28 September 2014

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

In the year 113 CE,  a rich Palmyran merchant named Taibul (or TYBL in his native Palmyrene) built a grand underground tomb for himself and his family, for their burials to be secure ... and remembered forever. 

The name of the tomb's founder and date of construction were inscribed on the lintel-stone discovered outside his 'House of Eternity'.  The tomb itself ('H' on the map: click to enlarge) lies about five kilometres southeast of Palmyra, in a large cemetery where all the tombs are subterranean -- so, when you get to the site, you don't see anything except, here and there, low heaps of sand-covered rubble from collapsed towers.  In fact, at the end of the dirt-track that leads to the necropolis, there appears to be only empty stony desert. 

However, the lack of anything to see above ground is more than made up for by what is hidden below: in 2002, Japanese archaeologists discovered this intact tomb from the period of Palmyra's rise to greatness.*  A tomb unlooted, and rich.  TYBL had been twice lucky.

Into the Tomb of TYBL

Leaving the brilliant desert sunlight behind, you pass through a massive single-slab door, descend the stone staircase, and find yourself in a long spacious room.  On the opposite wall there are three separate burial vaults; the most prominent is the central exedra (the semicircular arcade in the middle) with simpler arched chambers on either side.  Taibul lies with his nearest and dearest in the central vault -- set apart from more distant or less prestigious relatives by a great arch flanked by two pilasters with elaborately decorated capitals. Inside the exedra, three elegant stone funerary banqueting couches are arranged as if for a feast in a Roman dining room (triclinium).  Finely-sculpted figures of men, women, and children make up the banqueters.

No inscriptions have been published from the exedra but Taibul, as the family patriarch, is surely the middle figure reclining in the place of honour.  As the centre of the family scene, he would be the first person met by his descendants as they entered the chamber bringing vessels filled with water and wine to drink ceremoniously with their dead ancestors.  On his right sits his wife and son and, to the left (presumably) his brother and brother's wife.  More family members are memorialized on the sarcophagus below.  

Two stone couches placed on either side of Taibul's splendid monument are filled with men and women, surely close relatives, reclining or sitting according to sex and status, with still more family busts below.  Thus, three families are simultaneously joining in Taibul's funerary banquet while also celebrating their own.   

High Relief and False Sarcophagi

At the far end of the tomb, another arched chamber would have been immediately visible to anyone entering the tomb.  In the centre of its back wall, two sculptures in high relief are fitted into a niche. The top piece depicts a man reclining on a couch (although the couch is not actually illustrated), his three children standing behind him.  Below, two men, perhaps an adult son and his (predeceased?) father, take up two-thirds of the relief, leaving little space on their couch for a diminutive wife and two children.  These high reliefs are false sarcophagi.  They imitate the motif of the funerary banquet but are unusable, of course, for the deposition of the dead -- as they hang in the air and have no depth.  So, they are images of the dead for commemorative purposes only.  We really don't know what happened to the bodies of the people depicted on them but they might have been placed in the now-empty loculi which are visible to the left and right of the niche.


Naturally, not everyone is privileged to have sumptuous funerary monuments.

The simpler burials lack elaborate funerary couches and large sepulchres.  Instead, the dead are buried in loculi, narrow coffin-like horizontal spaces cut into the walls of the tomb.  Each loculus was sealed by a limestone slab portraying the head and upper body of the dead person interred within. 

Or rather, as recent excavation shows, the portrait of one of the dead persons within.  For, oddly enough, a loculus was not used for just a single body. Usually several bodies were buried inside even if there were many unused loculi nearby.  Since this is quite a recent discovery, we do not yet have any idea how they chose whose portrait would be used to seal the loculus.  Even odder, the sex of the bodies buried inside does not seem to determine the sex of the bust on the outside of the grave: all we can say is that interred dead males are generally more numerous than females.  Both sexes were placed inside with their heads facing the innermost wall.  And neither sex was buried with any grave goods except for the clothes that they wore on their bodies.  Dead infants, on the other hand, placed in pits in the floor of the funerary chambers, were given some small objects like glass beads and bronze bells to take with them to the other world.  

