Portraiture of Ancient Palmyra


The Beauty of Palmyra, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


By Judith Weingarten / 09.02.2015
Archaeologist

The Beauty of Palmyra

When the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt was just beginning his third season of digging at Palmyra in 1928, someone offered to sell him this stunning portrait of a woman – and, in accordance with the practices of the time, he bought it on the spot. The bust – or more correctly, half figure – was shipped to Copenhagen where it still graces the New Carlsberg Glyptotek, one of the sponsors of his excavation.

The most beautiful female bust I have seen thus far, Ingholt said, and, short of a beauty contest between at least six of my favourite female contenders, that probably still remains true.

Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

The portrait shows a woman who was both wealthy and fashionable: look at the gold-coloured paint which enriches her exuberant jewellery — imitating golden jewels she must have owned in reality —  and the deep red embroidered sleeves and ruddy dangling beads, red lips, and rouged cheeks (the reds, alas, more visible when she was found than now*). An altogether elegant woman. More the pity that there was no precise provenance: no one knew where the bust was found, nor when the woman had lived….

Until now!

Harald Ingholt’s unpublished diary held the secret, only recently teased out thanks to the Palmyra Portrait Project.  One of the goals of the PPP (headed by Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University) is the transcription, translation and digitalization of all of Ingholt’s archives, including his excavation diaries. Thanks to their careful work, we now can place the Beauty in her proper tomb: she comes from the underground house-tomb known as Qasr Abjad, ‘White Castle’, in the Western necropolis. Sculptural finds from this relatively modest sepulchre date to the late 2nd century CE so the woman whose portrait is our Beauty probably ended her life in the years between 190 and 210 CE.

All this and more in Aarhus (Denmark)

Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

The Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus is highlighting Harold Ingholt’s work in its thought-provoking show, Harold Ingholt and Palmyra(until 13 September). The exhibition is based on research carried out within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project: their scrutiny of Ingholt’s dig diaries has brought to light previously unknown locations of tomb sculpture and new information on his excavations in the city. With his descriptions, sketches and reports, for example, it has been possible to identify some graves whose plans have never been published.

Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

Ingholt carried out three major excavations at Palmyra in the 1920s, finding more than 50 tombs of which 24 could be entered, while the rest had collapsed. Although many of the graves had been robbed long before he got there, he still found a wealth of well-preserved sculptures, sarcophagi, inscriptions and smaller objects. In the mid-1930’s, he returned for a brief season to excavate the collapsed tomb of Malkû son of Malkû, son of Nûrbel the doctor, for himself and his sons and their sons. This tomb, in the Southwest Necropolis, founded in 116 CE by the first named Malkû, was used for burials at least until 267 CE according to the last of its 14 inscriptions. This means thatMalkû’s descendants were probably still being buried in their own family tomb even as the city fought off the Romans and then fell in 272/273 CE.

Adding a Niche

Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

Another long-lived tomb that Ingholt excavated is the subterranean communal tomb of Atenatan also in the Southwest Necropolis.  Atenatan built it in 98 CE, one of the earliest underground house tombs at Palmyra, and it was used for well over a century; and then, in 229 CE, a side niche was built into it by a man named Julius Aurelius Maqqai — who paid for it, as he boasts, with his own money.  Maqqai had the ceiling of the niche painted and, at some point, three sarcophagi were installed along its walls (left).  Relief figures on the sarcophagi depict Maqqai and his children, wife, and servants.  Ingholt’s drawings illustrate the many traces of red and blue colour that could be seen on their decorative reliefs when he excavated the tomb — something never previously pictured.

Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

As with the ‘Beauty of Palmyra’, it is now possible to get a good impression of how the sculptures were painted and installed in a tomb in combination with painted ceilings.

And that’s the sort of new insights you’ll get if you are lucky enough to visit Aarhus before 13 September.  For those of us who can’t get to Denmark, the Museum has published a 68-page illustrated booklet of the exhibition and generously makes it available as a free download.  Click here for Harald Ingholt and Palmyra . There is a huge amount we have still to learn.

