These portrait busts from ancient Palmyra are in the Great North Museum in Newcastle. We are holding free workshops there on 9 and 10 May, when you can come and meet objects like these and create new memories using photography, drawing and writing, helped by our experts. Come on the day or email us in advance, if you would like to join in: email@example.com
These reliefs were made to seal burial chambers in tombs outside the important and wealthy trading city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The way the individuals are depicted blends Greek, Roman and local artistic traditions. They weren’t really ‘portraits’ in the modern sense, but conventional representations of how people wanted to be remembered. The inscriptions in the local language would have enabled people to identify them.
The woman on the left is Malakt. She is shown wearing local clothing and jewellery, and was buried some time between about AD 150 and 200. The man on the right is Wahballat. He is wearing a Greek cloak and holding writing material in his left hand. The depiction of a curtain behind him suggests that his bust was carved earlier in the second century. The frontal style of the reliefs looks normal now, but was unusual at the time. It appears in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia in the first century AD, and may have spread from there throughout the Roman empire. It had become a normal feature of Roman art by the fourth century, and continued to be used into the early Middle Ages.