About the project

Palmyrene funerary sculpture is the largest corpus of portrait sculpture in the Roman world outside Rome, which makes this group of material extremely significant both in relation to issues of identity in the Roman provinces, as well as in comparison to core-Roman portraiture studies. Both are facts which have been completely ignored in scholarship until now. There are more than 3000 pieces scattered through various museums and private collections across the world. These have never been collected, catalogued and treated as a single corpus. The aims of this project are therefore threefold: to compile a corpus of all known Palmyrene funerary portraits, to digitalise the H. Ingholt-archive and to produce text volumes to accompany the corpus, as well as a number of publications on various aspects of Palmyrene sculpture. The corpus and the archive will be made available online. To achieve these goals effectively, this project must be undertaken by a group of researchers at various stages in their careers.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (NCG) has the largest collection of Palmyrene sculpture outside Syria (after Istanbul) and holds the detailed archive compiled by Ingholt. Therefore, the collection and archive in Copenhagen makes an excellent starting point for a detailed study of the portraits. The senior researchers, Rubina Raja and Andreas Kropp, have examined the archive, the collection at the NCG and surveyed material in other collections in order to prepare the project. Palmyrene portraiture has been studied for more than a hundred years, but still there has been no attempt at compiling a comprehensive corpus or understanding the portraits within their Roman imperial and local contexts. Ingholt provided the chronological basis with his study of Palmyrene sculpture (in particular the NCG collection) in 1928. His work still remains valid. Ploug published the catalogue of the NCG collection in 1993 but never accomplished her planned publication on the jewellery and headgear of the portraits. The Ingholt archive in the NCG provides an important insight into the chronology of the portraiture and holds more than 800 illustrations with notes by Ingholt and additions by Ploug. One project component would be a digitalisation of the archive.

Scholarship on Palmyrene sculpture is particularly lacking in the English-speaking world, the main publications being written in French and German and wrongly focusing on the “provincialism” of the portraits. A handbook by Colledge “The Art of Palmyra” (1976) remains the only work of its kind. A corpus in English would be groundbreaking and provide opportunities for further studies while underlining the importance of a Danish-based international collaboration focused around the NCG collection. Especially in the English-speaking world, Palmyrene portraits have been misinterpreted as being Roman provincial portraiture. This would imply that they follow imperial styles and fashions. This is not the case. They follow a trajectory of their own. Unlike Roman portraits, they are not individualised, but idealised – mostly with generic facial features. Through their clothing, jewellery and gestures, they communicate their local identities in a very distinct way, blending Greco-Roman, Parthian and local elements. Rather than a haphazard blending of elements, they express a highly developed knowledge of current fashions and trends in the outside world and use them in a unique way in their local context. For instance, while the funerary busts are often dressed in Greek manner, the full-length banqueters are depicted in a Parthian fashion with richly embroidered garments and boots, showing the importance of dressing according to context, which in turn implies that style followed specific contexts and not simply Roman imperial trends. Such aspects are of crucial importance for the understanding of local societies.