The Archaeology of Antioch Part II

So yesterday I talked a bit about the general topography of late Roman Antioch. One of the currently running archaeological projects in the city and the landscape around is the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Amuq Valley Regional Project. Although not exclusively dedicated to the late Roman period, the project has further increased our knowledge of the archaeology of Antioch.

Aerial photo of modern Antakya showing extent of the ancient city. B marks the city wall. C marks the silted up island in the Orontes with the Imperial palace. From Casana 2004, p. 118.

Among many things, the AVRP has shed light on the city’s relationship to the countryside around it. Previous survey work in the Amuq valley by Robert Braidwood did not find substantial late antique settlements, because the much larger tells took most of his attention, but the AVRP has located a large number of villages and small towns scattered around Antioch through survey and the study of Corona satellite imagery. It is likely that these villages were home to farmers who cultivated the landscape. What is now needed is more excavation to be able to establish more detailed chronologies for these sites.

Antioch’s location as the natural crossroads between east and west was what the city so important and so affluent. The Antioch lake, the Orontes river and a canal enabled the transportation of goods from the area of Antioch to the Mediterranean port of Seleucia Pieria. The canal is known from literary sources such as Libanius, but the AVRP has been able to locate it using satellite images.

There was also extensive exploitation of land in the highlands around the valley as well. Whereas settlements had been limited to a few centres before the hellenistic period, things really took off in the late Roman period. An extensive amount of survey has been carried out in the so-called Dead Cities (in modern Syria), a common name for around 800 rural settlements to the east of Antioch (Ball 2000, p. 207ff). Because of the abandonment of the area in later periods, the landscape has been fossilized, and features such as field boundaries have been preserved as well as a wide range of buildings. Surveys of the whole area and excavations at selected sites have been carried out by mostly French archaeologists during the 19th and 20th centuries, recently under the direction of Georges Tate (1997). The AVRP has also shed light on the enviromental costs of the land exploitation in the Roman period. The highlands around Antioch were known for their timber, and deforestation and extensive farming caused major erosion of the hillsides.

I mentioned Antioch’s impressive fortifications yesterday. It is a paradox that one of this ‘lost city’s’ best preserved features has not received much attention from scholars. They were recorded by artists in the 18th century (see Foss 2000, p. 22), but have not been studied systematically in modern times. Hugh Kennedy commented on the state of research: “it is notable that even the city walls and the citadel, considerable fragments of which still remain, have not been the subject of any scientific study, nor is the dating of the existing fabric by any means certain” (Kennedy 1992, p. 185). A thorough study to better understand the chronology and function of Antioch’s defensive structures is long overdue.

One of the major problems that faced the excavation team in the 1930s was the fact that the ancient city had been covered in several meters of silt (see e.g. Kondoleon 2000, fig. 5). This has attributed to the picture of Antioch as a ‘lost city’, but as Casana rightly points out, it is not all parts of the city that are buried under such deep layers. Extreme weather conditions have in the past revealed ancient monuments, e.g. in the 1930s locals reported that mosaics suddenly appeared after winter rain (Dobbins 2000, p. 52), and Casana reports of similar cases in 2001 (p. 118f). It is also clear on some of the photos taken during the excavations in the 1930s that ancient structures were found not deeper than 1 metre below gorund (see Dobbins 2000, fig. 5). Furthermore, the satellite photo shown above clearly demonstrates that not even half of the ancient city has been built over.

There are still many substantial gaps in our knowledge of the archaeology of Antioch, but projects such as AVRP and the French surveys in the Dead Cities have gained important new information. Most importantly, they have demonstrated the affluency of the late Roman countryside, and thus helped to contextualise the Classical city. There will soon be more on Antioch, when I take a closer look at an important find of sculpture.

Warwick Ball. 2000. Rome in The East. The Transformation of an Empire. London.
Jesse Casana. 2004. “The Archaeological Landscape of Late Roman Antioch”, pp. 102-25, in: Isabella Sandwell & Janet Huskinson (ed.) Culture and Society in Later Roman Antioch. Oxford.
J.J. Dobbins. 2000. “The Houses of Antioch”, pp. 51-61, in: Christine Kondoleon (ed.) Antioch – The Lost Ancient City. Princeton, NJ.
Clive Foss. 2000. “Late Antique Antioch”, pp. 23-27, in: Christine Kondoleon (ed.) Antioch – The Lost Ancient City. Princeton, NJ.
Hugh Kennedy. 1992. “Antioch: from Byzantium to Island and back again”, pp. 181-198, in: J. Rich (ed.) The City in Late Antiquity. London.
Georges Tate. 1997. “The Syrian Countryside during the Roman Era”, pp. 55-71, in: S. E. Alcock (ed.) The Early Roman Empire in the East. Oxford.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *