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The Classics Department Presents: Palmyrene Funerary Portraits, A Roman Period Portrait Habit

Rubina Raja, Aarhus University School of Culture and Society


Palmyrene funerary portraits make up the largest group of representations of individuals from antiquity arising out of a single urban context. The ancient city of Palmyra was rediscovered in 1751 by British travellers. Though many sculpted portraits still remain at the site, large numbers of Palmyrene funerary portraits have made their way into numerous art collections around the world. In 2012 a project was initiated at Aarhus University, Denmark, to document all known examples. Since then more than 3,000 have been recorded, which makes this the single largest surviving corpus of funerary portraits from anywhere in the Roman world.

As a result of the escalating conflict in Syria, this project has since assumed particular importance: it is the sole source of documentation for a large number of extant portraits which were still in-situ before the civil war broke out. This lecture will address Palmyra’s archaeology and history, its unique funerary portrait tradition, and the cultural heritage catastrophe that the civil war in Syria has brought about.

Rubina Raja is professor of Classical Archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark. She studied in Copenhagen, Rome, and Oxford, before taking up a post-doctoral fellowship in Germany and subsequently one in Aarhus, Denmark. Since 2015 she has held the chair of Classical Archaeology at Aarhus University and is the director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions. She initiated and is director of the Palmyra Portrait Project, financed by the Carlsberg Foundation. She also directs an international excavation project in the Decapolis city of Gerasa in modern Jordan. She has published extensively on urban development in the ancient world and religion in the Roman period as well as portraiture in the Roman world.