BMCR 2020.03.52


Jennifer A. Baird, Dura-Europos. Archaeological histories. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xvi, 221 p.. ISBN 9781472530875 $26.95 (pb).

This book provides an overview of the archaeological history of Dura-Europos, the small town situated on the Middle Euphrates that lived through Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman periods until its capture by the Sasanians. As an overview, this outstanding book has no equal. Baird, who in 2014 published an important monograph on the houses of Dura-Europos,[1] brings to her scholarship experience in both fieldwork at the site itself and in extensive ‘digging’ through the rich archives of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Chapter 1 (The excavation of Dura-Europos) analyses the history of discovery, starting with the earliest visits to the site before its correct identification and the one-day exploration in May 1920 by James Henry Breasted following the chance discovery of a wall painting by British soldiers. Breasted’s brief visit led to a monograph seductively called Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting,[2] which was “grounded in Orientalism and an archaeological adventure story” (p. 5). Two brief campaigns by the great Belgian scholar Franz Cumont, on behalf of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, in 1922 and 1923, resulted in the swift publication of his Fouilles de Doura-Europos, which became the foundation on which all subsequent scholarship on Dura-Europos is necessarily built.[3] In the Anglophone world more attention has traditionally gone to the publications of the joint mission by Yale University and the Académie—the brainchild of Mikhaïl Rostovtzeff.[4] The story of its ten seasons (1928-1937), leading in quick succession to the discoveries of many monuments of which the painted church and synagogue are only the ones best known, has been grippingly told by Rostovtzeff’s field director Clark Hopkins[5] and is expertly analysed and commented on by Baird. She draws attention to the role played by Hopkins’ articles in the Illustrated London News of the time in the dissemination of “the official narratives of the site”, which were “very consciously about the recovery of ‘treasure’” and aimed to evoke the “mysterious or uncanny nature” (p. 15) of the archaeological project. As Baird compellingly argues, documentation of that period reveals the “very conscious understanding, both by Yale’s leadership and by the State Department, that culture was politics, and that American involvement in archaeology served national interests” (p. 15). The archaeological history of Dura-Europos therefore clearly illustrates that “archaeology was never an independent science despite the way it characterizes itself. Archaeology was militarized, politicized, captured, exported, and displayed” (p. 16).

In chapter 2 (The site of Dura-Europos), Baird discusses carefully the standard periodization (from Hellenistic via Parthian to Roman) and aims to show both “how we know [Dura’s historical development], and why this has been significantly rewritten over the past three decades” (p. 17). She draws attention to the important contributions by the French-Syrian mission (which worked at the site from the mid-1980s until the beginning of the civil war), whose findings suggested that Dura’s characteristic grid and the city walls were implemented only around the middle of the second century BC. The early Hellenistic foundation was confined to the area surrounding the citadel overlooking the Euphrates from the north-eastern part of the plateau.[6] The later grid, however, did not result in the newly created blocks being equally divided between houses, and if “Dura was certainly a Seleucid foundation and settlement”, Baird advocates that “its existence as described since the 1920s is more of a scholarly edifice than an archaeological one” (p. 21). As regards the long period that followed on the end of the Hellenistic town, she again emphasises that it remains uncertain “quite what the tenacity of the Arsacid grip was” over Dura-Europos, and that “the situation on the Middle Euphrates was, like the river itself, constantly shifting” (p. 23). The traditional moment for the end of the Parthian phase of the town’s history and the coming of Rome is Lucius Verus’ Parthian war, although Baird correctly states that “the situation after 165 is blurry, and it is not certain that after this date the site was under direct control” (p. 29).[7] She is also right to draw attention to the fact that the early Roman town is “not easily archaeologically isolated due to the nature of the excavations” (p. 29). It is only from the Severan period onwards that Dura-Europos became visibly Roman, eventually leading to its development into a proper garrison town. Baird argues that, a few years before Shapur’s troops captured Dura-Europos, “the Roman military had taken over all of the site” (rather than merely billeting in the houses of civilians) and that following its eventual fall “a minor Sasanian presence” (p. 36) can be detected in the source material.[8] In her concluding remarks she returns to this overall “fuzziness of the periodization of the site” and refreshingly advocates that “the reason there is no clear distinction between these periods at Dura is that in some ways, they didn’t matter” (p. 153).

In chapter 3 (The archaeological archive of Dura-Europos) Baird discusses the processes of both field and archival archaeology related to the site. The archives are said to be “both formative and revealing of the relationship between fieldwork, recording practices, and archaeological knowledge. That is, the narratives of archaeology emerge not from the ground but from a complex web of ancient remains, archaeological methods, and historical contexts” (p. 39). With the discipline of archaeology still in the early stages of its development at the time, the available data show clearly that different field directors did not record different monuments and documents in a very consistent manner. The remainder of the chapter focuses on the important role played by unpaid women, most notably Clark Hopkins’ wife Susan, to whom we owe “the most complete and most accurate record of the artefacts of Dura that exists” (p. 42). The chapter draws attention to the field directors’ notebooks, which “give a sense of what it meant to be an archaeologist at Dura in the 1920s and 1930s” (p. 45); correspondence between those on site and those having stayed behind (Rostovtzeff as scientific director, Yale University’s President, but also family); drawn reconstructions and plans;[9] and photographs, “not only as evidence of archaeology but also as visual and material culture themselves” (p. 50), especially with a view to what they contribute to the “analogy drawn between ancient and modern peoples of the Euphrates valley, and between ancient and modern ‘Oriental’ people broadly” (p. 57).[10]

Although the excavations revealed a remarkably wide range of ancient languages attested in the town, Dura is, as Baird notes in chapter 4 (The texts of Dura-Europos), “generally classified as a Greek one due in part to the perhaps unwarranted primacy given to language in ascribing culture” (p. 64). She convincingly argues that the key question, however, should be “not whether Dura was fundamentally a Greek or Parthian or Roman city but to what extent facets of each of those were locally relevant at different times, and the way the interaction of these contributed to a hybrid local culture” (p. 86). The chapter analyses the different (familial, civic, cultic, military) sorts of relationships revealed by the inscriptions, graffiti, papyri, parchments, painted texts, and ostraca. Its final section is called ‘scholarly relationships’, drawing attention to the long-standing characterization of the inhabitants of Dura-Europos which goes back to an article by Bradford Welles from 1951,[11] whose understanding was “deeply intertwined with contemporary relationships with the Middle East and wider attitudes towards race” (p. 83).

