11 May 2016

Writing Tablets from Ancient Palmyra (Part II): "The Forgotten Island"

Part I of this post, click here

Where in the world is Socotra?

Desert rose (adenium obesium)
Situated smack in the middle of nowhere, in the Indian Ocean 250 km/155 miles east of Somalia and 340 km/210 miles from the coast of Yemen (to which it now belongs).  Socotra is a weirdly wonderful  island, with wide sandy beaches, karst limestone  plateaus full of caves (some as long as 7 km/4.3 miles) and mist-shrouded mountains rising to 1525m/5000' high. 

The climate is ghastly: hot, harsh, and
windswept at the best of times.  The summer monsoon is far from the best  of times: from June to September, the island is so battered by fierce winds that, even today,  maritime traffic comes to a dead halt. Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Portuguese, and British mariners all tried to establish a permanent base on the island -- and all gave up because it was just too horrible. A place so utterly isolated makes it, though, a happy home for a great number of strange plants and animals, many of them endemic to the island (i.e., found only here). 
Dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari)
Over a third of the species of flowering plant on the island are endemic. Not only are they unique to Socotra, but devilishly bizarre to boot.  What is one to make of such botanical oddities such as these?

Cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus)
Take the fat Desert Rose (adenium obesium), pictured at the top of the post -- if that isn't the original Triffid, I don't know what is! 

Or the cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus, left) -- and yes, it is related to the creeping vines of the cucumber and pickles family).

'Kartab' (Dorstenia gigas)
the dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari, above centre); a tree that has no wood in it but its trunk and branches are made of a strange spongey substance so, when the tree dies, it falls to dust. 

Or the Dorstenia gigas, left, otherwise known only by the Socotran name of 'Kartab', meaning 'dried out, withered; stunted' (and I can see why) -- a plant that apparently doesn't require any soil and sinks roots straight into the bare rock.

But I don't really want to talk about Socotra's botany, fascinating though it is, but rather about one of its caves:   

The al-Hoq cave, on the side of a cliff about 300 m above the sea on the northeast coast of the island.  Its entrance is impressive.


The cave was first explored by Belgian speleologists less than 15 years ago.  The spelunkers found plenty of ancient pottery in the two long galleries inside (1200m/1300 yards; 800m/900 yards long), mostly containers used to collect water that dripped from the ceiling into natural basins. Much more remarkable were the grafitti found scratched into the walls of the shorter gallery by sailors and merchants who took refuge on the island when the monsoon winds unexpectedly turned against them.  As far as they can be read, some 250 inscriptions record men's names scrawled in the scripts of ancient India (Brāhmī), Ethiopia (Guèze), Yemen (S. Arabian), and Bactria -- all written between the 1st and 6th centuries CE.*  

Pieces of at least 20 incense burners were found nearby, which means that the names were not meant simply to record their presence ('Kilroy Was Here') but to call out to, or remember themselves to their gods.  One of the few longer texts makes this clear.  Written in  ancient S. Arabian, it reads: 'Abdsiyà came here and you [the god] remained hidden from him'.  I think what poor 'Abdsiyà is saying is: 'This is a god-forsaken place'.  Literally.

But that's not all, folks. 

There were two wooden tablets and one at least is written in clear Palmyrene.

As noted in Part I of this post, the only surviving wooden tablets from Palmyra itself are those seven written by a schoolboy practicing his Greek.  And, now, we have a genuine tablet (below) written in the cursive Palmyrene script by a named adult man who had landed on Socotra and entered the Hoq cave.  The extra-large tablet (50 x 20 cm/20"x 8")  must have been made elsewhere for there is no wood on Socotra.  We can imagine that he came with a supply of tablets to use on his journey, making notes or contracts whenever and where they were needed. Socotra was probably the last thing on his mind when he set out from Palmyra on the long, long journey to India (see the map above right; click for a larger picture).  But this is where the monsoon took him, and he left the tablet carefully placed against a stalagmite (below). We don't know who wrote the second tablet, as it fell face down and no writing is preserved; but that, too, had been specially positioned, originally leaning against a small mound with an incense burner on top. Happily, the first tablet is legible ... 

... and this is what it says:

In the month of Tammuz, day 25 of the year 569, I, Abgar, son of Abbshamay, 'navigator' [or 'emissary'], have come here, to the country of Nysy; bless the god who has brought us here, and you, the man who reads this tablet, bless me [us] as well and leave the tablet in this place [where you find it]. 

The date is exact: the 25th day of the Semitic month of Tammuz in the year 569 = July 258 CE.

Who is this Abgar?

