Archaeologist Rubina Raja is on a quest to find every ancient portrait from the city of Palmyra, Syria. Her Palmyra Portrait Project, founded in January 2012, is documenting all known Palmyrene funerary sculpture in a database that will be publicly accessible in the next two years. By assembling a corpus of this sculpture, the Project is enabling new discoveries about ancient Palmyrene society based on statistical analysis.

At its height in the second and third centuries CE, Palmyra was a wealthy trading center that connected the Roman and Parthian Empires, along what can be seen as a precursor to the Silk Road. Palmyra’s funerary portraits date to this Roman era, when elaborate family tombs were erected in the Valley of the Tombs outside the town center. Showing artistic influences of the Greco-Roman West and the Parthian East, these portraits reveal much about the families, occupations, and aspirations of Palmyra’s ancient population.

Art historian Fred Albertson, a specialist in Roman portraiture, joined Rubina Raja and Peter Bonfitto, co-curator of the online exhibition The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra, to discuss the sculptures and how scholars are interpreting them. See a video with audio excerpts below; read the Q&A that follows from more comprehensive highlights from the conversation.

Annelisa Stephan: Introduce us to ancient Palmyra.

Rubina Raja: Palmyra was an oasis city located in the Syrian desert. There was water all year round in otherwise dry region, and that’s what made Palmyra possible as a settlement. We know about the site as far back as the second millennium BCE

Fred Albertson: Its significance was due to its strategic location on the overland trade route connecting the cities of the Roman Empire on the Eastern Mediterranean to what would then be the Parthian Empire, located in modern-day Iraq.

AS: You both study the funerary portraits of ancient Palmyra. What makes them so compelling?

RR: The portrait busts from Palmyra are representations of individuals—that’s what makes them extremely interesting. They give us the names and the family connections of these deceased people. From the busts we can learn a lot about Palmyrene society in antiquity, about family structures and genealogies.

The busts are comprised mainly of single representations of one individual, but the loculus reliefs can also be comprised of family constellations, so have more individuals on them. The banqueting reliefs go even further, and the sarcophagi lids can hold up to 13 individuals in one scene.

These funerary portrait busts came into existence in the first century A.D. In the Palmyra Portrait Project we’ve now documented more than 3,000 of them.

FA: We have more examples of portraiture in the Roman Empire from Palmyra than any other city with the exception of Rome itself. So we have this huge number of images that we can analyze together as a group. So often when you deal with portraiture in the Roman Empire, you’re looking at an image of an anonymous individual. In the case of Palmyra we can actually put a name to a face.

Bust of a woman dressed in a draped garment, pinned at the left shoulder with an elaborate brooch, who faces directly towards us

Funerary relief, ca. 50–150 CE, Palmyrene. Limestone, 20 x 14.96 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 1901, 01.25.1, www.metmuseum.org

AS: How would these funerary portraits have been displayed?

RR: Originally they were put up as closing slabs in front of burial niches in the monumental tower tombs underground, and also in the so-called temple tombs. The busts would have been put up as closing slabs for burial niches. People would be mummified and put on shelves, and in front of that you would display the funerary portrait.

In this reconstruction of a part of one of these graves [below], you see that there are five levels of portraits. These would have been closely adjusted, technically, to where in the grave they ended up being positioned. You would have to know, as a producer of these, whether you were commissioned to do a portrait for the top shelf, or for the bottom shelf.

That’s what we’re also doing in the Palmyra Portrait Project: a new documentation of all these busts including from the side and the back in order to be able to re-contextualize them within their original setting in the grave. So, how high up were they displayed? That has a lot to say about the production techniques of these busts as well.

PB: You mentioned that the ancient Palmyrene people were sometimes mummified and set in the niches behind these portraits. How was this done?

RR: People were often mummified, but it wasn’t like Egyptian mummification, in which you take out the internal organs and mummify the whole body. It was a quick mummification, in which you would dry out the body, put on something that smells nice, and wrap it in various kinds of textiles.

