and their students come
and go. But the continuity is maintained in part because so many of
them, who cut their teeth on archaeology here, keep coming back. It has
become a professional home, and the
search for Croesus a consuming passion.
At dinner, Dr. Crawford H.
Greenewalt Jr., the expedition's field
director, looks down the table like a
paterfamilias and sees three generations of the Sardis family -- his own,
former students who are now professors themselves and a new crop of
aspiring archaeologists. Few archaeology projects last so long.
Dr. Greenewalt and Dr. Andrew
Ramage, the associate director, are
the first generation. They were students at Harvard when Dr. George
M. A. Hanfmann, a professor there,
started the first excavations 42 years
ago. Now Dr. Greenewalt, who succeeded Dr. Hanfmann in 1977, is a
professor of classical archaeology at
the University of California at
Berkeley. Dr. Ramage is an archaeologist at Cornell. And students they
trained years ago have become senior archaeologists for the expedition.
Dr. Geenewalt motions toward Dr.
Nicholas Cahill of the University of
Wisconsin, one of his students who
kept coming back and is now in
charge of excavations of the Lydian
city wall. Another student, Dr. Christopher Ratté of New York University, worked the site for many seasons
and has moved on to direct excavations at Aphrodisias, a Greco-Roman
site in western Turkey. He paid a visit one afternoon, and it was like a
family reunion, the exchange of news
and the baby pictures passed around.
Younger faces at the dinner table
belong to the third generation in the
Sardis genealogy. Elizabeth
Baughan, a doctoral student at
Berkeley, is digging through pavements of a Roman road in search of
another stretch of the more deeply
buried Lydian wall. Christopher
Roosevelt, working for his doctorate
at Cornell, is excavating the city's
eastern wall and developing computer programs for plotting settlement
patterns in ancient Lydia beyond
Dr. Ramage says this kind of continuity may be passing from the field.
"The sort of large-scale projects
that run for years are not easily
funded," he explains. "It is much
less frequent that people come to a
site and become so thoroughly immersed. The practice now is to conduct more targeted work with limited objectives."
Looming behind the excavation
house, some 1,000 feet above the rest
of Sardis, is the acropolis, a mountaintop citadel of Croesus and subsequent rulers. Alexander the Great
once stood there for a view of the city
he had won without a fight.
Dr. Donald Sullivan, a geographer
at the University of Denver, goes
there often to survey the valley looking for mounds or subtle changes in
vegetation, anything hinting at likely
places for new exploration. In particular, he is looking for evidence that
the ancient Hermus River once
flowed closer to the Lydian capital.
He then takes cores in the valley,
plots them on a map and finds that,
indeed, the river once flowed nearer
to the city walls.
The climb to the acropolis summit
is literally and figuratively breathtaking. Amid the crumbling ramparts and limestone terraces, Dr.
Sullivan recalls that he has returned
to Sardis for 10 seasons, and will be
"A lot of us spent our graduate-school years here," he says. "That's
a pretty formative time. It's hard to
break the spell, so we keep coming
Dr. Fikret Yegui, a Turkish-born
professor of art and architectural
history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has worked at
Sardis over the last 36 years. He is
preparing a detailed drawing of the
beautiful Temple of Artemis, stone
by stone, every crack and mason's
mark. When drawing is completed,
soon, the sheets, fitted together, will
be 22 feet long.
After dinner one evening, some of
the archaeologists walked through
the temple's marble ruins and stood,
transfixed, as a full moon rose over
the acropolis and cast its soft light on
the temple columns that still stood
after 2,300 years.
The day is complete. The encampment at Sardis falls asleep to a distant dog bark and the last call to prayer from the mosque down the valley.
-- JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
ARDIS, Turkey -- In the ruins of Sardis,
capital of the Lydians of yore, archaeologists are striving to separate fact from
legend, seeking glimpses of what it meant in
antiquity to be "rich as Croesus." But they
are also finding much more: monumental
remains of the passage of time and fortune
for a major city under subsequent Persian,
Greek, Roman and Byzantine rule.
