20 February 2010

"Home Sweet Home" in Palmyra

Until this very year, there was a great unexplored chunk of ancient Palmyra right outside the central city (marked reddish-brown on the aerial photograph, below).

Despite the monuments on all sides of the area -- the Agora to the east, Diocletian's walls on the south, the Transverse Colonnaded Street on the west and, for the whole of its northern length, the Great Colonnade -- this quarter of Palmyra has been an archaeological blank.

Not any more.

A little over two years ago, Italian archaeologists started work in this sector. Zenobia reported on the planned excavations in New Italian Explorations at Palmyra -- and now, here is the latest news on what the team is discovering.

Using the most modern electronic imaging instruments, the archaeologists first brought to light the graphic bones of a residential quarter (below right) -- blocks of stone buildings with columns, pediments, thresholds, and door jambs still in situ. Most of the buildings seem to be modest houses separated by small open areas but one structure is larger and boasts a peristyle courtyard with six columns on each side. Small streets run through the area -- five crossing north/south and one east/west.

An invisible town began to take shape.

Domus dulcis domus

What we are seeing, for the first time, is a middle class Palmyran neighbourhood.

Imagine a precinct something like the Paddington district of London or the Upper West Side of New York (though without high rises and modern transport): close to the central city, but not inhabited by the wealthiest of families. Still, not for the hoi polloi either.

That would be something like Palmyra's South-West Quarter.

This is is where more modest merchants and their wives would have lived, in small but comfortable houses, probably close to their kin and within easy walking distance of local markets. And not very far either from the classier shops and businesses lining both sides of the Grand Colonnade. In short, a bustling neighbourhood: "Home Sweet Home" for a whole community, something completely new, not only in Palmyra but almost unique anywhere in the Eastern Roman Empire.

With that prize in sight, the Italians began digging.

The 2009 Season

The archaeologists set up their tent in the middle of what was a bleak, almost empty space (left).

The first reports of their season have just appeared on their website (in Italian only at the moment; the photo gallery is worth a visit in any event).

They concentrated, first, on the peristyle house. Even before they dug, some of its columns were poking up through the rocky soil (right).

Watching the dig advance (below), we can see that the work crew has opened the inner courtyard (with twelve of its columns still in situ) and begun to clear the associated structures.

The quality of the construction is impressive, with fine blocks of limestone masonry (preserved to a height of two metres [6']), some red-painted plaster floors, and much use of decorative stucco and marble embellishments.

By the end of the season, much more of this urban house has come to light. And that once-bleak field is no longer so empty (below).

In your mind, walk in, walk around. The peristyle house is becoming a living place, not a ruin but a home, and in a neighbourhood soon to be filled with shops and houses, where people lived their lives and told their stories.

Among the finds coming from the peristyle house* is a small altar dedicated to the so-called 'Anonymous God' of Palmyra.

Now, why would people worship and bring sacrifices to a nameless god?

That's what I'll talk about in my next post.

* More precisely, the altar was reused in a Byzantine structure above, but very likely originally was located in the peristyle house.


All illustrations are from the project website or the reports by the excavation direction, M.T. Grassi, Il 'progetto Palmira', in Vesuviana 14-16 January 2008, and in LANX 2 (2009) 194-205. My warm thanks to Prof. Grassi and to Lilia Palmieri, Member of the joint mission and webmaster, for providing the photographs and links.

1 comment:

  1. This is so cool. A middle class neighborhood... I love it that we're now learning how ordinary people lived.


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