Summary of the conference Production Economy, 5 October 2017

By PhD student Julia Steding and Research Assistant Christian Svejgård L. Jørgensen.

2017.10.12 | Christina Levisen

Photo: Sara Ringsborg.

Photo: Sara Ringsborg.

Written by By PhD student Julia Steding and Research Assistant Christian Svejgård L. Jørgensen.

On October 5th, School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University hosted the workshop Production Economy. The workshop was organised by PhD student Julia Steding and Rubina Raja, Professor at Aarhus University and director of The Palmyra Portrait Project. The project, which has run since 2012, is generously founded by The Carlsberg Foundation. The aim of the workshop was to explore production economy and the use of this term as a main line of enquiry into the understanding of the production process and economy in Palmyra in the Roman period. The papers of the day could be understood as a production chain of sculpture itself, addressing e.g. the context surrounding the sculpture and the conceptualisation of ideas regarding their style, the extraction of the raw material from the quarries, the methods of carving, and at last the sculpture itself, followed by comparisons with sculpture from Northern Syria.  

The first paper of the day, entitled “Production economy – questions and lines of enquiry: The case of Palmyra”, was given by Rubina Raja from Aarhus University. Raja introduced the participants to the city of Palmyra, and situated it in its regional context, by presenting us with the variety of the material culture that has been excavated there. Raja also introduced the Palmyra Portrait Project with emphasis on the funerary portraits gathered in the database. This corpus is the largest assemblage of Roman sculpture outside of Rome, and at present, there are more than 3400 individual portraits in the database. Further, this material has a tight chronological framework, as the portraits can be dated between the 1st to the 3rd century CE. This vast material naturally comes from the various types of tombs located outside the city. These grave monuments can be divided into several types: temple tombs, tower tombs and hypogea. The tower tombs could be up to six stories and the later hypogea, with their exedras and niches, could be expanded over time. These tombs are considered family tombs, because we find entire families portrayed either on the loculus relief, which was the most common form, or in the later sarcophagi, which were introduced in the course of the second century CE. Raja is together with Signe Krag, assistant professor at Aarhus University, working on the in situ contexts, which amount to more than 100, but as Raja stressed, these in situ contexts are not static, as families could sell parts of the tombs to other families or even replace older portraits of family members with new ones. Raja continued with considerations on the choice of style in these portraits and discussed the question of whether the public or the private spheres had more of an influence on the choices made. A further issue is the combination of architecture and figurative representations and whether the producers of the tombs were working together with the sculptors. Raja advocated that we should also focus on quality – for example the quality of the carving and the connection between the carvers and the painters of these sculptures. Would it be possible to enrich a badly carved portrait with the colouring?

The second speaker of the day was Jeanine Abdul Massih from Lebanese University, who gave the paper “Quarrying stones in the Roman Near East: A comparative study concerning Palmyra and Baalbek”, which centered on the quarrying processes of these two cities. There were six main limestone quarries located in the vicinity of Palmyra, with the closest located 5km and the furthest 15km away from the city. Massih showed the varying sediment layers, along with the homogeneous and heterogeneous differences of the limestone and discussed whether these differences would influence the choice of stone used for either sculptures or architectural elements. One of these quarries was, for example, specialised in extracting raw material for columns, as attested by the large amount of roughly worked columns. From Baalbek, Massih presented us with quarries, of which some are still in use today, and further showed examples of how the local population used the same quarry for extracting stones intended as building blocks for specific types of buildings and how this was also the case in antiquity. The survey of the quarries has now made it possible to investigate the provenance of the stones used for various types of buildings in Baalbek and further reflect on the economic perspectives that need to be considered when we are trying to understand the quarrying processes. Massih also touched upon the infrastructure connected to the quarrying process – for example how the discovery of a forge near one of the quarries in Baalbek yielded evidence for how tools were sharpened directly at the quarries. This observation further led Massih to advocate that we should consider efficiency when we are investigating the cities and their relation to these quarries.         