Here, on the slopes of a broad river valley
about 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea,
in what is now western Turkey but was then
known as Asia Minor, King Croesus reigned
in the sixth century B.C. over the flourishing
empire of Lydia. The Lydians were dreaded
warriors on horse and chariot, controlling
the middle ground between the Greeks to
the west and marauding nomads and surging empires, notably the Persians, in the
east. They were enterprising in commerce,
and their streams seemed to run with gold.
"Sardis rich in gold," Aeschylus wrote.
Greek literature for generations held up
Croesus as a symbol of enormous wealth but
one whose gold could not assure him happiness or ultimate success. His golden reputation, if little else of Lydia, survives to this
day, and has drawn archaeologists of the
Harvard-Cornell Sardis Expedition to this
storied site each summer for the last 42
Although the archaeologists have not
found hoards of gold or splendid palaces, the
stuff of dreams, expedition leaders now
think they have established that the gold of
Lydia is no legend. It was definitely in
ancient Sardis in the time of Croesus, they
have determined, that the first coins of pure
gold and pure silver were struck, an important step leading to a monetary economy as
it is practiced today.
After a comprehensive analysis of gold-refining furnaces, hearths and other artifacts at the site, Dr. Andrew Ramage, a
Cornell archaeologist and associate director
of the expedition, concluded, "We can confirm the hypothesis that the Lydians under
Croesus initiated the bimetallic system of
coinage, and even propose that the Sardis
refining installations made this introduction
The scientific examination of the gold
refinery, the expedition's most significant
discovery to date, is described and interpreted in "King Croesus's Gold: Excavations at Sardis and the History of Gold
Refining," written by Dr. Ramage and Dr.
Paul T. Craddock, a specialist in metallurgy
at the British Museum in London, and published in May by Harvard University Press.
Scholars have generally supposed that the
Lydians were the first to invent coins of gold
and of silver, but have argued over when it
happened -- perhaps it occurred after Croesus, under Persian rule of Sardis -- and over
how the Lydians were able to render raw
gold into a pure state.
Others in the Middle East had begun to
use measured amounts of precious metals
as payment or expressions of wealth at least
2,000 years before Croesus. At some point in
the seventh century B.C., Dr. Ramage noted,
the Lydians got the idea of creating and
marking small lumps of electrum, a natural
alloy of gold and silver, at consistent
weights. They may have done this as a
convenient means of paying their mercenary soldiers. The drawback of such coins,
however, was that the amount of the more
prized gold in them often varied. One could
never be sure of the coin's true value.
THE GOLDEN TECHNOLOGY
Near Perfection From Raw Metal
Like almost all raw gold, the metal the
people of Sardis panned for in the Pactolus
and other nearby rivers came mixed with
silver and traces of copper. The new evidence, Dr. Ramage and Dr. Craddock said,
shows how the Lydians placed the raw material in small bowl-shaped hearths in the
ground and, fanning hot coals with bellows,
heated it in combination with lead to remove
the trace metals. Then the remaining material, mixed with common salt, was subjected to prolonged heating in earthenware vessels until the gold was completely separated
from the silver.
As much as he would have liked to have
found something like the royal treasury, Dr.
Ramage wrote, "This offers more of a challenge than admiring the superb finish or
awesome weight of the worked products,
because one can now wonder at the imagination required to bring the unlikely-looking
raw material to a usable form, and at the
skill required to produce gold of an almost
The dating of materials found at the gold
refinery and other circumstantial evidence,
Dr. Ramage and Dr. Craddock said, put the
most likely time of this technological advance during the reign of Croesus, between
561 and his defeat at the hands of Cyrus the
Great of Persia in 547.
Since the first excavations of the gold
refinery, beginning in 1968, several generations of archaeologists and their students
have also labored under the baking summer
sun trying to learn more about Lydian Sardis. This summer, expedition leaders said
they had made great strides at last in tracing
the defensive walls that enclosed the city
center at the time of Croesus. Near one part
of the wall, they found a kind of time capsule:
rooms of a Lydian house, including a kitchen
with cooking and dinnerware as they were
the day Cyrus seized the city.
