Digging into the lost city of Alexander the Great

Using ancient, war-scarred elephant bones found in Iraq, a University of Saskatchewan archaeologist has helped to unearth what is believed to be the mysterious lost city of Alexander the Great.

By Chris Morin

Participating in the excavation of this historical site was nothing less than a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Tina Greenfield, an expert in near eastern archaeology at the Department of Religion and Culture with St. Thomas More College.

Traveling to Iraq earlier this year as part of a heritage protection project launched by the British Museum and funded by their government, Greenfield was part of the team that uncovered the archaeological ruins of Qalatga Darband, a city considered to have been founded under the reign of Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago.

Having been brought on to the excavation project as the director of bioarchaeology, Greenfield developed a research program to investigate organic remains found in the deposits, which included animal bones, along with human and plant remains.

“I look at ancient economies to understand how people provisioned and fed the earliest cities and empires,” she said. “Analyzing these bones help tell us what daily life was like in these cities, whether a building was used for cooking, administration, or if it was a dwelling of a high-status occupant.”

Greenfield said this data also contributes to the body of evidence related to the exploits of Alexander the Great, considered by many historians to be one of the most powerful kings of the ancient world.

“Generally, you don’t get data from animal bones that would pinpoint a battle,” she said. “But when I was at the site this spring I found massive bones. I couldn’t figure out what they were at first, but we eventually found out they were elephant bones, which was a great find because we know that in wars at this time they were riding elephants into battle.”

Greenfield said that the wounds on the bones indicate how the animal died, and helps to tell the legend of Qalatga Darband, a story that has been shrouded in modern intrigue.

The hidden city first came to the attention of British archaeologists after viewing declassified footage captured by American spy satellites taken during the 1960s. The site remained unexplored for a number of years after due to safety concerns during Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq. However, Greenfield and a number of her colleagues were eventually able to convene at the ancient city as a part of a British Museum project that aims to preserve Iraqi heritage and educate Iraqi archaeologists on modern excavation techniques and scientific analysis of artefactual material.

Since excavating around the Hellenistic city, which is believed to have been founded in 331 BC, Greenfield said that a wealth of hidden historical artifacts and treasures have been uncovered that have shed light on evidence of the later Persian occupation and the earlier occupations from the Assyrian Empire (900-612 BC), which was the earliest true empire in the world.

“When we began to dig we saw artifacts specifically dating to the Hellenistic time period,” she said. “And then we realized we were standing on a major settlement that coincided with the rule of Alexander the Great. We know that his forces were in this region during this time, but unfortunately there was no tangible evidence. We believe we now have that evidence, from coins that show the leaders of this time period which help to place this exact city as to where battles between the Greek occupants and the Persians under the rule of Darius III took place. And we know Alexander was fighting these battles to control this area.

“There are incredibly rich deposits of what we believe are temple artifact remains, like Hellenistic statues of gods and people. All of these finds help us to better understand how the citizens of this city lived in this region. We are investigating the frontiers of this empire.”

Greenfield, who teaches courses on ancient Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, and the Levant, eventually aims to establish a field school in Israel, which she hopes will inspire students to learn more about the archaeology and the ancient cultures that existed in the Holy Land.

“The conditions we work under when excavating aren’t always easy, especially at the foot of a mountain range in Iraqi Kurdistan. So you have to have a passion for this,” said Greenfield. “But those wow moments do happen when you find artifacts that help place these sites into a broader historical context. When you find what is believed to be a lost city of an ancient empire and charismatic ruler, it can be very exciting."