14 November 2010

The Secret Language of Palmyra

Palmyra, year 108 CE. 

Yarhai son of Elahbel built this grandiose underground tomb, a 'house of eternity' (bt 'lm) as a dwelling place for his family, forever.

We're looking at just one of several chambers (left), with twelve funerary portraits carved on limestone slabs that sealed the  niches (loculi) in which the bodies of the dead were laid to rest.  

Seven men, one boy, and four women were buried in this section.

Altogether, more than 150 tombs have been discovered in Palmyra.  Some had space for as many as 300-400 dead, all commemorated by funerary sculpture.  By far the most common type of sculpture in  the tombs is the individual portrait bust in high relief  (as here, rectangular in shape, ca. 40 x 55 cm [16" x 22"]).  Many of the portraits are inscribed above the shoulder in Palmyrene-Aramaic with the name and genealogy of the deceased, and sometimes the date of death as well.  

The dead man or woman is always depicted in a frontal pose, eyes staring straight ahead.  The men wear a tunic and cloak, with the draping of the cloak creating a sling for the right arm, and the women wear tunic and cloak with a headband and turban under a veil on their heads. Although there is a certain sameness to the images, they are far from identical.  We have to imagine that these people presented themselves -- at least to some extent -- as they wished to be seen by their descendants for all eternity.  There is good evidence that the tombs were regularly visited (water basins and lamps left at different times in the chambers).  The portraits thus remained visible to later generations, though, ideally, only to those who shared the same ancestors.   Of course, over the years, family circumstances might change.  This tomb of Yarhai, for example, was restricted to members of his family for almost 150 years; then, in 241 CE, perhaps because of straitened circumstances or reduced clan numbers, unused loculi in the entrance chamber were sold off to another line entirely. 

Hand in hand... 

"Beauty of Palmyra" (190-210 CE)
Among the many fascinating aspects of the portraits -- with their lavish details of clothing, jewellery, accessories, and indications of changing fashions -- are the varied hand gestures made by the deceased: for example, in Yarhai's tomb (above; click to make larger), the man on the upper left places his right hand flat on his chest while the man below him holds the fold of his tunic in his clenched right hand: both have their left hands with index and little fingers pointing forward, other fingers folded back, probably held under the thumb (looking, for all the world, like the famous Neapolitan gesture of a mano cornuta [cuckold's horns]).  Compare the left hand of the lad in the upper right column, whose index and middle fingers are extended and two fingers folded back.

Women pose their hands differently.  Like the women in Yarhai's tomb, the so-called 'Beauty of Palmyra' -- whose portrait is still embellished with some of its original colours: red, black (for the irises of her eyes), and real gold (at the arrows) on her golden jewellery -- holds the edge of her veil in her raised left hand.  The fingers of the Beauty's right hand rest slightly splayed in a natural, relaxed pose. Not all women are so relaxed: compare the lady in the centre of Yarhai's tomb who makes the same hand gesture (mano cornuta) as the man on her upper left.

Friends sometimes ask me to explain what the different gestures mean.  I have always replied that there is no way of knowing.  Like any other wilful bodily action, gestures are a kind of code that is embedded in the specific culture.  Without written records or living descendants, there is no way to crack the code.  

No wonder no one wants to study gestures

Until now!

Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra

Maura Heyn of the University North Carolina has just published the first study dedicated to Palmyran gestures (American Journal of Archaeology, October 2010).  Needless to say, I read it avidly.  We'll review her findings in just a moment but, first, I'd like to bring in two points based on my own observations of the hands of Palmyran portraits.

Lady Marti, 170-190 CE
Hands are almost always pictured larger than their normal proportions and without fine details (knuckles, veins, and tendons are scarcely or not at all shown).  Even when finger rings and bracelets on the wrist are intricately carved, the hands remain 'sketchy' and swollen in appearance.  Let's be frank: hands are not the sculptors' strong point.  Compared with the rest of the portrait, they often look gross.  