Though the odds are hugely against it, there's a very good chance that we know something about Abgar's family.   His father's name Abbshamay means "servant of Heaven", so they were probably worshippers of the Palmyran god, Balshamin (whose small, perfect temple was blown up by ISIS last year).  The name is only known at Palmyra in two inscriptions, both from the tomb of Nasrallât in the southwest necropolis. The inscriptions are dated to 574 (262-263 CE) et 576 (264-265 CE), and both refer to a Julius Aurelius Yedibêl, son of 'Abdshamaya', son of Malkû.  Given the rarity of the family name as well as the closeness in dates, it seems more than likely that Abgar and Yedibêl are related, possibly even brothers.

Alas, it is unlikely that our Abgar made it back to Palmyra.  At least, he seems not to have been buried in the family tomb. Someone so literate that he asks for a blessing from his god on the forgotten island of Socotra, and writes it in a very nice hand, would surely have left a funerary inscription for us to read.  

Even if his god didn't save him, at least those who read his plea left his tablet where he had placed it, just as he had asked them to do. 

You can't ask for more than that on Socotra. 

* Now published in Ingo Strauch [ed.]: Foreign Sailors on Socotra : the Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq, Bremen : Ute Hempen Verlag.

Sources and Illustrations

Ch. Robin, Maria Gorea, Les vestiges antiques de la grotte de Hôq (Suqutra, Yémen)
(note d'information).  In: Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 146e année, N. 2, 2002. pp. 409-445. The blogs The Dark Roasted Blend

Travel to Socotra , Socotra, Dream Island.

30 March 2016

Writing Tablets from Ancient Palmyra

One story is good, till another is told

Two men, by the names of Aesop and Babrius, and a schoolboy walked into a bar in ancient Palmyra. Aesop ordered three cups of date-palm wine and toasts his companions, telling a fable about an eagle and a jackdaw (Aesop 2).  Babrius laughs, buys another round of wine, and says, "Aesop, best of fabulists, truly you are an eagle but I'll show you I'm no daw." With barely a pause, he renders Aesop's prose into verse (Babrius 137):
An eagle with his talons lifted a sleek lamb from the flock
and carried it off to give to his young ones for a meal.
A jackdaw started to do the same,
swooped down and fastened on the back of a lamb. 
Unable to lift the lamb, his claws became entangled in its fleece, 
there boys caught him and clipped his wings.
Zebida son of Taimamed holding polyptych tied
 up by a strap and a wide tablet

The schoolboy -- probably similar in age and appearance to Zebida son of Taimamed, the scholarly child whose portrait is on the left -- was eagerly writing down Babrius' words on a tablet covered with wax.*

Now, he piped up with the moral of the story:

I pay a just penalty for my folly, he said.

Why did I, who am only a jackdaw,
 try to imitate the eagle?

And all that he said was written in Greek.  

From Palmyra to Leiden

And here (left) is the actual wax tablet that the schoolboy scribbled on.  His writing looks as if he had inbibed a little too much wine: most lines are not straight, spacing is irregular and there are spelling errors in his Greek.  But, in truth, given that his own language was Palmyrene and he was just learning Greek, the result isn't really bad at all.

What is amazing, however, is that this tablet still exists: in fact, seven wax tablets (probably once bound together as a polyptych [a diptych + five]) were bought by a Dutch naval officer, Mr H. van Assendelft de Coningh, in Palmyra in 1881 ("During my brief visit to Palmyra I acquired these wooden tablets").  What amazing luck: these are the only inscribed tablets known to have come from ancient Palmyra. After Van Assendelft de Coningh's death, his brother donated the tablets to the Leiden University library which gave them the name of Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae in honour of the family.  The tablets are still to be found in that library and, even better, they can now be viewed online.** 

When is a fable not a fable?

In 1893, Leiden professor Dirk Hesseling published the tablets.  He had discovered “after great effort and repeated squinting” that they contained 13 fables by Babrius, a Greek-speaking Roman poet living in Syria in the second half of the first century CE.  Babrius is the author of almost 200 fables that were traditionally attributed to Aesop. In fact, Babrius himself tells us in his book's introduction that he was the first to put Aesopic prose into verse:

You may learn and fully understand from wise old Aesop, who has told us fables in the free manner of prose.  And now I shall adorn each of these fables with the flowers of my own Muse.  I shall set before you a poetical honeycomb, as it were, dripping with sweetness....
Unnamed boy holding stylus and polyptych
with Greek inscription
In antiquity, the fables of Babrius were commonly used as an easy reader for young children when they were first learning to speak and write Greek.  "Let them learn," Quintilian says (I,9,1) "first to tell the fables orally in clear, unpretentious language, then to write them out with the same simplicity of style...."   Such stories featuring anthropomorphised animals and containing moralistic wisdom were a good way to teach Greek to school children.  The somewhat older lad pictured (left) is proud of his Greek: his open stack of waxed tablets displays the last five letters of the Greek alphabet -- but written in Palmyrene (Aramaic) order, from right to left.

