ElAnt v1n4 - Euesperides: A Devastated Site

Volume 1, Number 4
September 1993

A challenge for multimedia presentation

Maria Economou,
Linacre College,
OX1 3JA,
e-mail: economou@vax.ox.ac.uk


This article gives an account of the history and archaeology of the Greek colony of Euesperides in Cyrenaica. It also describes a project based at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford for the multimedia presentation of the surviving evidence about the site, which is part of doctoral research on the use of multimedia systems in archaeology and museums.


The site of Euesperides, the westernmost Greek colony in Cyrenaica, on the outskirts of modern Benghazi near the north Libyan coast, was first surveyed archaeologically during the Italian occupation of the area in the beginning of this century, when it was regarded as beyond any hope of recovery. ( 1 ) It was after the Second World War that it attracted the attention of archaeologists again, almost by accident. First, a British soldier collected Greek pottery sherds from the ruined site; then, in 1950 an air photograph came to the notice of the archaeologist Richard Goodchild. Taken by R.A.F. for routine purposes a few years earlier, it showed very clearly the layout of an ancient city at the area of a Moslem cemetery, near the junction of two major roads, and proved to be one of the most fascinating pieces of evidence about Euesperides.

Since the desertion of Euesperides around the middle of the third century BC, the site had served for a long period as a quarry for ready-cut stone. In modern times there appeared on the ground only mutilated ruins with very little left from the original structures which would be recognisable to the eye. However, during this time the robber trenches were gathering moisture, where some vegetation would grow. Thus, while there seemed very little left on the ground, from the air one could trace clearly the city plan, with parts of the city wall, buildings and streets.

In 1952 Richard Goodchild published a short article in Antiquity drawing attention to the site and suggesting further investigation. ( 2 ) Indeed various bodies, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries, the Craven Committee and the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford, supported a campaign which was called ambitiously, the Ashmolean Expedition to Cyrenaica. This took the form of three excavation seasons from 1952 to 1954, the first two of which were also supported financially by the Libyan government. Little was known about the history of Euesperides before the Ashmolean excavations.


Euesperides was probably founded by people from Cyrene or Barce on the edge of a lagoon which opened from the sea and was probably at the time deep enough to receive small sailing vessels. ( 3 ) The city is first mentioned by ancient sources in Herodotus' account of the revolt of Barca and the Persian expedition to Cyrenaica in c.515 BC, where we learn that the punitive force sent by the satrap in Egypt conquered most of Cyrenaica and reached as far west as Euesperides. ( 4 ) Despite its euphemistic name, which Herodotus attributes to the fertility of the neighbourhood and which gave rise to the mythological associations with the garden of the Hesperides, the city was planted in a rather inhospitable territory and was surrounded by hostile tribes. Thucydides mentions a siege of the city in 414 by Libyan tribes, presumably the Nasamones. In that occasion Euesperides was saved by the chance arrival of Gylippos and his fleet who were blown to Libya by contrary winds on their way to Sicily. ( 5 )

During a large part of its history Euesperides must have been subordinate to Cyrene. Its coinage suggests that it must have enjoyed at least an intermittent autonomy in the early fifth century when the coins of Euesperides have their own types, distinct from those of Cyrene with the legend EU(ES). ( 6 ) The earliest coin issued by the city dates to before the mid-fifth century. The authority of Cyrene over Euesperides was probably still quite firm during the second half of the fifth century, although we are not certain about the exact form of their relationship.

One of the Cyrenean kings whose fate is tragically connected with the city is Arcesilas IV whose chariot victory at the Pythian Games of 462 was extolled by Pindar in his fourth and fifth Pythian Odes. This victory (as well as that of 460 BC at the Olympians) were used by the King to attract new settlers to Euesperides, where Arcesilas was hoping to create a safe refuge for himself against the resentment of his people. This proved totally ineffective, since when the King fled there during the anticipated revolution (around 440 BC), he was assassinated, thus terminating the almost two hundred year rule of the Battiad dynasty. More settlers were invited from Messene around 405 BC to reinforce the city against pressure from the Libyan tribes, but these returned to their homes when Epaminondas freed Messene in 369 BC. ( 7 )

