Mortuary Statue [Object of the Day #96]

Limestone mortuary sculpture from Palmyra ca. 3rd century CE

This limestone mortuary sculpture is from the ancient city of Palmyra in modern-day central Syria. Michael Danti dates this ornate statue to the 3rd century CE, a time when the city of Palmyra flourished under Roman rule as an important nexus of trade between the East and West. After Syria was established as a Roman province in 64 BCE, the oasis settlement, originally called Tadmor, was renamed Palmyra, “place of palms,” under the Roman emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 AD). The city was significant because it was the meeting place of incredibly important ancient trade routes of the Eurasian continent — including the Silk Road.

The sculpture is executed in high-relief and depicts a woman wearing many ornate accessories including four necklaces, a large circular brooch on her left shoulder, a “high, rolled turban with patterns in relief of rosettes, dots and narrow band” with an oval ornament in the center, long earrings, and bracelets. Palmyrenian tombs were elaborately constructed underground with aboveground stone architecture called hypogea in the shape of a house or tower. The underground portion of the tomb often included wall paintings, sculpted sarcophagi, and funerary sculpture. A common type of funerary sculpture was executed on a limestone slab, a loculus, and depicted a portrait of the tomb occupant. As Danti writes, these sculptures “depict the deceased at moments of great earthly happiness, dressed in finery.” This is indeed how the subject of our sculpture is depicted, in her ornate finery.

Penn Museum Object #B8904

See this and other objects like it on Penn Museum’s Online Collection Database

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