Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Signe Krag, Funerary Representations of Palmyrene Women: From the First Century BC to the Third Century AD. Studies in classical archaeology, 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. Pp. xii, 422. ISBN 9782503569659. €100,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Anja Slawisch, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

In this book, Krag aims to offer new insights into a selected corpus of Palmyrene sculptures, dating from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD and composed mostly of female funerary representations. The book contains exhaustive and careful commentary on the pieces and categories under study, but gleaning wider insights is hampered by the verbose writing style and lack of clarity over research agenda.

Based on the author's PhD dissertation submitted to the Department of Classical Studies at Aarhus University in 2015, the work forms part of the wider 'Palmyrene Sculpture Project', henceforth PSP.1 Inaugurated by Rubina Raja and Andreas Kropp in 2012 in order to catalog and investigate all extant Palmyrene funerary portraits, of which over 3700 examples are currently known, PSP and its outputs are bound to attract interest, not least because Palmyrene portraits have found their way into numerous museums and private collections across the world.

This particular study concentrates on 905 pieces from this database, of which 884 are female funerary reliefs, and the remaining 21 are civic and religious reliefs and sculptures (assembled on pp. 162–405). A total of 35 of the reliefs have a secure date based on epigraphic data (a list is given on pp. 408-9).

The volume is organized into seven main chapters. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-8) gives a brief overview of the history of Palmyra and the history of research, including the extensive corpus of earlier studies on Palmyrene portraits. This is important since Krag depends heavily on earlier works, especially for dating and grouping the reliefs (see below). Chapter 2 (pp. 9-25) addresses the methodological, theoretical and chronological frameworks used in the rest of the book. Krag follows Colledge, Ingholt, and Parlasca2 by organizing the material into four chronological groups: Early Portraits (late first century BC–AD 50), Group I (AD 50–150/60), Group II (AD 150/60–200/20) and Group III (AD 180/200–273). While epigraphic investigation is not central to the work, and no attempt to systematize the relationship between images and text is made (most are Aramaic, 11 are in Greek, and two in Latin), Krag nonetheless makes an effort to include information from the inscriptions on the pieces where translations were available (e.g., pp. 123–128). The data seem to show a preference for inscriptions placed next to the head (p. 15). Discussion of potential workshops and sculptors, techniques of manufacture, or of materials and their sources are explicitly excluded from the work; instead Krag points to ongoing research by colleagues (p. 16) as part of PSP. The final sub-section of the chapter (pp. 17–25) examines the contexts where the sculptures were found, and stresses that funerary buildings (e.g. tower tombs, temple and house tombs, hypogea, etc.) were erected to house multiple generations, providing private and shielded space for commemoration, rituals and grave customs (e.g., incense burning and libations) for long-lived familial lineages.

Chapters 3 to 5 (pp. 27–110) discuss the main body of material evidence drawn from the project's database. Each includes copious, detailed comments on the style and iconography of the sculptures, as well as basic statistics about the presence/absence and quantity of features within different chronological groups. Chapters 3 and 5 both examine the entire corpus; chapter 4 focuses only on group portraits. The motivation or logic behind the selection and sequence of particular topics within these chapters is sometimes difficult to understand. For example, Chapter 3, entitled "Female Funerary Portraits," is divided into three main sections, nominally into three chronological groups. Within the second and third of these sections, the text is further divided into a number of categorical sub-sections: these sub-sections do not appear on the contents page, which makes them difficult to find, and the selection of categories seems rather inconsistent and occasionally repetitive, making it difficult for the reader to perceive any overall patterns or arguments (2nd subsection: Sarcophagi and Banquet Reliefs, Statues, Movement, Hand Gestures, Colour, The Tunic, The Himation, The Veil, Depictions of Breasts; and 3rd subsection: Movement, Portraying Faces, The Tunic, The Himation, The Veil, Depicting Breasts, Wall Painting and Statues, Sarcophagi and Banquet Reliefs, and Reclining Woman). Although the main sections are chronologically organized, these discussions often roam across different chronological groups.