From an inscription found in modern Benghazi and dated around the middle of the fourth century, we learn that the city had a similar constitution to that of Cyrene, with a board of chief magistrates (ephors) and a council of elders (gerontes), who in this case introduced to the Boule a motion proposing to honour as proxenoi two citizens of Syracuse. ( 8 )

Later in the fourth century, during the unsettling period which followed Alexander's death, the city backed the losing side in a revolt led by the Spartan adventurer Thibron; he was trying to create an empire for himself, but was defeated by the Cyreneans and their Libyan allies.

With the royal nuptials of Ptolemy III and Berenice, daughter of the Cyrenean Governor Magas around the middle of the third century, and the renaming of many Cyrenaican cities to mark the occasion, Euesperides became Berenice, Taucheira Arsinoe - after the King's mother, and the port of Barce Ptolemais. In the case of Euesperides the change of name actually involved a relocation. Numismatic evidence from the site offers information about the time of its desertion (probably due to the silting up of the lagoons) and the move to Berenice which lies underneath the modern city centre. ( 9 ) Since then and until very recently, the original site remained uninhabited and undeveloped, offering the opportunity to study the continuous development of a Greek colony from the sixth to the mid-third centuries BC.


These wre directed by C.N. Johns, the British Controller of Antiquities in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, who was in Libya temporarily on secondment from the Royal Commission for Ancient Monuments of Wales. He was assisted by two Oxford graduates and a draughtsman. The government of Cyrenaica was to pay half the costs, offer accommodation and transport and divide the finds with the Ashmolean. During that year the whole area of some fifteen acres was surveyed, and excavation was carried out on the mound of the Moslem cemetery Sidi Abeid (site A) which had been built on what was probably the nucleus of the ancient town, as well as at the flat extension near the salt marshes (site B).

At site A, on the mound, a grid of 100 by 20 metres was dug, revealing the two upper main building levels. In the Museum's Annual Report, ( 10 ) we find a short account of that year's results:

Though disturbed by recent military works, it yielded a plan of cobbled lanes set at right angles to form blocks of 20 metres each way, each containing a house built of mud brick on rubble foundations. The pottery found, which consisted of Attic red- figure and black-glaze types . . . as well as coarse ware, indicates a fourth-century BC date for this level. Over 100 coins were also found and these, when deciphered, may indicate how long the occupation lasted . . . It is intended to resume excavations in the spring.

Indeed, the team returned next spring for a session of two months, again under the direction of Johns. By plotting surface indications and robber trenches, an intelligible city plan was produced, showing street blocks, the layout of some of the houses, a possible market place in the centre and the site of an important building lying on a different axis to the West. From its varying street axes, Johns assumed that the city plan fell into three parts, northern, middle and southern, of which the northern was the smallest and most compact. ( 11 )

The main interest was centred in the grid on the mound, which seemed to be the oldest part of the city. A specimen insula was cleared there, containing two houses standing back to back, each with its well and kitchen. They also dug a trial trench at the S.E. of the mound, following a war trench for gun emplacements. This gave the length of a street leading apparently to a gate in the eastern city wall; from what we can gather from the available plans, the area contained a pottery kiln and traces of house walls.

The cleaning up of an exposed face at the south of the mound gave a clear stratigraphical plan, showing the three periods of occupation, the second having left the deepest deposits. The first occupation level belongs to the sixth century and, although sparse and ruined, is quite distinct, covered with a stratum which suggests that the city was in a derelict state at the time of the second re-occupation. The second level is predominantly of the fifth century, (probably the second half), continues into the fourth, and contains two or three successive floors. The final squatter's level exists only in shallow, intermittent deposits and lasted into the Ptolemaic period.

