13 January 2006

Snails, knights and a king who married his sister

In the antiquity, southwestern portion of the present day Turkey was known as Caria. One of the better known Carians was their king Mausolus (Maussollos)1 who ruled between 377-353 B.C.E. A major accomplishment of Mausolus, besides winning his sister Artemisia’s hand in marriage, was to move his capital from the inland Mylasa (present day Milas) to the coastal Halicarnassus (present day Bodrum). Upon Mausolus’s death, Artemisia succeeded him and built for her brother-husband a magnificent tomb in Halicarnassus, the Mausoleum, which became one of the 7 Wonders of the ancient world. The Mausoleum, built of marble and other rock types and about 50 m high, was decorated with sculptures on all sides, some fragments of which are now in the British Museum. The picture above shows what the original building may have looked like2.

We now fast forward to 1402 when the Knights Hospitallers, coming from Rhodes, arrived at Halicarnassus to build a castle as a stronghold against the Ottomans advancing on the Anatolian mainland2. Looking for building material, the knights ran into the Mausoleum. Exactly what state the monument was in at that time is not known, but Jeppesen2 thinks it may have been in "a deplorable state of preservation". Regardless of its condition, this huge pile of rock was just what the knights needed. They transported almost all of the rock to a narrow peninsula stretching into the Aegean and built a huge castle that still stands and is now an underwater archaeology museum.

I enter the story in August 2000 when I visited Bodrum for a few days. I visited the Castle of the Knights and with the help of the underwater archaeologist Cemal Pulak, who spends his summers at the museum, collected snails, especially large numbers of the clausiliid Albinaria brevicollis, which was quite abundant on the marble walls of the castle.

Albinaria brevicollis on a wall of the Castle of the Knights in Bodrum.

Cemal also directed me to the limestone outcrops on the hills behind the city. There, I found another clausiliid, Albinaria lerosiensis, but no A. brevicollis. On our drive back up north, we stopped at the ruins of Iasos, north of Bodrum, where I found, once again, A. brevicollis.

The presence of A. brevicollis in the castle, but not on the hills behind Bodrum struck me as odd. During the dry Mediterranean summers most Albinaria species aestivate attached to rocks and their unintentional human-assisted transport on building materials have been documented. Could the snails have been introduced to the castle? But without knowing whether or not A. brevicollis lived elsewhere on the Bodrum Peninsula, I could not come up with a good answer.

I returned in August 2002 to conduct a survey of the land snails of the Bodrum Peninsula, something that hadn’t been done before. Our survey results, recently published, established that there were 3 species of Albinaria on the peninsula (map below): A. lerosiensis, A. munda and A. brevicollis. And we found the latter only in the castle. It was definitely introduced there, but from where?

Subsequent detective work offered a reasonable answer. Our archaeologist friends directed us to a publication on the marbles of the Mausoleum3, where it was indicated that one source for the marbles may have been the quarries at Iasos. And that’s where I had collected A. brevicollis, not just at the ruins, but also in the countryside away from Iasos, indicating that the species was native to that area (see map above). Francisco Welter-Schultes and I eventually came up with this scenario that we included in our paper: A. brevicollis was originally introduced to the Mausoleum on marbles from Iasos. The snails survived on the monument for more than 1700 years and from there they were brought to the Castle of the Knights, where they still live.

Do you think Artemisia ever noticed the snails crawling on her husband’s tomb?

A wonder of the world in August 2002. This is where the Mausoleum once stood.

1. All information on the history of Halicarnassus is from Bean, G. 1971. Turkey Beyond the Maeander. According to Bean, Mausolus was actually never a “king”, but “virtually an independent ruler” of Caria, which was nominally ruled by the Persian Empire. Bean also mentions that Mausolus and Artemisia had no children, which was probably a good thing in their case. Marriage between siblings seems to have been a Carian custom, for Bean mentions that Mausolus’s brother Idrieus, who succeeded Artemisia, married their younger sister Ada. She eventually became the ruler of Caria.
2. Picture of what the Mausoleum might have looked like is from Jeppesen, K. undated. The Maussolleion at Ancient Halicarnassus. [Booklet purchased at the Mausoleum in Bodrum, August 2002.] Jeppesen gives the date of the building of the castle as about 1495.
3. Walker, S. & Matthew, K.J. 1997. The marbles of the Mausoleum. In Jenkins, I. & Waywell, G.B. (eds.). Sculptors and Sculpture of Caria and the Dodecanese. British Museum Press.


Duane said...

Marvelous use of evidence from biology and archaeology. Thanks for relating that great story. I'm not quite sure of the size of A. brevicollis. Is it possible that they were small enough that the lived between the stones and around the foundation so that beloved sister Artemisia never saw them? Or if she did see them, killing those that were visible may have done little to harm the population.


I should have mentioned that these snails are roughly 15 mm in length. They would have been easily noticeable from a close distance.

When I visit places like Iasos, Ephesus, I see hundreds of snails on the walls, rocks, because I keep my eyes open for them. But, if you asked ordinary tourists visiting the same places if they had seen any snails, they'd say no.

I doubt Artemisia had snails in her mind (Halicarnassus was attacked by the Rhodians soon after she became the ruler).

deniz said...

You're right, I don't remember seeing any snails in Ephesus... But I like, your story, mixing history and legend with archaeology and biology :-)

T. Beth said...

Very interesting and informative post! I always learn something when I read your blog. :-)

afarensis said...


Anonymous said...

Congratulatins; fascinating, indeed! I have fond memories of collecting Albinaria brevicollis with you on the walls of the Bodrum castle. One problem, though: if A. bravicollis was introduced to Bodrum castle with the marble from the Mausoleum, then why are there no A. brevicollis found at the original location of the Mausoleum? I remember discussing with you that most of visible stone rubble at the site of the Mausoleum would have been removed by the knights to build the castle, and what is seen there today was dug up during excavations in the 1850s. Yet, surely some limestone must have remained exposed at the site for the snails to thrive on. Perhaps, population dynamics may have been at play in their extinction here. Mysetrious, indeed! Cemal Pulak

gaw3 said...

Very interesting! Is there some other fauna (lichens?) that could correlate with the snails' distribution?


Cemal: Why we didn't find brevicollis at the site of the Mausoleum is indeed a puzzle. The explanation we offered in the paper is that any exposed marble left behind at the site (by the knights and everyone else that may have scavanged rocks) eventually got buried and if there was no exposed marble, Albinaria would have died. According to Bean, the site of the Mausoleum was identified and excavated by Charles Newton in 1856. It would be informative to read what Newton wrote about the condition of the site when he first found it. It also would be informative to know how much the site got reburied between then and the Danish excavations in the 20th century.

gaw3: The distribution of Albinaria is correlated with limestone/marble outcrops, but that's not a specific association. The distribution of certain beetles (Drilidae), the larvae of which feed on the snails, is correlated with the distribution of snails, but that's not specific either, because the same beetles also feed on other species of snails.