It was both poignant and fitting that National Archaeology Week coincides with the dreadful news that Palmyra (Tadmor) in Syria – the ancient oasis city of the desert that nearly two thousand years ago was the western fulcrum of the Silk Road – is under threat of destruction. Poignant, because this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site potentially shares the fate of Nimrud’s recent desecration by jack-hammers and explosives, and fitting, because it reminds us of the many reasons we should have an event such as National Archaeology Week – a time during which we can contemplate the advances and issues facing the discipline. In response to this news from Syria I thought I would share an object from the MAAS collection as well as some images taken by me in Palmyra and Damascus between 1999 and 2010.
I have always maintained that the numismatic (coin and medal) collection can satisfy any call to represent a time, place or event, and so it is proven again. In the MAAS collection is a coin, known as an antoninianus, issued by Vabalathus about 270-272, king and effectively co-ruler with his mother Zenobia, of Palmyra. It came into the collection as a purchase in 1983 and while not an archaeological artefact, is a tangible connection to this significant site. Queen Zenobia might be familiar to some as the subject of the 1888 oil painting in the Art Gallery of South Australia by Herbert Schmalz (1856-1935) showing her ‘last look on Palmyra’. In the painting she is depicted at the point before the city was taken by the troops of the Roman Emperor Aurelian, after which she and her son were taken to Rome to be paraded through the streets as vanquished enemies.
The design of the MAAS coin was actually part of a propaganda strategy to avoid this event happening, for on the opposite side of the coin showing the bust of Vabalathus is the bust of Aurelian (emperor 270-275) who, within two years of this coin’s issue, took Palmyra. In the design of this coin Vabalathus and Zenobia were playing the Romans at their own game for the Romans better than anyone understood the usefulness of coins in propaganda whose stamped images and messages circulated and informed (and frequently misinformed) the population regarding politics, rulers, and the benefits of the empire. In an effort to appease Aurelian’s probable concerns regarding Palmyra’s independence versus loyalty to the Roman Empire, the coin respectfully accommodates the Roman emperor on the obverse (front, as suggested by the mintmark) together with the Latin legend around the edge naming only Aurelian with the title, Augustus. This acknowledgment of Aurelian’s pre-eminence, however, clearly was not enough to keep Roman dominance at bay and the combination of deteriorating relations between Rome and Palmyra together with a more secure Europe gave Aurelian the opportunity to destroy the city, and end the reigns of Vabalathus and Zenobia.
Palmyra is now facing the latest threat in its long history. Following are images from Palmyra and Damascus taken by me during more stable times between 1999 and 2010. This National Archaeology Week please spare a thought for Palmyra, for Syria, and for its wonderful people.
Post by Paul Donnelly, Curator