Archaeology – Hidden City Provides Fascinating Insight into the Structures of Hellenistic Settlements

The discovery of an ancient city buried beneath the sands of modern-day Syria has provided evidence for a Hellenistic settlement that existed for more than six centuries extending into the time of the Roman Empire. The site provides a unique insight into the structures of a pre-Roman Hellenistic settlement. The project, funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, sheds new light on city life in the Hellenistic period.

The Syrian deserts have long kept an important secret hidden deep beneath their sands – the remains of the pre-Roman Hellenistic settlement of Palmyra. Until now, the only evidence for the existence of such a settlement was to be found in historical writing. As part of an FWF-funded joint project, the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Vienna, the German Archaeological Institute and the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria have been the first to track down the location of this early city. Moreover, their findings are now producing a unique insight into the structures of a pre-Roman Hellenistic settlement.

“Although a settlement dating back to the second millennium BC has already been identified as Palmyra, a new settlement was evidently established at another site in the third century BC and was later abandoned in the Roman period. While we know a great deal about the later Roman city, the Hellenistic settlement of Palmyra has never been investigated,” explains Project Manager Prof. Andreas Schmidt-Colinet from the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Vienna. “The current investigation gives us a unique opportunity to analyse the transition from the Hellenistic period to the time of the Roman Empire by studying the settlement structures that have been uncovered here over a wide area.”

In view of the large size of the area, the project has thus far focussed on small sections of the ancient urban settlement structures. This work is already yielding results, particularly as regards the chronology of the individual phases of construction and the trade and commercial background of the Hellenistic “Sand City”. The investigations show that building activities were divided across various major phases stretching from the third century B.C. to the end of the third century A.D. This indicates that the site could have fallen out of use around the time when the city was conquered by the Roman emperor Aurelian or around the construction of the wall under the emperor Diocletian.

Pottery finds are particularly important for helping to determine the trade routes used by the citizens of Palmyra. Overall, the archaeologists have found far larger amounts of local domestic pottery than imported ceramic goods from other areas. Nevertheless, amphorae from Rhodes – large clay containers used to transport wine – and goods imported from Africa show that Palmyra had connections with far flung corners of the world from the late Hellenistic period until the late Roman period. Prof. Schmidt-Colinet comments on the team’s discoveries: “Our pottery finds reveal a continuous progression of Hellenistic-Roman ceramics over a period of 600 years. What’s more, we now have the first ever archaeological evidence for a Hellenistic settlement with continuous habitation over six centuries extending into the Roman period.”

The team of archaeologists has also uncovered initial evidence for the keeping and usage of domestic animals. “Kitchen waste” shows that the inhabitants kept and ate primarily sheep and goats, as well as dromedaries, cattle and pigs. In contrast, gazelles, wildfowl and fish seldom appeared on the menus of the Hellenistic inhabitants of Palmyra.

Looking to the future, the archaeologists aim to completely uncover a monumental courtyard-type structure at the centre of the Hellenistic settlement that has close parallels with Syrian caravan structures. However, the team is not just hoping to reveal how or why the individual rooms were built, it also wants to determine the overall importance of the structure for the city of Palmyra. At the end of the project, the findings from the excavations, which have been made possible by the FWF, will be combined with aerial photographs and structures that are still visible above ground to provide a topographical map of Palmyra.

Image and text will be available online from Monday, 23rd June 2008, 09.00 a.m. CET onwards:

Scientific Contact:
Prof. Andreas Schmidt-Colinet
University of Vienna
Institute of Classical Archeology
Franz Klein-Gasse 1
1190 Wien
T +43 / 1 / 4277 – 40601
E [email protected]

Austrian Science Fund FWF:
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Wien
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 – 8111
E [email protected]

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Vienna, 23rd June 2008

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