So, in death, as perhaps also in life, the ties of the extended Palmyran family were enormously strong.  Taibul's tomb served primarily the burial needs of his kin, based, I would think (as with  much of the elite), on cross-cousin marriages.  Publication is still  incomplete but we may imagine a tomb filled to the brim with stone images of Taibul's brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, all commemorated in the tomb's funerary art.

Or, sadly, of what remains of its funerary art.

Two Ladies from Taibul's Tomb

This richly-adorned lady, whose name is lost, is almost certainly the same woman who is pictured on the upper left of the loculi wall above.  Her face, hairstyle and turban match and her pose is the same: right hand holding spindle; index finger in the pointing gesture; spread fingers of her left hand holding her veil.  This is, of course, a very common female gesture.  Her specific jewellery confirms the identification: the bracelet and the shapes, number, and size of her necklaces are identical with the jewels worn by the lady on the wall.  But she is no longer on her wall.  Her grave-stone was jimmied off  and taken from the tomb by looters.  

Alas, Taibul, your luck has run out.

The Tipping Point

The four-year civil war has killed more than 200,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes. It is also destroying some of the world's most important art, buildings and monuments. As the war grinds on, illegal excavation and the looting of antiquities is running riot.  Sometimes the thieves are soldiers in the Syrian army.  Others are criminal gangs, crazed iconoclasts, or just desperate unemployed and hungry men.  It hardly matters: the resulting destruction of Syria's heritage is the same.  

Amidst the gloom, however, are rare flashes of light, such as the lucky swoop by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums that recovered the anonymous bejewelled lady from Taibul's tomb (reported on the Palmyra History and Archaeology website, with photographs of recovered loot).

The authorities must sometimes get tip-offs.  In just a single month  this year, they intercepted three different lots of looted Palmyran antiquities on their way to the international market (click for illustrations of the recovered objects): on 6 March 2014, 16 March 2014, and 30 March 2014.  April was much the same.  June and September were worse.**  And so it goes. These objects had all originated from known tomb groups or museum storerooms.  What is perhaps even more disturbing is the consignment seized on 19 June 2014, none of which was known to archaeologists, which means that illegal digging of unexcavated tombs is taking place around the city despite Palmyra being nominally under the control of the Syrian army.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

The grave-stone of Amta, Daughter of Yarha (left) had also been stolen from Taibul's tomb and was among the group recovered on 26th August.  As she is not pictured on the loculi wall but was registered among the tomb's unpublished contents, it seems all too likely that the thieves have emptied Taibul's tomb of its entire contents.  Can we doubt that all the funerary banquets, sarcophagi, high reliefs, and busts have also been cut from the walls -- and already crossed the border into Lebanon to be sold on to rich European, American, and Gulf collectors? 

Amta will be going back home, it is true, but her context is forever lost. Perhaps because of her beauty, the Syrian authorities gave her a whole page of her own boasting of her recovery.  Amta deserves her 15 minutes of fame.  But then, again, the gloom descends.   'Alas!' is the Palmyran last cry for the dead.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

*    Prof. Kiyohide Saito and the Japanese Archaeological Mission to Palmyra have been exploring, excavating, and restoring tombs in the Southeast Necropolis since 1991.  Their final research report summary (2004) is available at the Kaken website.

** A few days ago, it was reported that the entire Southeast Necropolis has now been looted. 


Top left: Plan of Palmyra's Southeastern necropolis with location of Talbul's tomb (Tomb H) circled.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Centre: Isometric plan of Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Second left: Exedra of Taibul's tomb. Credit: Sumitomo Foundation

Third and Fourth left:  Inside Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology 1, Palmyra History and Archaeology 2

Fifth left: Anonymous lady looted from Taibul's tomb.  Credit: DGAM

Bottom left: Amta, Daughter of Yarha.  Credit: DGAM

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