The empire was multilingual, and learning Greek as a second language was a necessity in the eastern empire -- and nowhere more so than in Palmyra, especially for its merchants who travelled far and wide, often to the very edges of the known world. The many monumental inscriptions of the city carved on its pillars and walls, reflect their cosmopolitan ways: many hundreds are bilingual, written in both Palmyrene and Greek.  The ability to use Aramaic and Greek alphabets seems not to have been uncommon at Palmyra.

That's why our Palmyran schoolboys started learning the Greek alphabet and language at a young age, perhaps soon after having learnt to read and write the entirely different Palmyrene (Aramaic) script.  All seven Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae were written by a single schoolboy who lived in the city in the early third century CE (as can be determined from the form of his letters). On some tablets, he  practiced his hand in both book-script -- printing his letters -- and cursive -- joining them up (as left).  It's very likely that his teacher was dictating the fables while the boy wrote them down as he thought he heard them -- with all the errors and smudges, deletions and guesswork that you would expect. 

There is something very tender in the thought that we have retrieved the halting efforts of a young Palmyran in the early stages of learning the Greek language; we can almost picture him as he hurried to school on the streets of Palmyra with wax tablets tied by strings. But, in all truth, it is disappointing, too, that the surviving texts on these tablets are only the rather banal fables of Babrius -- already known to us from many sources throughout the Roman Empire.***  Can you imagine if instead they had recorded epic battles in the wars against Sasanian Persia, or hymns to the gods of Palmyra, or records of a merchant's far-away travels?  Alas, that was not to be.

Yet there is one more inscribed wooden tablet written by a Palmyran, and it only came to light a dozen or so years ago.  It was found far from the city, on the distant and dangerous route that merchants took on their way to India.  This tablet deserves to be better known.  I'll tell you about it in the next post.

Part II: https://www.blogger.com/2016/05/writing-tablets-from-palmyra-part-ii.html

*Wax tablets – small wooden boards covered in a layer of wax were used throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The wax surface used to write on could be easily wiped clean and reused.  It allowed erasure and reuse of the writing surface, making them suitable for use at schools, taking notes, etc. Tablets are very rarely found with wax layer and writing intact.

** Recently cleaned and restored by Karin Scheper of the Leiden Univ. Library (left): Over the years fungus had grown on the wax layers, rendering the texts illegible. Scheper removed the fungus by carefully rolling a cotton swab, saturated with demineralised water and ethanol, over the wax layer. She then cut and folded new cassettes out of cardboard, allowing the tablets to ‘breathe’, eliminating the breeding conditions for fungi. See Greek Wax Tablets from Palmyra Restored

*** In all fairness,
though the tales are known elsewhere in prose, four of the thirteen fables (Babrius 136-9) on these tablets are nowhere else preserved in verse.

Main Sources

D. C. Hesseling, "On Waxen Tablets with Fables of Babrius (Tabulae Ceratae Assendelftianae)", JHS Vol. 13 (1892 - 1893), 293-314; B.E. Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library, 1965; Łukasz Sokołowski, "WRITING ATTRIBUTES IN ICONOGRAPHY OF THE PALMYRENE FUNERARY STELA AND THE LOCAL SOCIAL IDENTITIES EXPRESSED," 18th CIAC: Centro y periferia en el mundo clásico/Centre and periphery in the ancient world, Mérida 2015, 1237-1240; idem, "Portraying Literacy of Palmyra, 2014" Etudes et Travaux XXVII, 2014,376-403; Greek Wax Tablets from Palmyra Restored, NINO 28 February 2016.


Top left: Zebida son of Taimamed holding polyptych and a wide tablet. Palmyra,Palmyra Museum, inv. no. 1973/7065. Photo credit: Sokołowski 2014, Fig. 16.

2nd left: Wax tablet from Palmyra. Photo credit: Tabulae ceratae graecae quae vocantur Assendelftianae, Leiden University.

3rd left: Unnamed boy holding stylus and polyptych with Greek inscription. Late 2nd-early 3rd century CE. Photo credit: Louvre Museum, inv. no. AO 18174

Lower left: Wax tablet from Palmyra. Photo credit: Tabulae ceratae graecae quae vocantur Assendelftianae, Leiden University.

