Status and Stasis: Looking at Women in the Palmyrene Tomb

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Maura K. Heyn, Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: The abundance of female funerary portraits from Palmyra makes them a tempting source for assessing the roles of women in ancient Palmyrene society. These bust-length portraits created in the first several centuries CE provide a wealth of detail on dress, adornment, family, and, in some cases, domestic activities. Although it has long been acknowledged that the portraits are not faithful renditions of the actual features and appearance of the deceased, the variability of gesture, dress, attributes, among other characteristics, suggests that the Palmyrenes did have some choice in the way in which they, or their family members, were represented. The correlation between these portraits and any kind of reliable indication of women’s roles in society is unlikely, however, since representations of women in the funerary sphere in general are normative, presenting an ideal to be achieved or societal priorities. Interpretation of the portraiture is further complicated by the political situation in Palmyra at the time of its production. Palmyra came under the control of Rome at some point in the late first century BCE to the early first century CE, and the funerary portraits are clearly modelled on Roman funerary sculpture. It is therefore difficult to discern the reasons behind certain stylistic choices: if they represented bona fide local priorities or socially potent references to a Roman paradigm. In this chapter, I focus on the bust-length relief portraits in the Palmyrene tombs, and the ways in which women are distinguished from men. Rather than providing any insight into the actual activities or position of women, this analysis will focus on the way in which the female modes of representation changed during the first three centuries CE, and reflect on the societal norms or priorities that dictated these changes.

Additional Information

R. Raja, and A. Kropp, eds. World of Palmyra. Palmyrenske Studier. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 197-209.
Language: English
Date: 2016
funerary portraits, gesture, Palmyra, Roman art, women in art

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