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The history of Palmyra through the lens of Palmyrene Portraits

For almost 300 years wealthy Palmyrenes commemorated their deceased with portraits set up in elaborate family tombs. In a new paper, in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the Palmyra Portrait Project reports on how this wealth of information was used to reconstruct the historical trajectories of the city's elite.

Palmyrene portrait, credit: Wiki Creative Commons.

Through an extensive analysis of over 3500 funerary portraits and other funerary data, lead author of the study, AIAS Fellow Iza Romanowska and collaborators from UrbNet at Aarhus University were able to recognise periods of intensive portrait production and contrast them with other sources of data on the city's wealth and status as well as the historical timeline of the region.

Impact of particular historical events revealed

The results of the analysis demonstrate that broad historical trends in the portraits concur with our understanding of Palmyrene history, but the more detailed patterns highlight the impact of particular historical events over other ones. For example, the periods of intensive warfare in the second and third centuries have left a profound trace in the data. Similarly, the markers of economic and social downturns of the Antonine and, later, the Cyprian plagues are clearly marked in the funerary data.

Finally, the “Golden Age” of Palmyra during the reigns of Odaenathus and Zenobia shows a pronounced decrease in portrait production perhaps highlighting a shift in resource allocation from social displays of prestige, such as funerary portraits, to more pressing expenses related to the financing of military campaigns. In general, the funerary data reflects many trends in the continuously changing socio-economic circumstances of the Palmyrene elite.

Figure below: Correlation between building activity, historical events and combined cumulative probability curve of Palmyra's funerary data. Events marked in blue are considered as “negative”; events marked in red as “positive”. Building activity was plotted as approximate dates of the commencement of construction (dark-red dots) and its inauguration (yellow dots). High-res image

A deeper and more nuanced understanding of the past

Although the outline of Palmyra's history is known thanks to written sources, large archaeological datasets can provide a backdrop to historical events by evaluating their impact on the communities involved. Thus combining historical and archaeological data enables us to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the social and economic transitions that past societies underwent over century-long time scales.

”This study demonstrates the immense value of such baseline projects, which leverage the potential of archaeological and art historical data and methods, and can reveal societal and historical processes that have not left traces in written sources,”  commented Prof. Rubina Raja, UrbNet director, head of the Palmyra Portrait Project and one of the publication’s coauthors.

The scientific article

Romanowska, Iza, Olympia Bobou, and Rubina Raja. 2021. “Reconstructing the Social, Economic and Demographic Trends of Palmyra’s Elite from Funerary Data” in:Journal of Archaeological Science 133 (September): 105432.

Follow this link for free access to the article.


Iza Romanowska, AIAS Fellow, Postdoc

Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies
Høegh-Guldbergs Gade 6B
8000 Aarhus C