A Brief History

Scroll to interact with StoryMap above

Historical Background

The ancient site of Dura-Europos is situated on the western bank of the Euphrates river, not far from the village of Salihiyah in modern Syria. First called “Europos”, the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire founded the city around 300 BCE. Later, it was controlled successively by the Parthian Empire (2nd century BCE-later second century CE), and the Roman Empire (from the later second century CE), and known to inhabitants as “Dura” (the fortress) thanks to its role in frontier defense. The hyphenated name is a modern construct that reflects the city’s historical and cultural complexity.

In the 250s CE, the site was threatened by a series of Sasanian Persian campaigns. Attempting to shore-up the city’s defences in advance of attack, Roman soldiers garrisoned at Dura constructed a massive earthen embankment to reinforce the vulnerable western wall.  In a move that would prove fateful for the site’s exceptional archaeological preservation, buildings in the vicinity of the west wall–including a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, and temples to various Greco-Roman and Syrian/Aramaean deities that attest to the city’s ethnic and cultural diversity–were requisitioned and filled with earth and debris. What was at the time a highly destructive process, in fact created (together with the hot, dry climate) the conditions for the site’s extraordinary degree of preservation.

Thanks to these highly unique circumstances, large sections of rare mural painting, and hundreds of objects made from organic materials survive at Dura-Europos. For this reason, the site provides unparalleled glimpses into the multicultural, religiously diverse frontier life, and the running of a military garrison with coexisting soldiers and civilians.  

Browse some examples:

A map of the Black Sea, on animal skin; originally part of a Roman sheild.

A painted scutum style shield, made of wood and animal skin.

A horseshoe made from hemp fiber.

A needlebook containing bronze and iron sewing needles.

A wooden door painted with a victory, found near the city’s main gate.

Excavation History

The history of European intervention at the site began in 1920 when British troops stationed at Salihiyeh (Syria) under the command of captain M.C. Murphy recognized well-preserved ancient wall paintings in the northwest corner of the fortress. Recognizing the potential historical significance of the find, Murphy reported it to his superiors and requested assistance from an archaeologist. Murphy’s letter would ultimately set in motion the large-scale excavation of the site. In Spring of 1920, eminent archaeologist James Henry Breasted of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute happened to be on a survey expedition on the upper Tigris river. Upon the conclusion of his planned work, Breasted was persuaded by British Civil Commissioner Colonel Arnold Talbot Wilson to make a diversion to Salihiyeh to assess the finds reported by Murphy.

Due to the constraints of Breasted’s schedule and the unstable political situation of the time, Breasted had only the space of a day’s time to assess and record what he could of the wall paintings uncovered by Murphy and his soldiers. Although Breasted would later go on to publish based on his short-term work at the site, he declined the opportunity to direct renewed excavations at the site two years after his initial visit to assess the paintings. The first systematic excavations at Dura-Europos took place in 1922 and were sponsored by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letres. As head of the French Académie excavations at the fortress, Belgian archaeologist and historian Franz Cumont led two short campaigns (1922 and 1923) before the political situation in the Euphrates region precluded further work.

It was not until 1928 that systematic excavations would resume at Dura, this time as an effort sponsored jointly by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letres and Yale University. Yale’s involvement came about thanks to interest in the site from Yale professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Michael I. Rostovtzeff. The joint French-American expeditions would continue for ten seasons of excavation between 1928 and 1937. Rostovtzeff remained a constant as expedition director throughout Yale’s involvement at Dura, while the position of field director passed successively from Frenchman Maurice Pillet (1928–31), to Clark Hopkins of Yale (1932–35), and finally to Frank E. Brown, also of Yale (1936–37).

Thanks to the practice of ‘partage’ that was current among archaeological collaborators in the early 20th century, the majority of artifacts from Dura today reside in collections at Yale University and the National Museum of Damascus (established 1919). The constellation of institutional interests with a stake in these early excavations, and the shape of the political (and therefore legal) parameters at the time of excavation, is closely tied to the distribution of collections related to Dura in archives and museums today. 

Click here to see a list of collections and their associated Durene object counts.

When the Yale-French excavations ceased in 1937 there was hope for further renewal of financial support for continued work at the site, but formal excavation would not begin again until the 1980s. Following a hiatus of nearly 50 years, in 1986, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums established the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Europos-Doura (MFSED) to carry on a joint Franco-Syrian venture aimed at the reexamination and conservation of previously-excavated remains, and limited new excavations. Until abruptly brought to an end in 2011 by the disastrous on-going conflict in Syria, MFSED’s work at the site included exploration of domestic and religious contexts untouched by the campaigns of the 1920s and 30s, as well as new trenches selectively positioned to clarify site stratigraphy.

Learn more about the history of Dura-Europos and Yale’s role in its excavation here:

Events since 2011: Importance of Digital Accessibility

Since the outbreak of violence in 2011, Dura has become an unfortunate reference point illustrating the uncomfortable legacies of unequal power dynamics in early excavations and underlining the ongoing entanglement of politics and cultural heritage. Analysis of satellite imagery has made evident that large-scale non-scientific digging has taken place at the site since 2011. What appear in post-2011 satellite images as crater-like features all over the city and in the area of the necropolis outside its walls are pits left in the wake of recent digging.

Click and drag arrows to compare the site before and after non-scientific digging campaigns.

Work on the part of cultural heritage organizations like Heritage for Peace (HfP), The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative (TDA-HPI) and the ATHAR Project has helped to document and examine the motivations and mechanics behind these recent interventions and other intentional destruction events.

While its significance pales in comparison to the immense human suffering wrought by the war, the destruction caused by the recent non-scientific digging and other war-related damage does mean that a unique source of information about the ancient past is regrettably compromised for future research. Even in the absence of conflict in the region, it would now be difficult to recover new information from the site’s ancient layers. Ancient building remains have been damaged in the course of conflict, stratigraphic layers that archaeologists rely on have been disturbed by pits, and countless artifacts have been removed from their contexts without documentation, disappearing into private collections and forever severing their ability to reliably inform about life in antiquity.

These circumstances, coupled with ethically-grounded calls to do more with old archaeological data and to reexamine interpretations in light of the historical contexts of their production, have increased the importance of the legacy data and documents related to excavations at Dura prior to 2011. With renewed attention to the legacy datasets and documents comes the opportunity and ethical obligation to explore the use of digital tools to bridge persisting inequalities in access to information descendent of foreign-run excavations. Imbalances of power and privilege at the time of excavation have had long-lasting repercussions not only with regard to who has access to the physical and intellectual products of such expeditions, but also whose perspectives are reflected in the grand narratives about scientific exploration and the interpretation of the ancient past. New digital methods, including principles of Linked Open Data (LOD) and creative use of the low-technical-barrier and multilingual Wikimedia ecosystem, offer means to diversify the range of perspectives shaping our knowledge of Dura’s past.

Read in more detail about the history of excavations at Dura-Europos and the site’s fate in the course of on-going conflict:

  • Almohamad, Adnan. 2024. Syria and Dura-Europos Today. Pasts Imperfect: Special Issue.
  • Baird, J.A. 2018. Dura-Europos, Bloomsbury, p. 1-16.
  • Brody, Lisa. 2011. “Yale University and Dura-Europos: From Excavation to Installation.” In Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, 17–32. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.