BMCR 2003.03.21

Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates: Report on Excavations 1986-1996. Volume One. Mediterranean Archaeology Supplement 5

, , , , , , , Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates.. Mediterranean archaeology. Sydney: MEDITARCH, 2002-2016. volumes 1-5 : illustrations (some color), maps ; 31 cm + 1 CD-ROM and folded plans.. ISBN 9780958026505. $115.00.

Jebel Khalid is a large fortified site of the Seleucid period on the west bank of the Euphrates river in Northern Syria, approximately 60 kms south of the Turkish border. The excavations by an Australian team from Melbourne and Canberra Universities form part of the salvage excavations at the Tishrin Dam Area.1 The site was first visited and its importance immediately recognized by Graeme Clarke on a preliminary survey undertaken from the famous neo-Assyrian site Tell Ahmar – Til Barsib, which nowadays is flooded in large part. After mapping in 1984 and 1986 Jebel Khalid has been excavated by the Australian team from 1987 until 2002. The volume under review, although simply called ‘report’, at first appears to be the first final report on the excavations up to 1996 under the co-directorship of Graeme Clarke and the late Peter Connor, to whom the volume is dedicated. After Connor’s untimely death in 1996 Clarke became responsible for the publication of the final reports. In his introduction he announces two forthcoming volumes, one on the pottery from the domestic quarter, advertised by Clarke as providing the benchmark for the Hellenistic wares in the region, and one volume on the architecture of the domestic quarter and the small finds. A fourth volume on the public buildings, which include stoas and a temple, is mentioned on Meditarch’s internet-site. The speedy publication of preliminary reports (a list of articles until mid-2000 is presented on pp. ix-xi) and the stability in team members during excavation and now publication are reasons enough to expect these reports in due time. Some doubts could be voiced only because of the lengthy publication process of the volume under review which seems to have received its last editing in 2000, while Clarke reports (p. xi) that his contributions and most of the editing was done in 1998.

This first volume on Jebel Khalid therefore is only a first step in the publication and the interpretation of the excavations and the site in general. It might be the reason that Clarke in his introduction rather reluctantly gives only a very short summary of the importance and history of the site. For more general information on the site, in particular on the general layout of the fortifications of 3.4 km in length, he offers a technically correct, but visually poor contour map lacking an indication of scale (fig. 2 on p. viii) and refers his readers to various older reports. Thus, readers unfamiliar with the site might miss some of the high importance the excavations at Jebel Khalid have for our understanding of the archaeology and history of the wider region during the Seleucid period, and why we should be very grateful to Graeme Clarke for his keen eye in chosing this site and his excellent, untiring work over many years.

The site is situated on a cliff on the western bank of the Euphrates river. Its strong fortification and location suggest some strategic significance. It will certainly have played some role on the local and regional level and in inland travel along the river. But the site was almost certainly sidestepped by major East-West overland routes, and its antique name is still unknown. What makes Jebel Khalid so special is the limited period of settlement from its foundation, on virgin soil, c. 300 to the early first century BC. No part of the defense system shows any signs of enemy attack (Connor/Clarke, p. 15). On the contrary, ‘Archaeological evidence points to the deliberate abandonment of the site, with the removal of roof-beams, roof tiles, and everything portable’ (Nixon, p. 297) in the 70s (or 60s) BC. Afterwards the site was abandoned except for a minor Late Roman, third century encampment in the central area. A tomb and coins attest to the presence of people during the early Byzantine and Umayyad period (sixth-eighth century) with occasional stray finds up to the tenth century.

While Clarke calls the site of 30 ha settlement plus another 20 ha with scant signs of occupation and quarrying ‘modest sized’ (p. ix), it is huge for the region and large enough to offer a multitude of possible research strategies. Clarke and Connor devised an excellent strategy. First, they mapped the defence system and decided to excavate the Main Gate and the ‘North-West Tower’ of the outer fortification as examples of the 30 interval towers (nine of them belong to the Acropolis walling). The architecture found in both areas is included in this report. Second, they decided to excavate as sample one complete block of domestic houses of 35m by 90m in order to provide a sample of varieties of domestic architecture, room function, gendered spaces and material culture. This excavation of an entire insula constitutes the first in Hellenistic archaeology in the region and is of particular interest. The results will be mostly included in a separate volume, but some are already presented here. Third, the necropolis just outside the city walls was partly excavated in 1996-7 and is published in this volume, belying the volume’s title (‘1986-1996’). Fourth, the so-called ‘Governour’s Palace’, situated within a walled acropolis in the center of the site, was excavated. The architecture and dating criteria are summarized here; a final report was not intended. This general impression is corroborated in many articles by the fact that they either explicitly mention their preliminary character (ch. 11, p. 245) or refer to preliminary reports where more examples can be found (ch. 9, p. 205). In addition, for a final report the compilation of very different topics is irritating. This is best illustrated by the inclusion of a chapter on clay lamps from the domestic quarter (ch. 7). As a further volume on the pottery from the domestic quarter and a volume on its architecture are advertized — which will most probably include the additional excavation work carried out until 2002 — it might have been a better idea to include this contribution in one of the upcoming volumes. Thus, the book’s title ‘Report’ instead of ‘Final Report’ is apt, although the reader would have welcomed a book with a more final character. This, nevertheless, does not ultimately limit its virtues.

