Review: Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates

G.W. Clarke, P.J. Connor, L. Crewe, B. Frohlich, H. Jackson, J. Littleton, C.E.V. Nixon, M. O’Hea and D. Steele. Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates: Report on Excavations 1986-1996. Volume 1. Mediterranean Archaeology Supplement 5. Sydney, 2002. 335 pp., illus., 8 color and 51 b/w pls. Hb. $115.00. ISBN 0-9580265-0-5.

Some readers may be surprised to see a work not strictly devoted to a numismatic subject reviewed in these pages. However, in this reviewer’s opinion it is often worthwhile for us to step back for a moment from our respective SNGs, BMCs, and RICs and take a good look at the big picture of ancient numismatics and its place in the general study of antiquity. This first volume of excavation reports on the Hellenistic fortified site of Jebel Khalid does an admirable job of providing just such a view. Not only does the book include an important chapter by C.E.V. Nixon (pp. 292-335), which catalogues and discusses the 317 coins found on the site in light of comparative data from contemporary sites like Dura Europus and Antioch-on-the-Orontes, but by placing the coins alongside chapters on architectural remains, pottery, and other small finds it highlights the place of numismatics in a larger web of information. Each strand in the web is important and serves to strengthen the others, but, as many of the non-numismatic chapters show, it is often the coins that help to focus the evidence provided by the other finds.

Like the vista of the Euphrates valley that spreads out before the viewer looking down from the heights of Jebel Khalid’s natural acropolis, the authors provide an overview of four major areas of excavation in the first four chapters. G.W. Clarke describes the discoveries made in “The North-West Tower” (with the late P.J. Connor, pp. 1-16), “The Main Gate” (pp. 17-24), “The Governor’s Palace, Acropolis” (pp. 25-48), while J. Littleton and B. Frohlich chart the “Excavations of the Cemetery — 1996 and 1997” (pp. 49-70) with an “Appendix: Inventory of Graves Excavated in 1996 and 1997” (pp. 71-100) by H. Jackson and J. Littleton.

The chapters primarily concerned with architectural remains especially illustrate the interrelated web of archaeological information and the important place of coins in it. For example, through comparison with other Hellenistic horseshoe-shaped towers (pp. 6-7) and gateways flanked by rectangular towers (pp. 22-23), Clarke argues that the North-West Tower and Main Gate of Jebel Khalid should probably be dated to the early third century BC, perhaps around 280. This view is supported in turn by construction level deposits of early Hellenistic pottery and, in the case of the Main Gate, by several coins of Antiochus I.

Not only do the coins help to date the period of construction and original use of the various buildings, but they also provide some insight into the subsequent history of the site. Like many ancient sites, Jebel Khalid is pockmarked by “robber pits” (pits dug in antiquity for the removal of stone architectural components for reuse elsewhere). Because coins found in conjunction with these archaeological features are almost all Roman bronze issues of the fourth century AD or later (pp. 34, 37 and 40) we have some idea when the remains were being reused.

In addition to dating the secondary use of material from “robber pits”, coin finds are also important for dating a period of reoccupation at Jebel Khalid. Lack of wooden remains, roofing tiles and nails in appropriate quantities in the excavated fortifications and the Governor’s Palace, combined with the presence of rough fieldstone walls not part of the original construction have all suggested that the site was systematically abandoned, although some reoccupation also took place. The pottery and associated coin finds (the latest datable coins in the reoccupation areas are issues of Antiochus VIII and IX) indicate that the process of abandonment and reoccupation occurred in the early first century BC.

Unfortunately, numismatic evidence helps little in our understanding of the ancient cemetery. Out of the material discovered in the 42 excavated graves only a single bronze coin of Antiochus VII was found. Here, the pottery remains, including fish plates, bowls and large jars, along with a few additional small finds, must serve to provide a general Hellenistic date for the burials in the cemetery.

