13 August 2008

New Italian Explorations at Palmyra

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).


  1. yay! Let's have some attention paid to urban fabric, rather than the ancient swagger projects. And gardens.

  2. I doubt that we'll ever explore their gardens -- as has been done so brilliantly in Pompeii, but I do dream of projects in the old oasis, which was much much larger than what we see today.

  3. Is that my imagination or is there a trace of paint (blue) on the pretty stone woman's hair and brooch?
    It's a pity the sculptors didn't break away from the conventions when carving the hands. Maybe, as these were portraits,they were turned over to lesser craftsmen when the heads were finished (or before). Is there some meaning in the position of the fingers (two and two)? If there is, maybe that kept back artistic development.

  4. Acutely seen, 100Swallows. Yes, traces of colour can often been spotted on Palmyran portraits so apparently they were all painted (just as, as we now know, Greek and Roman statues; and perhaps as gaudily).

    Hands are a problem. They are often out of proportion(to our eyes; we don't know what the Palmyrans thought about it) and relatively crudely carved. A lesser craftsman? It's possible but I don't know of any study of sufficient detail to help us decide. Anyway, hands, as you know, are difficult, and portrait painters used to ask extra money if hands were shown :-)

    I do not know if the finger position is meaningful. It does seem to be common,though far from ubiquitous. And also more frequent among women than men. Ideas?

  5. Haven't we seen Romanesque pantocrats with their fingers in that position (and priests bless that way)? It's hard to believe that in this funeral sculpture it doesn't have some ritualistic, some symbolic meaning. The hand on the lady's portrait also seems to be making a gesture, doesn't it?
    I don't think the difficulty of sculpting hands can excuse these craftsmen. Hands are no harder than anything else. The same artist who looked so closely at faces would not be satisfied with those rude sticks.

    I'm slowly getting used to the idea that the old statues were painted. If you remember the beautiful polychrome Gothic and Renaissance figures in churches everywhere, ancient painting of stone sculpture doesn't seem such a desecration. The paint-job must have been more subtle than in Brinkmann's reconstitutions. How could the sculptors of such great artistic sensibility allow the painters to spoil their work that way? Reminds me of patinas at the foundry. As Louis Slobodkin said in his book, the fellows who put on your patina can make them in any color of the rainbow—AND THEY WILL IF YOU DON'T STOP THEM.

  6. I agree that the hand displaying two open + two folded fingers is making an explicit gesture. Surely it is meaningful ... but what might it mean?

    It's by no means the only hand gesture. For example, there is also a less common pointing gesture (index finger extended) and another 2 + 2 with index + little finger extended and inner fingers folded back. I'm just looking at two funerary busts of Palmyran priests that both happen to show all five fingers on their hands.

    One would need to study a large sample of busts, with all likely variables (e.g. sex, attributes), to begin to understand; if that's at all possible.

    I am reluctant to ascribe any feature of ancient art to 'incompetence' when it consistently affects only part of the image; in this case hands. Hands are almost always over large and look deformed. I think that, too, is meaningful. But what ...?


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