In the lower extension (site B) soundings were made that year along the city wall and the foundations of a tower were found. Johns believed that this was the last of the three parts of the fully developed town, with only one period of occupation. From the evidence available after the two excavation sessions of 1952 and 1953, he thought that the city was confined to the mound in the beginning, and then spread over the flat ground in the second period of occupation, at first as far as the open space or market and afterwards beyond it to the southern wall:

'In the third period, on the other hand, I think it contracted and was perhaps no longer than the original mound, since the new town Berenice, a mile to the South, was already developing at the expense of the old. The expansion of the second period could have taken place under the last two kings of Cyrene, Battus IV and Arcesilas IV, both of whom were expecting trouble with the nobles of Cyrene and were looking for a place of refuge'. ( 12 )

After giving these general conclusions, Johns admitted that there was still a lot to be done before acquiring a general picture of the development of the site, hoping he would be able to return next spring to carry on with the work. ( 13 )

Unfortunately he had to hand over to the new Controller of Antiquities and return to his position in Wales. From his correspondence (deposited by his son together with other relevant papers in the Ashmolean Museum after Johns' death in 1992) it is obvious that he always meant to go back and continue the excavations; or at least, and more importantly, to organise and study the finds, plans, and diaries at the storerooms of Benghazi and publish his results. Sadly, this never happened and due to professional and family duties he was unable to join the last season of the Ashmolean Expedition to Cyrenaica.

As a further season in Euesperides appeared worthwhile, it was soon realised that this would have to be organised for early in 1954; the municipal authorities in Benghazi could no longer keep the area of the Moslem cemetery earmarked. Since C.N. Johns was unable to attend, Basil C.S. Wilson, who had assisted Johns during the previous season, was sent in Cyrenaica to direct what was considered to be more like a rescue excavation. This time the expedition was fully financed from the British end, ( 14 ) and part of the finds from that season are now in the Ashmolean Museum.

Wilson adopted a slightly different numbering system from Johns, putting the grid and level indications directly on the objects, mostly sherds of Attic black-gloss ware and coarse pottery. Until very recently it was impossible to make any sense of these marks on the material in Oxford, which did not seem to correspond to the few available plans and notes. Wilson died in 1986 and until recently it seemed that the problem was insoluble. However, in 1992 a chance discovery was made of site plans and drawings from a locked cupboard in the old office of Basil Wilson at Queens University in Belfast, where he had spent his working life teaching archaeology; and also, thanks to the generosity of his widow, many of Wilson's slides and photographs can now be studied. From these sources emerged the extremely useful plans including the grid numbers adopted during the 1954 excavation and supplying an important piece of the archaeological puzzle. ( 15 )

That year the excavation of the grid on the mound focused on two squares. Here the earliest constructions investigated were dated to the end of the sixth century. After the middle of the fifth century there seems to have been some architectural development in that part of the town, with houses opening into a regular chessboard pattern of cobbled streets. Subsequent building appears to be confined to re-flooring and repairs. ( 16 ) The main new feature was an isolated insula with streets on either side, numerous wells and a variety of household pottery and equipment at the S.E. of the mound, near the Italian trench area, whence a lot of the Ashmolean finds came. The earliest of the two floor levels is dated to the second half of the fifth century.

In September 1954 agreement was reached between the Libyan and the British parties about the division of the material. The bulk of that season's finds are now in Oxford. These include Late Corinthian sherds, Attic black- and red-figure and black-glaze pottery, imported amphoras and locally made household ware, loom weights, a few pieces of terracotta figurines, bronze fragments, some coins and fragments of ostrich shell. The finds from the two previous 1952 and 1953 excavations directed by Johns were left stored in Benghazi.

The results of the three excavation periods were never published in any form due to a combination of factors. The material was scattered among the Ashmolean, the Benghazi - and later the Cyrene - storerooms, and the excavators' homes and offices in Britain and Ireland. Johns was waiting for the results from the cleaning and dating of the coins to publish at least a preliminary report, but this did not prove possible to arrange. The history of these excavations has some interest of its own and is closely linked with the post-war period of British archaeology, as well as the developments of a rapidly changing Libya.

