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The Palmyra Portrait Project

Andet forskningsprojekt | 02/05/2016

Photo: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

The award-winning Danish archaeologist, Rubina Raja, is head of the research project the Palmyra Portrait Project, where more than 2,500 funerary sculptures from the Roman period are being investigated. The subject of investigation is material from Palmyra – a Syrian city that used to be a prosperous centre for trade. What can modern archaeologists learn from these portraits? And what is the pertinence of this knowledge in today’s turbulent Syria?

Within the Palmyra Portrait Project, which has been running since January 2012 funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, researchers have for the first time compiled the most complete corpus of Palmyrene funerary sculpture in a specially designed database, which can be made publicly available. The corpus is now the most comprehensive collection of these portraits in the world laying the ground for among other things statistical comparison across a vast material changing the picture of how these portraits are to be viewed as expressions of local identities in Palmyra. The portraits are the largest group of representations of individuals from the Roman period outside of Rome, which makes this group of objects significant to the study of identity constructions in Antiquity. Because of the escalating situation in Syria due to the civil war, the Palmyra Portrait Project has, apart from producing ground breaking research within the humanities, also become an international focus and frontrunner project within cultural heritage studies. Through the project it is now possible to trace some of the destructions and illegally excavated and traded objects from Palmyra and just as important to document the situation as it was before the destructions took place. In this way the Palmyra Portrait Project shows in which ways humanities still has the ability to stand at the core of unravelling cultural and political developments.

Collecting More Than 2,500 Portraits

Researchers within the Palmyra Portrait Project faced a daunting task when the project was initiated in 2012. More than 2,500 portraiture sculptures exist worldwide in museums and private collections, and the research team, headed by Professor Rubina Raja, decided to document each one of them in collaboration with a colleague from Nottingham University, Dr. Andreas Kropp. The portraits have never been studied as a whole before, although they originate from a relatively short time period of 250 years, immediately prior to the destruction of Palmyra by the Roman army in 273 CE.


(electronic) collection of empirical material used in scholarly investigations (ordnet.dk).

The corpus of the portraits, along with a unique physical archive of many of the portraits collected by the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt as well as his excavation diaries from his campaigns in Palmyra, constitute the focal points of research of the Palmyra Portrait Project

The collection of Palmyrene funerary sculptures at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is the largest collection of these portraits outside of Syria. The collection was to a large extent compiled by brewer Jacobsen through his connections to the Danish consul Løytved in Beirut. The collection shows an enormous visionary breadth and includes a variety of portrait constellations not encountered in other collections of Palmyrene funerary sculpture.

Depiction of the Dead

Palmyra’s portraiture art can be classified into two categories: portraits displayed in the public spaces of Palmyra, of which only few have been preserved, and funerary portraits.

During Palmyra’s period of affluence, public statues were erected in honour of the local elite on bases protruding from the columns flanking the public spaces of Palmyra. These statues lined the streets and porticoes (colonnades, ed.), most of them wearing togas as a sign of their affiliation with the Roman world. This was in stark contrast to the funerary portraits, where the Greek chiton (undergarment, ed.) or Parthian clothing constituted the normal types of garment.

Colonnade flanking a street in Palmyra with protruding bases for the mounting of public sculptures. In the background: huge funerary towers, once surrounding Palmyra’s town centre, in which funerary portraits were set up; some tombs contained more than 400 portraits, serving as massive genealogical tableaus. Photo: Rubina Raja

Women depicted in public sculptures wore full-body garments and only few pieces of jewellery – fully in line with the Roman ideals. Like the men, they had a different look when depicted in the funerary sculpture; here they were luxuriously ornamented with fine jewellery, clothed in elaborate dresses and headgear. The funerary portraits thus depict a wealth of textiles rarely seen in the Roman world, and already in their investigation of clothing, researchers therefore gained insight into local customs of relating to local traditions as well as identifying as being part of the Roman world. In the public sphere, there was an emphasis on underlining the integration with the Roman Empire, whereas the tombs reflect an insistence on maintaining continuity of local clothing traditions and cultures.

The Danish involvement in archaeological research in the Middle East has been strong for centuries. The Carlsberg Foundation has been a supporter of the pioneer work conducted by Danish archaeologists in the Middle East since the 19th century. The publications of these important projects, undertaken partly in what is today modern Syria, are now what remains of many of these places, among them Hama and Palmyra.

Documentation by Means of Harald Ingholt’s Excavation Journals

A crucial starting point for the project was the archaeologist Harald Ingholt’s excavation diaries, which hold information about his excavations of more than 40 tombs in Palmyra in the 1920s and 1930s. Several of these remain unpublished until now but they will be published as part of the research project by Rubina Raja and Jean-Baptiste Yon.

Photo: A section of Harald Ingholt’s excavation journal, 1928, describing the find of the so-called ’Beauty of Palmyra’, which is one of the masterpieces in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s Palmyra collection. (Digitised by the Palmyra Portrait Project)

Harald Ingholt’s habilitation Studier over Palmyrensk Skulptur (Studies of Palmyrene Sculpture, ed.) from 1928, focusing on the collection in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, became key in understanding the chronology and dating of the Palmyrene sculptures, as the museum is home to the largest collection of Palmyrene funerary sculptures in the world outside Syria itself.

Today, the Ingholt archive provides important insights into the basis of the chronology of the portraits, and it contains more than 800 illustrations with notes. An important part of the project has therefore been to digitise the archive and make it accessible to all researchers, as well as to link the archive to the specially developed database, in which the entire corpus is compiled.