In the next post, I’ll look at the ambitious Palmyra Portrait Project itself in much more detail.  Their major goal is to build a corpus of every known Palmyran portrait, so that we’ll be able to see and compare what is now scattered in museums and private collections around the globe.  The PPP files already record details of over 2,600 portraits — far more than anyone ever knew existed! In fact, it is now clear that the portraits from Palmyra form the largest Roman-era group of portrait sculpture outside of Rome. As the site itself is now looted and being destroyed, only our knowledge will keep the light of Palmyra alive.

The PPP could hardly be more timely.

The Peregrinations of a Lady

Rumai, wife of Iarhi. Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the Vatican Museum. Photo Credit: LaurieAnnie.

This funerary portrait of an elegant upper-class woman from Palmyra used to belong to the  wealthy Italian art historian and critic, Federico Ziri. Before it entered Ziri’s collection, however, the bust had already passed through the hands of several important French collections. As with so many Palmyran portraits in private hands, there are gaps in its collecting history.  We don’t know, of course, when or where the bust was found, dug up and sold.

…illicit digging continues, and almost every traveller buys and removes a few busts and mortuary inscriptions.(John Punnett Peters, in Palmyra in 1889)

Our lady’s portrait first came to public notice in 1903 when it appeared in the Beirut collection of the linguist and excavator Father Sébastien Ronzevalle, SJ.  Long before the Jesuit father’s death (d. January 1937), the bust had resurfaced in the possession of the slightly dubious French architect Émile Bertone, who had travelled to Palmyra in 1898 where he copied and published a mixed bag of inscriptions. He kept the portrait until his death (d. March 1931), when it was sold at the Paris auction house of Clément Platt. Who bought it? We don’t know. We know nothing of its fate between 1931 and the 1960s when it entered Federico Ziri’s collection (along with another nine Palmyran busts); exactly how and where he acquired the lady’s portrait is not yet clear.

Like the vast majority of Palmyran reliefs cloistered in private collections, her portrait had, for all practical purposes, vanished from the world.  Zeri kept the busts in his private villa just outside Rome. The art historian had come to believe that he descended from a noble Syrian family from Homs (ancient Emesa, 160 km as the crow flies across the desert from Palmyra); accordingly, he placed the ten portraits in the entrance hall of his villa — rather like an ancient Roman patrician’s ancestral busts — so that anyone visiting him would have to pass along them, as if through a guard of honour.  In short, if you wanted to see the lady and her compatriots, you needed a personal invitation.

Ziri’s ten busts were finally published in 1986 — albeit in an Italian learned journal of little international reach. When Zeri died in 1998, he bequeathed the ten pieces to the Museo Gregoriana Egizio of the Vatican Museum, where presumably they will rest until the Day of Judgment. You can now find our lady online with some information in Italian and in English.

That being said, the museum’s text is brief and not entirely crystal clear.  In fact, it merely whetted my appetite. Who wouldn’t like to learn more about this woman’s life and death, the clothes she is wearing, her choice of jewels, and even the meaning of her hand gestures?  But, until today — unless you are sitting in a world-class university library — finding this out will be a complicated and long drawn-out business, which might even end with your hitting a brick wall.

Ye Olde Way  

Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the National Museum of Damascus, April 2009.  Photo credit: Dosseman.

The first question we would need to answer is the date of the  relief itself: when did her family have that beautiful stone carved in her memory? That’s not too difficult — for the bust is a fine example of the early-third century style of Palmyran sculpture; so the memorial was made in the years between ca. 200 and 230 CE. Happily, there is also a woman’s bust in the National Museum of Damacus that is nearly a twin of our lady — and her portrait is precisely dated by its inscription to 226/27 CE.  We can’t be more than a decade off from that date.

