Professor Tahsin Ozguc

Doyen of Anatolian archaeology in Turkey who excavated the site of Kültepe over 57 years


Tahsin Ozgüç, archaeologist: born c1916; Assistant, Ankara University 1945-46, Lecturer 1946-54, Professor 1954-81, Dean of the Faculty of Literature 1968-69, Rector 1969-80; married 1944 Nimet Dinçer (one son); died Ankara 28 October 2005.

Tahsin Ozgüç's long career spanned the entire post-war period up to the present and made him the doyen of Anatolian archaeology in Turkey. He and his wife Nimet, also a professor of archaeology at Ankara University, formed a remarkable team, dominating Turkish field archaeology and its university teaching. Ozgüç will be principally remembered as the excavator of the great site of Kültepe, ancient Kanesh, where his 57 years of continuous excavation produced sensational architectural artefacts and texts, revealing in extraordinary detail the first historical period of Anatolia, that of the Assyrian merchant colonies, c2000-1700BC.

Tahsin Ozgüç was born at Kircaali, then under Bulgarian occupation, and now in Bulgaria and known as Kurdzhali, probably in 1916 (birth dates then were neither registered nor remembered). He belonged to the first generation to grow up under Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish republic but, like others of his generation, he always wrote to contemporary friends using the Ottoman script which was abolished in favour of the Roman by Atatürk's alphabet reform in 1928.

He was among the earliest intake of students to the newly founded Ankara University (in the Language, History and Geography Faculty) which he entered in 1935, graduating in 1940. He studied principally under the foreign professors recruited by Atatürk, the archaeologist H.H. von der Osten and George Rohde and the Turkish Semsettin Günaltay, and the philologists Benno Landsberger and Hans Gustav Güterbock. A fellow student was Nimet Dinçer, whom he married in 1944.

Ozgüç completed his doctoral thesis, "Burial Customs in Prehistoric Anatolia", in 1942 and it was published in 1948 in Turkish and German versions. Thereafter his monographs were regularly published in bilingual volumes, at first Turkish and German, later Turkish and English. "Tahsin Bey", as he was always known, rose rapidly up the academic ladder, being appointed assistant in 1945, lecturer in 1946 and professor in 1954.

As a student, he was already taking part in archaeological excavations in the area of the rapidly expanding new capital, Ankara, such as those of Karaoglan under Professor Remzi Oguz Arik. In 1946, he excavated the Phrygian tumuli to clear the site for the construction of the Anitkabir, Atatürk's monumental tomb complex.

Tahsin and Nimet were sent by the Turkish Historical Society in 1947 to survey the plain of Elbistan, a remote but fertile plain in the heart of the Taurus mountains, clearly an important station on the trade routes between north Syria and Anatolia. A test excavation into the mound Karahöyük near the town of Elbistan was rewarded with the discovery of a precinct centring on a huge memorial stele inscribed in Hieroglyphic Luwian, a monument of great significance for the dark age following the fall of the Hittite Empire in c1200BC. The results of this campaign were published as Turkish Historical Society publications, series V (archaeology), vol 7, the first of the 12 volumes contributed by him.

The following year, 1948, Tahsin and Nimet again on behalf of the Turkish Historical Society commenced excavations at the key site of Kültepe near Kayseri, inaugurating the epic excavations which continued uninterrupted up to the present. In the early years Tahsin was assisted by Nimet until she undertook projects of her own and later by his loyal student and assistant Kutlu Emre, who herself was to succeed him as professor of archaeology. As Tahsin Ozgüç's academic and political burdens picked up, he was always to regard his annual escape to the fresh Anatolia air of Kültepe as a liberation.

This great site had been known as a source of cuneiform "Cappadocian" clay tablets since the 19th century and in 1925 was the subject of a somewhat destructive excavation by Bedrich Hrozny, the decipherer of Hittite. He discovered that the main visible feature, a huge flat-topped mound, was actually only a palace citadel and that the source of the tablets was an extensive lower town under the flat surrounding fields, and here he recovered some 1,000 tablets to join those already in European museums.