The volume consists of an introduction and 13 chapters of rather varied nature. Ch. 1-3 concern specific architectural ensembles (p. 1-48); ch. 4 and 5 deal with the cemetery and the pottery found there (p. 49-124), while the remaining chapters deal with specific categories of finds. After Connor’s death the sole responsibility for architecture seems to rest on Clarke who (co-)authored the first three articles of the volume. For ch. 1 ‘The North-West Tower’ (p. 1-15) he used a draft by Connor which notes that this tower was chosen in 1986 because of its prominent position on the highest point of the defense system commanding the approach from the north and the west. The poorly preserved tower is the only one displaying a horseshoe ground-plan. Its supposed dating to the early third century BC, corroborated as far as possible by the few examples of echinus bowls found, fits well into the general picture of the growing popularity of this architectural form from the 4th century on. The article mentions a number of comparisons mostly from Greece. Important examples from the Levante should be added, e.g., the city wall of Beirut.

In ch. 2 (pp. 17-24) Clarke describes Connor’s excavation of ‘The Main Gate’ of the outer fortification. As often a modern track used the ancient gateway, which was flanked by two massive forward-projecting (almost exactly) square towers of 16.2-16.5 m side length. Massive foundation blocks are set in lime mortar into the bedrock. A generous, paved forecourt between the probably roofed towers led to the opening of 4.6 x 4.5 m which featured two-leafed gates known from various sites, esp. in modern Turkey.2 Some weak fieldstone walls on the inside accompanied by plenty of finds are attributed to domestic use. They seem to indicate that during the last phase of Seleucid occupation (abandonment period) the gate might already have been incorporated into smaller dwellings.

A much more prestigious building was excavated in the Acropolis area of the site. In ch. 3, ‘The Governour’s Palace, Acropolis’ (pp. 25-48), Clarke presents the architecture of this building and its rich architectural decor. Erecting the building required large-scale levelling of the area. In his trenches Clarke observed in places more than two meters of underfloor packing of chippings and foundations up to 3.55 m deep. The building consisted of 30 rooms (c. 2750 sq. m.) organized around a large central peristyle courtyard in the Doric order. There is no evidence for a second floor, but we find ample material to reconstruct the roofing from tiles, kilos of nails and lion-headed waterspouts. The rooms are described individually. Most rooms show wall painting. Separate functional areas are connected by the central peristyle, which also included a large cistern. The eastern row of rooms consists of the elegant entry and bath rooms. Surprisingly both the southern wing of a few large rooms and the northern wing of eight smaller rooms around a richly decorated central hall of 84 sq. m. seem entirely devoted to preparation and consumption of food, not the least during official dinners. The western wing of the building is poorly preserved because of intense reuse and reoccupation. As the original room sizes appear too generous for sleeping rooms and official seals have been found there, they are interpreted as official administrative areas. A walled backyard or garden of close to 500 sq. m. was attached. No private living rooms are identified, and Clarke assumes the existance of residential quarters nearby. Coins and pottery indicate a foundation date of the third century BC. Later change in room-use is sometimes referred to as re-use, although neither dated nor indicated in the plan. Clarke shows that the building had been cleared and stood abandoned for many years before it collapsed. Surprisingly few fragments from the 36 Doric columns of the courtyard were recovered. Thus Clarke conjectures much robbing of stonework. How much of the destruction has to be attributed to Roman activity indicated by a number of fourth and sixth century coins, remains to be seen in the final report.

The second part of the volume includes articles on the excavations of the cemetery in 1996 and 1997.

