The Inner Lives of Ancient Houses: An Archaeology of Dura-Europos

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By: J.A. Baird

Dura-Europos, on the Syrian Euphrates, is one of the best preserved and most extensively excavated sites of the Roman world. It is justly famous for its elaborately painted synagogue, early church, and Mithraeum, inscriptions in many languages, and the first evidence of chemical warfare. To judge from the range of languages present, the multicultural world of Dura-Europos included Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Arabs, Persians, and many more.

Aerial view of Duros Europos. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Aerial view of Duros Europos. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

View of the Euphrates River at Dura Europos.

View of the Euphrates River at Dura Europos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dura Europos’s location on a Euphrates river crossing was of unique strategic importance that perhaps accounted for the site’s existence. Seleucid Greeks founded the site in ca. 300 BCE, probably initially based around the citadel overlooking the river, and later in the Hellenistic period a rectilinear street grid was installed. Dura was captured by Parthians in ca. 113 BCE as they expanded their empire west from Iran. It was retaken by the Roman empire in 165 CE which also installed military garrison within the city walls. In ca. 256 CE the site was besieged and destroyed by the Sasanian empire as it expanded from Iran.

Wall painting of the Sacrifice of Conon, Temple of the Palmyrene Gods.

Wall painting of the Sacrifice of Conon, Temple of the Palmyrene Gods.

Torah niche from the Dura synagogue with painted decoration.

Torah niche from the Dura synagogue with painted decoration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dura was then abandoned until its rediscovery by Indian troops digging trenches under British command in 1920. The troops fortuitously came upon painted frescos in what was later became known as the ‘Temple of Bel’. The famous synagogue was revealed during later excavations and along with other religious structures, has attracted endless scholarly attention. But even well-known sites have much yet to tell us about the lives of their inhabitants. My book, The Inner Lives of Ancient Houses: An Archaeology of Dura-Europos is the first to consider the houses of the site as a whole.

Plan of Dura Europos synagogue.

Plan of Dura Europos synagogue.

The Dura houses were excavated by a team from Yale in the 1920s and 1930s, and though a wealth of archaeological and textual material was recovered, most of that relating to housing was never published. Through a combination of archival information held at the Yale University Art Gallery and new fieldwork with the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos my book reevaluates the houses of the site. Integrating architecture, artefacts, and textual evidence, this study examines ancient daily life and cultural interaction and includes a consideration of houses that were modified for use by the Roman military.

The architectural form of the house at Dura was a hybrid one, a consequence of Dura’s place as a regional centre and its Hellenistic origins, its Syrian and Mesopotamian population, and Parthian and Roman rulers. The houses themselves were a local type built of mudbrick and plaster, which presented a closed façade to the street, organized around a courtyard, and with at least one large, broad-sided room entered via steps, indicating shared practices at a civic scale. This shared practice was one way in which the houses, in their construction, adaptation, and use, were part of the local tradition. The houses preserve, in their form, a history of their adaptation and development, and that this is linked to social practices including marriage, divorce, death, and descent. Rather than looking at the houses as a snapshot of third-century life, it is possible to read the biographies of houses in these changes and by doing so build a more cohesive picture of their use over many generations at the site.

View from west over south half of block C7. Redoubt palace remains visible in the background, and the Euphrates beyond. Courtyard of house C7-G3 visible just to right of centre. YUAG k359. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

View from west over south half of block C7. Redoubt palace remains visible in the background, and the Euphrates beyond. Courtyard of house C7-G3 visible just to right of centre. YUAG k359. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

The houses of Dura were, in some cases, occupied over several generations, so we have not only the evidence of their final form, but also of their use and adaptation over a long period. Houses were passed down within families, divided between kin, sold, left to become ruinous, or transformed into quarters for Roman soldiers. The houses were living structures, being constantly maintained and modified, and parts of their biographies can be traced in these architectural modifications.

Blocked door in block C7. When the door was closed between these two rooms, niches were inserted into part of what had been the opening. Such blocked-up doors are one way the changes made to houses are visible in their structures. YUAG h41a.  Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Blocked door in block C7. When the door was closed between these two rooms, niches were inserted into part of what had been the opening. Such blocked-up doors are one way the changes made to houses are visible in their structures. YUAG h41a. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Such changes are important not only to our understanding of the houses themselves, but the people who occupied them—houses are not merely a ‘backdrop’ for social activity and daily life, or something that passively reflected identities or social structures, as they are often presented. Houses instead can be considered as living entities whose biographies can be written. The houses provide continuity across decades and cultures, and help shape the society.

One of the changes that can be tracked within Dura’s houses is that many of them were converted for use by the Roman military. This often involved substantial changes to the layout of the houses which were now more densely occupied, and additions, like more ovens to produce the food necessary for the garrison and extended military community.

In addition to architectural changes, graffiti can also elucidate the lives of the inhabitants. While, in the modern world, we tend to think of graffiti as intrusive or out-of-place within a house, at Dura it was perfectly normal to use house walls as a place to record how much money someone owed you, or as a place to draw a small religious scene, or even to scratch a little note on someone else’s house wall while you waited in the vestibule to be admitted. One house (B8-H), which was inhabited by someone involved in trading goods, had so many graffiti that it was sometimes called ‘The House of the Archive’: not an archive in the normal sense, but one in which the very walls of the house could speak.

Bone doll fragments, showing traces of painted decoration, and drilled holes for attachment of arms just visible on right side of largest examples. YUAG Yale-705.  Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Bone doll fragments, showing traces of painted decoration, and drilled holes for attachment of arms just visible on right side of largest examples. YUAG Yale-705. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Similarly, the objects found within the houses can elucidate the activities that took place within them, ranging from those of food preparation and consumption to religious activities. Studying the houses and objects together allow the examination of some facets of the identities of the people of Dura, and the rich archaeological preservation even hints at the lives of people we often don’t see archaeologically. For instance, children are attested at Dura not only from mortuary evidence but also within the settlement, in the preservation of dolls and toys.

The building and maintenance of houses, their modification, their use for day-to-day activities, the graffiti scratched into their walls, presenting doors closed to the street but with interior courtyards where the Syrian sun could stream in from above, were one way in which their inhabitants formed and articulated the relationships within the house, and negotiated their place in their communities, their city, and their world. The preserved houses of Dura are also surprising in the elements they share across the site: Dura had a great number of preserved languages (Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Middle Persian, and even Syriac and Safaitic), and a large number of cults are known, from deities like Aphlad, Azzanathkona, and Zeus Megistos, to Mithras, as well as monotheistic religions including Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless the houses show that many aspects of private and community life were shared across this ancient multicultural city.

Jennifer Baird is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.

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