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Archaeological Institute of America – 118th Annual Meeting

By PhD student Sara Ringsborg.

Director, Professor Rubina Raja (Photo: Sara Ringsborg).
Assistant Professor Signe Krag (Photo: Sara Ringsborg).
Royal Ontario Museum (Photo: Sara Ringsborg).
Aga Khan Museum (Photo: Sara Ringsborg).

Members of the Palmyra Portrait Project began the New Year by attending the 118th Joint Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Society for Classical Studies. This year’s setting was Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Director, Professor Dr. Rubina Raja, assistant professor Signe Krag and PhD student Sara Ringsborg attended the conference, which took place from the 5th to the 8th of January 2017. The program consisted of nearly 100 sessions, which explored advances in archaeology such as cultural heritage management, new technologies and other topics of critical importance to the field in Europe, the Mediterranean, Western Asia, the Americas and beyond. In addition, attendees could interact with presenters in a one-on-one forum at poster sessions and the many receptions held by departments from several Northern American Universities: All of these venues presented an excellent opportunity for all, both experienced professors in the field, post-doctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students, to exchange knowledge and ideas.

We attended the Opening Night Lecture held by the maritime archaeologist Dr. James Delgado, who gave a dynamic overview of the world’s most important archaeological shipwreck sites. Furthermore, we attended a variety of sessions concerning the Eastern Roman Empire, new methods in archaeology as well as portraiture in the Roman Empire. The Palmyra Portrait Project was prominently featured through a colloquium session Sunday morning organized by Rubina Raja and involving both project members and American colleagues. Kenneth Lapatin from the J. Paul Getty Museum was the discussant of the colloquium. Rubina Raja gave an introduction to the project as well as a presentation on the Palmyrene priests, Signe Krag spoke on the female portraits on the sarcophagi and banquet reliefs, where she presented new aspects of dating criteria, while Sara Ringsborg held a paper on the children’s portraits. Good friends of the project, Maura Heyn, University of North Carolina, Grennsboro and Fred Albertson, University of Memphis also contributed with papers on the functions of attributes in the Palmyrene portraits and female hairstyles, respectively. After the presentations of the papers, Lapatin initiated the final discussion by asking what is not depicted and expressed in the funerary portraits and why? Here, he referred to the narrative nature of several Roman funerary monuments, expressed by battle- and mythological scenes. The Palmyrene tombs themselves hold some mythological scenes expressed in wall paintings, but unfortunately, not many wall paintings are preserved today. Furthermore, the discussion was on the production of these portraits. Unfortunately, we do not know a lot on the workshops of Palmyra, but in the following years, PhD student Julia Steding undertake research on this particular area, namely production economy. The symbolic and practical value of the attributes of women and children were also discussed.

Furthermore, the Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project was represented by a paper by Professor Dr. Rubina Raja: She took the audience through the history of the fieldwork done in the Northwest Quarter with highlights from the excavations done from the years of 2011 to 2016. A cylinder case found in an Early Islamic building in the 2014 campaign was one of the more spectacular finds: This object turned out to contain a silver roll with 17 lines. Thanks to digital imaging the fragile scroll could be ‘unfolded’ and read. In 2015 and 2016 floor mosaics were excavated near the ‘synagogue church’, and these floors included dated inscriptions. Another highlight was the Radiocarbon Analysis of the great cistern in this particular area of which results contribute to a reconsideration of the urban development of Jerash, as there now seems to be evidence for water supply already in the Roman period. The collaboration across academic disciplines indeed creates some valuable results from this area.   

Toronto offers a wealth of interesting museums and we visited several. Royal Ontario Museum is in the possession of four Palmyrene funerary portraits: Two female portraits and two male portraits, of which one is a priest. A female portrait and the priest were exhibited on the Royal Ontario Museum itself, while the two others were on display at the Aga Khan Museum, in a new exhibition called ‘Syria: A Living History’ (see links below).

We thank the organizers of the conference for some inspiring days in Toronto!


American Institute of America: www.archaeological.org

Royal Ontario Museum: www.rom.on.ca

Aga Khan Museum: www.agakhanmuseum.org