One criticism of the excavation report chapters as a group is that major excavation areas are discussed with the sole exception of the Domestic Quarter. Although it has been omitted because the excavation of the area is not yet complete (p. vii), some preliminary discussion or at least a current plan would have been useful to help the reader to understand the Domestic Quarter finds in their proper context. The area is explicitly referred to in H. Jackson’s chapter on “The Lamps from the Domestic Quarter” (pp. 147-200) and plays an important role in Nixon’s statistical analysis of the coin finds. Material from the Domestic Quarter is also mentioned in most of the other chapters on small finds.

Following the chapters on the excavations of the North-West Tower, the Main Gate, the Governor’s Palace and the Cemetery are nine chapters dedicated to the several classes of small finds. Of these, Nixon’s “The Coins” will be of most interest to numismatists for obvious reasons. This chapter is divided into two main sections: an introductory discussion of the coins and their contribution to our understanding of chronology and the lives of Jebel Khalid’s ancient inhabitants (pp. 291-303) and a descriptive catalogue of the excavation coins (pp. 305-325).

Only a very few refinements could be made to improve the detail of the Seleucid portion of the catalogue, but none would change the overall picture of Antioch as the main source of coinage at Jebel Khalid (pp. 298-300). For example, nos. 86-87, bronze issues of Demetrius II with portrait/anchor types, attributed by Houghton to an uncertain north Syrian mint, and which Nixon suggests may have been located near Jebel Khalid (p. 312), should now be attributed to Seleucia-in-Pieria through the association of their types with a drachm series and a unique tetradrachm in the ANS collection (O. Hoover, “A Unique Tetradrachm of Demetrius II Nikator at Seleucia-in-Pieria,” AJN 12 (2000), pp. 102-107). The mints, and in some cases, the rulers, responsible for the unidentified serrate Seleucid (nos. 93-94) coins may also be narrowed down by comparing their sizes and weights with those of known serrate issues. Thus it becomes apparent that no. 98 (10-11mm) can only be a portrait/standing goddess issue of Antiochus IV from Ake-Ptolemais (SNG Spaer nos. 1130-1138), the only mint and series involving such a small diameter. Nos. 93 and 95 (both 16mm, 3.5 and 3.9g, respectively) should probably be attributed to Antioch under either Antiochus IV, Demetrius I or Alexander I, because the weight range for 16mm serrate issues was heavier under Seleucus IV and Antiochus VI. Likewise, no. 97 (19-20mm, 6.7g) must be an Antiochene coin of either Seleucus IV or Antiochus VI, because only these two rulers produced serrate bronzes of this diameter and weight. Similarly, we can narrow down the period of issue for uncertain coin no. 147, attributed to the period from Antiochus I to Antiochus XII (281-84 BC). Because the obverse portrait wears a radiate crown, it cannot date before the reign of Antiochus IV (175-164 BC) when this form of headgear came into vogue in Seleucid royal iconography.

The remainder of the catalogue describes 20 municipal coins of Antioch from the period 92-72 BC, 3 Hellenistic municipal coins of other cities, 14 Roman coins, of which all but two are issues of the fourth century AD, 5 Byzantine coins, 8 Islamic (mostly Umayyad) coins, 22 entirely unidentifiable coins, and 3 non-numismatic metal fragments. Of this material, only the lone Greek Imperial, an Antioch SC issue of Nerva (no. 267), and a Roman Republican sextans (no. 266) stand out. As Nixon points out (p. 325) the dating of the sole Republican coin is problematic because although Sydenham and BMCRR identify the type as a semiuncial issue struck after 91 BC, Crawford lists no semiuncial sextantes. It is possible that this coin may in fact be an imitation of an earlier sextans issue. Close inspection of the plate photograph shows that Hermes’ petasos lacks its usual wings and his hairstyle is somewhat different than on official issues. There is also no sign of the normal sextantal value mark of two large dots above the petasos.

