An excavation led by Felix Pirson and assisted by Guler Ates has found Kybele terracotta figurines dating back to two millennia in and around the Bergama site, suggesting the cult of the Anatolian mother goddess was going strong during ancient times.

Eight new sacred sites and many figurines were found in and around the Bergama (Pergamon) ancient town near Izmir in Turkey. These terracotta figurines represent the goddess of fertility Kybele, going back 2,200 years.

The wide-scope excavations are being carried out with the collaboration of Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry and the German Archaeological Institute in Bergama ancient city. During the excavations in Bergama, there were five religious areas found within city walls and three outside city walls. In these areas a multitude of fertility goddesses, or mother goddesses, Kybele figurines were found.

“These terracotta figurines were found in pristine natural locations,” says Assoc Prof Guler Ates, Celal Bayar University Archaeology Department faculty member. “The Kybele cult was people wishing for fertility of their lands, for their animals to not die, for their children to be healthy, for births to be easy and healthy,” she tells TRT World.

According to Ates there are hundreds of pieces of baked earth (‘terra cotta’ in Latin) which will be cleaned, with those in good condition going to the Bergama Museum, and those in lesser condition going to storage.

Archaeological sources suggest that while there are elaborate religious structures such as the Temple of Athena dedicated to Greek deities, the public also held religious rites in natural locations and offered sacrifices in the name of Anatolian fertility goddess Kybele. “We have located numerous Kybele figurines in and around Bergama, on mountains, on hills, at water sources, at caves, in many religious areas,” Ates says. “That was the most important belief for the common folk.”

Guler Ates (second from L) and Felix Pirson (third from L) oversee preservation efforts at Bergama.
Guler Ates (second from L) and Felix Pirson (third from L) oversee preservation efforts at Bergama. (Lokman Ilhan / AA)

German Archaeological Institute Director Prof Felix Pirson tells Anadolu Agency that the Bergama excavation is a Turkish-German co-production and that more than 100 scientists are working in tandem for the project, from archaeologists to architects.

Pirson tells TRT World that while he has been the excavation director at Bergama since 2006, he has been working at the site since 1991 when he was still a student, and there have been particularly important discoveries during that time, including a necropolis dating back to the Hellenistic to Roman Imperial period.

“Our main research agenda is the relationship between Pergamon and surrounding areas is resources, climate change, human resources,” Pirson says. “Archaeology these days is concerned with questions such as how did the economy function? Where did resources come from? How was the infrastructure? What was the human-environment relationship?” he explains.

Pirson adds that “Normally you would expect natural sanctuaries outside the city. But here [in Bergama] we find them inside the city as well; terracotta figurines, many of Kybele and some of Dionysos as well.”

Pirson also tells AA that once they found the figurines they focused their attention on the sacred areas. “At the time the official cult was deities such as Zeus, Athena, but figurines found in nature tell us about the beliefs of the people. Bergama had a wide array of religious beliefs 2,200 years before our time and people believed in different gods.”

He goes on to say “Sanctuaries at grave sites, natural areas and city centres contain Kybele figurines, which suggest that the people preferred the Anatolian fertility goddess.”

The cult of the mother goddess associated with fertility, Kybele, was strong in Bergama.
The cult of the mother goddess associated with fertility, Kybele, was strong in Bergama. (Lokman Ilhan / AA)

In a book chapter called “Nature and Cult in Pergamon:
 Meter Worship and Natural Sanctuaries,” taken from F. Pirson - A. Scholl’s A Hellenistic Capital in Anatolia (Istanbul 2014), Ates writes that “The mother goddess was one of the chief figures of the Pergamene pantheon; in Greek areas she was called Kybele but was only known as Meter in Anatolia. The local manifestations of Meter in Anatolia were named after mountains or caves.”

She goes on to note that “The sacred topography of Pergamon thus included deities from the Graeco-Roman world as well as others with local Anatolian roots; the latter were associated above all with fertility and show that the inhabitants of a great city like Pergamon still had a very nature-oriented conception of life.”

Associate Prof Guler Ates, Celal Bayar University Archaeology Department faculty member, tells AA that there have been goddess Kybele statuettes found in Bergama before but that there have been an increase of these findings in recent times.

People had gone to caves to worship while there were tremendous temples present, Ates points out: “We encountered Kybele figurines in sanctuaries, unspoiled natural areas, rocky terrain, water sources, caves. These [terracotta figurines] were made in workshops and offered for sale to the public as small tokens of offerings. Some were cheap and some were expensive. Those who bought these offering figurines would go with their bowls and such to natural sanctuaries. They would sacrifice animals, and worship. They would pray for a few days, break their bowls, leave the Kybele figurines, and go back to where they resided.”

Ates says that women especially from Bergama would put up offerings to Kybele in order to have children. She adds that the articles they prepare discussing their findings about the Kybele cult have attracted attention worldwide. “Even when official beliefs have changed, the mother goddess, fertility, earth mother cult has continued to live on. The female presence and her earthly representation was strong in Anatolia,” she adds.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies