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Palmyrene funerary portraits between corpus, conflict and art market

Annual Review Article 2020

A new 3D reconstruction of Hairan’s grave based on information from the Palmyra Portrait Project Photo: Scott McAvoy og Rubina Raja

Since 2012, the Palmyra Portrait Project has collected and studied approximately 4,000 funerary portraits from the ancient city of Palmyra in modern-day Syria. This is the world’s largest group of antique funerary portraits stemming from one site and a unique archaeological and arthistorical group of material. The devastation caused by the civil war in Syria underlines the importance of such basic research projects more than ever.

By Rubina Raja, professor, DPhil (oxon), School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University

The funerary portraits from Palmyra, the famous oasis city in the Syrian desert, represent the largest group of portraits of deceased individuals from one site in the ancient world, which makes the material central to classical archaeology and art history. 

The largest collection of these portraits outside Syria is found at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen – primarily acquired by Carl Jacobsen and to a lesser extent by Johannes Elith Østrup (in the late 19th century) and Harald Ingholt (in the early 20th century). 

Harald Ingholt carried out archaeological fieldwork in Palmyra, concentrating on the site’s many hundreds of underground tombs. A combination of wanting to collect and study these portraits and to explore the long tradition of Danish research interest in Palmyra gave rise to the Palmyra Portrait Project. 

As the war in Syria escalated, Palmyra was subjected to extensive destruction and looting, with archaeological objects being exported to the international art market. This is why the project also needed to respond to the comprehensive discussion on protecting cultural heritage.

Palmyra and the social media of the Antiquity

The dead Palmyrenes – a reflection of Palmyra’s social values in Roman times

As well as providing an unsurpassed overview of how fashions and trends developed over a 300-year period, the Palmyrene funerary portraits directly reflect the values of the city’s elite. 

We can see how families portrayed family members who had died – as good, strong fathers; virtuous, beautiful mothers; innocent, playing children; and rich, important grandparents and great-grandparents. Nothing was left to chance in the Palmyrene portraits, which were all executed in the local limestone and occasionally bear traces of colour, providing an insight into the wealth the portraits sought to express. 

The database, which will be made available online, will represent a central resource in both the research and museum worlds, and will be an important tool for studying collection history and provenance

The funerary portraits should be seen as a companion to the numerous statues in the public space, only a few of which survive today, but which we know from the inscriptions on the column drums lining Palmyra’s central streets.

“The Beauty of Palmyra”, excavated during Harald Ingholt’s 1928 Palmyra campaign and acquired for the collection of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek with the help of the Rask Ørsted Foundation
Photo: Palmyra Portrait Project with permission from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Statues of men dominated, as Palmyra was a patriarchal society based on large families with a male head. However, we know that statues were also raised to important women and that there were statues of children too. For example, honorific statues to Zenobia – Palmyra’s leader for a few years and the cause of the city’s fall in 272 CE – were erected in public areas.

The Palmyra Portrait Project corpus

The Palmyra Portrait Project

has resulted in more than 100 publications. The finished corpus is being prepared for publication in 2021 and will provide a comprehensive overview of the approx. 4,000 funerary portraits from Palmyra. The project has significantly altered our understanding of tradition and innovation – both in Palmyra and in the ancient world in general – and contributed knowledge of economic systems, production economy, social status, gender balance in society, religion and demographics. In connection with the special exhibition The Road to Palmyra, Rubina Raja published a new collection catalogue of the Palmyrene objects at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and, together with Anne Marie Nielsen, edited an exhibition catalogue. She wrote an article about the history of Danish Palmyra research in the Carlsberg Foundation’s 2016 Annual Review, and in 2019 published – jointly with Eva Mortensen – Store Danske Arkæologer, an anthology of major Danish archaeologists. The book includes a chapter on Harald Ingholt and describes several Danish projects supported by the Carlsberg Foundation. The project can be followed on au.dk

A portrait database was developed in order to study the portraits as systematically as possible and make the corpus publicly available. To date, almost 4,000 portraits have been collected, far more than was known to exist. 

The database can be used to study these in detail and research their collection history. In addition, the database cross-references information about the portraits’ in situ locations in the graves, including the 40 or so graves that Ingholt excavated. 

This has made the database a key research tool, and the work on the portraits and Ingholt’s descriptions of his excavations have made it possible to create new, digital reconstructions of original burial chambers. 

The database has also become an important tool in connection with the illegal trade in cultural heritage, which has escalated during the war. 

The project has therefore gained status as a collaboration partner for numerous research institutions and cultural heritage organisations worldwide, and has succeeded in crossing subject boundaries by maintaining focus on the details and the importance of obtaining and validating information on every single portrait in the database.

The Road to Palmyra, via Denmark – a special exhibition at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

The first collection studied was the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s Palmyra collection. In 2019, the collaboration between the project and the museum culminated in a special exhibition, curated by museum curator Anne Marie Nielsen and Rubina Raja, and involving a number of other specialists, for example within exhibition and sound design. 

The exhibition was highly praised in Denmark and abroad for its combination of highcalibre academic content and presentation and exemplifies how research and dissemination can go hand in hand.

Sketch of Hairan’s grave by Harald Ingholt. Page from one of Harald Ingholt’s excavation diaries
Palmyra Portrait Project with permission from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Palmyrene funerary portraits between corpus, conflict and art market

The project is currently preparing the corpus for publication, both in print and open access form. The database, which will be made available online, will represent a central resource in both the research and museum worlds, and will be an important tool for studying collection history and provenance. 

The corpus publication will constitute a standard work, underlining the importance of research into classical archaeological portraits within classical archaeology as well as the humanities in the broadest sense.