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About the project

Circular economy and urban sustainability in Antiquity aims to provide new perspectives on the ancient economy of Palmyra, Syria, and will shed light on long-term mechanisms and developments in human societies. The project is based on data collected in the Palmyra Portrait Project (funded by the Carlsberg Foundation), and is affiliated with the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet).

Circular economy is a regenerative economic system aiming at reducing resource input and waste to a minimum. Although cities are usually classified as “consumer cities”, most urban centres in the past relied on their own resources and were forced to manage the resources based on regional self-sufficiency. As such, they constitute perfect models of circular economies sustained throughout centuries, and Palmyra is an ideal example of a well-defined centuries-long case study of a complex circular economy.

Through a full-quantification approach to the collected data, we can use the data proxies as indications of the economic, social and cultural evolution of the city, and pinpoint how ancient societies dealt with sustainability and resource management. At the same time, these changes in material culture enable us to identify challenges and threats as well as opportunities generated by this economic system and, moreover, to investigate them within a multi-causal formal simulation model. By combining the rich corpus of empirical evidence with modern computational techniques (simulation), we will be able to generalise our findings on the circular economic systems and the mechanisms that drive them to current socio-political situations.

The project focuses on the analyses of primary sources revealing economic patterns in Palmyra, including coins (degrees of monetarisation versus other non-monetary economies), sculptural production, monuments, inscriptions and materials such as pottery, glass, metal and agricultural installations around the city, which also inform us about the fluctuation of the size of Palmyrene society. These resources were all reused and recycled over centuries and thus inform us about the economic patterns of the city – both regarding internal and external developments.

The project will apply methods from the humanities and high-definition methods drawn from the natural sciences, and will contextualise the results within culture-historical contexts. Thanks to refined stylistic chronologies of the city’s portraiture, its general development and the evidence connected to this as well as its inscriptions (including the famous Tax Tariff from the second century CE), we will be able to map the circulation of materials and their degree of reuse over time. This study will be held up against a study of the monetarisation process of Palmyra. Furthermore, formal computational modelling will integrate the data and use it to test and validate more generalist models about circular economies.