For centuries its streets and monuments slept beneath the orchards and pastures of a Turkish farming village. Today, high in the Anatolian mountains, the lost city of Aphrodisias is slowly being unearthed to reveal the last great flowering of classical sculpture. By Mary Clow
R.R.R. ("Bert") Smith is Lincoln Professor of Archaeology at Oxford. Trevor Proudfoot is the National Trust's adviser for stone and plaster conservation. But these are just their day jobs. Their true passion lies 1,000ft up in the mountains of western Anatolia in Turkey, where the lost School of Aphrodisias - the last great blossoming of the sculpture of the classical world - is now being unearthed.

The trail begins in 1838, when a Nottinghamshire squire stepped ashore at the Ottoman port of Antalya, today the hub of the package-holiday paradise of Southern Turkey's Azure Coast. Presenting himself to the Governor, he requested permission to travel into the interior. Politely, the Pasha warned him that horses would be hard to find and the roads terrible, but Charles Fellows was a man not easily deterred. Among his achievements was the establishing of the modern ascent of Mont Blanc while still in his early twenties, and drawing and illustrating Byron's Childe Harold. Now he was fired with enthusiasm to see for himself the ruined cities depicted in the publications of the Society of Dilettanti. The Pasha acquiesced.

Britain's young Queen Victoria was scarcely crowned, but Charles Fellows was already a thoroughgoing Victorian. "Equally a study for the lover of art, of history, or of morality," he wrote of the ruins of Lycia and Caria, which he inspected and drew. "I was tempted day by day into the interior by the beauty of the scenery and the kindness and simplicity of the pastoral inhabitants." The cold reality may be that more than a degree of lust for glory led him on.

The encroachments of Imperial Russia - its territory increased by 50 miles per year throughout the 19th century - meanwhile menaced both Ottoman rule and Britain's Indian interests, making Queen and Sultan unlikely allies (their armies were to fight side by side against their common enemy in the Crimean War). And so, when Lord Palmerston requested, the Sublime Porte obliged, permitting a boatload of British sailors, at Fellows's direction, to remove piecemeal tombs and temples. "The abundant harvest may ere long be serviceable to the public," wrote the sycophantic editor of Fellows's best-selling travel book. They still are. The shrine of the Nereids and the Harpy tomb from Xanthus are among the glories of the British Museum. The great Turkey treasure hunt had begun.

Fellows settled his own expenses and received no recompense beyond the knighthood he sought. The introduction to his published journals states: "Six German professors soon followed his guidance, and now English travellers are constantly, during the proper season, to be found enjoying the treasures of this newly opened country."

But there was one site Fellows visited that neither British tars nor Victorian tourists reached. Far inland on a hidden plateau, well-watered by tributaries of the Meander river, lay the long-abandoned city of Aphrodisias. Fellows arrived there on 10 March 1840, and wrote: "We arrived at Aphrodisias at noon, approaching the city through the district of its tombs: sarcophagi marked the road for the last mile; and as we entered the gate, so much of interest met the eye, that we determined to remain here some days ... I never saw in one place so many perfect remains."

He set about sketching the still-erect columns with picturesque figures lolling underneath in voluminous white trousers - these were probably his weary guides. But all did not meet with Fellows's approval. The city's glory - dating from the Graeco-Roman period of the 1st-4th centuries AD - was too recent to interest him, and, even worse than that, he recorded: "the beautiful cornices of Greek Pagan temples are now rudely carved with inscriptions, and placed over the gateways, recording the changed religion" - the alpha and omega of early Christianity.

Such a dismissive attitude towards the art of the early centuries of our era was common well into the 20th century. Aphrodisias, now known as Geyre (a corruption of Caria), slept on under the orchards and pastures of a Turkish farming village. Sarcophagi proved convenient water troughs for sheep, or vats to tread grapes for the local delicacy pekmez, the sweet jelly made from their juice. The Roman road had disintegrated over the centuries, making the city less accessible than in ancient times. The plateau beneath the 7,000ft peaks of Baba Dagh remained fertile, but the site was plagued by earthquakes. Besides, in a region dotted with noble ruins of great fame and antiquity - Pliny had noted 38 important Anatolian cities in his Natural History of AD23 - Aphrodisias, unmentioned in literature, seemed generally undistinguished. The city kept her treasures a secret.

The true story is that this spot in the ancient region of Caria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the planet. Settled in late Neolithic times, around 5800 BC, its earliest recorded name was Ninoe, after the first dominant deity of the Mediterranean basin - the great mother goddess, bringer of life, fertility and abundance, and the queen of heaven and earth. Millennia before the introduction of male deities, Ninoe reigned supreme, and in the Greek pantheon she persisted in two goddesses: Artemis, the virgin huntress, and destroyer of men who pursued her; and Aphrodite, the epitome of beauty, fecundity and lust, who pursued them as she pleased.

The Carians were credited with the invention of helmet crests and coats of arms, and they fought for the Trojans in their ten-year war against the confederated Greeks. Homer writes of their leader, Nastes, as an early fashion victim: "He went into battle wearing gold like a girl, poor fool, it did not save him from a miserable death."

After this defeat, history becomes obscure. Ninoe was so remote and secure that it needed no city walls, and continued as a modest, provincial centre. Greek was the lingua franca of the population, and a common art and religion were shared with the Romans when their rule embraced Asia Minor.

Then, in 88 BC, distant terror struck. With exceptional brutality, even for him, the maverick Roman general, Sulla, who had already led a Roman army on Rome itself, sacked Athens, the soul of Graeco-Roman cultural unity. Sulla's massacre, and the looting that went with it, impoverished Athens for a generation. A chill went through the Hellenised cities, which were frequently forced to choose between the raging factions of Roman civil wars. Without a Roman patron, Ninoe would be lost. The citizens took a decision that would affect their destiny for a thousand years: they changed their name. The city became Aphrodisias, in honour of the goddess of love Aphrodite (the Romans' Venus), in mythology the mother of Aeneas, and through whom the Caesars claimed descent.

