In 1928, Charles Rufus Morey, chair of Princeton's Department of Art and Archaeology, proposed the exploration and excavation of the ancient and medieval site of Antioch, located in northern Syria near the Turkish border. Founded in 300 B.C., Antioch was one of the most important political and cultural centers of the Hellenistic East and one of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire. Morey wrote, “To continue the work of Howard Crosby Butler in the archaeological exploration of Syria has of course always been a desire of this Department at Princeton.”
Morey’s involvement began as early as 1927, when the French Antiquities Service asked if Princeton would be interested in excavating at Antioch. Morey replied, “We have had this project as a dream for some years.” He thought that Princeton was the logical choice to direct the excavation of Antioch because the project would be a natural extension of Howard Crosby Butler’s expeditions to Syria, and because the Index of Christian Art, which he had founded in 1917, was the institution best equipped to interpret the Early Christian and Byzantine materials that would certainly be found at Antioch.
The opportunity to excavate came in 1930, when the Syrian Antiquities Service finalized the concession and Princeton was granted the right of excavation for a six-year term, beginning January 1, 1931. Fund raising, including the search for additional subscribers and sponsors, continued throughout 1931. In December of 1931, the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch-on-the-Orontes was formed; its members included the Worcester Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Musées Nationaux de France, and, of course, Princeton, which assumed direction of the expedition and responsibility for the publication of its results.
Fieldwork began on March 4, 1932, under the general direction of George W. Elderkin, Princeton professor of art and archaeology. The staff consisted of Clarence Fisher of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem as field director, William A. Campbell of Wellesley College as assistant field director, and Jean Lassus of the French Institute at Damascus.
Four campaigns were carried out at Antioch and its suburb Daphne between 1933 and 1936. When the original concession expired in July of 1936, the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch asked for a renewal of the concession for the maximum period of six years. The Department of Syrian Antiquities granted this request, and the subscribing institutions extended their support, thereby ensuring the continuation of the excavations. The renewal also granted the right to excavate the port city of Seleucia, where preliminary work began within the city walls in 1937.
The final excavations of the campaign took place in September of 1939. The prevailing sentiment was that time was running out. The earlier sponsors of the dig, still suffering the effects of the Depression, were hesitant to fund excavations. In Europe and in the Middle East war was looming. The most immediate crisis was the secession of Hatay province, where Antioch was located, from Syria to Turkey, a country with strict laws governing the exporting of antiquities. Consequently, the field director William Campbell had a rather difficult time extracting the committee’s share of excavated objects, as stipulated in the original concessions negotiated with the Syrian Department of Antiquities. Ultimately the 300 mosaics and all the other finds were divided on a share basis among the various subscribers, including the Turkish government. Work was finally suspended with the outbreak of World War II.