Conversations with: Dr Berkay Dinçer

This month, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Berkay Dinçer, a Palaeolithic archaeologist of the Anthropology Department at Istanbul University. His research interests include lithic analysis and the dispersals of early hominins through Anatolia (Turkey) during Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. Berkay has participated and conducted many surveys and excavations in Turkey in the last 20 years, helping to characterise the Palaeolithic of this previously under-researched region.

Surveying at Karaburun, İzmir, 2019.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

My main research interest is the dispersals and migrations of early hominins out of Africa to Eurasia especially during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Honestly speaking, I blame Homo sapiens for the current state of humanity and I don’t like Homo sapiens very much, so I concentrate on much earlier hominins. Stone tools are the most common type of evidence left from these hominins, so I mostly study lithics. I see myself as a student of human evolution.

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic Archaeology?

Actually it is a result of a series of coincidences. I did not know the meaning of prehistory when I enrolled at the Prehistory Department of Istanbul University. At that time in Turkey, students got into university based on their exam results. My results at high school were bad and I found myself at the Prehistory programme of Istanbul University. When I was in the first grade, the first course I attended was ran by Prof. Dr. Güven Arsebük. It wasn’t about archaeology and prehistory; it was about the importance of science and scientific thought. Taking inspiration from this first course, I decided to further investigate archaeology. In order to do that, I reduced the time I spent actually in the courses and I started to visit the library of Netherlands Institute in Turkey. That library was the best place to find books about archaeology and I randomly chose and read anything I found. After spending almost two years in the Netherlands Institute library, I concluded that there was one historically neglected research area in the archaeology of Turkey; the Palaeolithic. In the summer of second grade, I discovered a Lower Palaeolithic site by accident and published it in a newsletter. That discovery changed my entire career.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

The title of my PhD was “The Lower Paleolithic around Marmara Sea: The Earliest Hominin Dispersals”. Usually Turkey is accepted as the shortest land route, a land bridge to Europe from Africa. I think that this suggested hypothesis is very Euro-centric. My main question was the role of Turkey in the Lower Palaeolithic dispersals of hominins out of Africa. If the earliest hominins dispersed to Europe through Turkey, we should find evidence of these at the bottleneck of the continents in north-west Turkey, around Marmara Sea. To look for evidence, I did surveys both on the north and south sides of Marmara Sea. The fieldwork for my PhD was difficult, most of the days I did not see a person or speak to anybody. Also I conducted surveys with a motorcycle, it gave me freedom to go off the road however I was vulnerable to bad weather conditions in winter. At the end I documented more than 130 Palaeolithic sites. Unfortunately I did not find a strong evidence supporting the “land bridge hypothesis” since the Lower Palaeolithic sites are scarce and most of the Palaeolithic occupation took place during the Middle Palaeolithic.

Surveying in bad weather near Tekirdağ, 2013

What current projects are you working on?

In Turkey, the inventory of Palaeolithic sites is very insufficient. Surveys have great importance especially taking into account the on going construction, mining etc. projects. I collaborate with many colleagues and for that reason I am currently affiliated to many projects. In Turkey, normally researchers have to get their own permissions for field projects however I believe that the best fieldwork is the fieldwork of your friend! It saves so much time that would be spent doing bureaucratic paperwork. In a typical field season, I get in the car at the beginning of June and drive east towards to the Iranian border, do fieldwork, and then travel to reach the Greek border on the west in three and a half months. Turkey is a huge country, like 2,000 km as the crow flies in east-west direction, and my plan is to get to know every corner of it while I have energy to do. Also during the winter I analyse lithics from other fieldwork projects that I did not have the chance to participate during summer season. I am now trying to finalise most of the fieldwork projects so that I get more time to concentrate some of them.

Our one of the most important projects is Gürgürbaba, in Van province near the Iranian border. This is an obsidian outcrop with many Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in situ sites. We excavated one of the Lower Palaeolithic sites and obtained the date of 315,000 years ago for the Acheulean occupations. Dating of Palaeolithic sites in Turkey is very scarce. The other projects in the eastern Turkey are Tunceli and Malatya surveys where we have documented open-air Acheulean sites. Two years ago we started a survey at Dülük, in south-eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Our aim was to date more Palaeolithic sites however the pandemic did not allowed us to work in the summer of 2020. In the western parts of the country we have two on going projects, one is in Seyitömer, Kütahya. This is a large open-air coal mine and we are trying to discover and document Palaeolithic sites before their eternal destruction. This is the second salvage survey project in Kütahya province. We did the first one five years ago in a valley now inundated by a dam near Kureyşler. Those salvage projects allowed us to document the variety of Middle Palaeolithic technologies in very close areas. Another on going project is the Karaburun survey in İzmir. This is the westernmost point of Turkey near the Aegean Sea. This is a diachronic survey; our team documents everything from Lower Palaeolithic stone tools to Late Ottoman water systems.

