Syrian Archaeology

December 18, 2013

727px-Taller_Buddha_of_Bamiyan_before_and_after_destructionWe are all familiar with the images of the Buddhas of the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan as well as the heartbreaking image of the looting inside in the Baghdad Museum in 2003.

All political statements aside, Syria has joined this list of destruction and devastation in the midst of its own civil war. Friday’s UNESCO statement about illicit digging in and around Syrian archaeological sites comes as no surprise to those that are following the story; and it comes within a month or so of the UNESCO red list of Syrian artifacts.
The Penn Museum sponsored an excavation in Syria that many members of the museum’s Near East department excavated at, myself included, for many years. Tell es-Sweyhat afforded many of us a chance to visit many of the six UNESCO world heritage sites in the country: Aleppo, Bosra, Dmascus, the “Dead Cities,” Krak des Chevalier, and Palmyra. The images of looting become reminiscent of what we saw in Iraq during the last decade; most notable the site of Apamea.

As part of its first excavations, representatives of the Museum stopped in Palmyra in 1888, a desert oasis famous for its rebel queen, Zenobia, and purchased several pieces of what are known as Palmyrene Reliefs. Most museums have them, and they are once again appearing on the antiquities market, most recently in Beirut.

We have two such reliefs on display in our Roman Gallery (http://www.penn.museum/collections/list.php?id=1063). Why the Roman gallery, if these objects are from Syria? Because they date to height of the Roman Empire. Of the two on display, I really love B8904, a single figure of a woman. You can see all of her jewelry, you can see her clothing, you can see her intricately woven hair—there is something wonderfully personal about her, and when you come to visit her, and stand in front her, you will see it, too.

The country of Syria, for those of us lucky enough to have been there, is so much more than the civil war that is going on right now. It contains the history of the world, pieces you don’t expect, to marvelous architecture that has lasted through to today. I invite you to look at our pieces, to see the Syria that was, and to help us preserve the world’s history.

For more information read Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn.