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Funerary Portraiture in Greater Roman Syria

Summary of the conference "Funerary Portraiture in Greater Roman Syria" at the Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen, 15-16 June 2017. Written by Ph.D. students Julia Steding and Sara Ringsborg.

By Ph.D. students Julia Steding and Sara Ringsborg.


On the 15th and 16th of June, a conference with the topic “Funerary Portraiture in Greater Roman Syria” took place in The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen.

The two days was a great opportunity for archaeologists and historians to come together and present their recent research results and discuss different questions regarding the portraiture of multiple regions.

The organisers, Rubina Raja and Michael Blömer (Aarhus University), gave the opening paper. Here, they addressed questions and topics relevant for discussion during the conference, for example: The relation between East and West, the reflection of the individual in funerary portraiture, portrait habit/choice etc. Furthermore, how much do we need to think about different developments in the funerary portraiture as an influenced process from other cultures? How does the medium become the controlling element in the expression of funerary portraiture? They also presented an overview of portraiture in the region of Greater Roman Syria and argued for assigning equal weight of all regions.

The first paper was given by Andrea DeGiorgi (Florida State University), who addressed the question of the opening paper nicely. He discussed the Antiochene identity on the basis of the dialogue between the local figurative culture and the external traditions.

The region of Hierapolis/Manbij and Zeugma was part of Jutta Rumscheid’s (Universität Bonn) paper on women’s clothing. She compared hairstyles and headgear and pointed out that those follow more regional traditions. A lot of comparative material from e.g. Hatra and Palmyra was shown and added further insights into the differences and similarities between the cities.

Michael Blömer (Aarhus University) gave insight into the region of the North Syrian Hinterland. The mostly unpublished material brings a lot of problems and questions with it, but the paper gave a good overview over the potential of the area. He combined this with comparisons from Zeugma and Hierapolis, also pointing out the local traditions.  

Rubina Raja (Aarhus University) focused on Palmyra and introduced the Palmyra Portrait Project, which since 2012 has collected information on the portraits that are spread across museums and collections all over the world, into a large database. Further, she brought the funerary material together with the material that is found in the public sphere and offered insight into the specific Palmyrene identity and portrait tradition.

Then, we moved beyond Greater Roman Syria to a comparative paper by Christopher Hallett (UC Berkeley). He offered interesting insight into the tradition of mummy portraits, and in the following discussion, many links between the different mediums and regions were made. Another discussion focused on chronologies; all are made by archaeologists or historians, and therefore, we need to have a critical view of them.

Signe Krag (Aarhus University) presented her PhD results, which will be published in book format shortly. She discussed female funerary portraits from Palmyra and offered interesting insight into the context of locus reliefs as well as the local traditions that are expressed especially by the headdress of female portraits.

The Friday began with a paper by Sheila Dillon (Duke University) on the Attic funerary portraiture in the Roman period. She presented a large variety of stelae, which, however, do not exceed 700 from this period of time, and none are found in situ. What was of special interest was the local portrait tradition versus Roman influence. Moreover, the discussion also concerned the many portraits of women represented in the dress of Isis as a local phenomenon.

Michael A. Speidel (Universität Zürich) presented a paper with the title ‘The Designs of Soldiers’ Gravestones in Roman Syria: Import and Impact’. Speidel showed a variety of funerary stelae, also focusing on the ones without a funerary portrait but with a funerary inscriptions. These are found both in Latin and in Greek. The discussion addressed many of the main topics of the conferenced, namely local and outside influences on funerary portraiture and style.

Bilal Annan (Institut français du Proche-Orient) presented a great amount of funerary portraits from Roman Lebanon. The material represent a variety of styles and mediums such as sarcophagi – imported and of local origin – busts, stelae, wall paintings, statues, rock-cut reliefs, cippi and mosaics showing men, women and children.

Rubina Raja (Aarhus University) and Achim Licthenberger (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster) presented the final paper of this two-day conference. Their paper touched upon the funerary portraits of Northern Jordan, which have not received much attention by scholars. The means of transmission and adaption were discussed and outlined.

Each of the papers was followed by an important and fruitful discussion. Especially the connections and diversity between different regions and traditions were discussed.

We would like to thank The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen for hosting this event. We also thank Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which the conference participants visited on the Friday. Furthermore, a warm thanks to all the speakers and participants for their contribution. And finally, a big thank you to the Danish National Research Foundation and the Carlsberg Foundation for funding the conference through Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) and the Palmyra Portrait Project, respectively.