Taking an orthophoto of a lithic scatter at Gürgürbaba, Van, 2018.
Taking cosmogenic dating sample from Dülük, Gaziantep, 2019.

What do you hope to work on in the future?

I planned my archaeological career in two phases. Both phases consist of approximately 20 years. In the first phase, I tried to get to know the whole Turkey and have a brief knowledge of Palaeolithic technologies in the different geographical regions. The first phase will end in a few years; I enjoyed travelling to the very remote areas of the country and I have learned many things. I have also improved my ability to recognise different regional technologies. This also allowed me to see and analyse thousands of archaeological artefacts from hundreds of sites.

Studying material from Manyas, Balıkesir survey in Istanbul University Prehistory laboratory with Zeynep Kelpetin, 2017.

In the second phase, I am willing to concentrate on the excavation of two or maybe three sites. In this way, it would be possible to understand the Palaeolithic of Turkey in detail. For example, we do not have absolute dates for many sites in the country and for this reason we do not understand the relationship between climate and hominin occupations. Also, hominin relations with fauna and flora are poorly understood in the country. For those reasons I think that we should start excavating some cave sites in Turkey. This might also help the understanding of the surface sites. I must say, my priority is always salvage excavations; I don’t think that we need to excavate protected sites. Also I prefer small-sized sites rather than “the oldest” and “the biggest” ones.

Continuous excavation projects facilitate the training of younger generations. In the future, I also would like to invest more in the human resources for the Palaeolithic archaeology in Turkey. I hope that we will establish a multi-disciplinary tradition of Palaeolithic archaeology in the future.

What do you think has been the most interesting/revolutionary discovery in Turkish Palaeolithic Archaeology over the last 5 years?

The numbers of Palaeolithic archaeologists and on going projects are very limited in Turkey. I must say that we are not close to any revolutionary discoveries since we mostly still apply the methods of 1960’s and we do not collaborate much with foreign colleagues who could help us with newer state of art techniques. I think that the discovery of an unknown hominin fossil species in Anatolia would be of great importance. I believe that the ecological and bio-geographical properties of Turkey would allow for the presence of various “Homo anatoliensis” types. The most positive thing in the last five years was the commencement of new survey projects focussing on the Palaeolithic in Turkey.

One of the most important discoveries over the last five years was the discovery and excavation of Sürmecik, a Middle Palaeolithic site near Banaz, Uşak, western Turkey. Here, a team led by Prof. Dr. Harun Taşkıran of Ankara University found thousands of lithics exhibiting a variability that we have not yet seen elsewhere. Another important discovery is the Gürgürbaba near Erciş, Van. The team led by Assoc. Prof. Dr. İsmail Baykara discovered more than 70 Palaeolithic sites in close relation to obsidian sources. We also excavated one of the sites and obtained the absolute date that I mentioned above.

If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?

If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t enjoy archaeology that much. Usually we see ourselves as successful, victorious conquerors etc. however I do not see human beings as that for most of their history. So, I am a little nervous to use a time machine in case I witness a bad situation, like the extinction of an entire tribe. If possible I would like to visit a Neanderthal cave somewhere in the Balkans on a warm summer night (I try not to think about malaria infected mosquitoes!) where a small fire is burning in a corner, one is preparing to play a bone flute… I would like to listen the sound of a Neanderthal song of 40 thousand years ago.

What advice would you give to someone interested in studying Palaeolithic Archaeology?

In most of the world, archaeologists are hostile to each other; the ones with the power usually do not let others get funding and permissions. In the last 10 years, I have learned not to get angry about the unfair behaviour of others and do not let these interfere with my research. Not just for the Palaeolithic, but also for many other sciences, it is very important to learn not to give up. It is important to persevere, even when those in power say that you cannot do it. Palaeolithic archaeology is a very global science, so for that reason in order to follow the latest literature, I would also recommend learning as many foreign languages as possible.

Studying material from Tunceli survey at Düzce University laboratory with Göknur Karahan, 2020.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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