Howard Crosby Butler’s three Syrian campaigns established him as a preeminent Near Eastern archaeologist. Impressed by his scholarship, the director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum in Constantinople invited Butler in 1909 to excavate at Sardis, the ancient capital of Lydia. Butler was eager to explore this archaeologically and historically significant site, which had never been fully and systematically excavated. Supported by prominent New York philanthropists and art collectors, including members of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Butler established the American Society for the Excavation of Sardis in 1909.
Setting out in February of 1910, Butler and his party journeyed by train from Smyrna to the village of Sart (modern Sardis) and then on horseback to the site, arriving in March of 1910. Buried by an earthquake in 17 A.D., the site of Sardis was marked by two colossal Ionic columns rising from the slopes Mt. Tmolus. Excavations began on the bank of the Paktolos River and moved east towards the columns, where they uncovered the foundations of a great temple dedicated to Artemis in the fourth century B.C. At the end of the season, the group was finally able to move from their tents into a large excavation house overlooking the site.
At the start of the second season, the members of the expedition arrived in Smyrna in late January of 1911, encountering heavy snow and bitter cold. The group finally reached the site, where digging resumed on February 16. Work continued at the Temple of Artemis, which was completely excavated by 1912.
Butler excavated at Sardis for four seasons, but the advent of World War I and the ensuing Greek-Turkish conflicts delayed his return. Revisiting Sardis in April of 1922, he found that many of the finds had been stolen or destroyed and the excavation house had been gutted. Although the damage was considerable, Butler was undeterred and eager to continue excavating. The Treaty of Sevres, ratified in 1920, had established new laws governing the excavation and exportation of antiquities, stipulating that archaeologists could export half of all antiquities unearthed at Turkish sites. Before the war, all finds had been the property of the Ottoman Museum in Constantinople. Butler was elated by the knowledge that he would now have an opportunity to enrich the collections of American museums.
The Sardis team spent much of what would turn out be the final season cleaning up broken debris, repairing the dig house, and assessing the other damage. Butler never finished his work at Sardis: traveling through Europe on his way back to the States, he died suddenly in Paris on August 13, 1922, at the age of 50.
Fortunately, excavations at Sardis resumed in 1958 and continue today under the auspices of The Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, which is jointly sponsored by the Harvard University Art Museums and Cornell University.