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Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Iraq

1927–1932, 1936–1937


1927–1932: Leroy Waterman, with Robert H. McDowell as Field Director

1936–1937: Clark Hopkins, with Robert H. McDowell as Field Director

Aerial view of Seleucia on the Tigris.

In Iraq, 29 kilometers south of modern Baghdad, lies the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, which rose, flourished, and dwindled away between 307 BCE and 215 CE. Its inception was part of the Hellenizing of the Middle East, the ultimate result of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. In the second and third centuries BCE, it was one of the great Hellenistic capitals, comparable to Alexandria in Egypt and greater than Antioch in northern Syria. Lying at the confluence of the Tigris River and a major canal from the Euphrates, Seleucia was in a position to receive traffic from both great waterways. As a vital trading center, the city presided over the exchange of goods from Central Asia, India, Persia, and Africa.

The economic significance of this region, the juncture of the Iranian Plateau with the two rivers of Mesopotamia, had been fully realized and exploited in the millennia prior to the existence of Seleucia. It was in search of one of its predecessors, Opis, that excavations at Seleucia were undertaken by Professor Leroy Waterman of the University of Michigan. In a survey of Babylonian topography, Professor Waterman’s attention was drawn to two mounds on the west bank of the Tigris across the river from Ctesiphon. One of these mounds lay one mile northwest of the river, and its great size suggested that it was the site of an important city and that, at one time, the river had flowed beside it. Professor Waterman’s hypothesis was confirmed by aerial photographs taken by the Royal Air Force stationed in Baghdad.

Believing that the site he was searching for, Opis, lay beneath the mound identified as Seleucia, Waterman began excavations December 29, 1927, and continued (interrupted at times by the Depression) for six seasons until 1937. Under the auspices of the University of Michigan, the excavations were carried out on behalf of the American School of Oriental Research of Baghdad with funds supplied by the Toledo Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The first five seasons (1927–1932) were under the directorship of Professor Waterman, and in the final, sixth season, Professor Clark Hopkins, also from the University of Michigan, acted as general director. (The University of Michigan excavations, incidentally, did not find Opis below Seleucia.)

Seleucia was founded by Seleucus Nicator, a general of Alexander the Great who, after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, secured for himself the Middle East from the Mediterranean to India. He located his new Hellenistic city on the Tigris, and it became the eastern capital of the Seleucid Empire. In 141 BCE, the Parthians under Mithridates conquered the city, and Seleucia became the western capital of the Parthian Empire. In subsequent centuries, the ruins were buried under mounds of desert sand.

During the preliminary excavation of the site, archaeologists uncovered three levels of occupation (later expanded to four) and over a thousand objects, plus signs of older Babylonian occupation. At the same time, air photos and air maps of the regions—in one of the earliest applications of aerial photography to archaeology—confirmed the rectangular pattern of streets indicating a major city. After verifying the site as Seleucia, Waterman and his expedition began extensive excavations.

By the 1929–30 season, the team had cleared a block of houses from Level I (115–227 CE) and a more elaborate building, dedicated to Seleucus as founder of the empire. It contained 21 rooms around three sides of a quadrangular court. Waterman’s Second Preliminary Report (1928–32) describes the excavation of the same block through three distinct levels of occupation, those being: A) The Parthian occupation level, known as Level II (43–116 CE), B) Level III (141 BCE–43 CE) during which the Hellenistic city was autonomous under Parthian rule, and C) Level IV (307–141 BCE), in which the city was a Seleucid capital.

In the course of these excavations archaeologists recovered over 3,500 objects. These included inscriptional material such as a cuneiform tablet, fragments of Greek inscriptions, stamped and inscribed objects, Parthian and Seleucid coins, and over 259 bitumen seal impressions or “bullae.” Figurines, pottery, and other objects of everyday use were also recovered in abundance. While most of these objects could be dated between 290 BCE and 200 CE, the 1932 excavation of Tel Umar, the most prominent mound at Seleucia, brought to light in an outer wall of the Parthian period a reused brick dated by stamp to 821 BCE, during the Neo-Babylonian period. Since archaeological materials abounded, it was possible to reconstruct private life, the business, and the arts and crafts of the ancient city. Of preponderant interest to scholars, however, was Seleucia’s role as a zone of cultural mediation and exchange between East and West.

In the Middle East, the birthplace of so many forces still active in current affairs, the lack of knowledge of the Parthian and of the Sassanian periods had long blocked attempts to reconstruct a continuous history for the region. Discoveries at Seleucia have done much to illuminate these regional “Dark Ages.” In studying the history of Middle Eastern architecture during the centuries after Alexander’s conquest, for example, art historians turn to Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, since for generations it remained the most important center of post-Alexandrian Greek civilization in the Middle East. Its architecture, according to Dr. Waterman, represents a “missing link” between Hellenistic and Sassanian styles that shows the results of blending Greek with Eastern elements.

