Preliminary Investigations at Charax Spasinou

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Few names from the ancient world resonate quite so loudly in the modern era as that of Alexander the Great. When in spring 2015 we were invited by the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage to work at a city founded by Alexander, we could scarcely refuse. One year on, we have just completed our first season of survey at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, known later as Charax Spasinou. That we were able to respond so swiftly to the request is entirely due to the generous support of, among others, Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemiszaat the Augustus Foundation, the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, of course, BISI itself.

 

Alexander sailed down the Eulaeus River from Susa in 324BC, and came to its confluence with the Tigris. At that time, access to open water and the Gulf was also close by. The strategic advantage of the place was obvious, and so Alexandria-on-the-Tigris was founded. Unfortunately, Alexander didn’t realise just how prone to flooding the entire region was (and in fact remained so until the construction of the Hindiya Barrage in the 1950s). After devastating floods, the city was twice re-founded, once as Antiochia in 166BC and again in 141BC as Charax Spasinou. As the latter, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Characene and a major trading emporium, exchanging goods with India, Palmyra, Petra, and onwards to Rome.

 

 

 

The remains of Charax Spasinou (modern Khayaber) lie some 40 km north of Basra. The ramparts rise to four metres above the plain, complete with bastions at regular intervals. To the south, the old course of the Eulaeus River is clearly visible and we estimate that the remains of the city are spread over an area of about five square kilometres. Debris from the Iraq-Iran war still litters the archaeological site and some areas have been badly disturbed by old military installations. Erosion, agricultural activity and looting continue to be threats.

 

Working at such a large site presents some interesting challenges. How do you survey and map such a large area, for example? Even with our modern surveying instruments, this would be a lengthy and arduous task. Fortunately, the use of a drone combined with mapping software provided a solution. Flying at a height of 100 metres, our drone took 5,000 photographs over nine days, covering an area of some eight square kilometres. These images are now being compiled into a digital elevation model which will be used to generate topographical maps, including a contour map and shaded relief maps.

 

 

Finding out how much archaeology is left at Charax after two thousand years of repeated flooding was another challenge. Here geophysics came to our rescue: armed with a caesium magnetometer, one of the world’s leading experts, Dr Joerg Fassbinder, with his team from the University of Munich, surveyed over eight hectares in ten days. The results were beyond expectations: entire districts of the city were revealed below the surface, including substantial public buildings and residential houses. The orthogonal plan produced by the survey clearly reflects the original lay-out of the Hellenistic city, one which was retained in succeeding periods.

 

An evaluation trench placed across one of the district boundaries found a ditch with mud-brick walls running parallel on both sides. A puzzling feature was a row of Parthian torpedo jars set upside-down in a solid layer of clay. The tips of the bases had been deliberately and neatly cut away, leaving entry holes at the top. Two further evaluation trenches found walls belonging to two of the large buildings that showed most clearly in the magnetometer survey.

 

 

The logistical challenges of working at Charax are substantial, but these preliminary results have more than repaid the effort. Our mission for the future will be to implement a comprehensive research and excavation strategy that will do justice to this important Alexandrian city.

Dr Robert Killick, Honorary Fellow, Manchester University