"The most exciting work now is finding
and exploring the city wall of the Lydian
period," Dr. Ramage said. "Now we know
there was a wall for the lower city, not just
the acropolis. And now we have an assemblage of everyday wares that should help us
understand what it was like in the time of
Ruins Beneath Ruins, Delay After Delay
But the expedition has experienced its
share of frustration and disappointment,
common tests of an archaeologist's necessary capacity for patience.
One enduring frustration is that most of
the Lydian city ruins lie under what archaeologists call an "overburden." Lydian Sardis
is buried deep under silt, landslide debris and
the stones of Roman and Byzantine construction closer to the surface. Excavators are
always encountering something non-Lydian,
causing delays and diversions from their
The Greek Temple of Artemis, uncovered
by a Princeton University expedition in the
early 20th century, was buried up to the
capitals of its stately Ionic columns. Digging
for Lydia had to wait. With other discoveries,
like buried remains of a Greek stadium and
theater, archaeologists chose to forgo excavations and press on with the Lydian quest.
For centuries, most of the ruins visible at
Sardis have been of Roman origin, notably
the magnificent baths and gymnasium near
the main highway through the current village of Sart. Studying these ruins proved to
be a time-consuming diversion, but this did
lead to finding in the vicinity a second century A.D. synagogue, the largest known in the
world at that time. A discovery like that
could not be ignored.
Dr. Crawford H. Greenewalt Jr., an archaeologist at the University of California at
Berkeley and the expedition's field director,
shook his head in exasperation over the
"Why are we not finding any sumptuary
art?" he asked, and by his tone, the lack of
lavish art from palaces was clearly a question that has troubled archaeologists for
years. "We are not digging in the center of
Sardis, but on the periphery, because everything in the center is all deeply buried, with
Roman and Byzantine ruins closer to the top.
We are not digging graves, which often yield
rich goods. But they've all been robbed long
ago, especially the royal burial mounds
across the valley."
Glimmers of the Booty of Ravenous Looters
Some Lydian gold has come to light. The
Princeton expedition found a vase full of gold
coins. Looters seized gold and silver jewelry
and bronze objects from tombs near the
Turkish city of Usak. The so-called Lydian
Hoard showed up on the international market and much of it was legitimately acquired
through gifts by the Metropolitan Museum in
Manhattan. In 1993, the museum agreed to
give the material back to the Turkish government.
Perhaps the triumphant Persians, as well
as succeeding conquerors, were responsible
for the scarcity of gold and other possessions
of Croesus. A story by the Greek historian
Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C.,
suggests the possibility.
Croesus, watching Persian soldiers sack
the city, is supposed to have 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," Cyrus replied.
"Not my city or my treasures," Croesus
corrected him. "Nothing there any longer
belongs to me. It is you they are robbing."
But the Persians presumably left the city's
royal palace standing; it was still in use in
Roman times. By all Greek accounts, the
palace was truly sumptuous, and everything
about it left the Greeks with conflicting views
of Croesus and the Lydians. (What the Lydians thought of the Greeks will probably
never be known, for only 115 Lydian texts
have survived and they are mostly formalaic
The Greeks were envious of the Lydians'
wealth and power and admiring of their
stand against Eastern hordes and their generous gifts to Greek temples in Delphi and
Ephesus. "The loving kindness of Croesus
fadeth not away," wrote the poet Pindar.
But the Greeks also assumed an air of
moral superiority. Their stories implied that
the self-indulgent Lydians -- the men, it was
said, wore earrings and fancy tunics -- had
grown soft and brought their downfall on
themselves. Had not the Greeks of more
moderate means and modest tastes eventually beaten back the advancing Persians?
This attitude is best expressed in another
story by Herodotus, later retold by Plutarch.
It is about a visit the philosopher Solon is
supposed to have made to Croesus; never
mind that Solon, having died just before
Croesus ascended the throne, probably never
made the trip.
After Solon toured the royal treasury and
palace, Croesus asked, "Who is the happiest
man you have ever seen?" Thinking himself
the happiest man in the world, he was furious
when Solon named a lowly Athenian who had
a loving family and had died bravely in battle
for his country.
"The question you asked me I will not
answer until I know you have died happily,"
Solon explained. "Look to the end, no matter
what it is you are considering. Often enough,
God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and
then utterly ruins him."
