02 September 2015

Happier Days in Palmyra

      This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr Khaled al-Asaad, a good and gentle man

The Beauty of Palmyra

When the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt was just beginning his third season of digging at Palmyra in 1928, someone offered to sell him this stunning portrait of a woman - and, in accordance with the practices of the time, he bought it on the spot. The bust - or more correctly, half figure - was shipped to Copenhagen where it still graces the New Carlsberg Glyptotek, one of the sponsors of his excavation. 

The most beautiful female bust I have seen thus far, Ingholt said, and, short of a beauty contest between at least six of my favourite female contenders, that probably still remains true. 

The portrait shows a woman who was both wealthy and fashionable: look at the gold-coloured paint which enriches her exuberant jewellery -- imitating golden jewels she must have owned in reality --  and the deep red embroidered sleeves and ruddy dangling beads, red lips, and rouged cheeks (the reds, alas, more visible when she was found than now*). An altogether elegant woman. More the pity that there was no precise provenance: no one knew where the bust was found, nor when the woman had lived....

Until now!

Harald Ingholt's unpublished diary held the secret, only recently teased out thanks to the Palmyra Portrait Project.  One of the goals of the PPP (headed by Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University) is the transcription, translation and digitalization of all of Ingholt's archives, including his excavation diaries. Thanks to their careful work, we now can place the Beauty in her proper tomb: she comes from the underground house-tomb known as Qasr Abjad, 'White Castle', in the Western necropolis. Sculptural finds from this relatively modest sepulchre date to the late 2nd century CE so the woman whose portrait is our Beauty probably ended her life in the years between 190 and 210 CE.

All this and more in Aarhus (Denmark)

The Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus is highlighting Harold Ingholt's work in its thought-provoking show, Harold Ingholt and Palmyra (until 13 September). The exhibition is based on research carried out within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project: their scrutiny of Ingholt's dig diaries has brought to light previously unknown locations of tomb sculpture and new information on his excavations in the city. With his descriptions, sketches and reports, for example, it has been possible to identify some graves whose plans have never been published.

Ingholt carried out three major excavations at Palmyra in the 1920s, finding more than 50 tombs of which 24 could be entered, while the rest had collapsed. Although many of the graves had been robbed long before he got there, he still found a wealth of well-preserved sculptures, sarcophagi, inscriptions and smaller objects. In the mid-1930's, he returned for a brief season to excavate the collapsed tomb of Malkû son of Malkû, son of Nûrbel the doctor, for himself and his sons and their sons. This tomb, in the Southwest Necropolis, founded in 116 CE by the first named Malkû, was used for burials at least until 267 CE according to the last of its 14 inscriptions. This means that Malkû's descendants were probably still being buried in their own family tomb even as the city fought off the Romans and then fell in 272/273 CE.

Adding a Niche

Another long-lived tomb that Ingholt excavated is the subterranean communal tomb of Atenatan also in the Southwest Necropolis.  Atenatan built it in 98 CE, one of the earliest underground house tombs at Palmyra, and it was used for well over a century; and then, in 229 CE, a side niche was built into it by a man named Julius Aurelius Maqqai -- who paid for it, as he boasts, with his own money.  Maqqai had the ceiling of the niche painted and, at some point, three sarcophagi were installed along its walls (left).  Relief figures on the sarcophagi depict Maqqai and his children, wife, and servants.  Ingholt's drawings illustrate the many traces of red and blue colour that could be seen on their decorative reliefs when he excavated the tomb -- something never previously pictured.

As with the 'Beauty of Palmyra', it is now possible to get a good impression of how the sculptures were painted and installed in a tomb in combination with painted ceilings. 

And that's the sort of new insights you'll get if you are lucky enough to visit Aarhus before 13 September.  For those of us who can't get to Denmark, the Museum has published a 68-page illustrated booklet of the exhibition and generously makes it available as a free download.  Click here for Harald Ingholt and Palmyra . There is a huge amount we have still to learn.

In the next post, I'll look at the ambitious Palmyra Portrait Project itself in much more detail.  Their major goal is to build a corpus of every known Palmyran portrait, so that we'll be able to see and compare what is now scattered in museums and private collections around the globe.  The PPP files already record details of over 2,600 portraits -- far more than anyone ever knew existed! In fact, it is now clear that the portraits from Palmyra form the largest Roman-era group of portrait sculpture outside of Rome. As the site itself is now looted and being destroyed, only our knowledge will keep the light of Palmyra alive.

The PPP could hardly be more timely.

Part II of this post, click here.

* Detailed microscopic analysis indicates traces of four colours (yellow and red ochre, carbon black [on the hair] and madder) as well as minute traces of gold leaf. The jewellery would have further glittered with inlaid glass or gemstones as indicated by sunken oval or circular areas. The irises of her eyes were also originally inlaid as shown by circular flat depressions. Full details at Tracking Colour.


Top left: The Beauty of Palmyra, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

All other photographs from the Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra


  1. Thank you for this lovely article, Judith. My heart is bleading for Palmyra and I can't imagine the grief of those who contributed to the excavation and restoration of this glorious city. The present situation leaves me speachless.
    Please keep up the good work and tell the world all you can about the great days of Zenobia in this wonderful city.

  2. Wonderful to find this. I am one of Harald Ingholt's grandsons, researching his work so I could tell my daughter about what he did... She just started high school and is studying world history.

    I always knew about his work in Palmyra, but very little about the details.


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