Ch. 4 (pp. 49-69) by Judith Littleton and Bruno Frohlich gives a summary report on the cemetery situated along the western slopes of the natural outcrop on which the city was built and the adjoining valley. Two types of graves — rock-cut and earth pits — have been used depending on the soil, according to the authors. In addition some grave cists were found directly below the city walls. Excavation was preceded in 1993 to 1996 by elec-tromagnetic conductivity soundings. While it is common in reports to see only positive results, the authors give a very laudable critical report on the mixed results from electro-magnetic survey, convincingly explaining the difficulties in interpretation. 42 graves were excavated in 1996 and 1997. A detailed description of the tombs themselves and their inventory is given in a 31-page appendix by Littleton and Heather Jackson, the pottery expert of the expedition. Unfortunately this excellent catalogue is not accompanied by any drawings. While other finds receive no further treatment, a typology of the pottery from the cemetery is presented in ch. 5 by Jackson. It would have been easy to cross-reference these two articles. Instead the reader is forced to work his/her way through a number of tables and figures which, unfortunately, seem not to have been conceived at the same time as the text. Thus, only some of the tables include the pertinent numbers for the figures, which present about one fourth of the pottery actually found in connetion with the graves. The article itself is nevertheless straightforward and lucid. While no kilns have been found on site six local wares are distinguished by colour and visible inclusions. In addition three imported wares occurred in the cemetery. Jackson clearly lays out her categorization and discusses first a few large jars, which she assumes have been manufactured particularly for use in graves, and the usual unguentaria. She then turns to bowls with in-turned rim, also called echinus bowls, made from different wares, sometimes with slip, the most common form in Seleucid period levels. Also the repertoire of hemispherical and large bowls as of cooking pots and jars is typical for Seleucid period sites. The only small surprise is the absence of Eastern Sigillata in the graves, which might be either of chronological significance or be related to specific burial customs or social groups. As the pottery is described as ‘notably poor in quality’ (ch. 4, p. 66), the indication is that the deceased received second rate artifacts. More interpretation is offered in ch. 4, although the evidence is limited by two important factors. Interpretation is hindered by robbery, ancient and modern (41 of 42 graves had been tempered with) and the poor condition of remaining bones. This is particularly regrettable as Littleton is one of the foremost experts on osteology, as demonstrated in her PhD thesis on Bahraini burials. Few finds beside pottery survived, less in situ. Thus, any conclusions about social stratification remain elusive.

During the excavations analysis of all faunal remains and palaeobotanical specimens was carried out in order to be able to form a profile of the diet of the inhabitants and the husbandry and ecology in the environs of Jebel Khalid. Chapter 6, ‘Faunal Remains’ (pp. 125-145), written by Dominic Steele, presents first results from natural sciences based on 23,000 animal bones of which 53.3% were identified. As his tables always include the unidentified bones, I would like to point out that 65.5% of the identified bones belonged to sheep or goat, 8.3% belong to equids, 7.2% to cattle and 3.6% to pig. If we further subtract camel, dogs and the single bat, only a small percentage of bones belonged to wild animals. Deer and gazelles together account for just 4.1%. Surprising is the extremely limited amount of fish bones. The diet therefore relied nearly exclusively on animal husbandry, particularly on animals which provide milk, wool and meat. Steele presents a detailed picture of butchery practices, illuminating the use of animals. As comparable research for the period in the wider region is not available this excellent and detailed study has special importance. There is one problem. Repeatedly Steele states that he worked under the assumption that the data at hand involve Greek immigrants in culturally unfamiliar landscapes and conditions. In fact, this means presupposing a result we would have difficulties reaching by the interpretation of evidence. There is no reason at all (or it is not mentioned) that any of the animals or the diet is related to non-local habits. This is not Steele’s fault as he as natural scientist has to rely on what he is told about the culture-historical implications of the site. It just makes us think about the excavator’s approach to the site, especially as this hypothesis reflects in various other articles as well.

The remaining part of the book concerns specific artifact groups, diverse small finds from various areas. First in ch. 7, the longest in the volume, Heather Jackson presents ‘The Lamps from the Domestic Quarter’ (pp. 147-199). This class of artifacts seems the best published for the Seleucid period, but Jackson correctly points out that the usual points of reference for Hellenistic lamps either stem from Greece or, as with Antioch, are rather dated. The corpus from Jebel Khalid could be particularly useful to refine the typology for the second century BC. While she eagerly awaits the Tell Anafa publication we should mention that an equally important corpus will be published soon from D. Sürenhagen’s excavations at Tell Jindares, an important regional center 60 km. from Antioch in Syria.

