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Floor mosaic from Dor This intricate mosaic floor, featuring a masked young man from the Greek comic theater, is one of more than 100,000 artifacts uncovered by archaeologists at the ancient Israelite seaport site of Dor. (Credit: Gabi Laron)

How great was Alexander?

– Alexander the Great may not have been so great after all.

A University of California, Berkeley-led group of researchers is challenging the common history that credits the Macedonian king with initiating the spread of ancient Greek culture throughout the Middle East during his conquest of the region during the 4th century B.C.

Backed by a nearly $234,000 collaborative research grant from the Getty Foundation, the team over the next two years will try to document a thriving Hellenized culture in the city of Dor, Israel, at least 100 years before Alexander marched in.

The birth of the Hellenistic period, when Greek culture began to spread far beyond its native territory, has long been set around 334 B.C. to 323 B.C., when Alexander and his troops began their 20,000-mile conquest, thundering from Macedonia south through what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The troops then set off for Persia and India.

"Our hunch is that at Dor, Hellenization - the wholesale importation of Greek material culture - begins in the 5th century B.C. and goes into high gear around about 400 B.C. So, it precedes Alexander," said Andrew Stewart, a UC Berkeley professor of art history and classics in the College of Letters & Science. He also is the project's principal investigator.

"There is, as far as we can tell, no boost given to this process by Alexander's conquests," said Stewart. "So, immediately we are challenging the view that it was Alexander who principally spread Greek culture throughout the Middle East."

One of Stewart's UC Berkeley colleagues and an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, Marian Feldman, said the Mediterranean sea has long brought peoples and cultures together. Particularly close ties between the Levantine coast - which includes present-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria - and Greece appear as early as 1,400 B.C., she said.

"Tel Dor, located directly on the sea, should have participated in these interactions," Feldman said.

Dor was most likely a Phoenician or Phoenician-related city in the early centuries of the first millennium, and the Phoenicians are renowned for their seafaring skills and mercantile entrepreneurship, as memorialized in Homer's "Odyssey," she said. "When the excavations at Dor go deeper," said Feldman, "these contacts will be probably be shown to reach further back in time."

Stewart's team members will direct their attention to the wealth of materials found at the ancient Israelite seaport site of Dor, established by the Canaanites around 2,000 B.C. and once the harbor of King Solomon. Alexander the Great passed by Dor on his march from Tyre to Gaza and Egypt, by which time the city hosted a lively mixture of Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks and others.

In collaboration with teams from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and several American, Canadian and South African universities, Stewart has been digging at two sites at Dor for 20 years. These teams have uncovered more than 100,000 artifacts, close to 90 percent of them pottery, but also sculptures, figurines, lamps, coins, rings and other items representing all strata of society and dating back to the Iron Age.

One find was a headless statue of the Greek winged goddess Victory, together with fragments of a demolished Greek temple. Another was an elaborate and intricate mosaic floor, probably designed to help establish a party atmosphere in a banquet room. The mosaic - made with 10 to 15 cubes per square centimeter - features a masked young man from the Greek comic theater, wearing a fantastic party hat and set amid garlands of fruits and flowers.

"You have a party animal here," said Stewart, gesturing toward a photo that shows a character known as the second young, wavy-haired man.

"He spends much, much too much time indoors partying, likes the girls," he said, "and tends to wake up in the morning with a hangover. That's why his face is white, and that's why we thought it was female to begin with, because it is so pale and its lips are rouged. Well, they're rouged because he goes to the 'Black and White Ball' every night!"

Stewart called the mosaic "high end, absolutely top quality Greek work" that rivals anything in Alexandria from the same period.

The temple, mosaic and Victory were found in pits where they may have been discarded in a revival of Jewish traditionalism around 100 B.C.

It may be that some of the Phoenicians, Jews and others living in Dor simply developed a fascination or a fondness for Greek culture and embarked on an importing spree, Stewart said. Yet, around the time of Alexander's conquests in the region, there was no increase in Hellenization.

Instead, the process seems to have stagnated or even - for a time - gone into reverse, he said.

"Did our little town stand aloof from these developments?" Stewart asked. "Or were they purely political and military? Were the early Hellenistic kings only interested in raising money and fighting each other, essentially limiting Hellenization to the major centers? We don't know."

But Stewart and his team hope to find out.

The researchers will investigate what has been uncovered that reflects the efforts of inhabitants of Dor in adopting Greek culture, resisting it, or combining it with their own to form something new. They will look at these interactions in terms of material culture at various levels of society, throughout time.

"The same people may have used local-type storage jars that they knew and loved at the same time as drinking from Greek-style symposium cups," Stewart said.

Directing the Israeli part of the project will be Professor Ilan Sharon, an archaeologist and statistician from Hebrew University in Jerusalem with expertise in computer science as well as the archaeology of Israel and the Near East in the first millennium B.C. He has developed the immense data bases required for such an investigation and will direct the computer analysis.

The researchers will construct matrices reflecting the estimated chronology of the architecture and artifacts in each area of the site in order to see how they relate to each other. They will be able to develop a more refined chronology, and artifacts of particular interest can be stratigraphically plotted and scanned for patterns of distribution. Maps of the distribution will be developed to help to show who lived where, and when.

"Different areas of the site, as always, might have been occupied by different folks," said Stewart. "In Berkeley, you're going to get a different material culture in the hills than you are down on the flats or in East Oakland."

Ultimately, the Dor research project is expected to produce at least one book and a dissertation.

Without a team, the work would take a lifetime, said Stewart.

Also participating will be Sarah Stroup, an assistant professor at the University of Washington and a specialist in Hellenistic and Roman literature and culture. Stroup received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 2001 and has worked previously with Stewart at Dor. The other two members of the investigative team will be Stewart's assistant director, Allen Estes, an Assyriologist and archaeologist who also earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 1997, and John Berg, the site architect and stratigrapher.

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