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Palmyra and Dura-Europos: The Archaeology of Syria from Ancient Cities to Modern Destruction (Level 5)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Jen Baird
  • Assessment: two 2000-word essays (25% each) and a 48-hour online examination (50%)

Module description

This module will explore Syrian archaeology through two key sites: Palmyra and Dura-Europos. Palmyra, the 'Venice of the Sands', is well known as a Syrian Oasis site and famous for its monumental remains and for stories of its Queen, Zenobia. Many of the monumental remains were infamously and spectacularly destroyed by ISIS during the Syrian conflict. Also justifiably famous is the site of Dura-Europos, the 'Pompeii of the Syrian Desert' on the Euphrates river, at which were found 19 ancient religious buildings including an early Christian house church and a Synagogue, both decorated with elaborate paintings. Dura-Europos is famed as an ancient crossroads of culture, where many religions were practised and languages spoken, from Hebrew and Greek and Latin to Aramaic and Safaitic. Like Palmyra, Dura-Europos has suffered catastrophic damage since the start of the Syrian conflict, but at Dura this has largely been in the form of extensive, and often organised, antiquities looting.

The module will investigate both what is known of the sites and how we have come to know it. We will work with primary records of the archaeological archives of the sites, and learn in detail about their material culture, textual and architectural remains. Using those remains - papyri, inscriptions, architecture, ceramics, sculptures etc - we will examine the economic and religious lives of people at the sites (all texts will be examined through their English translations). We will then examine how the sites have been used and displayed since their ‘discovery’, including how their objects are displayed in museum collections. We will study the recent destruction of the sites and consider why they have been targets, and the way their destruction links to the global trade in illicit antiquities. Museum and archive visits will be incorporated where possible.

Through this module, you will acquire familiarity with the archaeological remains of Roman-period Syria, and develop a critical knowledge of archaeological archives and how to use them, including digital repositories. You will also gain a broad survey of the history of archaeological practice in the Middle East, and the entangled relationship of archaeology and politics, particularly during the twentieth century. Finally, you will develop a knowledge of the global framework of cultural heritage protection that exists through national governments and international bodies such as UNESCO, through case studies of the failures of those protections in Syria.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Introduction: Tadmor-Palmyra and Dura-Europos from ancient cities to 'World Heritage'
  • How we know what we know: the history of archaeology at Dura-Europos and at Palmyr
  • Surveying the archaeological evidence of Dura-Europos and of Palmyra
  • Languages and texts at Dura-Europos and Palmyra
  • Digging into data: archaeological archives of Dura-Europos and of Palmyra; the material culture of Dura-Europos; death at Palmyra: tombs and funerary portraits
  • The economic and religious life of Dura-Europos and of Palmyra
  • Palmyrene legacies: post-Roman Palmyra
  • Palmyrene receptions: Palmyra in London and beyond
  • The destruction of Dura and of Palmyra
  • Looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural property
  • International responses to Syrian archaeology in crisis
  • The future of Tadmor-Palmyra and Dura-Europos

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand major themes in relation to the archaeology of Roman-era Syria and archaeological practice in the Middle East
  • identify and understand Roman material culture and monuments of Syria
  • engage critically with archaeologists’ major interpretations of the subject
  • interpret primary sources critically and relate them to secondary sources
  • engage critically with archaeological remains and ancient textual documents, in archival and museum contexts
  • identify the methodological challenges of working with primary archaeological sources.