How strong was the cultural impact of Rome on far-away Palmyra, a city in Syrian desert -- closer to the Euphrates River than to any other part of the Roman Empire?
Nowadays, historians have a fairly nuanced view of cultural identity. It is seen as a kind of layer-cake, with overlapping hard and soft zones which are constantly changing as the one bumps up against another. In fact, having multiple cultural identities was a remarkable feature of the Roman world: people constantly added layers to the cake instead of just absorbing Roman flavourings. Thus, the elite of Palmyra (and those are the only people of this rich city that we really know anything about) continued to display local pride, traditions, and ideals rather than aspire to being, in any real sense, solely Roman.
Proof of the Pudding
In a Master's thesis, recently completed at Leiden University (Diadems: a girl’s best friend? Jewellery finds and sculptural representations of jewellery from Rome and Palmyra in the first two centuries AD), Ms Andrea Raat explored the relationship between a provincial society (= Palmyra) and the core of the Empire (= Rome) by focusing on precious metals and gems: what jewellery was found in burials compared with what was being carved on statues of men and women in each place?
Part I of 'Diadems Are Forever' considered the jewellery (as it happened, mostly of gold) found buried in graves excavated near Rome. She then looked at statues of men and women from roughly the same time and place: what bijouterie was -- and was not -- pictured on their statues? It turned out that both in reality (burials) and image (sculpture), jewellery was only associated with the female sex. Roman men did not do bling.
In Palmyra, Do as Palmyrans Do
Now we turn to one of the farthest frontiers of Empire to compare the cultural value of jewellery at the centre with that of the periphery. The procedure is the same: how does real jewellery found in tombs stack up against the ornaments sculpted on funerary portraits? Are we seeing the same the norms when it comes to jewellery, or are the Palmyrans going their own way in matters of bling?
From Towers and Underground Tombs
A total of 84 pieces of real jewellery were collected from six tombs of mainly second-century CE date. The haul included bracelets, a brooch, earrings, finger-rings (such as pictured above), a loose gem, one necklace, and several pendants. Most objects were made of copper or silver and very few of gold. Of course, the big problem at Palmyra is that nearly every tomb was thoroughly looted long ago, so thieves probably beat the archaeologists to most of the good stuff.
That may not be the whole story, however.
Classier finds did come from the relatively undisturbed Tomb F, excavated in the 1990's -- built by two brothers with the impossible names of BWRP and BWLH. This tomb yielded a total of 30 pieces of jewellery, including lots of beads, finger-rings (one of gold), copper earrings, and two gold-and-glass pendants (left) ... and a strange human-shaped amulet, resembling a clothed female-like figure (13.3 cm tall; top of post).
Who had goodies in their graves?
We are obviously missing lots of jewellery and assume there would have been more glittery gold if the tombs had not been so extensively robbed. Still, we must make do with what we have.
We have bones.
The bones of 22 skeletons in graves with jewellery could be sexed and/or age estimated: three were adult males, six adult females, and twelve were children; one burial held two adult males and a child.* Though fewer males than females were buried with jewellery, there was clearly no prohibition on the practice (contrast the Roman study which found no males buried with bijoux). On the contrary, the average number of pieces buried with each sex was much the same: 3.5 pieces per adult woman vs 3.0 per adult man; the kids had less: just 1.4 pieces each.
Nonetheless, there was a distinction in the types of jewellery that men and women took with them to the grave. Men had predominantly pendants, often of amuletic character (such as the figurine at the top of this post). Adult females were mostly buried with earrings and finger-rings, and children mostly with beads.
Reality versus Image
So that's the real deal. But reality never interferes with how people choose to picture the dead. It's always idealized.
In order to make a fair comparison with the Roman statues, Ms Raat sought a published Palmyran tomb that held at least 15 well-preserved female portrait busts (that is, the same number as Roman female statues), and mainly from the second century CE. Only the underground tomb of Sassan qualified: 42 individual limestone busts come from this tomb and 16 of them (38%) are female. Working back from an inscription written in Palmyrene (a dialect of Aramaic) on the bust of two men which is dated to the year 181/182 AD, Sassan's family genealogy was established by linking up inscriptions on funerary portraits (I am X, son of Y, son of Z -- that sort of thing). This gives the time range during which the tomb was used as ca. 80-200 CE.
We know something about 15 of the 16 women whose images were sculpted on the limestone busts because inscriptions give their name plus their father's name and often his father's name, and such useful patriarchal data. Only one inscription names both parents.
The women must all have been part of the Sassan family for which the tomb was constructed. How they are exactly related is not always apparent. In one case, we can point to two women who were sisters. We can be certain, however, that all these women belonged to the higher class: the family was affluent and important enough to found and sustain this quite large tomb.
So, how were these well-to-do fathers' daughters portrayed? And who was meant to see them? Ms Raat sets the scene:
... I would call the context of the [tomb] semi-private or semi-public. In Palmyra, family members of the deceased had access to the tombs, so the busts were visible for generations to come. Only relatives or others associated with the deceased would be able to open the locks on the entrance doors of the tombs....Now, what did these ladies look like?