28 February 2016


A journalist working for the Swedish newspaper Expressen has managed to place a hidden video camera on a bus on its way into Palmyra. This is the first time anyone has filmed in the city since ISIS took control in May 2015 ...  or, at least, it's the first time any filmer has come out alive.

The bus rolls in along the city’s deserted streets. 70,000 people used to live here. Today it is a ghost town.  The modern city was never a pretty place but it was prosperous, having plenty of simple restaurants and coffee shops, with vibrant markets, and rows of new villas rising just outside the ruins.  Now, not a single person is to be seen.

(If the video doesn't appear correctly, click on this link)

Once the bus arrives in Palmyra, it is too dangerous to change the position of the camera: that's why the video only shows what is visible on the right side of the bus.  Thus, although we don't see it, as the bus leaves the modern town it drives past the Museum and the square where its Director, Khaled al-Asaad, was murdered last year and his body hung on a lamp post.

You then enter the archaeological area and first spot the emptiness where had been the well-preserved Temple of Balshamin. 

Not 50 meters (150') away on the left, you can see the Zenobia Hotel behind the palm trees. We often sat in Zenobia's garden with a cool beer, watching the sun set over this temple, as the dying light turned the apricot-coloured stone into purple and then night.

The Temple of Balshamin is gone. It is truly night.

The secret camera next records the entrance to the Great Colonnade, an elegant street that runs for more than a kilometer (1100 yards), lined with temples, baths, a theatre, and shops on either side. Tall triple arches -- the pictorial symbol of the city -- marked the Colonnade's start on the southeast end. Though dubbed the 'Arch of Triumph', we actually don't know exactly when or why it was erected.  No matter.  Only broken blocks remain.

I'm not sure why ISIS blew up the arches: they had no religious history nor idolatrous imagery.  Perhaps it was just too much a symbol of life before ISIS. 

Opposite the triple arches and across the road had been the grandest of all Palmyran monuments, the Temple of Bel.  Since the secret camera couldn't photograph from that side of the bus, there are no new pictures of the devastated temple.  But we already know what happened to the Temple of Bel. 

The only surviving structure within the sanctuary is the archaeological dig-house (upper right). This had once been a village chief's dwelling, a handsome building surrounding a courtyard planted with date palms and terebinth trees. I lived there with the Dutch artist Bierenbroodspot many months at a time in the 1990s: from the terrace of the dig-house the ruins spread out in front, and its other side looked out over the remains of the green oasis.  Our last visit was in the winter of 1997 and it was remarkable for the two-tailed Hale-Bopp comet that hovered every night over the temple until the very last weeks of our stay. Sitting on the terrace, staring out at the utterly dark and silent temple, it was easy to think of portents, and how the cosmic indifference of Hale-Bopp would once have foretold the death of kings and the fall of empires. We could almost reach out and touch that ancient world, when every sign was meaningful.  I keep telling myself that the comet could not have foretold the coming of ISIS.

The Temple of Balshamin is gone.  The Arch of Triumph is gone. The tower tombs have been blown up.  Only rubble remains.
“The IS terrorists were looking for two tonnes of buried gold. When they didn’t find it they started executing people and destroying  Palmyra,” the son-in-law of Khaled al-Asaad told Expressen.
 I suppose what they could not understand was that Palmyra itself was the treasure.  And so they themselves destroyed the gold.
"I feel very sad. It makes me want to cry. There are no words."


All credit to the brave journalist, Kassem Hamadé, of the Swedish newspaper Espressen.  The story is filed under Hidden Camera Shows How IS Destroyed the Palmyra World Heritage

Note an old error crept into the text on the video: King Solomon did not found Tadmor.  That idea was based on a misreading of the place name "Tamar" in 1 Kings 9:18, conflating it with "Tadmor",  the Semitic name for Palmyra (both names meaning 'palm trees'). 


All stills from the video except that of the Temple of Bel which was published by BBCI

19 December 2015

Judith's Feast

The Scroll of Judith

You also, son of man, take a written scroll, feed your stomach and fill your belly with what I give you, and it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.  

Thus begins the medieval Hebrew manuscript Megillat Yehudit (Scroll of Judith).*  Beneath the title, in smaller letters, is the instruction: "to be said on Hanukkah."

Okay, I know I'm a little late this year but I'll make it up in 2016. 

Anyway, the feast is real and the date is yours to choose.

In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful Judith leaves the besieged city of Bethulia intending to trick the invading general Holofernes.  In the Scroll, the city is Jerusalem and Holofernes is the enemy king.  In both versions, he lusts after her body: Come now, lie with me, my sister, for it is a great love I have for you, a love with all its rapture.