Why couldn't the local sculptors carve hands properly?  Admittedly, hands are difficult (Dutch Golden Age sitters had to pay extra for each hand portrayed), but fingernails, which are also hard to get right, are done quite well.  As far as I can see, the sculptors didn't even try to depict hands correctly.  Why not?

I think that the answer to this conundrum runs something like this:   
 The over-large size of the hands draws attention to them.  At the same time, their true physical representation was not important to the dead person; what was important was what those hands were saying.  
That is, the gestures (not the flesh) was what they wanted to communicate.

The Dead Speak

Professor Heyn put together a database of 585 bust-length portraits,* classifying the position of right and left hands, descriptions of the fingers (clenched, extended, folded), and any objects held by the dead person.  The database includes 323 males and 262 females -- for practical purposes, roughly equal in number.

Ummayat daughter of Yarhai ,150-200 CE
Ladies First 

For reasons of space (as well as inclination), I am going to focus on the female portraits today -- and get to the males in a later post, if I can. 

de mortuis nil nisi bonum

Palmyra is undoubted patriarchy country.  The wives, daughters, and mothers (whose descent is always reckoned in the male line, even onto three generations) are idealized images of domestic virtue.  This is not to denigrate Palmyran women.  In real life, they were demonstrably active agents in their own fate.**  After death, however, they are portrayed as perfect wives, housewives and helpmates.*** 

There is no rebellious Zenobia in sight.  

But, then, are funerary portraits anywhere ever 'true to life'?

The objects held by the women in the tombs are stereotyped symbols of feminine activity.  A third of the ladies are represented as devoted Penelopes: exactly 33% hold a spindle and distaff (always, rather limply, in the left hand), apparently content to die still spinning yarn for the family loom.  Jewellery boxes, balls of wool, house keys, and, surprisingly, even children are relatively rare.  But whatever the object, it is always appropriate to the private female, domestic sphere.   

Female Gestures

The great majority of females (71%) are shown, as the Beauty (above), with one hand raised to chin or collarbone level.  This gesture never occurs among males so it is a clear marker of gender.

Aqimat, daughter of Wahbi, and her daughter; 200-225 CE
Raising the hand to the face or veil is similar to the woman's gesture of modesty and fidelity (pudicitia) well known in Roman funerary statuary.  

Has it the same meaning in Palmyra?  

There's no real reason to think so.  As Prof. Heyn notes, "It could just have been a conventional way to portray women, modelled on Roman example without the concomitant social baggage." 

But what about the variations in the finger gestures?  In her article, Heyn does not quantify female finger positions nor correlate them with hand poses (unlike for the male busts, where she does exactly that).

But, look carefully.  Some women are touching their veils ('Beauty of Palmyra', Lady Marti), others their cheeks (Ummayat), and still others simply raise a hand without touching either (Aqimat).  Are we to assume that these gestures are mere variations on feminine pudicitia?  Perhaps, but it's not a safe assumption.  For example, only half of the women (51%) who hold spindle and distaff -- clearly, a very domesticated bunch -- also raise their hand in a pudicitia pose.  Thus, the prime domesticity symbol and pudicitia -- if that is what it is -- only partly overlap.  So, more may lurk behind this gesture (or gestures) than first meets the eye.

Palms Up and Out

The second most common gesture made by women (6.5%) is called the 'palm out' gesture -- raising the right hand with the palm facing outward.  Heyn catalogues 18 'palm out' portraits -- 17 women and only one man. So, though not exclusively female, the 'palm out' gesture is disproportionately made by women, a gender bias  underscored by the fact that all of these women (when intact), also hold spindle and distaff in their left hands.

'Palm out' is usually considered an apotropaic  gesture (that is, meant to ward off evil). Heyn thinks it more likely to indicate the person's prior involvement in ritual activities: full-length figures of both men and women on votive altars are sometimes depicted with both hands raised up and palms held outward.   The gesture might thus indicate an act of worship or prayer. 

