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Contextualizing Palmyra’s cultural heritage: The case of the “Beauty of Palmyra”

By Professor Rubina Raja, Assistant Professor Olympia Bobou and Research Assistant Ditte Kvist Johnson.

Fig. 1: The Beauty of Palmyra. © Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, PS 675.
Fig. 2: The Beauty of Palmyra on display. © Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, PS 675.
Fig. 3: The Beauty of Palmyra soon after its discovery. © Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, PS 675.

Archival materials can both be used to explore, study, and reconstruct damaged material culture. The research project Archive Archaeology: Preserving and Sharing Palmyra’s Cultural Heritage through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives, funded by the ALIPH foundation, addresses issues of preservation and protection of cultural heritage in a digital form through The Ingholt Archive, donated to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek by Harald Ingholt in the 1980s (Raja and Sørensen 2015b; Nielsen and Raja 2019). This month, the project team highlights how archival materials have been used to re-contextualize an important piece of Palmyrene funerary art (Raja and Sørensen 2015a).

On 22 December 1929, the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende featured an article on “The Beauty of Palmyra” – a so-called loculus relief depicting a female bust of high-quality workmanship, discovered during excavations in Palmyra by Harald Ingholt in 1928 and subsequently purchased with funds from the Rask-Ørsted Foundation for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Ingholt 1929; 1930, 343; Raja and Sørensen 2015b, 48; Raja 2019, 43). The article was accompanied by a partially coloured drawing by the architect Charles Christensen, who occasionally had travelled with Ingholt to Palmyra (Ingholt 1929, 7. See also figs 1 and 2). On the drawing of the relief, the female is shown frontally, and her right arm is bent and held in front of the torso with the hand lightly pulling the clothing, while the left arm is raised to the height of the neck with the hand holding on to her veil. She wears a tunic and a himation together with three different headdresses – a headband, a turban, and a veil – as well as several delicate and intricate head ornaments and pieces of jewellery. The drawing also shows the excellent state of preservation of the many colours on the bust (see also Hedegaard and Brøns 2019). Unfortunately, the identity of the woman portrayed is unknown since no inscription has been preserved, yet the female came to be known as the “Beauty of Palmyra” after Ingholt, who referred to it “the most beautiful female bust I have ever seen” in one of his excavation journals (Raja 2019, 44–45). Due to the high levels of detail and techniques used, the relief is undeniably an excellent example of Palmyrene funerary art and it testifies to the great artistry of the sculptors in Palmyra.

Until recently, the original context of the “Beauty of Palmyra” had been much discussed since this information is only accessible through the Ingholt Archive, Ingholt’s unpublished excavation diaries, and the Danish 1929 newspaper article (Raja and Sørensen 2015b, 48). On two occasions, Ingholt had briefly mentioned that the bust came from a tomb called Qasr Abjad (in Arabic: “The white house/castle”), in the West Necropolis of Palmyra (Ingholt 1970–1971, 188 n. 2; 1976, 106 n. 20). However, in an article from 1989, Klaus Parlasca, discussing some of the sculptures found within this tomb, dismissed the idea that the Beauty derived from this context, since it had already been photographed in 1914 in surroundings that suggested a private collection (Parlasca 1989, 186–87; Ploug 1995, 188–89; Raja and Sørensen 2015a, 444). Indeed, also the museum files at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek listed the relief as “probably acquired from a private collection” (Raja and Sørensen 2015a, 439). Even though Parlasca was of the opinion that the “Beauty” had been photographed in 1914, he gives no reference to such a photograph and this photograph has not yet been located. It also seems as if Parlasca was unaware of Ingholt’s first publication in Berlingske Tidende in which Ingholt presented the original context of the bust, since Parlasca refers to Ingholt’s 1930 publication as the first publication on the “Beauty”. In the 1930s publication, Ingholt describes the excavation campaign but does not provide the provenance of the bust, which led Parlasca to conclude that Ingholt did not know from where the bust had originated (Parlasca 1989, 186–87; Raja and Sørensen 2015a, 447). Yet, re-examination of the Ingholt Archive sheets, research on the pages from Ingholt’s diary mentioning the discovery, as well as the descriptions from the Danish newspaper of where the bust had originally been found, confirm the original context of the “Beauty” as Qasr Abjad (Raja 2019, 46). In fact, on several Archive sheets, the name “Qasr Abjad” is noted down and on one particular sheet, the bust appears to have been photographed soon after its discovery in Palmyra (fig. 3).

In this way, it has been possible to re-contextualize an important piece of Palmyrene funerary art in its original context because of the careful documentation made by Ingholt. This example also highlights the general importance of archive archaeology as it shows how we might recover invaluable information about Palmyra’s cultural heritage – not least given the current situation in Syria where Palmyra has suffered extensive damage to and loss of material culture because of the Syrian Civil War (Raja 2016a; 2016b).

Further reading:

Hedegaard, S. B. and C. Brøns. 2019. ’New Research from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: Pigments in Ancient Palmyra’, in A. M. Nielsen and R. Raja (eds), The Road to Palmyra(Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek), pp. 251–74.

Ingholt, H. 1929. ‘Palmyra Skønheden i Glyptoteket’, Berlingske Tidende, 22 December 1929: 7.

Ingholt, H. 1930. ‘Paa udgravning i Palmyra’, Tilskueren: Månedsskrift for litteratur, samfundsspørgsmål og almenfattelige videnskabelige skildringer, November: 336–47.

Ingholt, H. 1970–1971. ‘The sarcophagus of Be’elai and other sculptures from the tomb of Malkû, Palmyra’, Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 45: 173–200.

Ingholt, H. 1976. ‘Varia Tadmorea’ in E. Frézouls (ed.), Palmyre: Bilan et Perspectives. Colloque de Strasbourg 18-20 Octobre 1973, Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg. Travaux du Centre de Recherche Sur le Proche-Orient et la Grèce Antiques, 3 (Strasbourg: AECR), pp. 101–37.

Nielsen, A. M. and R. Raja (eds). 2019. The Road to Palmyra (Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek).

Parlasca, K. 1989. ‘Beobachtungen zur palmyrenischen Grabarchitektur’, Damaszener Mitteilungen, 4: 181–90.

Ploug, G. 1995.Catalogue of the Palmyrene Sculptures. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek(Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek).

Raja, R. 2016a. ‘The history and current situation of World Heritage sites in Syria: The case of Palmyra’ in K. Almqvist and L. Belfrage (eds), Cultural Heritage at Risk: The Role of Museums in War and Conflict (Stockholm: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation), pp. 27–47.

Raja, R. 2016b. ‘Illegal trade and export of cultural goods: The case of the Palmyrene funerary portraiture’ in D. Chahin and I. Lindblom (eds), Fighting the Illegal Looting of Syria's Cultural Heritage(Sofia: Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research), pp. 11–12.

Raja, R. 2019. ‘Harald Ingholt and Palmyra: A Danish archaeologist and his work at Palmyra’, in A. M. Nielsen and R. Raja (ed.), The Road to Palmyra (Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek), pp. 41–64.

Raja, R. and S. Sørensen. 2015a. ‘The “Beauty of Palmyra” and Qasr Abjad (Palmyra): New discoveries in the archive of Harald Ingholt’, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28: 439–50.

Raja, R. and S. Sørensen. 2015b. Harald Ingholt & Palmyra (Aarhus: Aarhus University).