Judith takes food with her to tempt Holofernes: a jar of wine, a cruse of oil, barley groats, fig-cakes, white bread, and cheese. The cheese does the trick:  Judith feeds him pancakes with salty cheese; he gets thirsty and drinks too much wine (his heart was merry).  Drunk, he falls to the ground and sleeps.

Then she took the sword and went softly to him, for he was fast asleep. Then she held up her right and her left hand and she smote his head, she smote him and killed him and she cut off his head.

Dead drunk, you might say.  Still, she saved her city and, of course, her virtue, too. And that, they say, is the reason you eat cheese on Hanukkah -- which, I admit, does not make much sense to me.  

In the Scroll's entirely apocryphal story, Hanukkah becomes the feast of Judith:

Then Judith became queen over the land and judged Israel.  Because of this the children of Israel shall make a very great feast in their pots and cauldrons, with pieces of cheese, gladness and feasting, a good day, of sending portions to one another, baked pieces, food from the frying pan [pancakes] and dough kneaded until it is leavened so its glory will grow with honey, all manner of baked goods ... and the drinking was according to the law: none did compel, for thus the Queen Judith had appointed to all the officers of [this] house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.

From the Scroll of Judith, written by Moses Shmeil Dascola (probably somewhere in the Provence), on the 30th day of the month of Silvan, 5162 [= 1402 CE].*

So, lifting a glass of sparkling wine (none did compel), I wish my readers Happy Feast Days and all the very best in 2016 CE!

*Translated with commentary by my namesake, Dr Susan Weingarten: 'Food, Sex, and Redemption in Megillat Yehudit (the "Scroll of Judith")', in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Cambridge, 2010, 110-125.


Judith in pigmented plastic, plaster, paint, and steel armature with wheels, by the Polish artist Paweł Althamer. A plaster cast from the face of a living woman is formed into a mask, then embellished with extruded bandage-like polyethylene strips and fixed to a frame.

Photo credit for statue of Judith: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin.

Photo of the artist (left): Phaidon

09 November 2015

30 September 2015

Happier Days in Palmyra: Part II

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

Part I, click here

The Peregrinations of a Lady

This funerary portrait of an elegant upper-class woman from Palmyra used to belong to the  wealthy Italian art historian and critic, Federico Ziri. Before it entered Ziri's collection, however, the bust had already passed through the hands of several important French collections. As with so many Palmyran portraits in private hands, there are gaps in its collecting history.  We don't know, of course, when or where the bust was found, dug up and sold.
...illicit digging continues, and almost every traveller buys and removes a few busts and mortuary inscriptions. (John Punnett Peters, in Palmyra in 1889
Our lady's portrait first came to public notice in 1903 when it appeared in the Beirut collection of the linguist and excavator Father Sébastien Ronzevalle, SJ.  Long before the Jesuit father's death (d. January 1937), the bust had resurfaced in the possession of the slightly dubious French architect Émile Bertone, who had travelled to Palmyra in 1898 where he copied and published a mixed bag of inscriptions. He kept the portrait until his death (d. March 1931), when it was sold at the Paris auction house of Clément Platt. Who bought it? We don't know. We know nothing of its fate between 1931 and the 1960s when it entered Federico Ziri's collection (along with another nine Palmyran busts); exactly how and where he acquired the lady's portrait is not yet clear.

Like the vast majority of Palmyran reliefs cloistered in private collections, her portrait had, for all practical purposes, vanished from the world.  Zeri kept the busts in his private villa just outside Rome. The art historian had come to believe that he descended from a noble Syrian family from Homs (ancient Emesa, 160 km as the crow flies across the desert from Palmyra); accordingly, he placed the ten portraits in the entrance hall of his villa -- rather like an ancient Roman patrician's ancestral busts -- so that anyone visiting him would have to pass along them, as if through a guard of honour.  In short, if you wanted to see the lady and her compatriots, you needed a personal invitation.

Ziri's ten busts were finally published in 1986 -- albeit in an Italian learned journal of little international reach. When Zeri died in 1998, he bequeathed the ten pieces to the Museo Gregoriana Egizio of the Vatican Museum, where presumably they will rest until the Day of Judgment. You can now find our lady online with some information in Italian and in English

That being said, the museum's text is brief and not entirely crystal clear.  In fact, it merely whetted my appetite. Who wouldn't like to learn more about this woman's life and death, the clothes she is wearing, her choice of jewels, and even the meaning of her hand gestures?  But, until today -- unless you are sitting in a world-class university library -- finding this out will be a complicated and long drawn-out business, which might even end with your hitting a brick wall.  