The corpus has been completed and, as noted, it contains more than 2,500 portraits, all of which have been documented in detail. These detailed descriptions and information in the database allow for robust statistical comparisons of the portraits than what previously have been possible. The Ingholt archive has also been linked to the database which makes it possible to determine which objects have gone missing since Harald Ingholt’s time, and which objects have changed hands. This feature has in particular proven to be useful since the breakout of the civil war in Syria; Numerous portraits have been illegally sold on the international art market, however, with provenience given as coming from “old Lebanese private collections” (see the article by Rubina Raja in Sfinx in 2012).

Furthermore, all objects appearing on the international art market are recorded in the database. Already, these records attest to the illegal trade of a number of Palmyrene portraits as a result of the war in Syria, and counterfeit portraits have flooded the market. As the database has become more widely known, the Palmyra Portrait Project has come to serve as an advisory capacity to collections and art dealers worldwide, since the provenance of portraits can be traced easily.

The civil war in Syria has in the most brutal and sad way brought to the forefront the importance of basic research projects within the humanities, focussing on creating an overview of objects and understanding these within their contemporary societies – in the past as well as today.

Internationally Ground-breaking Corpus

There has been a lack of research in Palmyrene funerary sculptures, especially in the anglo-saxon speaking world. The language of the key publications is French and German, and they have often had a misinterpreted focus on ‘provincialism’ in the portraits. In the English literature, too, Palmyrene portraits have often been misunderstood as provincial Roman portraiture. However, the portraits possess their own trajectory. Contrary to Roman portraits, their facial features are not particularly individualised, but rather generic. Their garments, jewellery and gestures articulate a strong local identity, containing both Greco-Roman, Parthian and local elements. This conscious mixing of elements is an expression of a highly developed knowledge of societal trends outside Palmyra and Rome, and such aspects are crucial in understanding local communities in Antiquity. A comprehensive corpus, both in English as well as in other languages, will therefore be ground-breaking and constitutes as a substantial guide for further studies.

Adaptable Research in the Humanities and Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR)

Originally, the project set out to collect, organise and study the largest corpus of portraiture from the Roman period outside of Rome. The project also included a historiographical component, namely the research into Harald Ingholt’s archive, and journals and the publication provided invaluable information about a location currently subject to destruction at the hands of both military forces and civilians due to the situation in Syria.

Since then, the project has expanded to also include monitoring of the international art market, as well as taking on an advisory role to collections worldwide. The outbreak of the conflict in Syria and the continuous escalation of the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage have heightened the importance of the Palmyra Portrait Project, as the project documents all funerary sculpture that can be accessed. Furthermore, it monitors which objects appear on the international art market. As a result of this monitoring, a significant increase can be shown in Palmyrene portraits that are being traded.

Through the Palmyra Portrait Project, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, it has become possible to realise a firmly based humanities research project that reaches way beyond a closed academic world. Through the documentation and communication of project’s results, it has become clear that traditional humanities research (i.e. a corpus project) can add immensely to the understanding of the importance of archaeological material, not least in situations where cultural heritage are under threat due to international or regional conflicts. Although the project did not start out with such issues in mind, it quickly became clear that we had to adapt our ways of conducting research in order to include a broader variety of issues; among these open accessibility to the corpus to academics as well as to the public. The last phase of the project includes the development of an online database, which will provide an open access to the collected material and in this way possibly lead to even more information, as the public will be able to feed the database with new information monitored by the research team.

One of the grand challenges of the 21st century is, among other things, the handling and coordination of big data and the unleashed potential, which lies in using such data. Although the Palmyra Portrait Project does not claim to be a big data project, the project can for sure claim to address issues that feed into the handling of big data and the discussions relating to this through the coordination of corpus, archives, excavation diaries, massive amounts of pictorial material as well as written sources. Therefore, the project has also built up know-how about such processes that may feed into coming projects addressing the grand challenges of the 21st century.

The research project is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and Aarhus University.

The direct applicable relevance of a project to modern society is not always visible at the beginning of a project. However, as the Palmyra Portrait Project has shown, detailed and focussed research within the Humanities will always find its relevance.  

Rubina Raja about the Importance of the Carlsberg Foundation for Her Research

"By funding basic research in classical archaeology, the Carlsberg Foundation has contributed significantly to the progress of my research and afforded project participants with the opportunity to develop and immerse themselves in sub-projects within the overall project. The grant has contributed greatly to increasing the internationalisation of the research outcomes of the project, leading to worldwide recognition of the project. Receiving this funding has enabled me to pursue a collective project early on in my research career, and partly emerging from this, is an initiative for a research centre, which has obtained funding from the Danish National Research Foundation (www.urbnet.au.dk)."

Additional Images

Watercolour painting by Charles Christensen, published in Berlingske Tidende, 22 December 1929. The architect Charles Christensen accompanied Harald Ingholt to Palmyra on numerous occasions, performing various tasks for Ingholt, among these depicting the ‘Beauty of Palmyra’.

A section of Harald Ingholt’s excavation journal from his 1925 campaign, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, digitised by the Palmyra Portrait Project. Outline of Hairan’s tomb with a rectangle marking the location of the many murals. The adaptation has been made by Annette Højen Sørensen within the Palmyra Portrait Project.

Ingholt’s find of the famous Malku sarcophagus in Palmyra. The tomb was erected in 166 CE and was used until 267 CE when the last of fourteen inscriptions date. The photo was given to Rubina Raja by Ulla Kasten, The Babylonian Collections, Yale University, New Haven.