Euesperides seems to have been a 'doomed' site, since the next and last time an effort was made for its investigation in 1968-9, it again met difficulties and was affected by the political developments and the creation of the Libyan Arabic Republic (Jamahirya). This time the excavations were prompted by the reclamation project of the adjoining Es-Selmani lagoon and the plans for extensive building on the area. By that time most of the remains were damaged, so the project was intended to be a mixture of survey and sample excavation at key points before more of it was destroyed. ( 17 ) The campaign was supported by the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, and the British Schools at Athens and Rome and was directed by G.D.B. Jones.

The soundings conducted on the mound reconfirmed the sixth century dating of the earliest levels. A house-plan retaining fragments of a mosaic from its latest phase was excavated in the south, lower extension (site B). This area is laid out in elongated building blocks and resembles the plan of Olynthus, Rhodes, and Priene. The earliest sections, almost two metres below the excavated insula's foundations, showed timber structures which stood on the foreshore of the lagoon in the fifth century. In these sections also, pottery of the sixth century found stratified in a layer of marine-deposited kaolin indicated the speed with which the lagoon was drying up in antiquity. ( 18 )


From an archaeological point of view, the site is very interesting because it offers the rare chance to study the undisturbed and clearly defined layers of a Greek colony from the sixth to the mid- third century BC, without any intervening later constructions. In view of the meagre historical information and also of the modern rapid destruction of the site, the Ashmolean Expedition, despite its many problems and difficulties, acquires a special importance. From a different viewpoint, which focuses on the perception of archaeological information by a wider audience, the material from Euesperides, although scattered and fragmentary, offers great potential for an interactive multimedia presentation to the general, as well as specialised, public.

The finds from Euesperides, if they were to be exhibited in a museum gallery on their own, without any interpretative material, could not offer even to the specialist a clear, comprehensible picture of the site's history or of the interesting questions it poses. The Ashmolean has now at its disposal a wealth of material which in many cases could offer the key for deciphering the meaning, role, and context of the objects: general location maps, site plans, sections and plans of the excavated areas, photographs, drawings of the finds and notes from the excavators offer valuable evidence. Using information technology we wish to put together these different types of data for an interactive display so as to make the computer screen a window to the archaeology and history of an ancient Greek colony, while giving at the same time some insights into the ways archaeologists work.

Multimedia is the term used to describe the systems which combine various forms of information - text, images, graphics, sound, video - in a single medium, in most cases a computer enhanced by audio-visual resources. Multimedia programs often have a non-sequential, non-linear structure (and are then called hypermedia ), allowing the user to control the flow of the program, and retrieve from it the iformation which is of greatest interest. They are also interactive, allowing the free and continuous two-way transfer of information between the user and the system. Well designed multimedia systems should offer information at various levels and give the user the opportunity for comparisons and combined examinations of different materials, features and ideas, while maintaining ease of use.

A multimedia presentation of Euesperides' history and archaeology, linked to the display of the actual objects could offer information about the site, the historical background, explain some of the scientific processes and show how archaeologists put together various forms of evidence to draw their conclusions. It could help demystify archaeological work and hopefully show how even small, unimpressive potsherds can give information about past practices.

A prototype is currently being developed using Apple's Hypercard authoring software, which will be used at a temporary exhibition in Oxford. It will incorporate material from the ancient sources, inscriptions, coins, pottery, myths, the texts of the European consuls and travelers to Benghazi of the Victorian period, information from the excavations of the 1950's, as well as results from later research.

The aim of this project is to create an information base concerning the history and archaeology of Euesperides suitable for an interaction with a wide range of users, accommodating visitors from very different educational and social backgrounds, for different age groups, and with different interests and prior knowledge of the subject. One of the objectives is to offer the initiative and control to the public, not to create another form of a guided tour, but instead to let the users explore and follow their own interests. At a higher level of available information academics and specialised researchers would also be catered for, the Euesperides project providing a way for accessing simultaneously and easily very different types of sources. In order to meet these objectives, the program will have to be very flexible and carefully designed, offering appropriate options to be followed and presenting information in various layers, while incorporating multiple links which the user can follow to navigate between the different modules.

