Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.12.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.12.14

William Aylward (ed.), Excavations at Zeugma, Conducted by Oxford Archaeology (3 vols.).   Los Altos, CA:  Packard Humanities Institute, 2013.  Pp. xii, 279, 169 p. of plates; 258 p., 92 p. of plates; 449 p.  ISBN 9781938325298.  

Reviewed by Andrea U. De Giorgi, Florida State University (

Full Text (Open Access)

On July 3, 2000 Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times reported on the vanishing ruins of Zeugma in southeastern Turkey, the city that with its counterpart of Apamea on the opposite bank served for centuries as a crossing-point along the Euphrates. What particularly piqued Kinzer's interest was the herculean archaeological effort that was about to unfold, aimed at rescuing vast tracts of the lower city as the waters of the Birecik Barajı (Birecik Dam) rose. The drama, the frenzy of the operations, and the startling quality of the finds soon fueled outcry from the scholarly and lay communities alike. The “Pompeii of the East,” as Zeugma was styled during the momentous days of its drowning, symbolized the clash between development and archaeology, and highlighted the ecological impact of hydroelectric power-stations on their basins. Eventually, the Birecik Barajı flooded 30 % of Zeugma (most of the domestic quarters) and the entirety of Apamea.

Truth be told, this sword of Damocles had long hovered over Zeugma. Guillermo Algaze and David Kennedy brought Zeugma into sharper focus in the 1990s; they flagged the imminent dangers, while also advocating for immediate responses from the scholarly community.1 Kennedy wrote: “It is too late to do more than lament what has been lost at Samosata (submerged by the Atatürk Barajı in the 70s); there is still time to save much from Zeugma”.2 Indeed, much of the domestic architecture adjacent to the river was either rescued or documented thanks to the energetic excavations of the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) in 2000. The three volumes on the Zeugma Excavations, comprising 37 reports and edited by William Aylward, bear witness to this remarkable salvage campaign. For brevity’s sake, I shall focus only on a select number of contributions.

The foreword by David Packard deserves particular attention: he highlights the merits of the 2000 excavation, but also stresses the parochial hindrances and political pressures that blocked a more ambitious, long-term involvement of the PHI at Zeugma. What may read as polemic is in actuality the chronicle of a missed opportunity for the site, for the study of its archaeological collections, and ultimately for its reception. Aylward’s preface then walks the readers through the challenges that the excavation posed. He lays out the sectors of the city presented in the three volumes, and lists the archaeological consortia that participated in the venture, some of which are publishing their data independently.3 He surveys the history and cultural framework of Zeugma and Apamea: the sources, the archaeology, and the social history of the city. The Sasanian sack of AD 252/253 under Shapur I, an “urban catastrophe,” symbolically establishes the end of the excursus. Although the evidence at Zeugma suggests that a considerable number of houses were indeed impacted by the Sasanian attack, there are also signs of undisturbed contexts that betray urban survival. The swift recovery of many cities that suffered the blows of Shapur’s army calls into question the scale of the events reported by the literary sources. Antioch on the Orontes, Apamea, Anazarbos, and Gindarus, to name but a few, lingered on despite destruction and deportations. Thus Zeugma’s “partial resettlement” reads as a limited illustration of the city’s long line of history. Further evaluation is needed, especially in light of the continued occupation through the Early Islamic period and beyond.

In Ch. 2 Roberto Nardi and Kristian Schneider report on the preservation efforts at the site. The protocols adopted are described in full, from the conservation of walls to the protection of the shoreline against the action of waves. Their recommendations are notable: in particular, maintenance work along the shoreline is essential to make the site accessible again in 100 years—when the dam supposedly will have exhausted its function. It is hoped that these suggestions will be acted upon up by the current and future excavators at Zeugma. In Ch. 3 Jennifer Tobin presents the complex evidence gleaned from the twelve excavated sectors of domestic architecture, spanning the Seleucid to the Ummayad phases, including a Commagenian one that she situates between the Seleucid and the Early Imperial periods. This archaeological record is of extraordinary importance, and will no doubt be essential in prompting new insights into the domestic architecture of Roman Syria, especially when tested against the known evidence from Antioch, Daphne, Seleucia Pieria, and Cyrrhus. Although none of the Zeugma contexts here presented appear in complete form, they nevertheless offer important indications about the evolution of the domestic environment from the Seleucid period to the thriving phase of the second to mid-third centuries CE, when builders paid much attention to décor and vistas. This phase was then followed by a phenomenon of widespread contraction and down-sizing that may be due to the billeting of soldiers of Legio IV Scythica, as the author remarks. Be that as it may, the Late Imperial and Early Islamic phases attest to the continuation of the settlement, and conclude the survey.

