Yeşilova Mound excavation zone (Credit: Yeşilova Höyüğü Excavation Center Archives)

Retired art teacher Alibeke Özkan was strolling through a new park in his Izmir neighbourhood one Sunday in 2003 when he noticed a small green stone in a pile of landscaping material. As a geology enthusiast and the owner of a large collection of minerals, Özkan knew immediately that this was no ordinary pebble. 

“[It was] a small hatchet carved out of rock,” he told Inside Turkey. “I started to look closer at the dirt after finding the first piece. There were teeth, sea shells, bones, pieces of ceramics.”

Alibeke Özkan (Credit: Sinan Keskin)

Guessing that he had come into possession of an archeological artifact, he turned in the find to the Izmir Archeology Museum.

His discovery happened to coincide with the 5,000 anniversary celebrations for the Aegean province – and also undermined it, since itrevealed the city actually went back as far as 8,500 years. 

Located on the Aegean coast of the Mediterranean, Izmir has always been a center of marine commerce and trade, and is today the third largest city in the country. 

After Özkan’s discovery in 2003, the dirt in the park was traced back to the area’s first known settlement, Yeşilova Mound. Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry and the Ege University Archeology Department launched a joint excavation of the mound in 2005, confirming that the city’s history in fact went back 3,500 years farther back than had been thought.

Yeşilova Mound, located in the city’s Bornova district, along the Manda Stream, was recently crowned the oldest settlement in the region. 

The Yeşilova Mound excavation area (Credit: Sinan Keskin)

Artifacts unearthed there have continued to reveal new details about the area’s ancient history. An official seal bearing the image of a sun found in the mound has a seven-centimeter diameter and was thought to be used by local rulers; a 8,200-year-old goddess figurine and 8,000-year-old bear figurine were among other finds from the Neolithic period. 

Pieces of clay that came out of the mound revealed fingerprints belonging to women and children, and are thought to have been produced to make pots and pans. Other artifacts told experts that the ancient residents used animal oils for lanterns, using small pieces of string as the wick.

The 8,000-year-old gold seal (Credit: Yeşilova Mound Excavation Center Archive)

Serpentine, a mineral abundant in the region, was used for weapons of different sizes, while excavations also revealed that the residents used crops and food for trade in exchange for stone materials and seafood. One of the homes where weaving was done also included a tally, implying financial management. Animal bones indicated that farming was most likely common, and bone and stone tools were found which were thought to be used in processing leather. 

Prof. Dr. Zafer Derin (Credit: Sinan Keskin)

“This is a space of 50,000 square metres and the settlement is buried under two meters of alluvial deposit,” said the head of the excavation at Yeşilova Mound, Zafer Derin. “There are remains from 15 different settlements all layered on top of each other. We believe that the start of the timeline could recede even further as we dig deeper. It’s still too early to say though.”

The community revealed in the settlement had a close relationship to the sea despite living a small distance from the shore, Derin said. 

“We found a bunch of weights for fishers’ nets, which tells us they were in close connection to the water, it was part of their lives. They used the streams leading up to Yeşilova for transportation, they reached the sea through these streams…we found remains of bears as well, and the locals saw these animals as sacred and painted them. These people really considered nature to be sacred, and took advantage of all natural resources with agriculture and production. They made pots and pans, but also weapons. They made weights for weaving boards, and kept a record of how many they had made,” Derin said. 

8,500-year-old jugs (Credit: Yeşilova Mound Excavation Center Archive)

Yeşilova Mound’s residents date from the Neolithic Era, going back as far as 6,500 BC. 

“They lived here for a consecutive 800 to 900 years before leaving. The only thing we haven’t found about their lives is their bodies, meaning gravesites. There were no burial sites. Maybe they left their dead out in the open or had a more natural burial. There are ten villages from the Neolithic Era in this mound, we’re only working on the latest one now. We get to comb through nine other settlements,” Derin said. 

Yeşilova Mound hasn’t yet been deemed a museum by the state but visitors wishing to see the 8,500-year-old artifacts are welcome on the site and entrance is free. 

However, Özkan  – who has been battling cancer since 2005  – complains that locals have forgotten about his role in finding a significant piece of history.

Özkan still walks in the park when he has the time, revisiting the location of his first discovery.

“Nobody really checked up on me after then,” he said. “There’s no information about me at the excavation site. They could have at least hung up a placard to thank me for prompting the discovery of Yeşilova Mound.”