Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.07

G. Clarke, H. Jackson, C. E. V. Nixon, J. Tidmarsh, K. Wesselingh and L. Cougle-Jose, Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates, Volume 5: Report on Excavations 2000-2010. Mediterranean Archaeology supplement, 10.   Sydney:  MEDITARCH Publications; Sydney University Press, 2016.  Pp. xi, 445; 1 plan.  ISBN 9780958026574.  AU $150.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Blömer, Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University (


Jebel Khalid was a Seleucid garrison town of substantial size, founded in the 3rd century BCE to guard the Euphrates valley. It evolved into a commercial and religious center in the later 3rd and 2nd century BCE, but was largely abandoned when Seleucid rule collapsed around 70 BCE. No substantial later occupation obscured the Hellenistic settlement. Consequently, Jebel Khalid offers ideal conditions for the investigation of the development and the material culture of a Hellenistic town in the Syrian hinterland. An Australian team began the exploration of the site 30 years ago, at a time when archaeological evidence for the Hellenistic period in Syria was scarce and elusive.1 Today the situation has improved significantly, not least due to the results of the Jebel Khalid excavations. The team working at the site has produced an impressive number of publications, the latest of which is the book under review. It is the fifth volume in the series of excavation reports and aims to present the results of the last decade of research at Jebel Khalid, from 2000 to 2010. It is not, however, a final report, as Graeme Clarke, the director of the project, explains in the preface. None of the fieldwork and research had been concluded when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, bringing archaeological work at Jebel Khalid to an abrupt halt. The unlikelihood that fieldwork will be resumed any time soon prompted the team to publish this collection of interim reports, in order to give an account of the status quo and make the artifacts that have already been studied available to the scientific community. This is a very laudable endeavor, which might provide a model for other projects similarly situated.

The volume includes a wide array of studies, from summaries of excavation results to presentations of specific artefact groups. The first four chapters report on the progress made in the four main excavation areas. First, John Tidmarsh presents trenches dug in peripheral areas of the acropolis beyond a large building complex, generally referred to as a palace. They revealed traces of buildings attributed to the earlier 2nd century BCE, the function of which remains largely obscure. The conjecture that servants or guards attached to the palace lived there is so far not substantiated by firm evidence. In the last phase of occupation, smaller, poorly-built units replaced the preexisting structures. This mirrors the general development of building activity at the site and is explained by economic decline and an influx of people from the surrounding regions who were seeking shelter from the advancing Parthians.

In the second chapter Clarke presents the results of fieldwork in the main temple of the city and its precinct. This is one of the earliest temples of Seleucid Syria and important for the understanding of religious architecture in the kingdom. The temple is of the Doric order, but the width of the cella and its tripartite structure appear to reflect local architectural and religious traditions. It is therefore interpreted as an example of the cultural hybridity of Jebel Khalid. Surprisingly, the temple survived the abandonment of the town and was in continuous use until the later 2nd century CE. In the first century CE, large-scale renovations were undertaken: a new temenos wall was constructed, and column drums were put up at regular intervals and connected by a course of reused ashlar blocks, creating a structure that apparently surrounded the temple. Clarke explains the column drums as “columnar altars”, possibly related to processions. This is an intriguing interpretation, but it is not entirely convincing and has no parallels. It is difficult to assess the situation based exclusively on the evidence presented so far, but one wonders if this installation might be contemporary with the new temenos wall and instead represents the remains of a colonnade surrounding the temple.

In the next chapter, Clarke summarizes the work undertaken in “Area C”, where parts of a large peristyle court and adjacent rooms have been cleared. He interprets the complex as the palestra of a gymnasium. This conjecture is based on the similarity of the architectural plan to those of other gymnasia, and on the finds, which suggest physical exercises and educational activities. The presence of a gymnasium at Jebel Khalid would support the view that this institution was far more common in Syrian towns than previously thought.2

In the fourth chapter, Heather Jackson discusses a vast multi-phased building complex, the so-called commercial building. It consists of a large number of rooms centered on two large courtyards, of which one was equipped with a colonnaded veranda. Jackson provides a detailed description of the building and its various construction phases. The interpretation of the complex as a commercial building raises doubts, however, because neither the architecture nor the finds seem to corroborate it, and the author herself is hesitant about the interpretation in her concluding remarks.

The next articles are artefact studies. They differ in scope and intention, but all of them constitute important contributions that enrich the corpus of material culture from Hellenistic Syria. First, Clarke discusses the sculptural finds from the temple precinct, including impressive marble fragments of monumental statues that clearly follow Greek artistic models. He convincingly suggests that they were parts of acrolithic statues, probably the cult statues of the sanctuary. On the other hand, rather crude sculptures in limestone have also been discovered. This coexistence of sculpture in different styles and of seemingly opposed character is a common phenomenon in Syria and warrants more attention.

