Thursday, October 4, 2012


Heather Jackson, John Tidmarsh, Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates, volume 3: the pottery. Mediterranean archaeology supplement, 7. Sydney: Meditarch, 2011. Pp. xxxi, 554; 36 p. of plates. ISBN 9780958026536.

Reviewed by Andrea M. Berlin, Boston University (

Version at BMCR home site

Jebel Khalid was a Seleucid garrison and town, founded in the early third century BC on a bluff above an easy crossing point on the west bank of the Euphrates in northern Syria. Survey and mapping in the 1980s led Graeme Clarke and Peter Connor to initiate a long-term project here, with the goal of illuminating life in a provincial Seleucid town: who settled here, how did they live, what did they care about, how were they affected by their physical, political, and social environment, how did things change over time.1 In 2003 Clark edited a volume on the first ten years of excavation, including studies of the defensive system, Governor's Palace on the Acropolis, cemetery, and a miscellany of artifacts including fauna, lamps, weaving equipment, and coins. In 2006 Heather Jackson published a volume on the terracotta figurines. The present volume presents the pottery, an enormous corpus representing over 20 tons that comprises simultaneously the single largest category of remains and also the one best able to provide evidence for the array of queries initially posed.

The volume presents three groups of pottery: common wares from 14 years of excavation of an insula of houses (Jackson); imported fine wares from the entirety of the site (Tidmarsh); and green-glazed wares, also from the entire site (Jackson). In addition the geochemistry of each of these wares is examined in one chapter by David Garnett and Jackson) and three appendices by David Garnett, Jackson, and Helen Waldron. Jackson ties everything together in a final chapter entitled "Life in the Housing Insula: the Evidence of the Pottery." While it is likely that only specialists will follow the details in the bulk of the volume, Jackson's summation is relevant to all who study Seleucid imperial practice, Hellenistic daily life, colonial encounters, and issues surrounding acculturation.

Jackson begins by defining "common wares" as pottery that was locally available and in common use – a sensible definition that skirts arbitrary aspects such as whether a vessel was slipped or more or less finely levigated. Her pottery comes from one entire housing block with seven or eight units. Coins and lamps date occupation from the early third through early first centuries BC. Excavators identified two strata; beneath the later (Phase B) floors were several coins of the Seleucid king Demetrios I (162-150 BC), indicating the time by or after which renovations occurred.

Jackson uses the pottery to reconstruct residents' habits of eating, drinking, serving, and cooking, along with their social status, cultural affiliations, and economic situation, including connections to local and wider markets. Her sensible and useful typology is based on form, fabric, and comparisons with both earlier and contemporary pottery found in the region and beyond. This last aspect is especially pertinent to her big questions, since scientific analyses demonstrated that almost all of the common wares were made in the immediate environs. If local potters were manufacturing international styles, that suggests potters and consumers who came from or were familiar with the larger Hellenistic world. If local potters were manufacturing Mesopotamian/eastern styles, one might draw the opposite conclusion.

Jackson demonstrates something more nuanced. The forms of locally produced cups, bowls, saucers, and plates are largely Greek, while the forms of utility bowls, jugs, jars, and, most tellingly, cooking pots follow older local traditions. This profile suggests new city residents who were themselves locals with familiar habits of cooking though happily accepting of cosmopolitan Hellenistic styles for setting the table and drinking (and in the earlier occupation phase, there were a fair number of Aegean wine jars). Regarding the imported pottery, the subject of Tidmarsh's chapter, most households acquired cups, bowls, and plates made in Antioch though never in great number. In the earlier phase there were few of the sort of serving vessels necessary for large group meals or drinking parties, leading Jackson to conclude that people practiced a "family-oriented, small dining tradition, albeit with some very nice imported [vessels]."2 That changed in the later period when area potters began producing large deep decorated bowls and local versions of imported platters along with a variety of cups and plates. Several new types of locally made jars replaced the Aegean wine amphoras, suggesting supply from local vineyards. The older form of cooking pot remained the only choice in the kitchen. The pottery reflects a showier lifestyle and new interest in entertaining among a stable local population who became more prosperous over time.

This raises many questions. Were Jebel Khalid's residents colonists who moved from the Seleucid center or locals from nearby villages encouraged to relocate to a new settlement? Are labels such as "Greek" and "Syrian" meaningful? If ethnicity is not a useful descriptive criterion (as I would argue), then what is? Would consideration of class: rural, merchant, landed/official, be a more appropriate framework? Should we read the change in dining styles as acculturation to Hellenistic habits or simply a natural development of a reasonably well-off population? What can other categories of remains, such as house style, wall décor, figurines, and religious architecture add to this picture? I will say emphatically that it is the mark of a first-rate study to both inspire and provide evidence for such a broad set of inquiries.

