Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity

The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College is the venue for Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, which showcases Roman artefacts excavated in the 1920s and 1930s from the ancient city Dura-Europos, located in the desert of modern-day Syria high above the Euphrates River.

Comprising 75 of the most significant treasures from Dura-Europos, the exhibition tells the story of this vibrant multicultural city inhabiting a crossroad between major eastern and western civilizations. Between 1928 and 1937, archaeologists from Yale University and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres uncovered buildings and made discoveries that fundamentally altered scholars’ understanding of religious practice in late antiquity.
Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity partially reconstructs some of the city’s ancient religious spaces with their celebrated wall paintings and explores interactions among the disparate cultural, religious and professional groups that inhabited Dura-Europos.
Dura-Europos: The City
Located at the contested borders between the Seleucid, Parthian and Roman Empires—and on the Euphrates River, a major north-south transportation artery—Dura-Europos was home to a multicultural population. Settled by Macedonian veterans around 300 BCE, Parthians captured Dura-Europos late in the second century BCE and made the city into a fortress which flourished as a trading post on the western border of their huge empire.

In the mid-second century CE, Romans seized the city and turned it into a major garrison on their empire’s eastern frontier. Remains of parchment, papyri and carved inscriptions attest to the numerous languages spoken and written in ancient Dura-Europos, including Greek, Latin, Aramaic (Palmyrene and Syriac), Middle Persian, Parthian, Hebrew and Safaitic.
The religions that coexisted in the city speak of an equally complex cultural environment, with temples to Greek, Roman and numerous Near Eastern gods, as well as dedicated places of worship for Christians and Jews. Abandoned after a Sasanian siege and sack in 256 CE, the site remained virtually unexplored until 1928, when excavations at Dura-Europos were initiated by Yale University.

Along a single street, excavators brought to light a synagogue with painted walls depicting Biblical scenes—something the world thought impossible given the prohibition against graven images in Jewish law; one of the earliest Christian house churches with the earliest-known baptistery; and a place of worship for the mystery religion of Mithraism. Many other religious buildings of Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian and Roman deities surfaced, as did numerous cult reliefs and other sculptures, paintings, papyri, parchments, coins, well-preserved military equipment, and items of everyday use.
The exhibition presents partial to-scale reconstructions with wall paintings and computerized virtual reality spaces recreating the original settings of the art in the Baptistery, Synagogue and Mithraeum, the most well-known material from Dura-Europos. A display of sculpture and other artefacts relating to pagan religions of Dura examines the range of deities worshipped, and a room nicknamed the “talking heads” surrounds visitors with portraits and objects revealing the cacophony of languages written and spoken at Dura-Europos. Also explored are the numerous professions practised in the city, and the identities of individuals and groups normally hidden or excluded from historical records—for example, slaves, women and children.

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For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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