Although to date only two issues of Seleucus I (nos. 3-4, both from the Domestic Quarter) have been found on the site, Nixon rightly asserts that his coinage is normally rare in Syrian excavations, even at the great western mint city of Antioch (pp. 294-295), and argues that perhaps Jebel Khalid should be considered a foundation of Seleucus himself. The suggestion that the site may have been founded “as part of an overall scheme to consolidate his [Seleucus’] newly won Empire (p. 295),” seems particularly compelling in light of the map on page 292. The fortified town is perfectly located to stand guard over the territory between the upstream fortress of Seleucia-Zeugma and the downstream fortress of Nikephorion. However, while the site’s location as part of a larger defensive bulwark along the Euphrates, to which we might also add Dura Europos, tends to support the idea of Jebel Khalid as a military settlement of Seleucus I, it may have been a late one, which was only fully fortified after his death in 281 BC. Clarke describes two coins of Antiochus I (nos. 6 and 9) in the construction level of the Main Gate’s north tower (p. 21), which would seem to indicate that work on the site’s outer defences continued under Seleucus’ successor.

The numismatic argument for the foundation of Jebel Khalid is fairly straightforward, but the evidence for the abandonment of the site may be a little more complex than it appears. Combining the evidence for the end of the Antiochene municipal series at Jebel Khalid and the almost complete absence of coinage from the site between the mid first century BC and the fourth century AD with the archaeological evidence for systematic abandonment, Nixon comes to the logical conclusion that the site was abandoned sometime in the 70s or 60s BC (pp. 295-297). However, Clarke’s description of Seleucid coin finds associated with reoccupied and disturbed areas in the Governor’s Palace on the Acropolis (pp. 41 and 45) and beside the Main Gate (p. 21) seems to point to an earlier abandonment of the Palace complex and fortifications before a final evacuation of the entire site. Nixon cautions against such an interpretation apparently based solely on statistical data (p. 302), but the close association of the coins with a late Hellenistic domestic reoccupation phase makes it difficult to avoid. The latest identifiable coins from areas of reoccupation in the Governor’s Palace and the Main Gate are issues of Antiochus IX and autonomous Antioch, respectively, perhaps suggesting that the abandonment that allowed for subsequent reoccupation might have taken place in the 90s or 80s BC.

The author provides commentary and four excellent tables to illustrate the pattern of coin finds at different areas within Jebel Khalid and to compare the overall finds with those of other excavated Seleucid period sites, such as Tarsus, Antioch, Dura Europus and Abou Danné. Thanks to this comparative approach, it is possible to see that the preponderance of coins of Antiochus III found on the site is not the result of special local circumstances, but part of a pattern of finds for most sites which can be associated with the king’s long reign and general heavy minting (p. 301).

As a corollary to the discussion of finds of Antiochus III bronzes, Nixon expresses some surprise at the quantity of coins of the short-lived Seleucus III found at Jebel Khalid and other Syrian sites. Suggesting that, “As Seleukos III spent most of his brief reign fighting a civil war with his brother in Asia Minor, this is rather odd; economic prosperity seems an unlikely explanation here, nor in the circumstances would one expect Seleukos to be concerned with providing small change for his troops or subjects (p. 301).” This statement needs a little clarification. Although Seleucus III did expend much of his energy on attempts to regain Asia Minor, his conflict was not with his brother (the future Antiochus III), but rather with Attalus I of Pergamum. The author seems to have confused the Anatolian phase of the Fraternal War between Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax here with the campaigns of Seleucus III. Regardless of the proper identity of Seleucus’ adversary, it is worth remembering that under Seleucus III the Seleucid Empire was still a state under siege. The Ptolemaic forces that had overrun the empire as far as Babylonia in 246 still retained control of Seleucia-in-Pieria and coastal Cilicia, posing a constant threat to the Syrian heartland. Thus it would have been in the king’s best interest to ensure that there was ready money for troops stationed in places like Jebel Khalid, Dura, and Antioch-on-the-Orontes. As later Seleucid history admirably shows, disaffected garrisons could have a bad habit of betraying their cities to the enemy. It is also possible that the increase in coinage under Seleucus III and also Antiochus III, may reflect the financial build up for their respective major campaigns. It may be that Seleucus III had larger plans beyond the reconquest of Asia Minor, if he is correctly understood as one of the sons of the “King of the North,” who are described as “press[ing] on with the assembling of a large force of armed men” in Daniel 11.10.