The third speaker, Amanda Claridge, gave a paper entitled “Methods of carving marble sculpture in the Roman world and the definition of ‘Workshops’”. Claridge opened her paper with the notion that the study of marble sculpture entails that Roman sculptures were different from the Greek, but that this has nothing to do with carving techniques but with the product itself. She continued with defining the workshop as the expectations of the products themselves and not where they were produced or who produced them. The actual place of work is almost absent for us, with the possible exception of the workshop in Aphrodisias. Before the Roman period, the sculptor would have followed the block from the quarrying to the final place of installation, and then this changed. Claridge argued that, in Roman times, there are no sculptor studios – only the block of stone, i.e. the stone can be considered the workshop. The stone could have been set up near a structure or intended place of installation, but it could also have been partly worked in the quarries and shipped, or it could even have been shipped in a finished state. A workshop can be understood as a stable group of artisans sharing a common knowledge of skill. Claridge also pointed out that when we speak of a workshop tradition, we essentially speak of the transferring of skill over time and generations. Claridge presented us with examples of the different possibilities embedded in the stone carving process and the various context where the carving could take place by presenting finds from the major quarries in the Roman world, showing examples of partly finished sculptures from the Prokonessos quarry and finished sculptures from the Mahdia shipwreck. Claridge also discussed the nature of different types of marble and how the stone could dictate which carving techniques could be accommodated. Pentelic marble, for example, does not take the drill too well, as opposed to marble from Göktepe near Aphrodisias. She stressed that many of our observed anomalies can be explained with reference to the nature of the stone.

The fourth speaker of the day was Clarissa Blume who gave the paper “The Polychromy of Palmyrene Portraits”. Blume focused her paper on the polychromy of the locally produced sculptures from Palmyra, the workmen and their production process and, lastly, the collaboration between them. The now common understanding of the sculptures from Palmyra as being carved by local sculptors is becoming a more complex statement. Blume showed that while the sculptures from Palmyra are local in style, the polychromy was heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman world. In Palmyra, the details were carved rather than painted, as was the practice elsewhere. Blume was further able to show similarities and differences. For example, it was common in Palmyra to paint hair black, while this colour was only used for more discrete parts of the sculptures in the Greco-Roman world. The colour of the skin on the Palmyrene portraits had a yellowish shine, which was a local characteristic. In the Greco-Roman tradition, Egyptian blue was used in the mixture for skin colour, but this pigment is absent from Palmyra. On the basis of the differences, Blume came to the general impression that the painting in Palmyra was more stylised than naturalistic, as was the case in the Greco-Roman world. Blume continued with a discussion on the workmen and the production process, which for Palmyra can be placed under five headlines: sculpting, painting, gilding, kosmesis and inlays. Here, it could be argued that one individual would be able to perform these tasks, but the evidence – epigraphical, written, and archaeological – testify to the fact that these tasks involved multiple people. One example is a statue from Athens (NM1827) where the painter have added the final lines of hair right where the sculptor had ended the plastically rendered locks. This testifies to the collaboration and the idea that the painter could add life and identity to the portraits.    

The next speaker, Will Wotton, focused his paper on carving techniques with the title “Carving the Palmyrene portraits reliefs: Some preliminary observations”. Here Wotton introduced the project “Art of Making in Antiquity” that sought to define processes of carving. He and Ben Russell visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and examined the collection of Palmyrene portraits in order to classify tool marks and production procedures. Wotton and his team were able to show that different parts of the reliefs could be left at different states of carving, indicating that the specific parts of the reliefs were carved by specific sculptors. Through their analysis of the portraits, the team was able to detect when different tools where favoured and when they went out of use; one example was the use of the tooth chisel that diminished in the course of the second century CE.

Julia Steding gave her paper entitled “Production and value of Palmyrene funerary portraiture”. Steding presented examples of unfished portraits from Palmyra, including fragmented head as well as sarcophagi and banqueting reliefs, and asked the question why they were left in this state. For a few pieces with known context, one possibility is that we see these unfinished portraits because the patrons would not portray an individual before he or she died. This points to the possibility that the portraits where carved or at least finished in the tombs themselves. Further, Steding discussed the value of the portraits by pointing out that time was the prime factor in the process. The more time spent on the carving of portraits, the more detailed and, thereby, valued the portrait would be.

The last speaker of the day was Michael Blömer, who gave a paper with the title “The local production of sculpture in Roman North Syria and the agency of the stone material”. Blömer introduced the regions of Commagene and Cyrrhestice that where conquered by the Romans in 72 CE. In these regions, the sculptural habit was resumed around 100 CE, and Blömer pointed out that the largest amount of material from this region comes from the rock-cut chamber tombs. Blömer was able to show that the workshops of these areas did not operate over large distances. This was done by comparing the output of the workshops. One example was the habit of only carving relief sculpture in the tombs in Doliche while tombs from Zeugma also had sculpture in the round. The iconography of the region varies greatly, and Blömer stressed that the seeming lack of portrait sculpture in certain areas was perhaps a specific choice that could reflect portrait sculpture not being deemed as important as we tend to understand it.

The papers will be published in the series “Palmyrene Studies” edited by Rubina Raja and published by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen. 

Finally, we would like to thank all the speakers for their contributions and the School of Culture and Society for hosting the workshop. Further, we would like to announce the second part of the workshop on the 8th of February 2018, focusing on trade and networks in the region of wider Syria.


Conference, History and achaeology