Chapters 3 to 5 are the most important, but they are also the chapters that suffer most from a number of frustrating shortcomings. Krag is scrupulously careful to weigh alternative interpretations, but unfortunately this manifests itself in opaque verbosity: e.g.

"These four sarcophagus lids are quite different to each other. The differences could perhaps be partly ascribed to different workshops, although not exclusively, especially as the last sarcophagus lid finds strong parallels in another sarcophagus lid from the same hypogeum and the two were probably made by the same workshop, or even sculptor. However, the execution of the sarcophagus lids cannot merely be ascribed to workshop or sculptors. The sarcophagus lids may be from different points in time in the period, they are ascribed to a dating span from AD 200 to 273, but this is not the only reason for their different appearances." (p. 63)

Such impenetrable prose is characteristic of the whole book.

Krag's uncritical application of basic statistics is also very problematic: for any particular graph or cited percentage, only rarely is the total number of objects for the particular quality in discussion given; pie and bar charts show quantities only in percent and colors are not used consistently (e.g., Group II can appear in light blue, light green, pink, beige, etc.). Text and graph do not always seem to match, e.g., "In Group II, nineteen necklace types can be observed, ..." (p. 101) but the associated graph (p. 102, graph 5.3) assembles only 7 types spreading over Group II and III. It is also unclear how fragmentary pieces are treated within the statistics. An attempt to model uncertainties and provide clarity over what these statistics really tell us is sorely missing.

Chapter 6 (p. 111–128) involves a detour into sculptures from civic and religious contexts, apparently to gain a broader view on the representation of women than the one available from funerary works alone. Krag opens with a discussion of Zenobia (pp. 111–114), who reigned over Palmyra during the years AD 267/68 to AD 272, arguing that no influence on the portrayal of woman in the city can be directly connected with her. (Given the dating of the rest of the material, however, this reviewer wonders whether the idea might be turned around to ask whether the ascent of Zenobia could be due to the place women had already acquired, and whether that might be visible in the earlier representations.) The examination of funerary epigraphy in individual foundation inscriptions and cession texts (pp. 123–128) is particularly useful here, if arguably presented in the wrong chapter.

Finally, in chapter 7 (p. 129–132), Krag summarizes her observations and results regarding the Palmyrene portrait tradition. First, she highlights the overall diversity between portraits, and the influence of individual choices and the creativity of workshops on the manufacture of each portrait. Most interestingly, she argues that the increasing trend toward visually more arresting styles (decreased static, frontally posed figures; increased forward 'acquisition' of space by hand, arm and head gestures) as an effort to capture viewer's attention in an increasingly overcrowded funerary space—as a competition with older images. Krag concludes by describing the Palmyrene woman as an esteemed member of society with access to a number of roles, that of mother included (see sub-section on Portrayals of Women and Children on pp. 82–85).

The catalogue entries (pp. 162–405) are concise and the images of mostly high quality. It is a pity that particular typologies discussed in the text (e.g., types of necklace) are not included as part of the catalogue, and there is no cross-referencing from catalogue to main text (and vice versa: the catalogue numbers are provided in the main chapters, but as footnotes, which adds an extra step of navigation). The book also contains useful indices of topics, places and relevant mythological figures.

This book is simultaneously full of interesting details but frustratingly difficult to follow. While part of this may be due to insufficient editorial input, one wonders whether the material itself requires a radically different approach. What makes the Palmyrene representations so interesting and puzzling is the paradoxical degree of standardization at the general level combined with endless small-scale and highly individualized details of depiction. This finicky quality makes any attempt to come up with general interpretations very difficult. To my mind, this book shows that basic statistics are simply not enough to make sense of such a corpus, and that we need to seek different methods in the future. That said, the detailed comments, the illustrations and catalogue will no doubt be useful to those interested in the depiction of women, in the Palmyrene corpus and in funerary representation more generally.


1.   Palmyra Portait Project Aarhus University.
2.   Krag provides an extensive bibliography on pp. 133–159.

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