Nixon tentatively suggests (pp. 302-303) that the majority of the late Roman and Byzantine coins found at Jebel Khalid may be the result of an increased military presence along the frontier with Sasanian Persia in the fourth century and later, although some may also reflect the visits of pilgrims to the tomb of the Holy Man in the nearby river ravine. The military interpretation seems to be supported by the find locations. Nineteen late Roman and Byzantine coins were found during the excavation of the Acropolis, which, even in ruins, still retained its strategic value as an observation post, while only a single issue of Arcadius (no. 277) was found in the Domestic Quarter. It should be pointed out that this pattern also holds true for the Umayyad material (5 on the Acropolis and 1 in the Domestic Quarter), perhaps indicating some limited use of the Acropolis as a military(?) lookout in the early Islamic period.

Clarke’s chapter on “Four Hellenistic Seal Impressions” (pp. 201-203), is also closely associated with numismatic studies, not only because, like coins, the impressions were also made by a form of die, but because their iconography is generally borrowed from Seleucid coin types. The sealings from the Acropolis depict the Seleucid anchor (JK S.1), the standing figure of Athena Nikephoros (JK S.2) and an enthroned Zeus Nikephoros (JK S.3), while a fourth, from a rubbish mound near the Main Gate has a helmeted and draped bust of Athena for its type (JK S.4). As the author points out, there can be little doubt that the anchor represents the authority of a Seleucid official. Similar seal types are known from other sites in a fiscal or administrative context, and, it might be added, anchor countermarks were frequently employed by the government to revalidate coinage.

However, Clarke’s association of the other sealings with the Seleucid bureaucracy should be treated with some caution. Although he is no doubt correct to see the influence of Seleucid numismatic iconography in the choice of types, this does not guarantee that agents of the Seleucid government used the seals. Images of Zeus and Athena Nicephorus were ubiquitous throughout the Hellenistic period, and, as the comparanda for JK S.4 show, similar seal impressions with busts of Athena are known from finds in the Middle Stoa of Athens. Close inspection of the sealing photographs on plate 35 shows that the treatment of Zeus and the Athena bust differs in some details from “official” Seleucid numismatic iconography, such as the dais below Zeus’ throne and Athena’s drapery, further suggesting that they were made by personal rather than official seals. The tripod lebes (a misinterpretation of the throne leg?) described as standing “in front of throne” of Zeus, and which would have indicated a specifically Seleucid prototype, is invisible in the plates. Thus it seems more likely that JK S.2-4 represent personal seals, modeled after royal Seleucid coinage and following a long tradition of using coins, and seals based on coin designs, to guarantee documents in the Near East (See E. Porada, “Greek Coin Impressions from Ur,” Iraq 22 (1960), pp. 228-234 and C. Starr, “A Sixth-Century Athenian Tetradrachm Used to Seal a Clay Tablet from Persepolis,” NC 136 (1976), pp. 219-222).

Related to the seal impressions is Clarke’s chapter on “Stamped Amphora Handles” (pp. 271-289), which provides a descriptive catalog of 50 handles with stamps, primarily dating to the later third and second centuries BC. The majority of the stamps reflect the predominance of Rhodian imports, although a Thasian (JK SH.37) and a possible Cnidian (JK SH.38) stamp are also present. Most notable are the locally produced handles stamped in the name of Abidsalma (JK SH.39-41), apparently a native Semitic producer of wine or oil. The presence of these stamps and the drop off of foreign imports in the later second century may represent the ascendancy of local production, but may also be a sign of decreasing affluence at the site.