In the following chapter, C. E. V. Nixon examines the 128 coins found in the campaigns of 2008 and 2010. The total number from the site amounts to 742, the vast majority of the Seleucid period. Nixon briefly discusses how the coins can contribute to the understanding of the history of the site. Clarke then gives an update on the stamped amphora handles, presenting 20 new specimens and offering a general assessment of the material and its value for the reconstruction of commercial networks. Of special interest are amphorae from Mesopotamia with stamps bearing Aramaic inscriptions. Heather Jackson discusses 83 new fragments of terracotta figurines, a bronze figurine, and an ivory plaque, augmenting the corpus of figurines published by her in a previous volume of the series.3 An interesting new detail is her observation about typological connections between figurines from Jebel Khalid and Seleucia on the Tigris.

The next chapter by Tidmarsh adds 139 examples to the catalogue of fine wares from Jebel Kahlid. This is followed by a discussion of the stucco fragments from the palace on the acropolis by Heather Jackson. She offers reconstructions of the wall decoration in the various rooms and compares them to decorative systems at other Hellenistic sites. Karyn Wesselingh then presents the results of her studies of the faunal remains retrieved between 2006 and 2010, providing important insights into animal exploitation and consumption patterns. The article also engages with methodological questions and discusses factors that influenced the formation of the assemblage of faunal remains.

The most extensive contribution in this volume is the chapter on the lamps by Heather Jackson. In contrast to the situation with the other artifact groups, only a limited number of lamp fragments from the Jebel Khalid excavation had been published previously. Thus, the presentation of 375 lamp fragments in this article is of particular importance. Their analysis confirms that Jebel Khalid was part of a distinct North Syrian network, separate from that of Southern Syria and Mesopotamia. The large majority of the lamps were produced locally or regionally, with Antioch as an important point of reference.

Clarke concludes the book with a concise but very dense narrative of the historical development of the site. The book is lavishly illustrated with high quality drawings of artifacts, photos, and maps. However, the miniature size of the pictures in the chapters about the excavation results make it difficult to discern any details. Indices are lacking, which can be excused, at least to some extent, by the disparity of topics.

As noted above, most of the chapters on artefact groups are extensions of previously published articles or monographs. Some of them lack an introduction or further discussion; they simply continue earlier catalogues and offer no synthesis of the results achieved. A reader unfamiliar with the site and the earlier publications may have some difficulty contextualizing the finds. The material is arranged typologically rather than by context. In general, the analysis and presentation of artefacts is rather traditional and does not contribute directly to a holistic perspective on the site and the life of its inhabitants. This does not detract from one of the chief merits of the book, however, which is that it updates the previous publications and renders the new material accessible to specialists.

The authors are aware that it is highly problematic to draw conclusions about the ethnicity of a population on the basis of the presence or absence of certain classes of artifacts. Nevertheless, several of the artifact studies attempt to distinguish Greeks from indigenous people based on the material record. The underlying assumption clearly is that the lifestyles of Greeks and Syrians differed markedly, preserving an obsolete narrative according to which Syrians are by definition non-Greek.4

A final point worth mentioning is the underlying notion that the abandonment of the town is indicative of general economic decline in the region. The town indeed failed, but the question is whether this can be taken as proof of large-scale impoverishment and decreasing integration of the Jebel Khalid area within regional networks. The reasons for a shift from nucleated to dispersed settlement patterns can vary considerably. As Clarke suggests in the final chapter, it was not the economic importance of the city, but rather the military relevance of the site that had fostered the growth of the settlement. When Seleucid rule ended and the garrison was disbanded, the site lost its original raison d'être and was no longer sustainable. A move to the countryside might have appealed to the remaining inhabitants because they relied on agriculture rather than crafts and commerce for their sustenance. Furthermore, the assumption that Jebel Khalid was abandoned very abruptly raises doubts. It is based mainly on the conspicuous lack of coins minted after 70 BCE, but other factors, such as the cessation of payments for the garrison, might account for the sudden interruption of the coin supply after the Seleucid collapse. While it is obvious that the site was largely deserted in the Roman period, the process of abandonment might have been more protracted than some of the authors suggest.

To conclude, this volume is a very welcome and extremely valuable contribution to the archaeology of Hellenistic Syria. Whether or not all details of interpretation brought forward will prevail, the rich tableau of material presented in this book will be indispensable for future research on the complex trajectories of Seleucid Syria.


1.   See F. Millar, “The Problem of Hellenistic Syria”, in Hellenism in the East. A. Kuhrt and S. M. Sherwin-White, eds. (London: Duckworth, 1987), 110–133.
2.   See F. Daubner, “Gymnasia: Aspects of a Greek Institution in the Hellenistic and Roman Near East”, in Religious Identities in the Levant from Alexander to Muhammed. M. Blömer, A. Lichtenberger, and Rubina Raja, eds. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), 33–46.
3.   H. Jackson, Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Volume 2: The Terracotta Figurines (Sydney: Meditarch, 2006).
4.   For a discussion and correction of the traditional image of a dichotomy between Greeks and Syrians, see, for example, Nathanael J. Andrade, Syrian Identity in the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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