Soon afterward, Croesus lost his son and
heir in an accident, and then lost everything
to the Persians. When he was about to be
burned to death, Croesus cried out three
times, " O Solon!" When Cyrus inquired
what man or god he invoked, Croesus told
him the entire story, and his life was spared.
Of Elusive Palaces and Sensitive Nerves
But the palace of Croesus, why have archaeologists failed so far to turn up such a
potentially rich find?
"You're touching a sensitive nerve," Dr.
Greenewalt said. "Wherever the palace is, it
does not stand out in the topography. Other
places, we see a mound and know where to
look. It may be under central Sardis, which is
so deeply buried and also built over by the
modern village. If we knew where it was, we
would certainly go for it, but we just don't
Despite the disappointments, the expedition has scored enough tantalizing discoveries to keep coming back year after year. One
find, the rooms of a Lydian house, were being
investigated this summer. The house, lying
underneath Roman ruins, probably collapsed
in the destruction of the city by the Persians.
Among the broken pottery, glass and loom
weights, a human skeleton lay on the packed
dirt floor. In the kitchen were carbonized
garlic and chick peas, evidence that fire
swept vanquished Sardis.
One afternoon, Tumay Asena, a graduate
student at Bilkent University in Ankara, took
a trowel and sliced some dirt away from an
iron object. At first, he thought he had found
an iron knife. With a little more digging, it
looked more like a sword. A couple of days
later, the object proved to be neither knife
nor sword, but some piece of household hardware that Mr. Asena was at a loss to identify.
Even the simplest artifacts do not yield
readily to probing archaeologists.
Standing with his back to an olive grove,
Dr. Nicholas Cahill, an archaeologist at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison, supervised local workers digging at the Lydian
city wall. They have uncovered skeletons of a
middle-aged man and a young man who was
probably a soldier, his iron helmet near him.
John Noble Wilford/The New York Times
This material, taken from the gold refining area in ancient Sardis, is part of the archaeological evidence that the gold of Croesus was no legend, and that the first coins of pure gold and pure silver were struck at the site.
Archaeologists have learned to distinguish
the Lydian city walls from later ones, Dr.
Cahill pointed out. The Lydians built with
unfired mud brick laid on top of stone foundations without mortar, in contrast to Roman
mortar-and-stone and fired-brick construction. But Lydian walls were substantial:
about 60 feet thick at the base and at least 20
feet high, the western wall appears to have
run down a ridge from the top of the acropolis to the lower city.
At the eastern wall, about half-mile away,
Christopher Roosevelt, a Cornell graduate
student and a great-grandson of President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointed to stacks
of Lydian mud brick there, which time had
left barely distinguishable from ordinary
"It's one of those things," he said. "If you
know what you're looking for, mud brick, you
begin to find it."
Although only segments of the Lydian wall
have been uncovered, Dr. Greenewalt said,
"We have enough to establish the circuit of
the wall well enough."
THE DROP OF GOLD
A Sparkling Sample of Croesus' Glory
Back at the excavation house, a compound
of offices, workshops, storage depots, a dining room and living quarters under the shade
of tall pines, young conservators worked at
cleaning and piecing together the stones of a
menorah from the synagogue. They were
also making broken pottery whole. Archaeologists have been struck by the strong Greek
influence on Lydian ceramics and other artifacts. This may not be surprising since Lydian kings had extensive trade with Greek
cities like Ephesus and Smyrna (modern
Izmir) not far away and sometimes held
political sway there.
"The Greekness of Lydian culture is something archaeology has confirmed and clarified," Dr. Greenewalt said.
One morning, Dr. Greenewalt held a show-and-tell at a table in the compound's courtyard. Out of a box he pulled a glassified brick
from a refinery furnace, a lump of lead oxide
slag and then a pot used in the process of
separating gold from silver. Lastly, he invited inspection of a piece of gray slag with a
magnifying glass. Flecks of mica sparkled.
Then a couple of the tiniest drops of yellow
caught the light.
"Yes," Dr. Greenewalt said. "You have
now seen Croesus's gold."