Jackson’s catalogue is well organized. Four types of wheelmade lamps dating from the early third to the second century are found in 30 examples plus 6 nozzles. 85 large fragments (and 60 minor fragments not included in the catalogue) are assigned to eight types of mould-made lamps. In addition, the catalogue includes a few examples of singular pieces. Types 5-12 repeat the most common types known from contemporary sites from Greece to Seleucia-on-the-Tigris.3 Jackson correctly observes that ‘it is tempting to see a gradual evolution in shape and decorative elements’ (p. 199) from shallow, lentoid profiles without decoration to full-bodied examples with decoration of rays and then to smaller, more elongated types with floral design on the body, amphoras on the nozzle, and volutes bridging these areas. This trend was obvious also from the older material, but its exact chronology had not been established. Although I doubt that the decor with rays vanishes as abruptly as Jackson seems to suggest, this chapter is an important contribution to lamp chronology, because Jackson manages to narrow the date ranges for these types based on the Jebel Khalid excavations.

In ch. 8 Graeme Clarke presents ‘Four Hellenistic Seal Impressions’ (pp. 201-203) from three different loci all indicating official administration or trade.

In ch. 9 ‘Graffiti and Dipinti’ (pp. 205-216) Clarke and Jackson join forces to present 36 graffiti and 5 dipinti, most of them on minor, badly broken pieces of local and imported pottery, from amphorae to bowls. Half of them are either simple strokes, probably indicating counts, or undecipherable incisions. The other half display letters, but only five consist of more than two letters. Because the graffiti mostly stem from domestic contexts, the authors interpret them as owner’s marks. As in other excavations owner marks appear more often scratched into more valuable imported pieces. Additional graffiti have already been published in preliminary reports and are not repeated here.

Lindy Crewe was assigned some of the most obiquitous and mostly unpopular groups of artifacts in ch. 10 ‘Spindle-Whorls and Loomweights’ (pp. 217-243). By 1996 this comprised 71 spindle-whorls and 387 loomweights. They come from different deposits at Jebel Khalid but mostly from the domestic quarters. Crewe denies her spindle-whorls chronological sensitivity. Instead she emphazises the dependency of size, shape and weight on specific spinning requirements and fibres and presents a useful short discussion of these aspects. Her catalogue of spindle-whorls is accompanied by very careful drawings. Equally fine are the drawings of exemplary loomweights, while individual description of the 387 items in the form of a catalogue is avoided. Instead, a summary of their size and weight distribution is presented. Some summary in the form of statistics and tables might have been a welcome addition. This is followed by a discussion of the find contexts. According to Crewe two thirds of the loomweights were found in floor deposits, mainly in the first occupation phase. Her remark that this reflects ‘the greater density of site use during this period’ allows another glimpse of the site’s history otherwise not stated in the publication.

Crewe’s summary is highly recommended to all those who dislike loomweights. It is well written and precisely summarizes the implications of these artifacts and their intra-site distribution for the economy and organization of work. The only problem is that the accompanying figures, which also include other weaving equipment, were obviously prepared for some entirely different text. We are looking forward to see this article, too.

Only a small sample of ‘The Glass and Personal Adornment’ (pp. 245-272) found at Jebel Khalid is presented in ch. 11 by Margaret O’Hea. As she points out the range of glass bowl types is in full accord with the Seleucid date of the site, as ribbed cast bowls are suspiciously absent. On the other hand, the homogeneous character of the Jebel Khalid material suggests that linear cut-bowls might date twenty to forty years earlier than claimed by Grose a few years ago. The section on personal adornment includes no complete pieces of jewellery but a number of single glass and stone beads, two fragments of bracelets and a few pendants, the nicest of which is a small head of a Nubian boy.4

Ch. 12 ‘Stamped Amphora Handles’ (pp. 273-289) by Clarke gives a catalogue and photographs of the fifty stamped amphora-handles found during excavation. 80% of them are Rhodian. The 27 datable stamps cover the period from the first half of the third century to before 150 BC. Only one example is slightly later, which — as Clarke correctly observes — may indicate either more self-reliance or limited affluence at Jebel Khalid.