One type of object that is highly illustrative of such cultural blending is the Seleucid decorative stucco. In Seleucia, decorative plaster was employed in and about courtyards, important rooms, and building entrances and was, in fact, one of the most common decorative materials. In terms of the style of such stucco, while some motifs at Seleucia clearly derive from Graeco-Roman designs common to the Middle East, other motifs show the strong influence of Eastern design. The four- or six-petaled circle rosette cut into a flat surface, for example, indicates Parthian influence. The deep overall repeat of the rosette pattern was particularly adaptable to plaster and was, by Parthians, translated into the stucco grillwork now so commonly associated with the Middle East. While the presence of Hellenistic motifs in shallow relief might suggest a Western origin, scholars agree, on the basis of excavation of Seleucia, that the use of decorative stucco in designs of light and shadow probably entered Mesopotamia with the Parthians, who early adapted it to the traditional Hellenistic house plans and decorative themes.

Of incomparable value to the historian of the Middle East has been the research conducted on the pottery of Seleucia. The Kelsey Museum has the largest collection of Parthian ceramics outside Iraq. Parthian Pottery from Seleucia on the Tigris, by Nelson C. Debevoise, treats the nearly 1,600 Seleucian vessels that remained intact or sufficiently complete to provide a drawing shape. Debevoise records the history of Parthian ceramics in a city that was for two centuries the cultural center of Hellenistic life in “the land of the two rivers.” Second only to coins as dating material, the products of the potter’s wheel provide one of the best chronological scales for archaeologists. Owing to the very nature of the material, however, pottery seldom remains intact and rarely bears a date. Archaeologists must therefore depend on catalogues of comparative material, none of which existed in the field of Parthian ceramics before the University’s expedition to Seleucia.

To devise a satisfactory system of chronology for dating the pottery, Debevoise first reviewed the coins (see Coins from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, by Robert H. McDowell), some 30,000 of which were found at Seleucia, half with a definite provenance. Since these were datable and occurred with pottery at all levels, they provided a fairly accurate chronological index for the Parthian period. Debevoise also referred to McDowell’s research on dated clay seals pertaining to taxes, salt, and slaves in order to obtain further points of chronological reference vis-à-vis the Parthian pottery. Once the chronology of the ceramics was established, it was possible to deduce other information. Research revealed that Seleucian pottery was made from local clay on a true potter’s wheel, with a few pot covers and certain irregular shapes that were made by hand being the exception. When completed, the pot was removed with a piece of string from the wheel and was set aside to dry before firing. Some very thin ware was reworked before firing, and handles were stuck on after drying had progressed to a certain point. Kilns were probably fired with bundles of camel thorn, a bush that still grows in the region. In manufacture, great care in technique is apparent from the earliest levels excavated. Seleucia reached the peak of its prosperity under the Hellenistic Greeks, and this economic wealth was reflected in careful workmanship. With the growth in political and economic importance of the Parthian city of Ctesiphon across the river, Seleucia probably suffered a slow decline, reflected in the increasing carelessness of manufacture and glazing and even in a decline in the amount of pottery in use. Similarly, changes in shape of cooking pots and storage jars are easily observable at different levels of excavation. The greater part of the pottery from Seleucia was discovered where the inhabitants left it, discarded and broken; only a small percent was taken from graves.

The tombs of the dead of Seleucia were in the abodes of the living. Samuel Yeivin’s research showed that some bodies were disposed of in walls or under floors without protection of any sort, but the great majority were covered by some kind of superstructure or placed in pottery coffins or jars or, for children and infants, in ordinary cooking pots. The inferior materials, workmanship, and cheap, drab appearance of the pottery coffins throughout the uppermost level corroborate other evidence that this was a period of great economic and cultural decline. Some cultural change in the burials between levels II and III is evident: otherwise, mortuary customs appeared relatively consistent, reflecting the belief that the dead would require the pottery, glassware, jewelry, and other articles of daily use in the afterlife and that a coin, usually placed in the palm or on the mouth, would be necessary to pay the captain of the ferry to the underworld. Close examination of burial practices has led to a somewhat more detailed understanding of the history of the ancient city.

Further knowledge of how the people of Seleucia lived and how their city was arranged came from an unexpected source. In “A Birds-Eye View of Opis and Seleucia,” Clark Hopkins used the aerial photographs of Seleucia as an aid in interpreting the overall topographical arrangement of the city and the conduct of its business and trade. The photographs suggest where the old bed of the Tigris touched the city, where the docks were, and where the canal from the Euphrates may have connected the city to traffic on that river. “Not only do the carefully formed streets form a regular network,” writes Hopkins, “but the whole city exhibits a balanced plan of a master architect.” Excavation has disclosed very little change in the general aspect of the city in the course of its history. Despite varying styles in arts, crafts, and architecture, and despite the city’s many vicissitudes, the general Hellenistic plan as reproduced by aerial photography has remained intact. Further definitive information on the city can be found in The Topography and Architecture of Seleucia on the Tigris, edited by Clark Hopkins. It includes sections on “The Architectural Decoration,” by Bernard Goldman, and “The History of Seleucia from Classical Sources,” by Robert G. McDowell.