A group of archaeologists began collecting art for the world’s largest database of ancient portraits from Palmyra, Syria, right before the war broke out. Now, it’s one of the best hopes of tracing looted art.
Rubina Raja never intended to have anything to do with the illicit arts trade.
A professor of classical archaeology, trained in Oxford and based at Aarhus University in Denmark, Raja started collecting information on portraits that frequently adorned nearly 2,000-year-old graves in Palmyra, Syria, with the hope of understanding ancient culture.
The bust and half-figure reliefs that are the focus of the project, and the city they belonged to, have enticed scholars and artists for decades.
Described by the 20th-century French writer Andre Malraux as having “hypnotic” eyes, the portraits belonged to a once equally bewitching city. An oasis on the route between the Roman Empire to the West and the Parthian one to the East, Palmyra adopted, and adapted, sculptural traditions. For historians and archaeologists working now, Palmyrene works constitute the largest body of portrait sculpture from the early era to be found outside Rome.
Which is one of the reasons Raja found them interesting.
It was supposed to be a cultural heritage project, Raja says. “It was really a hardcore humanities research project, that actually took as its point of departure these portraits as a corpus telling us about identity and self-representation in ancient Palmyra.”
“But very soon after, the civil war began and I saw that we basically had the potential to incorporate the cultural heritage side of things as well,” she explains.
Palmyra is 150 kilometres east of Homs, a cradle of anti-government sentiment and home to rebel fighting that was eventually quashed after the city was besieged by government forces for two years.
Despite its proximity to the government-controlled city, the Unesco World Heritage Site was wrested by Islamic State militants in May 2015.
Three months later, Islamic State beheaded the site’s 82-year-old head of antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, after he reportedly refused to divulge the location of hidden historical objects.
The extremist group blew up the Baal Shamin temple, demolished parts of the temple of Bel and damaged seven tower tombs that stood outside the ancient city – destroying three of them, including the Tower of Elahbel and the Tower of Jamblique, completely. Those towers are where many of the funerary portraits were found. Unesco chief Irina Bokova condemned the destruction as a war crime.
“Apart from being the worst humanitarian catastrophe we’ve seen in a long, long time in world history, it’s really been a wake-up call for archaeologists in order for us to think more about how to document and share information,” Raja says.
A comprehensive guide to the remains of an ancient civilisation can also serve as a control for when new pieces appear in the art world.
Raja and her colleagues at Aarhus University have collected 3,000 Palmyrene pieces for their database, relying in part on the extensive archives of Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt who carried out multiple excavations at Palmyra in the early- to mid- 20th century.
For the rest, they photograph collections held by museums and private collectors all over the world.
Meticulously documenting such a specific set of work has allowed the team to observe fluctuations – one troubling trend they have witnessed is the rise in looted pieces. More than 50 objects auctioned since the war began, Raja said, are most likely looted or illegally traded portraits.
Because major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have since tried to largely cease the practice, Raja said trade in illegal objects has moved to the black market.
“Satellite images of archaeological sites show us that they now look like Swiss cheese,” Unesco’s world heritage director, Mechtild Roessler, said last year. One Dartmouth-based archaeologist used satellite imagery to deduce that more than 25 per cent of sites had been impacted by looting since the war began.
French President Francois Hollande proposed creating safe havens for works under threat, and Louvre Museum director Jean-Luc Martinez urged for a blacklist of stolen goods dealers’ havens to be developed.
Raja and her fellow researchers often encounter such illegal objects and include everything in the database to lay the foundation for archaeological sleuthing.
“We label them as ‘provenance unknown’ and then we search them out as a group in themselves. Then we can try to match them up, with graves that we know; with material from graves that we know that have been looted.”
While the method is still fraught with challenges, Raja recognises the project’s unexpected use. “You could say the project that I began, through bad luck or luck, gained a completely different dimension,” she says.