You are here

Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Vol. 6, A Zooarchaeological Analysis

Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Vol. 6, A Zooarchaeological Analysis

By Karyn M. Wesselingh (MeditArch Suppl. 11). Pp. xvii + 241. Mediterranean Archaeology, Sydney, Australia 2018. AUD$110. ISBN 978-0958026581 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This zooarchaeological study is the sixth volume in the series presenting the results of research carried out by the Australian Mission at Jebel Khalid in the Euphrates River valley of northern Syria. The settlement was established shortly after 300 BCE by Seleucus I and was occupied for nearly 200 years. Jebel Khalid offers ideal conditions for studying the development and material culture of a Hellenistic city in the Syrian hinterland. Due to its dominant position in the Euphrates plain and surrounding steppe, the site must have served as a fortified military garrison to guard traffic along and across the river. It has been undergoing excavation since 1986.

The faunal remains come from particularly important sectors for Seleucid studies, such as the Acropolis Palace (Area A), a complete insula of the domestic quarter (Housing Insula), the temple area (Area B), the Palaestra (Area C), as well as from incompletely excavated areas whose role is not yet well understood (Area S, Area X). The quantity of faunal remains is impressive. Nearly 33,500 fragments have been studied, of which about one-tenth have been identified at the species level. Previous studies are also included in this final report, so that all the faunal data obtained to date at Jebel Khalid are now brought together.

The book is organized into seven chapters followed by various appendices. The first chapter presents the history of zooarchaeology in the Near East followed by a brief overview of faunal studies at classical sites (particularly Hellenistic) by region. The Hellenistic period and the question of colonization as well as the degree of Hellenization of the community living in Jebel Khalid are addressed. The major consideration of the author in relation to the zooarchaeological study is the concept of cultural identity, which is stressed throughout the volume. It is assumed that faunal studies provide an approach to the population’s food preferences and culinary habits and thus provide information on cultural identity (8–9). While cooking and consumption are directly related to cultural practices, it is nevertheless important to keep in mind that it is particularly difficult to highlight different cultural communities in an archaeological site solely on the basis of bone remains. This is due to the effects of many biases, including, to name but a few, the reliability of archaeological contexts and their dating, and the quantity (which needs to be statistically significant) and quality (which requires well-preserved parts for specific identification and age information) of faunal remains available in a reliable context.

The second chapter, a comprehensive presentation of the site and the areas where the faunal remains were found, is invaluable as it allows for a good understanding of the challenges posed by the site and of the archaeological contexts of the biofacts. The bones come from different contexts, with links to palatial, administrative, religious, and private residential sectors and covering the entire period of site occupation.

Chapter 3 is entirely devoted to the methodology, thoroughly and precisely describing the different steps of the bone study, emphasizing in particular the sampling, recovery, and packing phases. The author provides details about the recording of bone remains, estimates of age at death according to species, fragmentation and preservation, taphonomic observations, and measurements. Data processing and quantification are also explained in detail. Some of these aspects (taphonomic factors) are discussed again in the next chapter (53-67) which unfortunately somewhat obscures understanding and introduces unnecessary repetition.

In chapter 4, first some of the domestic and wild taxa are presented, accompanied by discussions of specific problems. The determination of certain taxa, such as cervidae, equidae, and birds are accompanied by metric analysis. According to species identification, domestic animals predominate, but wild species are also represented. Sheep and goat dominate the assemblage, as expected for this region, and cattle and pigs are present. Concerning the dates of the domestication of the pig (43), it is important to add to the author's observations that the domestic pig, after its domestication in the Upper Euphrates valley around 8500 BCE, appears earlier in the northern Levant (around 8000 BCE ) than in the southern Levant. The author then presents a good overview of complicated equid taxonomy that makes the identification of this genus difficult (44). Nevertheless, no mention is made in the text of the hybridization between donkeys and onagers attested in ancient texts and in zooarchaeological and paleogenetic data (as documented at Umm el-Marra) at the end of the third millennium. It is still not known whether this practice continued until classical periods. The determination of equids is all the more difficult given that at that time several types of horses, of different sizes and varying degrees of robustness, may have coexisted. In this respect, the identification of onagers in Assurbanipal’s royal hunts in Niniveh (44) is currently controversial; they are probably small vigorous horses (P. Albenda, “Horses of Different Breeds: Observations in Assyrian Art,” in C. Nicolle, ed., Nomades et sédentaires dans le Proche-Orient ancien: Compte rendu de la XLVIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Paris, 10–13 juillet 2000) [Paris 2004] 321–34). Among the other species identified at Jebel Khalid, it should be noted that animals present in the surrounding environment were hunted, including gazelle, red deer, fallow deer, and roe deer, but with the exception of wild boars, even though these last must also have been present in forest areas along the Euphrates. Bactrian camel bones were identified, which is interesting but not surprising, since camel bones have been discovered at Late Bronze Age sites in Syria (Tell Sheikh Hamad, Nebi Mend).

The author provides a thorough comparative study of the post- and peri-depositional factors of the different excavated areas, through the analysis of such factors as size, fragmentation, and the burial conditions of bones. The objective is to understand how the excavation, recovery methods, and burial conditions have affected the assemblage available for study. An extensive study conducted on consumption and discard patterns, through body-part representation, carcass processing, and fragmentation, shows that bone marrow may have been extracted on the acropolis. A section explores possible livestock-farming management strategies according to age and sex. Unfortunately, mandibles and teeth are scarce, and age assessments are based on the epiphyseal fusion of bones, which is less accurate than tooth wear. Despite the limitations of the material, the study provides insights into farming strategies for caprines, cattle, and pigs.

Chapter 5 deals with intrasite variation. The author explores differences between the areas in terms of species composition, post- and peri-depositional factors, and carcass processing. She concludes that the inhabitants of the acropolis were culturally different from other areas (117, 168, 173). This conclusion is based mainly on a higher frequency of cattle, deer, birds (chicken and pigeons), and fish, and on the presence of a large amount of burnt bone, in association with a drum altar, which suggests that animals may have been sacrificed in the Acropolis Palace. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the differences observed are cultural or social. On another note, the author’s consideration of the pottery from the Housing Insula to understand cooking methods is to be commended.

Chapter 6 presents a challenging regional comparison to identify Greek and Levantine dietary regimes, comparing sites of mainland Greece, the Greek islands, western Turkey, and the Levant during the first millennium BCE. It would also have been interesting to compare the data with Gautier’s study on Apamea (Qal`at al-Madhīq) in Syria (Les restes de vertébrés de la maison aux consoles [Brussels 1979]).

Chapter 7 closes the book with a discussion and conclusions. Some passages seem rather redundant, as they are addressed already in several places in the volume. A small rectification is to be made regarding the date of the first appearance of donkey deposits in burials (169): they are found already in the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BCE) in the Near East.

To conclude, Wesselingh’s book provides an important resource because it is the first published monograph of Hellenistic fauna from northern Syria. The detailed presentation of the data, the publication of the metric data, and the extensive synthesis enhance this publication, which will be particularly useful to zooarchaeologists and specialists of the Hellenistic period.

Emmanuelle Vila
CNRS/Université de Lyon
Archéorient, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon, France

Book Review of Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Vol. 6, A Zooarchaeological Analysis, by Karyn M. Wesselingh
Reviewed by Emmanuelle Vila
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Vila

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.