We thus can identify the location, the viewing context (deliberate visits to mourn, pray and perhaps worship), as well as the viewers (relatives of the deceased) of these sculptures. This must be taken into account in the interpretation of the busts....With all this in mind the deceased will have been represented in a certain way, conveying messages on his or her identity and role in society. The sculptures will have evoked a certain response from the family members.
|Amtâ, daughter of Malkû, wife of Belšûrî, son of Sassan|
|Tammâ, daughter of Sîgâ (and), daughter of Belšûrî|
|Amtâ, daughter of Malkâl, (son of) Moqîmû|
Malkat, daugther of Oggâ, son of Sassan
|Bîlat, daughter of Elahbel|
We needn't go on. You get the idea.
If you've got it, flaunt it.
Female jewellery is meant to be seen and its reproduction on funerary portraits is clearly considered seemly. The total amount of separate pieces of jewellery pictured on the 16 busts (earrings counted per pair) adds up to 75 objects. On average 4.7 pieces of jewellery are displayed per portrait and ranges from two to ten pieces per bust. No woman wore less than two items (the minimum was a brooch and headband). In short, all of the ladies wore jewellery.
It is difficult to determine the kind of material the sculpted jewellery was intended to represent. A necklace made up of a chain of stones is often described as a ‘pearl necklace’, but most sculptures in Palmyra were painted, though few traces of colours survive.
Those colours would have told whoever was looking at them what the jewellery was meant to be: gold would be shown by yellow paint, silver by white paint, gems by their 'natural' colours. We can be sure that yellow paint imitated gold because the 'Beauty of Palmyra' (below), for example, retains both traces of gold leaf as well as yellow paint. Recent microscopic photography has revealed red paint invisible to the naked eye (above, left) on the bust of Haliphat, daughter of Oglata, son of Harimai, now in the Smithsonian -- that might have indicated rubies along with some kind of red inlay.
But boys will be boys
Male funerary busts, whether in Sassan's tomb or anywhere else in Palmyra tombs are never pictured wearing any jewellery except occasional finger-rings or cloak fasteners (fibulae). Thus, the difference between men and women regarding jewellery representations is a strict matter of gender. Which is interesting when you think that some men were nonetheless buried with jewellery -- even if the limestone portraits that closed their graves did not show it!
In the Roman part of this study, all graves with jewellery were female graves, and, as it turned out, only with a specific category of deceased: young unmarried women. Even so, in both regions, it was uncommon to bury the dead with jewellery. Just a quarter of the graves in the unlooted Tomb C held any jewellery at all . Moreover, in the grave of the founder of the Tomb (YRHY, son of LSMS, son of MLKW -- if you must know) no jewellery or grave goods of any kind were found, even though his tomb was undisturbed.
This is an important outcome, because it points to jewellery not being a general status marker of the deceased person. Not even in wealthier circles of society there was a habit to give jewellery with the deceased into the grave, neither as a remembrance of the status and wealth of the persons during life, nor as an act of conspicuous consumption by rich families during burial rituals.When in Palmyra....
|The 'Beauty of Palmyra'|
This adornment with jewellery, combined with feminine gestures and attributes (e.g. spindle and distaff), expressed what was considered the Palmyran female ideal. Differences in the amount of jewellery displayed on female portrait busts surely reflected the social status of the city's elite as well as the actual wealth of the women and their families during life.
When in Rome...
The enormous display of jewellery visible on the Palmyran busts was unimaginable in Rome: there, the general absence of jewellery on statues of women counts. Displaying jewellery contradicted the feminine virtues and challenged the prevailing female ideals. In Roman society, sculptures without jewellery were representations of that feminine ideal. Opulent displays like those in Palmyra would have been shocking, an indication of loose morals -- or worse! Only diadems (and earrings) were allowed on Roman female statues: since diadems were connected with the religious sphere, this must have made it an acceptable adornment.
A Girl's Best Friend
The results on the jewellery finds and how jewellery was pictured on statues from Rome and Palmyra show that we are not dealing with a dominant centre that set the standards to which all the provinces conformed. The relationship is not that direct: there is more an overlap in the material visible, pointing to a layer-cake-like process taking place. When it comes to the way they handled jewellery, Rome and Palmyra followed their own traditions and practices.
In short, as Ms Raad concludes, "The sculptures demonstrate that different ideals prevailed in Rome and Palmyra."
* Two of the males were aged between 20-39 years old, two between 40-59 years old, and one was older than 60 years. One female was between 40-59 years old when she died, one around eighteen years old, and two could only be classified as 'middle-aged' and another one as 'young'. For the children, gender could not be determined but two were under a year and two were 5-7 years old.
** On the pudicitia and other female gestures, see Zenobia's post on The Secret Language of Palmyra
All are taken from Andrea Raat's Master's thesis with the exception of the 'Beauty of Palmyra' (ca. 190-210 CE) from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the microscopic photograph made by the Smithsonian of the necklace worn by Haliphat, daughter of Oglata, son of Harimai (died 231 CE).