Ye Olde Way 

The first question we would need to answer is the date of the  relief itself: when did her family have that beautiful stone carved in her memory? That's not too difficult -- for the bust is a fine example of the early-third century style of Palmyran sculpture; so the memorial was made in the years between ca. 200 and 230 CE. Happily, there is also a woman's bust in the National Museum of Damacus that is nearly a twin of our lady -- and her portrait is precisely dated by its inscription to 226/27 CE.  We can't be more than a decade off from that date.

Our lady is also inscribed with Palmyrene script on the slab above her left shoulder ... and that
text should reveal her name and close family relations. Being outside of my dream library, finding that text proved difficult. I searched on Google by catalogue number and finally tracked her down in a truly obscure academic journal in the middle of a discussion about an ancient Latin inscription from Libya(!). As it happens, the Libyan man's name was also shared by a handful of Nabataeans and Moabites as well as a very few Palmyrans; but only by one female, who turns out to be our lady: her name is Rumai. The name probably comes from the root RWM, meaning 'high' (perhaps in the sense of 'high-born').  Finally, with the help of inter-library loans,* I read the complete inscription:
Image of (SLMT)
Rumai (RWMJ), wife of
Iarhi (JRHJ), son of
(HN').  Alas!
Admittedly, I was not much the wiser.

Although in theory, I was now in a position to winkle out possible family connections, this could not realistically be done outside of my dream library ... so I put that task aside for another time.

Her finery, however, which is carved in very great detail, allowed me to start on the interesting task of comparing her statue with those of other wealthy Palmyran women of her time.  

Beginning at the top: beneath her veil she wears a high rolled  elaborately decorated turban with rosettes and pearls apparently sewn on.  I know of several portraits with similar headdresses, such as this lovely lady (left) now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Both ladies also share the same swept-up hair style. The headdress and hairdo can also be found together on a few other female heads of which I have but dismal black-and-white photographs (e.g. IN 1102, 1099, 1104, in the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen) -- all dated on stylistic grounds to ca. 210-230 CE.  So we can be reasonably sure that these particular features were shared by some fashionable women at this time.

Next, Rumai's lovely cloak is adorned with a vertical band of acanthus leaves, a design repeated on the cuffs which also end in fringes (or possibly fur). Ladies' cloaks are rarely embroidered in Palmyra: here, it is the men, not the women, who sport elaborately decorated outer garments, especially (though not exclusively) those wearing Parthian-type tunics and trousers. Besides Lady Rumai  and her 'twin' in Damascus, another exception is the 'Beauty of Palmyra' (illustrated in Part I) whose sleeves are decorated with a pattern that seems to echo her ornate bracelets. There are, of course, a few other exceptionally clad women, but it still holds true that embroidered cloaks are very uncommon on women's funerary busts. 

Then I thought of Bitti, daughter of Yarhai (left).  One rarely thinks of Bitti.  Why not? Because she is one of the very very few Palmyran women who does not wear a veil -- an altogether exceptional group; who are these strange or wanton women? Are they (as some have  proposed) freed slaves, or even eunuchs, or are they merely flappers out for a fling, the better to flaunt their special  hairstyle? I won't get into this question today (though one day, I will) but note that Bitti, too, wears a beautifully decorated cloak.  She is also dated to ca. 230 CE.  It all seems to be coming together nicely.

Now, what we really need in order to progress further is to see all the women who are wearing such decorated cloaks.  And then put that together with all women whose jewellery -- drop-earrings, necklaces, and finger rings -- is similar to that worn by Lady Rumai.  But even a preliminary look at jewellery would take me days ... if not weeks of work; and I'd still be certain to miss a large number of poorly-illustrated busts, as well as those which have never been shown to the public. Honestly, what can we hope to learn from just one portrait, or even a wall full of them? 

Not very much, really.

If Lady Rumai is not to remain little more than a pretty picture, we need a Corpus.

What's in a Corpus?

Palmyran portraits are scattered in public and private collections throughout the world. They are often poorly published, or not at all -- and they have never been catalogued, described, dated, or treated as an entire group. 

That is now about to change. 

The Palmyra Portrait Project***

When Harald Ingholt (Part I of this post) worked out the essential chronology and dating of Palmyran sculpture in 1928, he knew of 524 portraits. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, he found and drew in his diaries almost 1,000 pieces. But today, the Palmyra Portrait Project (PPP) database has recorded more than 2,600 portraits -- far more than anyone ever knew existed --  from museums and private collections around the world.  This includes hundreds of portraits that had briefly appeared on the antiquities markets and then vanished from public view. 