The tablets, when read, proved to be the commercial archives of a colony, the Karum of merchants from the city of Assur on the river Tigris south of Mosul who were conducting a long distance trade between Mesopotamia and Anatolia. The city of Kanesh was one of a number of such Assyrian emporia on the Anatolian plateau in the period 2000-1700BC. Besides documenting this trade, the tablets also throw light on the native population and their rulers, who were the merchants' trading partners.

This was the site which Ozgüç took on as one of the major Turkish research projects of the second half of the last century. The results were richly rewarding. Working in the merchants' houses in the Karum, he established that there were two main levels of the period, each destroyed by severe fires which seem to have prevented the inhabitants from salvaging anything but their gold and silver. The houses thus retain in place their household inventories of pottery and tablets.

Excavating systematically from house to house, Ozgüç could be confident each season of a rich harvest and over the years he amassed museum-filling collections of the fine pottery of the period, elegantly shaped and beautifully decorated with red burnished slip and paint, including an extraordinary series of animal-shaped libation vessels, lions, bulls, deer, boar, hawks and others. Each house might yield tablets too, the personal archives of the owner stored in jars and bowls. Here Ozgüç was not so lucky, since his official epigraphist responsible for publication was unproductive and over 40 years allowed a backlog of some 20,000 tablets to build up, which only began to be published after his retirement, in the late 1980s.

Ozgüç also took in hand this palace mound, and attempted to clarify and rectify the ravages of earlier diggers. In the centre lay two superimposed palaces of the native princes, huge structures of beams and mud-brick which had burned like torches at their final destructions. In 1999, he produced Kültepe: Kanis/Nesa, a fine volume of the plans and archaeology of the palaces to add to the five occasional volumes of Kültepe dig reports. In his last years he was working on a final report of his work in the Karum and it must be hoped that this will appear posthumously.

Kültepe became something of a fiefdom for him. In the early days he would hire rooms in the village but later was able to build a comfortable dig-house and site museum. When he was there, visitors would be warmly welcomed and given a tour of the site then taken back to the house for tea in the shade while the season's finds would be produced for inspection.

In addition to the annual Kültepe campaign, Ozgüç also found time for two other major excavations and several surveys and rescue operations of more limited character. At the Iron Age site of Altintepe near Erzincan, the most westerly Urartian city, he revealed in the years 1956-64 a fine temple precinct and tombs, and at the Hittite site of Masat Höyük near Tokat he excavated in 1973-84 a citadel with parts of three superimposed government buildings, the earliest of which yielded a small provincial archive of letters passing between the Hittite king and local officials. Smaller operations were undertaken at Horoztepe, Kazankaya, Terga, Ferzant and Kululu.

All this archaeological activity was combined with a full life of university teaching and administration. He and Nimet taught several generations of students, who themselves went on to excavate, teach and fill posts in regional museums across the country. Everywhere people would address him as "Hocam", "my teacher". In university administration he served as Dean of the Faculty of Literature, 1968-69, and then Rector of Ankara University, 1969-80.

These were not easy years in Turkey and inevitably his office led to political involvement. In the late 1970s leftist and rightist gangs were gunning people down in the streets. University students were drawn into confrontations, but "Tahsin Bey" was a popular rector and retained their confidence. The military coup of 1980 mercifully restored order but at a certain cost. In an attempt to eradicate extremism in the universities the government of General Kenan Evren created the Higher Education Council (YOK). Ozgüç accepted the position of deputy president of this body, a controversial move but defensible as a hope to restrain any excessive severity. His retirement from the council in 1988 marked his withdrawal from active politics.

Throughout his busy life he travelled and lectured widely in Europe and America, also Japan. He received many decorations and awards in these countries, as well as honorary doctorates and was a member of academies including the British Academy and Institutes.

Tahsin Bey was a very courteous man with a suave and pleasant manner. He was notably open and welcoming to foreign archaeologists and supporters of their work and many remember gratefully his assistance, advice and hospitality.

J. David Hawkins

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