Our lady is also inscribed with Palmyrene script on the slab above her left shoulder … and that text should reveal her name and close family relations. Being outside of my dream library, finding that text proved difficult. I searched on Google by catalogue number and finally tracked her down in a truly obscure academic journal in the middle of a discussion about an ancient Latin inscription from Libya(!). As it happens, the Libyan man’s name was also shared by a handful of Nabataeans and Moabites as well as a very few Palmyrans; but only by one female, who turns out to be our lady: her name isRumai. The name probably comes from the root RWM, meaning ‘high’ (perhaps in the sense of ‘high-born’).  Finally, with the help of inter-library loans,* I read the complete inscription:

Image of (SLMT)
Rumai (RWMJ), wife of
Iarhi (JRHJ), son of
(HN’).  Alas!

Admittedly, I was not much the wiser.

Although in theory, I was now in a position to winkle out possible family connections, this could not realistically be done outside of my dream library … so I put that task aside for another time.

Her finery, however, which is carved in very great detail, allowed me to start on the interesting task of comparing her statue with those of other wealthy Palmyran women of her time.

Bust of Woman from Palmyra (with false Palmyrene inscription) in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Inv. B 8904. Photo credit: UPM.

Beginning at the top: beneath her veil she wears a high rolled  elaborately decoratedturban with rosettes and pearls apparently sewn on.  I know of several portraits with similar headdresses, such as this lovely lady (left) now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Both ladies also share the same swept-up hair style. The headdress and hairdo can also be found together on a few other female heads of which I have but dismal black-and-white photographs (e.g. IN 1102, 1099, 1104, in the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen) — all dated on stylistic grounds to ca. 210-230 CE.  So we can be reasonably sure that these particular features were shared by some fashionable women at this time.

Next, Rumai’s lovely cloak is adorned with a vertical band of acanthus leaves, a design repeated on the cuffs which also end in fringes (or possibly fur). Ladies’ cloaks are rarely embroidered in Palmyra: here, it is the men, not the women, who sport elaborately decorated outer garments, especially (though not exclusively) those wearing Parthian-type tunics and trousers. Besides Lady Rumai  and her ‘twin’ in Damascus, another exception is the ‘Beauty of Palmyra’ whose sleeves are decorated with a pattern that seems to echo her ornate bracelets. There are, of course, a few other exceptionally clad women, but it still holds true that embroidered cloaks are very uncommon on women’s funerary busts.

Bitti, daughter of Yarhai. Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek I.N. 1053. Photo credit: Colledge, Art of Palmyra, Pl. 91 (via Carnuntum).

Then I thought of Bitti, daughter of Yarhai (left). One rarely thinks of Bitti.  Why not? Because she is one of the very very few Palmyran women who does not wear a veil — an altogether exceptional group; who are these strange or wanton women? Are they (as some have  proposed) freed slaves, or even eunuchs, or are they merely flappers out for a fling, the better to flaunt their special  hairstyle? I won’t get into this question today (though one day, I will) but note that Bitti, too, wears a beautifully decorated cloak.  She is also dated to ca. 230 CE.  It all seems to be coming together nicely.

Now, what we really need in order to progress further is to see all the women who are wearing such decorated cloaks.  And then put that together with all women whose jewellery — drop-earrings, necklaces, and finger rings — is similar to that worn by Lady Rumai.  But even a preliminary look at jewellery would take me days … if not weeks of work; and I’d still be certain to miss a large number of poorly-illustrated busts, as well as those which have never been shown to the public. Honestly, what can we hope to learn from just one portrait, or even a wall full of them?

Not very much, really.

If Lady Rumai is not to remain little more than a pretty picture, we need a Corpus.

What’s in a Corpus?

Palmyran portraits are scattered in public and private collections throughout the world. They are often poorly published, or not at all — and they have never been catalogued, described, dated, or treated as an entire group.

That is now about to change.