Engraving of the interior of a Palmyrene tower tomb

Tower tomb, cross section showing portrait busts, Alexandre Moisy after Louis-François Cassas. Etching, 11.4 x 16.9 in. From Voyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoénicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte (Paris, ca. 1799), vol. 1, pl. 122. The Getty Research Institute, 840011

AS: Art historically, what make the Palmyrene funerary busts unique?

RR: The funerary busts display what I call the local knowledge culture of Palmyra, so they draw on various traditions: local traditions, of course, but we can also see Roman portraiture styles, as well as influences from the Parthian Empire, in clothing for example. But they all turned into a unique Palmyrene style that comes together in these busts—which are actually more than busts because they are half-figure depictions of individuals. That gives the portraiture more than just the face to depict the individual: a whole range of attributes and gestures are added to the portrait itself.

You have the feeling that this could be a person that you could pass on the street. They have this sort of modern quality. They’re not really veristic portraits, but on the other hand, they still look like an individual.

FA: The initial approach to the image by the Palmyrene portraitist would be to set up a conceptual image, an image of the individual not so much how they looked, but how they should be represented according to their social, political status within the community.

AS: Many of these portraits are also accompanied by inscriptions. What do they tell us?

RR: The inscriptions are unique. In the Palmyra Portrait Project we’ve collected more than 1,100 of these on the funerary portraits, and they give us the name of the deceased, and sometimes up to five generations back in time of the families, so they [document] closely knit genealogies. It’s very unique within the Roman Empire to actually have a corpus giving us both names and family connections of people.

They are almost exclusively written in Palmyrene Aramaic. We’ve only identified 32 in Greek, and five in Latin.

FA: Initially the interest in these busts was not so much as works of art, but because of the inscriptions in Aramaic, which to early collectors had a Biblical association.

Palmyrene is the first dead ancient language that was deciphered—of course, we’re not including Latin or Hebrew, languages that would continue in some form or another—from antiquity. Edmond Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, was part of the initial group of scholars who deciphered Palmyrene, using inscriptions found in Rome. The Palmyrene dialect is Aramaic, part of the larger Western Semitic language group. We have other dialects of Aramaic, such as Palestinian Aramaic, which would be the dialect spoken by Jesus. Syriac is another example of Aramaic which, in fact, survives today.

Etching of funerary monuments showing chiseled inscriptions in Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic

Tomb inscriptions, 1799, anonymous artist after Louis-François Cassas. Proof-plate etching, 18.11 x 10.8 in. The Getty Research Institute, 840011

RR:  The bust at the Getty Villa carries a very short inscription giving us the name of the person, and his father’s name as well, and we even see that they are color traces left in the inscription: traces of red, which was the usual color on these inscriptions.

FA: It’s a two-line inscription. As one expects in a Semitic language, it’s written from right to left, so the first line is the name of the deceased, “Maqî,” and then beginning the second line, you see the two Aramaic letters B R, “son of,” followed by the father’s name, “M’anî.”

Limestone bust of an ancient Palmyran with snail curls and a tunic

Funerary bust (detail) with inscription, “Maqî son of M’anî,” ca. 200 CE, Palmyrene. Limestone, 20.5 x 14.6 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.AA.50. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

AS: You mentioned color traces. Were these portraits originally brightly painted?

RR: Yes, they were slipped with a very thin white slip, and color was put on top. We know examples that still have color in the hair, the eyes, the clothing. The clothing could be quite brightly colored. On tunics, for example, we have blues, reds, a whole palette of colors. And the jewelry would have called for special attention, and even the use of gold leaf.

Color tells us a lot, because you needed various sorts of pigments as bases for the colors. Pigments might not have been locally available, so they would have been traded—like Egyptian blue, for example, or yellow ochres imported from the West.

AS: One of the most spectacular funerary busts is the so-called “Beauty of Palmyra.” Tell us about her.

RR: The Beauty of Palmyra is the main piece in the Palmyrene collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen. It’s a unique piece of evidence for how lavish these busts could actually be. It still displays a lot of color traces, and it even has gold leaf on the headbands and the jewelry. The jewelry is extremely detailed: the bust is wearing seven necklaces, and they are all different. The same goes for the headgear, so there are lots of different jewel[s] attached to the headgear and textiles.