Tobin’s article finds complement in two subsequent contributions by Katherine Dunbabin (the mosaics, Ch. 6) and Bettina Bergmann (the paintings, Ch. 7). In the former, 27 fragmentary pavements of generally modest craftsmanship corroborate an already well-known corpus. They also attest to a local visual sensibility that mediated Antiochene accents, and to the pavements’ fundamental contribution in the articulation of the domestic space. Bergmann concludes the section on domestic architecture by laying out the visual idioms of Zeugma’s mural painting. She emphasizes the chronological problems they posit, while also stressing their genuine, local character. As it stands, this group of articles on domestic architecture suffers from the fragmentation of the Zeugma projects and related publications: references to relevant findings from the Nantes and Gaziantep Mozaik Müzesi excavations -—adjacent to the PHI sectors— reflect the piecemeal state of the archaeological record.

In Ch. 9 Charles Crowther surveys a small epigraphic corpus: paramount are the inscriptions of King Antiochos I of Commagene, featuring the provisions for the royal cult , and describing a sacred temenos in the city. The autopsy of these important texts is strengthened by a discussion of the Dexiosis relief carved on one of the same stelai. Charles Brian Rose examines the figures of Antiochus and Helios in the context of comparable reliefs at Nemrud Dağı, Arsameia, and Sofraz Köy, emphasizing the interaction between text and royal iconography.

Volume II comprises studies on pottery, terracottas, and glass. Philip M. Kenrick’s comprehensive study of the ceramics is of particular interest. In charting the characteristics of the wares and their relational networks —especially for coarse wares— he suggests the existence of ties between Zeugma and the Euphratean communities of Syria and northern Iraq, thereby moving the discourse away from the usual suspects, Antioch and Tarsus. Two elements stand out in his analysis: the disappearance of table wares in the early third century (coinciding with the apparent contraction of Zeugma) and the conspicuous presence of Islamic materials in Trench 1, which seem to cohere with the eighth to ninth century strata at Raqqa. Paul Reynolds analyzes the amphora finds, examining how the city was inserted in a pan- Mediterranean network of exchanges largely fueled by the military, and later, possibly from the fourth century onward, in a mesh of regional markets that converged along the Euphrates. Sharon Herbert studies the bullae. The sample she presents is admittedly limited when compared to the 140,000 items recovered in Trench 3 by the Gaziantep Müzesi, which she aptly suggests may be interpreted as an archive. Nevertheless, the evidence offered is eclectic and compelling; it attests to a number of transactions with Cappadocian Caesarea as well as depicting heads of gods and likely of dignitaries. One cannot but hope for a final publication of the bullae along the lines of that of Seleucia on the Tigris.4

Finally, Volume III surveys a variety of materials (metals, bones, textiles), military installations, organic remains, and the ecology of the region. The report on coins by Kevin Butcher (Ch. 1) places much emphasis on the spectrum of eastern mints represented during the Imperial period. Their issues apparently compensated for the ebb and flow of Zeugma’s production of coins. In Ch. 10, Hartmann and Speidel present the evidence from At Meydanı, a flat expanse west of the domestic quarters. They argue that this area served to accommodate the infrastructure of the Fourth Legion Scythica.

All in all, Excavations at Zeugma is a fundamental contribution to the study of urbanism in the Greek East; any scholar, graduate student, or archaeology enthusiast will no doubt benefit from its rich array of reports, catalogues, charts, and high-quality illustrations. While some of the articles adhere to the field report format, others emerge as stand-alone studies, dramatically enhancing our understanding of this unique community. ​


1.   Algaze, G. et al. 1994. “The Tigris-Euphrates Archaeological Reconnaissance Project: Final Report of the Birecik and Carchemish Dam Survey Areas.” Anatolica 20: 1-96.
2.   Kennedy, D. 1998. The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates. Rescue Work and Historical Studies. JRA Suppl. 27. Portsmouth: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 8.
3.   Abadie-Reynal, C.- Ergeç, R. (eds.) 2012. Zeugma I. Fouilles de l’habitat (1): le mosaïque de Pasiphae. Varia Anatolica 26. Istanbul.
4.   Invernizzi, A. et al. 2004. Seleucia al Tigri: le impronte di sigillo dagli archivi. 3 Vols. Torino. ​

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