The Palmyra Portrait Project***

When Harald Ingholt worked out the essential chronology and dating of Palmyran sculpture in 1928, he knew of 524 portraits. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, he found and drew in his diaries almost 1,000 pieces. But today, the Palmyra Portrait Project (PPP) database has recorded more than 2,600 portraits — far more than anyone ever knew existed —  from museums and private collections around the world.  This includes hundreds of portraits that had briefly appeared on the antiquities markets and then vanished from public view.

The PPP is preparing a complete research dossier for every single known piece of Palmyran portraiture. Wherever possible, new high-resolution photographs have been made.  That is an essential step: look at the photograph of Lady Rumai at the top of this post: it’s the best I could find online, not bad but it blurs some details, such as the round brooch that pins her cloak (next to her left hand). Brooches are an important item of jewellery, usually of gold — and their shapes and designs change over time; certain designs perhaps are meaningful but we can’t know what they might mean until we can compare them all, type by type.

Portrait descriptions will also include detailed analysis of poses, faces, and attributes (usually, what is held in the hands).  Gender, colour traces, hairstyles, dress, and jewellery are all recorded in minute detail, and made searchable. For the very first time, it will be possible to compare every detail of each sculpture with all the others. Added to the data, of course, are the dated inscriptions as well as all known family relations [So-and-so, the son/daughter, father/mother of so-and-so: up to five generations!] — and a whole world of new research possibilities opens up.

Bust of a woman from Palmyra, holding a writing tablet on her left hand. Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Carole Raddato CC BY-SA (via Following Hadrian: The Ancient People of Palmyra).

Portraits can be compared across and within groups such as priests, women, children, or even those sharing the same attribute. Sticking to women for the moment — as is the wont of this blog — did you know that five women hold writing tablets (vs. more than 100 men); who are these ladies? One such woman with a tablet doesn’t wear a veil (left); is that significant?  Are there still more ladies with stylus or tablets out there, in less accessible collections? Women sometimes hold keys (men never do): are these the keys to the household cupboard or to the gates of the world beyond?  And who else is wearing any special piece of jewellery that catches your eye?  All of this can soon be studied by date and, if we’re lucky, by family connections. We’ll be able see how facial features are treated differently over time, and follow changes in fashion and tastes — hairstyles, beards and moustaches for men and hairstyles, headdresses and jewellery for women.

Let’s say that you’d like to know if the pearls-and-rosette decoration sewn on Lady Rumai’s turban is a design that runs in her family, perhaps even a badge of her clan?  We can only study that if we first know who else wears that particular pattern, their dates, and inscriptions (if any) that might lead to other family members.  By this time next year I might be able to tell you.  And then, when I next think about the Unveiled Women of Palmyra, I expect to have a complete picture of all of them before I start to write. What a difference that will make!

Palmyrene portraiture has an inherent logic all its own.  Everyone who studies it has an intuitive understanding of this. It’s time we find out more exactly what it is.

Note:  Harald Ingholt long ago divided the known Palmyrene funerary portraits into three distinct chronological groups by taking the small number of dated examples and grouping about them undated reliefs that were stylistically similar. While later scholars have refined Ingholt’s categories, the basic groupings have been maintained. For example, we know that most men before 150 CE are clean-shaven whereas they tend to be bearded from 150-200 CE. Or that, after 200 CE, certain facial features appear, such as unincised eyes and a single groove for eyebrows, as well as the marks of the curved and flat chisel on the necks.  Women in his early group (50–150 CE) wore little jewelry and often held a spindle and a distaff in the left hand. Those in his second group (150–200 CE) wore more jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets, and rings, rarely held the spindle and distaff, and frequently raised the right hand to hold the veil back from the face. In the latest group (200-273 CE), some women display even more jewellery, and many used their left hand to hold the veil. However, it’s possible that the amount of jewellery a woman wears correlates better with her family wealth or some other factors than simply with chronology. This is just one of the many conundrums awaiting solution after the Palmyra Portrait Project is fully launched.

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