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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

In this module we 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 stories of its Queen, Zenobia. 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. Dura-Europos is famed as an ancient crossroads of culture, where many religions were practised and languages spoken. Both sites have suffered catastrophic damage since the start of the Syrian conflict.

We will work with primary records of the archaeological archives of the sites, and learn about their material culture, textual and architectural remains. Using papyri, inscriptions, architecture, ceramics, sculptures etc, we will examine the economic and religious lives of people at the sites (texts will be in English). We will then examine how the sites have been used and displayed since their ‘discovery’, including how their objects are displayed in museums. 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.

Indicative syllabus

  • The history of archaeology at Palmyra and Dura-Europos
  • The archaeological evidence of Palmyra and Dura-Europos
  • Languages and texts at Palmyra and Dura-Europos
  • The economic and religious life of Palmyra
  • Life at Dura-Europos: houses and sanctuaries
  • Death at Palmyra: tombs and funerary portraits
  • Palmyrene receptions: Palmyra in London and beyond
  • The destruction of Palmyra and Dura-Europos
  • 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.