Just these two gestures cover 77% of Heyn's (intact) female portraits.  Since no other female pose is described in any detail, the remainder presumably are either too varied or too isolated for any pattern to emerge.***

The Sign Language

As mentioned, Heyn did not publish figures for the positions of fingers on women's portraits.  Yet anyone looking at these busts will find their eyes quickly drawn, first to the hands and then to the fingers.  Although hand gestures are not usually shared, both men and women do share the same animated finger gestures.  These are the finger-signs that she lists for men:

1. All fingers clenched or extended; 
2. Index finger extended;
3. Index and middle fingers extended; 
4. Index and little fingers extended; 
5. Index, middle, and little fingers extended.

So here we go, ladies.

Two women, Tamma (left; dated 100-150 CE), and Akmath (right; 2nd C) have identical hand gestures -- a raised right hand holding the edge of their veils and left hand below, held fairly flat against the body; but their fingers are saying quite different things.  Tamma holds her veil with two fingers extended, two folded back; Akmath holds hers with the index finger extended, three fingers folded.  I am willing to admit that this could be meaningless: you have to hold a veil somehow.  But Akmath's left hand is clearly making an intentional gesture: two fingers extended, two folded.  Both women hold spindle and distaff in the left hand (thumbs not indicated), so it is not the object that determines a different finger gesture.

The right-hand touching-face gesture is shared by Lady Haliphat (left; 231 CE) and a nameless woman now in the Petit Palais, Paris, a suitably aristocratic home. Haliphat touches her cheek with two fingers extended, two partly folded -- lending her a slightly coquettish air; her left hand shows the mano cornuta gesture, a particularly unnatural gesture if you are holding an object between your fingers and thumb. The nameless lady touches her face with a slightly extended index finger; the fingers of her left hand, which holds no object, are extended (with a large thumb).

The Point of it all 

These two women have their hands differently posed but both right hands have index finger extended in what looks like a straightforward pointing gesture. The lady in front of two lion-headed door knockers (symbolizing the entrance to the world of the dead) points to the spindle and distaff held in her other hand.  The bejewelled lady points at something perhaps near her waist or beyond the frame of the slab, or at nothing at all.  Compare Aqimat (above) whose overly large index finger points downward and away into nothingness, too. 

My main point, however, is clear by now: that there is no fixed correlation between specific hand poses and finger gestures.  So, are hands and fingers really communicating a message, albeit one that we cannot easily read? 

Grabbing Attention

Or is their purpose purely decorative?  For example, some scholars argue hands and fingers are simply contributing to drapery arrangements, "grasping here, pulling there, and altogether creating a degree of movement...."  As such, they lend animation to the figures and give the portraits "a greater sense of physical presence".  

Prof. Heyn comes down in the middle: gestures have a dual function.  Yes, they are decorative, but they are also 

drawing attention to attributes that enhanced the [subject's] standing in the local community, whether that status was conveyed by ... wealth (jewelry), or family status (spindle and distaff).

So, the pointing finger must be understood as an attention-getter: "Look at my spindle", "Look at my jewels".  But what, I wonder, are they telling us to look at when they are pointing at nothing at all?  Heyn suggests that this calls attention to the portrait as a whole -- a "LOOK AT ME" gesture.  This could be meant, then, to emphasize the individuality of the deceased.

That leaves us, though, with the unhappy flip-side of this argument, to wit, that the most common gestures -- with all the fingers being extended or clenched -- were meant not to draw particular attention to the dead person.  The 'Beauty of Palmyra' -- and many more of her ilk -- would surely demur.  

And so must I.  

For you have only to enter an underground tomb with its sculpture still in situ -- at the tomb of the brothers, Bwlh and Bwrp (aka the Japanese tomb, in honour of its excavators) -- to realize that you are being looked at, and called by, every single person in stone.  Hands seem to come towards you, figures are gesturing, nothing is still. You have entered their house of eternity, a place where the living and dead confront each other.  If they are gesturing, they are, I think, gesturing at you.

Benedica! mal-uocchie non ce pozzano. ("Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here.") 