The theme of local self-sufficiency at Jebel Khalid also surfaces in L. Crewe’s discussion of “Spindle-Whorls and Loomweights” (pp. 217-243), another class of small objects ubiquitous to archaeological sites and museum collections. Because of the survival of 71 spindle whorls, mostly suitable only for spinning fine thread for luxury garments or sewing pieces of cloth together, the author hypothesizes that much of the ancient spinner’s equipment has been lost and argues that there must have been an “extensive textile industry with utilitarian and luxury fabrics being locally manufactured (p. 219).” The compressed spherical or doughnut forms of many of the weights may indicate the adoption of indigenous Levantine loomweight traditions, as opposed to the Anatolian/Aegean tradition with which Greco-Macedonian military settlers would have been more accustomed (p. 237). This chapter is especially noteworthy for assuming little prior knowledge of the subject on the part of the reader. Recognizing that the tools of ancient cloth manufacture may be somewhat arcane to many historians of antiquity and perhaps even some branches of archaeology, Crewe does an excellent job of explaining how the whorls and weights were used in the respective processes of spinning and weaving in addition to the evidence that they provide for the textile manufacture at the site.

D. Steele’s chapter on “Faunal Remains” (pp. 125-145), which describes the evidence for diet, butchery practices and non-dietary animal-based industry that can be gleaned from the 23,433 animal bones collected at Jebel Khalid also deserves high praise for its accessibility to non-specialists.

The importance of coin evidence for dating finds reappears in M O’Hea’s chapter on “The Glass and Personal Adornment” (pp. 245-272). Here, in addition to providing catalogues of glass beads and bowl fragments from the site, she suggests that the glass bowl type known as Grose’s ‘linear-cut’ bowls, normally dated to the second half of the first century BC should be back-dated to the mid first century (p. 246). Since Hellenistic coinage at Jebel Khalid ends in the 70s, signalling the abandonment of the site, and ‘linear-cut’ bowl fragments were found in excavation, it stands to reason that the bowl type must have been produced earlier in the century.

Discussion of the excavation finds is rounded out by two chapters by H. Jackson on pottery found in distinct areas of the site, “The Cemetery Pottery – 1996 and 1997” (pp. 101-124) and “The Lamps from the Domestic Quarter” (pp. 147-200). Although the full study of local fabrics and forms is not yet complete (p. 102), comparison with material known from other Hellenistic Near Eastern sites allows the author to create a chronology for the lamps and to date the wares used in the Cemetery. Not surprisingly, the dating of the lamps corroborates the evidence of the coins and other finds for a settlement at Jebel Khalid lasting from the second quarter of the third century to the early first century BC (p. 197). However, because of the absence of Waage’s lamp type 24 in the Domestic Quarter and its presence in the Governor’s Palace, the author suggests, “the life of the housing area may have been shorter than that of the Acropolis palace, which would, by its prominence, attract more visitors (p. 197).” The lamp evidence is notable because it appears to contradict the evidence of the coin finds. Based on the coins, occupation, or reoccupation, continued in both the Domestic Quarter and in the Palace into the 70s BC (p. 294).

Jackson and Clarke also provide a catalogue of “Graffiti and Dipinti” (pp. 205-216) that have been either carved or painted onto pottery remains, apparently as owner’s marks (p. 207). Although all items are illustrated by line drawings, and many appear in the photographic plates, it would have been helpful if the authors had consistently given their own readings of the various letters, particularly in the cases of JK DI.4-5, where several of the letter forms are less than clear.

The many authors involved in the work at Jebel Khalid should be proud of this first volume of excavation reports. In imitation of the broad vistas that can be seen from the site’s acropolis, they have provided a wide-ranging overview of the types of material discovered in excavation along with the questions that they raise. By including the discussion of coin finds with chapters on amphora handles, spindle whorls, faunal remains, etc., rather than relegating them to a separate volume such as the forthcoming report on metalwork from the site, the authors neatly keep the coins and other material in their important archaeological contexts, something that can easily be forgotten in a traditional catalogue or in a museum setting. By so doing they allow the reader, whether a numismatist, pottery expert, ancient historian, or even an interested layman to get a much fuller picture of the site. The general high quality of the writing and the plates would make many chapters, if not the entire book, appropriate reading for an introductory course on archaeology at the university level. It is certainly worthwhile for anyone interested in a fuller understanding of the role of numismatics in a Near Eastern archaeological context of the Hellenistic period. Like the ancient sentinels of Jebel Khalid, who once scanned the hills and the river valley below from their outpost, we also watch and wait with anticipation for future volumes in this series.

—Oliver D. Hoover