Not a very great distance from the Temple of Bel lies a huge blank unexcavated area on the map of Palmyra (coloured reddish-brown on the aerial photograph, left). Now, archaeologists from the University of Milan have started exploring this almost empty quarter on the south-east side of the city.
Until recently, Palmyra was treated like a vast treasure trove. Archaeologists dug up the glory monuments: temples, the theatre, agora, senate, and baths -- not to mention their immense task of reconstructing the 1,000 metre/3,000'-long Great Colonnade; and they concentrated, too, on the magnificent tombs, often stuffed full of funerary goods and effigies of the dead. Now, La Professoressa Maria Teresa Grassi, team leader of the Archaeological Mission to Syria, intends to change that: as her team fills in the blank, we're almost certain to see rising one of the human-scale residential quarters of the city.
It's a huge area to excavate -- 114,000 square metres/345,000 sq. feet. And it all looks quite desolate. But there are riches below the bleak surface. That's not just a guess any more: the first phase of the Italian project looked under the earth, using the most modern electronic imaging instruments: CAD, GIS, and 3D Photogrammers.
These brought to light the graphic bones of a town -- blocks of stone buildings with columns, pediments, thresholds, and door jambs still in situ. Most of the buildings seem to be modest residences separated by small open areas but one structure is larger and boasts a peristyle courtyard with six columns on each side. Still, there's nothing as grand as the patrician houses behind the Temple of Bel (just visible on the lower side of the photograph).
Two small streets run through the neighbourhood, one north/south, another east/west. And we also now see a diagonal row of deep circular depressions (such as the one, I think, that I've marked outside the area with a yellow arrow), part of a system of canals or aqueducts that may date back to pre-Roman times. That would explain a great deal about the development of Palmyra from an oasis town into a city-state.
There's a lot to learn. And years of excavating ahead. But it will be wonderful, one day, to walk down the streets of this quarter of Palmyra and feel that we are getting closer to some of the people whose poignant portraits have become so familiar to us.
And then we should also know a great deal more about how the Palmyrans -- not just the aristocrats but the middle classes, the more modest merchants and their wives-- actually lived.
Report on the first year's results here (in Italian, thanks to Antonio Lombatti). The aerial photograph is from the University of Milan news page. Much more information on the Italian campaign will be given at a special session 'Palmira tra Oriente e Occidente' at the 17th International Congress of Classical Archaeology, MEETINGS BETWEEN CULTURES IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN, to be held in Rome 22-26 September 2008. Session Organizer: Maria Teresa Grassi ( Università di Milano) , Speakers: Maria Teresa Grassi & Marianna Castracane, Lilia Palmieri, Gioia Zenoni, Francesca Ossorio, Andrea Baudini, Alberto Bacchetta & Ivan Bonardi.
Palmyran woman's portrait bust in the Smithsonian, Freer-Sackler Gallery, Credits: Ann Raia, 2006; man's portrait bust © 2006 David Monniaux (via Wikipedia Commons).
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