For archaeologists, Euesperides offers interesting material for further investigation. From a different perspective, it could be seen as a challenge, providing the basis to explore the role of information technology in museums. Multimedia, hypermedia, interactive displays, hands-on exhibits seem to be fashionable concepts lately and often considered as prerequisites for any museum which claims to be modern and attractive to its public. But there has to be a great deal of care and thought, for an interactive project of this kind must not only be impressive and exciting, but also useful and meaningful.

It would be interesting to use the Euesperides material to observe some of the conditions which make the use of computers more effective, and investigate the interaction between visitors, surrounding exhibits, and computers. The reactions of visitors to a multimedia presentation in the museum will be tested, as well as the expectations and demands of different visitor groups and the information obtained from the program. The feedback from visitors, through surveys, questionnaires, interviews, would be very important for the restructuring and final formation of the program and would help test hypotheses about the use and the role of modern technologies in museums, and in archaeological presentations and interpretations.


Euesperides' history is very long and eventful. The excavations seem to reconfirm the literary evidence: settlement by 515 BC, raids by neighbouring tribes over the next two or three centuries, limited growth between 440 and 400, desertion after c.275. And later on, twentieth century's technological developments, as well as social and political changes have affected the site and often destroyed many of its features. Second World War guns were placed in what had become a Moslem cemetery, next to the remains of a fifth century BC house of the ancient city; a few years later British archaeologists tried to unravel the site's secrets; oil was discovered in Libya, and Benghazi expanded rapidly; ring roads were constructed on top of the old city blocks, and modern houses were later built in parts of the ancient city. It is with twentieth century's latest developments, in the field of information technology this time, that an effort is made to organise what remains of Euesperides' past and share it with the public.


I would like to thank Michael Vickers for offering me the opportunity to study the material from Euesperides and discussing many of the ideas in this paper; also, my supervisor Dr Jonathan Moffett, Anne Bowtell, and Dr Anastassios Economou for reading an earlier version and suggesting useful corrections. Last, but not least, I would like to acknowledge the financial support given to me from the Lambrakis Research Foundation for my research.

(1) A. Salvadori, La Cirenaica ed i suoi servizi civili (Rome, 1914), p. 69.

(2) R. Goodchild, 'Euesperides: a devastated city site', Antiquity 26 (1952), pp. 208-212.

(3) R. Goodchild, Benghazi, the story of a city (Cyrene, 1962).

(4) Herodotus IV.204.

(5) Thucydides VII.50.

(6) E. S. G. Robinson, Catalogue of Greek coins in Cyrenaica in the British Museum (London, 1927), p. 188.

(7) Pausanias IV.26.2; Diodorus XIV.34.

(8) P. M. Fraser, 'An inscription from Euesperides', Bulletin de la Societe Royale d' Archeologie d' Alexandrie 39 (1951), pp. 132-143.

(9) R. C. Bond & J. M. Swales, 'Surface finds of coins from the city of Euesperides', Libya antiqua II (1965), pp. 91-96; T. Buttrey,'The coinage from Euesperides', in L. Burn & J. M. Reynolds, The proceedings of the Cambridge Cyrenaican Colloquium (forthcoming).

(10) Ashmolean Museum Annual Report 1952, pp. 15-16.

(11) Letter from C. N. Johns to D. B. Harden, 21 June 1953, p. 2.

(12) Ibid. p. 4.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ashmolean Museum Annual Report 1954, p. 15.

(15) M. Vickers, D. Gill & M. Economou, 'Euesperides: the Rescue of an Excavation', in L. Burn & J. M. Reynolds, The proceedings of the Cambridge Cyrenaican Colloquium (forthcoming).

(16) Preliminary report on excavations at Euesperides from B. C. S. Wilson to D. B. Harden, 1954.

(17) G. D. B. Jones, 'Excavations at Tocra and Euesperides, Cyrenaica 1968-69', Libyan Studies 14 (1983), pp. 109-121.

(18) G. D. B. Jones, 'Beginnings and endings in Cyrenaican cities', in G. Barker, J. Lloyd & J. M. Reynolds (eds.), Cyrenaica in Antiquity (Oxford, 1985), p. 28.

Meria Economou
e-mail: economou@vax.ox.ac.uk

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 3 - August 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606