Until a century or so ago, any Neapolitan who uttered this wish would have immediately accompanied it with the mano cornuta gesture -- with this difference: the fingers would not be positioned vertically toward the forehead (the cuckold's horns) but directed edgewise.  The flat, rather than vertical gesture, was a way of protecting another person from the evil eye or is meant to drive away someone who might have the evil eye. As such, it works as an amulet against evil spells in general, and can be traced back to the Roman period (Andrea de Jorio, Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity). Have we any reason to think that it might have the same meaning in Palmyra?  That's rather a stretch, I admit, but warding off the evil eye does rather make sense within the context of your entering into a tomb.

More gestures, more thoughts, and very possibly even more speculation, when we come to Part II (Gestures in Male Relief Busts)

Heyn estimates that this covers a little less than half of the existing corpus -- a consequence of the fact that most reliefs were looted from Palmyran tombs in the late-19th and 20th centuries, and now dispersed, are, for the time being at least, inaccessible. 

** In contrast to the demure image of females restricted to household matters, as suggested by the funerary reliefs, Palmyran women were actually capable of buying and selling properties, erecting funerary reliefs or columns for themselves and relatives, and could issue dedicatory inscriptions, altars, and ex-voto inscriptions to celebrate the gods.  See E. Cussini, 'Beyond the Spindle: Investigating the Role of Palmyrene Women', in (D.R. Hillers, E. Cussini, eds), A Journey to Palmyra, 26-43.  This study is available through Google Books.

*** A rare exception shows a woman  baring her breast to feed an infant
(late 2nd C); not because her breast is bare -- though that is extremely unusual -- but because her hair is completely dishevelled ... which seems to me a serious breach of funerary decorum: National Archaeological Museum, Damascus (Fig. 96, catalogue of the exhibition Zenobia, Il Sogno di una regina d'Oriente, Palazzo Bricherasio, Torino, 2002). 

Illustrations (in descending order)

Tomb of Yarhai (built 108 CE) , Palmyra: detail of loculi.  Photo credit: Demetrius @ Australian National University

The so-called "Beauty of Palmyra"( 190-210 CE) from Carlsberg Glyptotek. This bust retains an unusual amount of its original paint, which gives a wonderful idea of how vividly the statues were painted: imagine, now, walking into the entrance chamber of Yarhai's tomb, pictured at the top of this post.

Lady Marti, 170-190 CE, Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek

Ummayat daughter of Yarhai , 2nd half 2nd century CE, Photo © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

Mother and daughter, who may both have died in childbirth: 'Aqimat, alas! Wahbi's daughter', and her daughter 'Alas, Jehiba's daughter, Shalmat'. 200-225 CE.  Traces of blue and red paint.  Photo: RMO Leiden.

2nd century. Right hand: palm out; left hand: index finger extended (holding spindle and distaff).  MMA 01.25.1.  Photo credit: FlickRiver.com  (also available from MMA ).

Left: Tamma, daughter of Shamshigeram, son of Malku, son of Nashum. 100-150 CE. Photo: © Trustees of British Museum.
Right: Akmath, 2nd C. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.  Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons

Left: Haliphat,  231 CE. Smithsonian: Freer-Sackler Gallery. Photo: Ann Raia, 2006.
Right: Funerary relief of a lady, early 2nd C. Petit Palais, Paris.  Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons.

Left: Funerary relief of a lady. 120 CE.  Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek.
Right: Funerary relief of a lady. ca. 220-230 CE (this dating is mine, based on an almost twin relief in National Archaeological Museum, Damascus, of Bat-Habbai, Daughter of Zebida, 226/27 CE).  Vatican Museum, Coll. Federico  Zeri, from Zenobia, Il sogno di una regina d'Oriente (Palazzo Bricherasio, Torino, 2002) Pl. 36.


Aha, daughter of Zabaila (149 CE).  Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek


  1. i know you did a lot of work on this article and its excellently written. the most important thing that people must remember is all of the explanations were 'after the facts' of the complete destruction of women, their rulership, their wealth, their freedom was all destroyed by the building of total control of men. They either had to become what you spoke above, or die from torture or caste out of society.


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