The topic of the site’s chronology is taken up in the last chapter on coins (pp. 293-335) by C.E.V. Nixon.While pottery from the surface indicated the time-range already before excavations had started, the more refined chronology is primarily based on the evidence from coins. Basic results had been presented in preliminary reports by Clarke. Now the complete evidence from coins until the 1996 campaign is presented in the very nice chapter 13 at the end of the book. Of 320 coins found until 1996, 195 were closely identifiable. 162, or 85 % of them date to the Seleucid era. Of the unidentifiable coins about 100 can also be attributed to the Seleucids. 53 specimens are illustrated. The earliest coins are two posthumous silver coins of Alexander and two bronze coins of Seleukos I (c. 305-281 BC). From then on, with the exception of the short reigns of Antiochos V Eupator (164-162 BC) and Seleukos VI (96-95 BC and several warring rulers in the final phase of the Seleucid empire, coins minted for all other Seleucid rulers have been found in minor or larger numbers. Nixon carefully advances the idea that based on the coins Jebel Khalid could be one of the many foundations by Seleukos I around 300 BC, possibly a garrison or colony of veterans guarding the river crossing below. The low number of coins by Seleucos I Nixon convincingly explaines as result of the low output of his Antioch mint. Later Antioch was responsible for at least 86% of the coins found at Jebel Khalid. A clear picture from the coins emerges for the end of the settlement. The constant stream of regal coins ends with Antiochos XII (88-84 BC). Only a smaller number of municipal bronze coins from Antioch possibly dating down to 72 BC attest a continuation of activity at the site. Nixon is correct in warning to draw to closely on the coins as evidence for the abandonment of the settlement which he dates to some point in the 70s or 60s. That the settlement was left at about that time is further corraborated by the high number of coins of this latest period (cf. Nixon, n. 34 and p. 301), which were left behind in the course of the abondonment.

Nixon’s article also sets the coin distribution over time in relation to the evidence from Antioch, Dura Europos and Tarsus, which results in a nice exposition on the dangers of drawing conclusions on political or settlement developments from coin occurances and numbers. The chapter very succesfully sums up the settlement’s history as far as it was known until his article was finished. It is, therefore, an apt conclusion to the book.

Two general remarks should conclude this review. One concerns the editing. Considering the lengthy production phase of the volume it is surprising that no better attempt was made to standardize the articles’ appearance, especially in terms of citation. Every chapter has its own bibliography, but even the place where this is found varies from article to article — it might be in the first footnote (ch. 10 – plus additional literature in further notes), at the beginning (ch. 12 – plus additional literature in the notes), in the middle, esp. in front of the catalogue parts, but after much of the literature has been cited in full in notes before (ch. 7, 11), or at the end (ch. 13). Also the short forms of citations have no clear system. Usually the author is used as shortform, in case of several articles by the same author this is amended by the publication year. But in other cases a series is used, while comparable series are cited by author. In several articles the figures and the text are not really coordinated. These technicalities sometimes limit the pleasure of reading.

The more general aspect, not restricted to this volume alone, is that throughout the articles comparisons lean heavily towards the (better explored) west, and interpretations tend to be prejudiced in respect to Greekness or Greek influence. We certainly face the difficult problem of rather poor understanding of the Achaemenid period in Syria, but we should avoid explaining material culture too readily as imported. The approach to the site as purely Greek colony is openly expressed by Steele but shines through in most articles. If this is the final result after study is completed, fine. But we should be aware of the pitfalls of our biased view of Seleucid material culture as import from the west when it serves as the working hypothesis.

But these critical remarks should not detract from the great achievements of the excavations and the present publication. Despite its character as a ‘preliminary final report’ and the unevenness in citation and editing, the volume offers very important contributions to our understanding of the often neglected Seleucid period in central northern Syria and beyond. Not a great deal is known or has been published about Seleucid sites in Syria. Therefore this book and the forthcoming studies will become major points of reference. Clarke and his collaborators are to be congratulated to their important work. We are eagerly looking forward to the other volumes on Jebel Khalid.


1. For a general overview of the rescue excavations in the area see: G. del Olmo Lete, J.L. Montero Fenollós (eds.), Archaeology of the Upper Syrian Euphrates: the Tishrin Dam Area. Proceedings of the International Symposium Held at Barcelona, January 28th – 30th 1998. Aula Orientalis 15. Sabadell – Barcelona: Editorial AUSA 1999. The volume includes two articles by G. Clarke, a summary of the Jebel Khalid excavations, and a summary of the region during the Seleucid to Roman periods.

2. The author of the reconstruction drawings from Assos is neither Koleway (as stated in figs. 3 and 4) nor Koldeway (as in note 14), but the young Robert Koldewey, who later became famous as director of excavations at Babylon (1899-1917) and founder of a school of excavator-architects reknowned for their meticulous drawings.

3. A number of excellent comparisons are found as far south as Uruk-Warka. The manuscript on the lamps (including 17 mounted plates) excavated at Uruk-Warka since 1912 was submitted for vol. 14 ‘Kleinfunde aus Ton’ of the Ausgrabungen in Uruk-Warka Endberichte by the present reviewer in June 1993. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the main contributor to the volume to submit his articles.

4. Inv. 89.452 should be considered a fragment of a small flask.