The site of Dura-Europos as “one of the most extensively preserved and excavated urban environments from the ancient world” (p. 87) is the subject of chapter 5 (The buildings of Dura-Europos). Its “mudbrick wasteland” (p. 87) contains houses, tombs (the latter outside the town), nearly twenty buildings that functioned in different degrees and in different manners as sanctuaries, city walls and civic space, and the Roman military buildings that eventually came to dominate the map of Dura-Europos.

In chapter 6 (The material culture and art of Dura-Europos) Baird shows how the examination of ‘objects’ (pottery, coins, textiles, jewellery, lamps, glass) and ‘art’ (wall paintings, sculptured reliefs, statuettes, terracotta figurines) has always been, and remains, “deeply intertwined with the history of the excavation” (p. 123). From the objects she argues that Dura-Europos, with its “complex heritage”, was “a participant in regional and long-distance trade” (p. 131) even if it cannot count as a major hub in the caravan trade in the way that Palmyra was.[12] Avoiding to fall into the trap of appraising ‘classical’ cultural elements as somehow better than ‘indigenous’ ones, Baird states that the town’s “material culture and art were ways of negotiating [the] complex terrain” (p. 151) of the local socio-religious world.

The concluding chapter refers to the resulting image of the Euphrates small town in antiquity as “cosmopolitan and dynamic” (p. 153) and draws attention once more to the role played by archaeology as “a means by which foreign powers could control knowledge of a place and its past” (p. 154), both at the time when the original discoveries were made and “in modern geopolitics” (155). The site has suffered greatly in recent years, and large parts have been destroyed. But the story and the study of Dura-Europos will continue, and Baird’s exemplary account will greatly facilitate all future efforts to further our understanding of all aspects of the site’s history and civilization.


[1] J.A. Baird, The Inner Lives of Ancient Houses. An Archaeology of Dura-Europos, Oxford 2014.

[2] J.H. Breasted, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting. First-century Wall Paintings from the Fortress of Dura on the Middle Euphrates, Chicago 1924.

[3] F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos (1922-1923), Paris, 1926. A new edition is forthcoming in the Bibliotheca Cumontiana of the Academia Belgica (Rome), alongside a collection of Cumont’s articles on Dura-Europos, both with historiographical introductions by the present reviewer.

[4] The Preliminary Reports, New Haven 1929-1952, have gained a status in scholarship as so much more than just that (preliminary reports). On the unpublished final season, see S.B. Matheson, ‘The tenth season at Dura-Europos, 1936-1937’, Syria 69 (1992) 121-40. Some of the scheduled Final Reports never saw the light of day, notably those on the inscriptions and on the mithraeum.

[5] C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, ed. B. Goldman, New Haven 1979.

[6] P. Leriche and A. al Mahmoud, ‘Doura-Europos. Bilan des recherches récentes’, CRAI 138 (1994) 395-420, esp. 401; P. Leriche, ‘Europos-Doura séleucide’, in E. Dąbrowa (ed.), New Studies on the Seleucids, Electrum 18, Cracow 2011, 23-40. The results of the French-Syrian mission have been published in five volumes of Doura-Europos. Études, [I], Syria 63 (1986) 1-155; [II], Syria 65 (1988) 259-382; [III], Syria 69 (1992) 1-151; IV, Beirut 1997; V, Paris 2004; and following the brand’s re-naming in Europos-Doura. Varia, I, Beirut 2012.

[7] Cf. T. Kaizer, ‘Empire, community, and culture on the Middle Euphrates: Durenes, Palmyrenes, villagers, and soldiers’, in N. Purcell (ed.), Roman History: Six Studies for Fergus Millar, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 60, London 2017, 63-95.

[8] Cf. Baird, The Inner Lives of Ancient Houses (above, n.1) 144; ead., ‘Dura deserta: the death and afterlife of Dura-Europos’, in N. Christie and A. Augenti (eds.), Vrbes Extinctae. Archaeologies of Abandoned Classical Towns, Farnham 2012, 307-29.

[9] Baird notes how A.H. Detweiler’s plan (included as a fold-out map in Preliminary Report IX.1, New Haven 1944) counts as “the most accurate and detailed published plan to emanate from the Yale expedition”, but remains problematic because “it treats the site as though it is made up of a single phase” (48, cf. xviii, 14). For the map produced by the French-Syrian mission, see e.g. D. Luciani and P. Boschiero (eds.), Dura Europos. The xxi International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens. Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche, Treviso 2010, 85.

[10] Cf. J.A. Baird, ‘Photographing Dura-Europos, 1928-1937: an archaeology of the archive’, AJA 115 (2011) 427-46.

[11] C.B. Welles, ‘The population of Roman Dura’, in P.R. Coleman-Norton (ed.), Studies in Roman Economic and Social History in Honour of Allan Chester Johnson, Princeton 1951, 251-74.

[12] See now E.H. Seland, Ships of the Desert and Ships of the Sea. Palmyra in the World Trade of the First Three Centuries CE, Wiesbaden 2016, esp. 45-52.