The PPP is preparing a complete research dossier for every single known piece of Palmyran portraiture. Wherever possible, new high-resolution photographs have been made.  That is an essential step: look at the photograph of Lady Rumai at the top of this post: it's the best I could find online, not bad but it blurs some details, such as the round brooch that pins her cloak (next to her left hand). Brooches are an important item of jewellery, usually of gold -- and their shapes and designs change over time; certain designs perhaps are meaningful but we can't know what they might mean until we can compare them all, type by type. 

Portrait descriptions will also include detailed analysis of poses, faces, and attributes (usually, what is held in the hands).  Gender, colour traces, hairstyles, dress, and jewellery are all recorded in minute detail, and made searchable. For the very first time, it will be possible to compare every detail of each sculpture with all the others. Added to the data, of course, are the dated inscriptions as well as all known family relations [So-and-so, the son/daughter, father/mother of so-and-so: up to five generations!] -- and a whole world of new research possibilities opens up. 

Portraits can be compared across and within groups such as priests, women, children, or even those sharing the same attribute. Sticking to women for the moment -- as is the wont of this blog -- did you know that five women hold writing tablets (vs. more than 100 men); who are these ladies? One such woman with a tablet doesn't wear a veil (left); is that significant?  Are there still more ladies with stylus or tablets out there, in less accessible collections? Women sometimes hold keys (men never do): are these the keys to the household cupboard or to the gates of the world beyond?  And who else is wearing any special piece of jewellery that catches your eye?  All of this can soon be studied by date and, if we're lucky, by family connections. We'll be able see how facial features are treated differently over time, and follow changes in fashion and tastes -- hairstyles, beards and moustaches for men and hairstyles, headdresses and jewellery for women. 

Let's say that you'd like to know if the pearls-and-rosette decoration sewn on Lady Rumai's turban is a design that runs in her family, perhaps even a badge of her clan?  We can only study that if we first know who else wears that particular pattern, their dates, and inscriptions (if any) that might lead to other family members.  By this time next year I might be able to tell you.  And then, when I next think about the Unveiled Women of Palmyra, I expect to have a complete picture of all of them before I start to write. What a difference that will make!

Palmyrene portraiture has an inherent logic all its own.  Everyone who studies it has an intuitive understanding of this. It's time we find out more exactly what it is. 

* My warm thanks to Prof. Anna-Marguerita Jasink of the University of Florence, who was kind enough to call it up from the university library in Naples.

** Harald Ingholt (see Part I) long ago divided the known Palmyrene funerary portraits into three distinct chronological groups by taking the small number of dated examples and grouping about them undated reliefs that were stylistically similar. While later scholars have refined Ingholt’s categories, the basic groupings have been maintained. For example, we know that most men before 150 CE are clean-shaven whereas they tend to be bearded from 150-200 CE. Or that, after 200 CE, certain facial features appear, such as unincised eyes and a single groove for eyebrows, as well as the marks of the curved and flat chisel on the necks.  Women in his early group (50–150 CE) wore little jewelry and often held a spindle and a distaff in the left hand. Those in his second group (150–200 CE) wore more jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets, and rings, rarely held the spindle and distaff, and frequently raised the right hand to hold the veil back from the face. In the latest group (200-273 CE), some women display even more jewellery, and many used their left hand to hold the veil. However, it's possible that the amount of jewellery a woman wears correlates better with her family wealth or some other factors than simply with chronology. This is just one of the many conundrums awaiting solution after the Palmyra Portrait Project is fully launched.

*** Under the direction of Dr Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Dr Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University.


R. Raja and A.H. Sørensen. Harald Ingholt and Palmyra, Aarhus, 2015; A.J.M. Kropp, 'The Palmyra Portrait Project', Syria 91, 2014, 393-408; M.K. Heyn, 'Female Portraiture in Palmyra' (Case Study VI), in A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, Published Online: 13 FEB 2012; P. Callieri, 'Rilievi funeriari palmireni nella collezioni Ziri', Annali di archeologia e storia antica. Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli 8 (1986) 223-244; F. Vattioni, 'Le inscrizioni sui rilievi palmireni nella collezioni Ziri', Annali 8 (1986) 245-248.


Top: Rumai, wife of Iarhi. Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the Vatican Museum. Photo Credit: LaurieAnnie.

Left # 2: Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the National Museum of Damascus, April 2009.  Photo credit: Dosseman.

Left # 3: Bust of Woman from Palmyra (with false Palmyrene inscription) in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Inv. B 8904. Photo credit: UPM .

Left # 4:  Bitti, daughter of Yarhai. Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek I.N. 1053. Photo credit: Colledge, Art of Palmyra, Pl. 91 (via Carnuntum).