We’ve now been able to show that it came directly from [Danish archaeologist] Harold Ingholt’s own excavations in Palmyra, and we published that last year in Journal of Roman Archaeology, so it’s a piece we can now recontextualize within its original setting as coming from an elite grave, the so-called Qasr Abjad in Palmyra.

FA: I would add that the eyes, originally, would probably have been inset with glass paste, adding to the overall high quality of this piece. It shows a very sensitive modeling which reflects the Greco-Roman influence that one experiences in Palmyrene portraits.

Limestone bust of an ancient Palmyrene woman wearing an elaborate headdress and seven necklaces

Funerary bust: the so-called “Beauty of Palmyra,” 190–210 CE, Palmyrene. Limestone, 21.6 x 16.1 in. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, IN 2795. Photo: Ole Haupt

PB: Do the ornaments and the jewelry tell you anything about the time period, or help with dating in any way?

RR: The stylistic chronology developed by Harald Ingholt in the ‘20s, which still hold up today, would take the line that this is a later bust, because the more elaborate the jewelry becomes, the later the bust usually is.

PB: Later busts are more elaborate, because their stylistic evolution traces the prosperity of Palmyra itself?

FA: These pieces that show more elaborate jewelry tend to begin in the late second and continue through the first half of the third century. I think this shows increasing economic prosperity. But there’s also a change in the representation of the role of women within Palmyrene society.

If we look at examples from, say, the first half of the second century, the standard attributes are the spindle and distaff, and other items that refer directly to a matronly role within the household—as opposed to an example such as the Beauty of Palmyra, where it’s clear to see that her wealth and status is based on this accumulation of jewelry.

PB: How did the “Beauty of Palmyra” get her name?

RR: It’s known as the Beauty of Palmyra mainly because we can show through Ingholt’s diaries that, the day it was found, he called it the most beautiful female bust he had seen until then. When it was transferred from Palmyra to Copenhagen, this was the label it got. We don’t know who she was or what her name was, because the inscriptions that probably would have gone with this bust are lost.

AS: Several busts depict Palmyrene priests, including this example [below]. What do we know about him?

RR: This is a portrait bust of the Palmyrene priest Mariôn, son of Elahbel—we know that from the inscription. He’s depicted in the traditional Palmyrene priestly garment and wearing a round, flat priestly hat. Among the funerary busts we can count almost 300 depictions of Palmyrene priests, but the inscriptions don’t tell us that they are priests, so we only can make this connection because of the priestly garments and, in particular, the priestly hat.

FA: This isn’t a priest in the modern sense, but a member of a group of officials who would oversee the festivals and upkeep of a particular cult or temple. It was very often a political or hereditary appointment.

RR: Through the funerary portraiture we can actually show that the priesthood was bestowed upon male members within families, extended by fathers or uncles to sons or nephews. It was much more of a societal status than an actual profession. There was something that you would do at certain points of the year, but you wouldn’t be a professional priest, as we think of priests today.

Limestone bust of an ancient Palmyrene priest wearing a tunic and ceremonial headgear

Palmyrene Priest, “Mariôn,” 230–250 CE, Palmyrene. Limestone. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, IN 1033. Photo: Palmyra Portrait Project, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

AS: You mentioned that you’ve documented over 3,000 ancient Palmyrene funerary portraits. Where are they now? 

RR: Very few of these funerary busts remain in situ in Palmyra. There are, of course, a lot in the Palmyra Museum and in Damascus National Museum as well, but a lot of them found their way into European collections in the eighteenth century, when Palmyra was rediscovered by Robert Wood and James Dawkins. From then onwards, we have private collectors and museums that begin to build up large collections. The nineteenth century is the century where these large collections, like the ones at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek—which is the largest outside of Syria—and the one at the Louvre and the Istanbul National Museum, are built up.

