Aphrodite, Diocletian, and Me: How I Dug up (Part of) (Maybe) the Most Important Roman Find Ever!

Becoming PZ: Stories I Never Wrote Down

Thankful for this series of posts from Paul Zahl:

It was the Summer of 1971, and the New York University excavation team were hard at work in Aphrodisias, an ancient Roman site — Hellenistic, to be precise — in Western Anatolia (i.e., peninsular Turkey/Asia Minor). The entire adult male population of a village named Geyre were digging up the remains of a spectacular site that had once been the marble and sculpture capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. I was the staff epigrapher, i.e., reader of the Greek and Roman inscriptions that came almost daily to the surface.

But then something happened.

I got diarrhea. And not only did I get diarrhea, but the director of the “bourse” (i.e., marketplace) excavation got diarrhea, too. He was much older than I, and … well, he got it bad. So bad, in fact, that he and his wife had to fly back to New York to get treatment.

Dr. Gary’s departure left one whole section of the excavation — which was in top gear at the time and on all sites of the extensive ancient city — without a leader. So Dr. (Kenan) Erim (R.i.P.) pulled me from epigraphy to on-site director of a major focus of our team: the ancient marketplace and “exchange,” you might say, of this once bustling center of Roman imperial culture.

Ironically, the workers at the “bourse” had just uncovered a dozen ancient toilet seats, which had been placed there, for merchant use, in the second or third century. These Roman toilets were in fact infinitely better designed than the single “john” we all had to share in the building where the NYU team ate and slept. Moreover, Roman toilets were designed to be sluiced out by fresh running water. The one we were using was not.

Anyway, I reported for duty, with honest good will, a desire to please, and a few words of Turkish vocabulary. (I learned how to say “move that column” and “be careful with that equestrian statue” — things like that.) I liked the men from Geyre, and they were kind (and tolerant) to me. They, also, were eager to please.

But then something really big began to happen.

We knew that an earthquake, I forget the date, had caused most of the marketplace structures to collapse in the later Roman period. Fragments had also been found of the (Maximum) Price Edict of the Emperor Diocletian (d.305). That Edict was considered to be a spectacular find because it gave comprehensive and specific information concerning empire-wide economic conditions. We knew that the earthquake had caused sections of the inscribed-in-marble Edict to fall to the ground.

We just didn’t know how much of it was there. Turned out, it all fell to the ground, undisturbed over the centuries since.

Almost instantly, “my” team started to get lucky. Big pieces of the Edict — big unbroken pieces — started to come up. Then a massive unbroken piece appeared. We had to get a team of cattle to pull it out!

When literally every day brought a new and important piece of inscribed marble into the light after almost 1700 years, the experience could have made a career-altering impression upon me, but I didn’t really “get” the importance of what was happening before our eyes. After all, I was having a “minor health crisis.” Moreover, I was thinking about a girl at Wellesley (who I knew from back home in Washington) and trying to figure out how I could fly, at the end of the season, directly to her summer home on Cape Cod. In other words, two factors were distracting me from the (Maximum) Price Edict. You could almost say that the patron goddess of our excavated city, who was Aphrodite, was keeping me away from Diocletian.

But looking back on it now, excavating the Edict was an amazing development. By the time my team had finished for the season, we had unearthed the price of almost every commodity known in the Ancient World. And it was all so easy to read — chipped out by ancient stonemasons in non-colloquial Greek and Latin.

Now when you go to Aphrodisias and visit the Museum there, which my Dad’s National Geographic Society helped to fund, you can see it: the (Maximum) Price Edict of the Emperor Diocletian. Or at least parts of it. Because it is huge.

As soon as I could, though, I got on that airplane back to Cape Cod. The visit proved fruitless, much to my disappointment. All I got from it was a life-long attachment to the song “Maggie Mae” by Rod Stewart. (That’s a good song, but still.)

But the (Maximum) Price Edict remains. And you can see it today.

What we actually found: The (Maximum) Price Edict of the Emperor Diocletian


Staff Epigrapher, before the diarrhea struck


The “Bourse” at Aphrodisias, where we found the (Maximum) Price Edict of Diocletian