Left # 5: Bust of a woman from Palmyra, holding a writing tablet on her left hand. Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Carole Raddato CC BY-SA (via Following Hadrian: The Ancient People of Palmyra).

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

12 July 2015

This Summer, Join a Blogging Research Project

Summer is usually a quiet time for archaeological blogging.  Most archaeologists are away in the field, digging up (what is for us) buried treasure, or in museums learning from previous digs; and universities are closed.  News of recent discoveries rarely seeps out before September when everyone gets back to their desks. This year, however, we've got two great summer stories for you, one of which gives you the chance to participate in a real archaeological research project. 

But first, the hot news from Arles in southern France. 

Extremely rare ancient Roman frescos -- comparable to those found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii and the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale a little north of Pompeii -- have just been discovered in the bedroom of a freshly-dug Roman villa in Arles (Latin Arelate). This is the very first full mural ever found in France in what's known as the Second Pompeian style (starting and ending in Gaul some 20 years later than in Italy, (ca. 70-20 BCE). 

Among the images in the fresco (now broken into more than 12,000 fragments that will have to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle) is this extraordinarily expressive face of a young woman with full red lips and dark eyes gazing slightly upwards.

As expert restorers started putting fragments together, they discovered that she was plucking the strings of a  harp.

The lady harpist is painted in expensive Egyptian blue and red vermilion pigments. Even in Italy,  in fact, large human figures painted on a vermilion background in the Second (rather 'Illusionistic') Style, only appear on a handful of sites.  It seems very likely that the fresco-painters came to Arles from Italy.

Although Arles had been a Roman town since 123 BCE, it remained rather small compared to Massalia (Marseilles) -- until the city fathers had the wit, or luck, to support Julius Caesar in the Civil War.  When Caesar emerged victorious in 48 BCE, Massalia (which had backed Pompey) was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate as a reward.  This must have been the time when the newly-discovered luxurious villa was built and so very richly decorated.

Now, for the other hot news of summer.

Join an Archaeological Research Project

Fleur Schinning is a young scholar in the Department of Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She wrote to me last week asking if the readers of my Zenobia blog might be willing to help in her post-graduate research project for Heritage Management.  The focus is on how blogs and social media can be used as tools in creating public support for archaeology. Accordingly, she is comparing a number of blogs from the UK and USA, where blogging seems widely accepted.  As she writes, "I have come across some very interesting and successful blogs, of which your blog is one." 

I am flattered, of course.  She asks me and the readers of this blog to join her in the project.  If you can spare just five minutes to complete a simple anonymous questionnaire to share your thoughts about this and other blogs you read, she would be tremendously grateful.  Click here to get started.

In return, you might win six issues of Archaeology, the very  magazine that was so quick to publish the story of the Roman fresco discovered in Arles (10 July 2015) ... and which supplied the best photograph of the lady harpist.  So you see, 'what goes around, comes around'.  Click here.

My thanks to my Facebook friend, Lynda Albertson, for the heads up on the new Arles frescos.

Sources include INRAP fr: 'Des fresques romaines uniques en France découvertes à Arles';  RFI: 'Rare ancient Roman frescos found in south of France'; Le Monde: 'Des fresques dignes de Pompéi exhumées à Arles'; Archaeology: 'Complete Roman Fresco Discovered in Arles, France'.


Upper left: Arles fresco: detail of young woman.  Photo credit: Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Le Monde)

Middle left: Arles fresco: the lady harpist.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Archaeology)

Centre: Arles fresco : decorations around the edge of the bedroom.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via RFI )

Lower left: Fleur Schinning

03 June 2015


C.P. Cavafy's draft of a poem on Zenobia (November 1930)* 
Written on a single sheet, with covering page bearing the title and date:

Side 1 is the text written in black, including two illegible crossed-out words at the end.

Side 2 gives the added text, here written in red, including the line crossed out.

Now that Zenobia is queen of many great lands,
now that all of Anatolia marvels at her,
and even the Romans fear her by now,
why shouldn't her grandeur be complete?
Why should she be reckoned an Asiatic woman?

They'll create her genealogy straightaway.

Two scholars skilled in history
Are taking up the important task
See how they deal with her genealogy
How obviously she's descended from the Lagids.
How obviously from Macedonia 
(four letters crossed out). 

*Translation and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn (Twitter/undated)







Portrait of Zenobia.  Modern mould taken from an Alexandrian tetradrachm (Paris, Cabinet des Médailles n. 3647).  For discussion of why this coin might preserve her true portrait, see the blog post, My Money On Zenobia

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