The Jebel Khalid pottery is implicated in two fundamental chronological situations. The first involves the fine red- slipped pottery known as Eastern Sigillata A (hereafter ESA), a product of potters in the region of the Seleucid capital of Antioch. Since the 1970s, the date of the invention and earliest dissemination of ESA has been understood to be sometime in the third quarter of the second century BC, with its earliest certain dated appearance at the Israeli coastal site of Shiqmona by the year 132.3 Recent excavation at Tel Kedesh, in Israel's Upper Galilee, seemed to narrow the range of the ware's initial appearance to between 143 and 132 BC.4 In the later second century BC ESA became the most common ware for dishes throughout the Levant. Today it is one of the most recognizable archaeological artifacts encountered and widely used as a chronological marker. Thus any change in our understanding of its initial date has broad implications.

At Jebel Khalid, excavators encountered ESA in sealed fills beneath the housing block's Phase B floors, contexts in which the otherwise latest datable material were coins of Demetrios I (162-150 BC). These contexts do not prove that ESA already existed in the 150s BC, but they are suggestive of such. They alert us to the possibility of a lag between the ware's invention and initial regional dissemination, and its later long-range dispersal – a cautionary flag to remember when using ceramics to fix chronology.

The second situation concerns the date of the city's main gate and by extension its entire defensive circuit. In the first volume of Jebel Khalid reports, Graeme Clarke explained the evidence for the date of the gate as comprising two issues of Antiochus I, one of Antiochus II, three of Antiochus III, 12 otherwise unreadable Seleucid coins, and "in the lowest deposits, datable to the period of construction" various types of pottery including "imported relief-moulded bowl fragments."5 On this basis Clarke suggested a construction date around 280 BC – though he did note that "the date, in fact, could well be later in the century."

Clarke does not specify the precise contexts of the coins of Antiochus III, which if from the lowest deposits would definitely preclude so early a construction date. Even if the coins do not derive from those deposits, however, the appearance of mold-made bowls creates a conundrum. As with ESA, mold-made bowls are a ubiquitous, easily recognized, and well-studied type. In 1982 Susan Rotroff determined that the bowls were first manufactured in Athens in the later third century BC; thirty years of subsequent excavation and study have shown that they do not appear in the east until the second century BC.6 Tidmarsh identifies the majority of the molded bowls at Jebel Khalid as from Antioch; while he does not offer a chronological discussion he does allow that the bowls are essentially second century in date.

Thus the discovery of molded bowl fragments in the main gate construction fill ought to mean that this piece of the city's defensive circuit was not completed until sometime later in the reign of Antiochus III or even later. While the construction of the wall may have begun earlier, without excavation of other sectors it is impossible to determine when and therefore who decided on its building. Naturally this has significant implications for the interpretation of the site, both its initial purpose and its evolving role in Seleucid military strategy. And that in turn has consequences for any hypothesis regarding the site's settlers. If Seleucus I established the site without fortifying it, might he have intended it as primarily an entrepôt rather than a defensive bulwark? Might the Seleucids have turned their attention to this strategic location on the Euphrates only after the disaster at Magnesia in 190 BC and the loss of Cis-Tauric Asia? Would they have brought in soldiers to oversee the new constructions, or employed locals? Might the outside soldiers and/or a flush of new construction monies have provided the impetus for renovations in the housing insula and even the change in dining habits? Such is the critical contribution of pottery that even a few sherds can lead from one hole in the ground to a re-evaluation of Seleucid military interests.

Here in this third volume of the Jebel Khalid final report series, Jackson and Tidmarsh provide a clear and full picture of the material correlates of life in a provincial city of the Seleucid empire. It is not a volume of answers but something much better: a volume of testimony, painstakingly gathered, studied, defined and described, filled with information and ideas that can inspire and help address a host of questions. Historians of the Hellenistic world, take note.


1.   G. W. Clarke et al., Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Report on Excavations 1986-1996. Volume One. Mediterranean Archaeology Supplement 5. Sydney: Meditarch, University of Sydney, 2002. P. ix. BMCR 2003.03.21
2.  Jackson, "Life in the Housing Insula," p. 503.
3.   J. Elgavish, "Pottery from the Hellenistic Stratum at Shiqmona," Israel Exploration Journal 26 (1976), pp. 65-76.
4.   S. C. Herbert and A. M. Berlin, "A New Administrative Center for Persian and Hellenistic Galilee: Preliminary Report of the University of Michigan/University of Minnesota Excavations at Kedesh," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 329 (2003), pp. 13-59.
5.   G. W. Clarke et al., Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Report on Excavations 1986-1996. Volume One. Mediterranean Archaeology Supplement 5. Sydney: Meditarch, University of Sydney, 2002. Pp. 17-25, esp. pp. 21-22.
6.   S. Rotroff, Agora 22. Hellenistic Pottery. Athenian and Imported Moldmade Bowls. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies, 1982; S. Rotroff, "The Introduction of the Moldmade Bowl Revisited. Tracking a Hellenistic Innovation," Hesperia 75 (2000), pp. 357-78; S. Rotroff and A. Oliver, Jr., The Hellenistic Pottery from Sardis: The Finds through 1994. Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, Monograph 12. Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 2003; A. M. Berlin, "Studies in Hellenistic Ilion: The Lower City. Stratified Assemblages and Chronology," Studia Troica 9 (1999), pp. 73-157.

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