FA: Today these busts are spread across the world. There are collections in Japan, Russia, and, of course, also in the States and Canada.

AS: How many of these Palmyrene busts are in U.S. collections?

FA: Close to 170 examples, which also includes heads, not necessarily full busts. We’re talking all over the country, sometimes in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them. I found examples in Laramie, Wyoming, as well as the major collections, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But even in small college museums you’ll very often find one or two of these busts.

Carved limestone head of a woman with black-painted irises and ornamented headgear

Funerary Head from Palmyra, 200s CE, Palmyrene. Limestone, 10 3/4 × 7 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Gift of Robert Blaugrund M.82.77.2, www.lacma.org

AS: When did artifacts, such as the busts, begin to be taken from the site of Palmyra?

RR: We have travelers’ descriptions from the eighteenth century, talking about looting and vandalism already going on at the site. The early mapping of Palmyra from the eighteenth century is extremely valuable for us today, as documentation for where monuments were located. They also mapped monuments that we can’t see anymore: for example, the whole medieval village inside the sanctuary of Bel.

It was only in the nineteenth century that larger expeditions began a more detailed investigation of some of the monuments. And it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that systematic excavations were begun.

FA: We should add that few, if any, of Palmyra’s tombs have been excavated intact. The vast majority of them were robbed and depleted, and very often the contents were widely distributed into collections and ultimately museums in Europe, the Middle East, and North America. The inscriptions that are found together with these busts can [help] reconstruct a group of material not only to the same family, but even to the same tomb—whereas otherwise it would just be a series of separate, disparate reliefs.

AS: It sounds like looting in Palmyra began back in the 1700s. Is that accurate?

RR: The time of Dawkins and Wood was the time of European missions in the region, and they all wanted their little share of Palmyrene cultural heritage to take home—this was what you did at the time. There wasn’t cultural heritage protection as we know it today.

FA: Systematic, scientifically approached excavations didn’t begin until the French Mandate in Syria and the establishment of the Syrian Archaeological Service under the French, beginning about 1920 or so. In the first decades of the twentieth century, we know of travelers and art dealers who were going to the site and just removing objects.

AS: Is the destruction and looting that’s happening in Palmyra during the Syrian Civil War a continuation of this, or is it different in kind as well as degree?

RR: It’s certainly different in degree, but I’m a scholar who does active field work in the Middle East, and looting, illicit excavations, take place on a daily basis—and did, too, before the Civil War. That’s something we need to keep in mind.

AS: And today artifacts are not only being removed or destroyed, but counterfeited.

Rubina Raja: The “falsification industry,” as I call it, is unfortunately something that’s boomed during the years of conflict in Syria. Local limestone, which these portraits were of made in antiquity as well, is being [carved] and exported as original objects, and put out on the black market.

FA: There’s been a very rapid increase in forgeries appearing on the market, not just since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, but even in the five or ten years before that. One of the reasons for this was the increase in price in Palmyrene sculpture—maybe because of the tremendous increase [in price] in classical marble statuary as well.

AS: What do we still need to learn about ancient Palmyra?

RR: Well, what do we not need to learn about ancient Palmyra? We know a lot about Palmyra; we have a lot of epigraphic material, we have a lot of material culture, but there’s still a lot we do not know. For example, the private lives of Palmyrenes outside the tombs. Domestic housing is a very underexplored theme.

AS: Palmyrene sculpture is in museums around the world, as you’ve pointed out. If I’m in Laramie, Wyoming—or Los Angeles or Paris or Boston—why should I go seek them out?

FA: In the case of a funerary portrait, what you experience—which I think is extremely important—is not only often what that individual did in life, but how they wanted to be remembered after death. The Palmyrene portraits provide us with this interesting insight into what we define as identity.

RR: I would absolutely urge anyone interested in the ancient world to go and seek out every single portrait that they can, and then send us a note about it, because we might just have missed it in our database! Go to our webpage, download our form, and send it to us.

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The Palmyra Portrait Project is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation. Organizations and institutions can submit a Palmyrene bust in a world collection to be included in the Project’s database via this form.