The ancient scandal is saucily told in Christopher Logue's Kings. The young Trojan prince Anchises ...

was swimming in Gargara's lake.

My lady Aphrodite glimpsed his buttock's cusp

And, while the spirits of the place looked on,

Had him on a mat of Darwin's clover.

That done,

She pushed his hair back off his brow,

Then took his hand and spoke to him by name:

`Anchises, I am fertile.

Our son, who you will call Aeneas, shall be king.

But cite our bond to anyone but him,

You will be paralysed from the waist downwards.'

Gods always ask too much.

Jack-the-Lad Anchises bragged about his encounter with Aphrodite, and was punished as warned. His son, Aeneas, went on to star in Virgil's epic poem and Purcell's opera, and his descendant Romulus was the legendary founder of Rome.

The gamble paid off beyond all expectations. "Aphrodisias is the one city from all Asia I have selected to be my own," declared Octavian, who became Emperor as Augustus Caesar and granted Aphrodisias tax exemption in perpetuity.

The resulting wealth was poured into beautifying the city, which was laid out in a grid of 120ft by 130ft blocks to a rigid drawing-board plan. The Tetrapylon - a spectacular gateway - led into the magnificent Ionic-columned sanctuary of the goddess. A further temple, the Sebasteion, was dedicated to the cult of the deified emperors Augustus and his successors, and decorated with reliefs depicting their triumphs. Zoilos, a former slave, built himself an extravagantly sculptured monument. Hadrian donated a theatre, and this enormous stadium - where the names of subscribers can still be checked against their seats, as if they were the names of current Albert Hall boxholders - is one of the ancient world's most commodious and best preserved.

In 1904, a French engineer named Paul Gaudin was employed on the construction of the Ottoman railway system. Gaudin's true interest was archaeology, and on his short summer leave he obtained permission to dig at Aphrodisias. Immediately what he found was so astonishing that the next year he was able to return with a larger expedition, financed by French official sources and with qualified collaboration. This proved M Gaudin's undoing. Professional jealousy against the amateur Gaudin arranged for his transfer to the farthest extremity of the network in the Hejaz.

A few summers later, TE Lawrence, then an Oxford undergraduate, wrote home to his mother from Syria, where he was exploring Crusader ruins: `"The unthinking activity of some Bedawin in tearing up the railway near Amman prevented my going there." (A few summers later, and Lawrence of Arabia and his "Bedawin" would be blowing up M Gaudin's Hejaz railway.)

M Gaudin, justifiably feeling cheated by the manoeuvres of his contemporaries, had managed to sell abroad some pieces he had excavated, and to ship out several crates when it was just legal to do so under Turkish law. And so it seemed that Aphrodisias was doomed to a future of either being plundered or simply neglected.

Rescue came in 1961 in the charismatic person of Kenan Erim. The son of a Turkish diplomat, he had been educated at Princeton and had gone on to become Professor of Classics at New York University. For 30 seasons, Erim directed digs at Aphrodisias in a style described by John Julius Norwich as "part art historian, innkeeper, nanny and policeman". It was quickly discovered that in places the topsoil was only two metres deep. The finds mounted up swiftly, so much so that it was hard to find a secure storage space, and the museum that had been built on the site overflowed.

When Erim died in 1990, Bert Smith started a new programme of research. Smith, a brilliant scholar, possesses skills more usually found in forensic scientists. From thousands of marble fragments he can reunite a dismembered limb with its torso by eye. Working with the team from New York University, he is now directing the cataloguing on computer of decades of digging.

These days, of course, not a single stone leaves Turkey. Better still, finds stay in their context at Aphrodisias so the possibilities for reconstruction on this rarely unpillaged city - in archaeology-speak a "young excavation" - are unprecedented.

Trevor Proudfoot's British base is a shantytown of sheds - Cliveden Conservation - at a secret location (garden statuary is hot). Here, he uses the craft he first learned as an apprentice stonemason, added to years of expertise acquired by working in places such as Petworth, to design state-of-the- art display methods for Aphrodisias. The buzz-word in contemporary conservation is "reversible": nothing is done that cannot later be undone. No material touches the marble that could possible change it. From plaster casts of jagged edges made on site at Aphrodisias, a small Kent foundry produced bronze mounts. Turkish engineers forge the supports: they fit within a millimetre. Roman mortars from Hadrian's Wall are analysed to be copied, and Turkish workmen are trained in techniques used at Corfe Castle.

These labours have uncovered the secret of the city and its hidden treasure. The mountains behind Aphrodisias are made of solid marble. Kenan Erim identified 20 quarries, in colours from perfect white to blue-veined like Stilton. In the ruins of the sculpture school, trial blocks of rows of feet show the training methods of the students. Competitions were run to produce the most perfect examples of famous masterpieces. Most exceptional, the Aphrodisians were able to take advantage of the fact that marble, just quarried, has a softness it loses within a couple of months. Worked on immediately, effects of texture and vibrancy are possible that could not be achieved at a later stage. The Aphrodisians were quick to exploit this energy to the fullest. With the establishment of official Christianity, there came the end of classical sculpture, until its rediscovery and re-interpretation in the Italian Renaissance.

Aphrodisians continued to carve Dionysian figures of centaurs, satyrs and fishermen and they are being uncovered for us to glory in now.

And everywhere the farm-folk listen, while Pan,

Shaking the pine leaves from his half-wild head,

Runs his curved lips along the hollow reeds

And pipes all day his woodland melody.