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Relief with portrait bust of woman/ ”The Beauty of Palmyra”

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


On this grave relief of a woman from Palmyra in Central Syria well-preserved paint adds to the striking appearance and is visible to the naked eye. She goes by the name ”The Beauty of Palmyra”. The sculpture is richly decorated with a mass of jewellery and ornamented textiles. In the centre of much of the jewellery a sunken oval or circular area is seen for inlaid materials such as glass or types of stone. This is also the case with the irises each of which is indicated by a circular flat depression. The colours found are dominated by yellow and red ochre and carbon black, but madder lake and minute traces of gold leaf are also found. The gold appears on some of the many jewellery. The gold leaf is superimposed on different kinds of ground layers including red, yellow and pink to achieve different tonal variations of the gold. VIL-imaging was performed without any result on the present of Egyptian blue. An FT-IR analysis revealed the use of beewax, perhaps Punic wax. Further results are yet to be confirmed. The results of the investiagtion indicate the use of different materials including gold, the inlaid eyes and jewellery and the colouration to achieve an overwhelming polychrome impression.

Description of object

The relief depicted here is rectangular, and with a centrally-placed female bust. Behind the figure of the woman, often referred to as the ‘The Beauty of Palmyra,’ there is a ridge on the relief background, but little else of the background of the relief is preserved.

The bust itself depicts an unknown woman, shown frontally, with the features of a foreign-born individual, potentially from India. The stand-out features of her facial portrayal are her oval-shaped face, almond-shaped deeply-inset eyes with their thick upper eyelids, and fleshy cheeks. Her eyelids are extended beyond the end of the lower eyelids, the irises indicated by a circular depression, which can indicate the possibility of an inlay. The eyebrows are slightly curved, almost obliquely, stretching from the foot of her nose to her ornate headpiece. Her nose too is also distinctive, albeit partially missing on the left side due to damage. Short and wide, her alae (side of the nose) are incised, her nostrils carved. Beneath, her mouth is short, stout, but with full lips, accompanied by a rounded chin with two curved grooves as part of her neck. Her dress and jewellery are ornate, note the inclusion of seven necklaces; a string of beads around the base of her neck; beneath, a necklace composed of several bezels with indications of inlaying, linked together by beaded elements; below, close to the collarbones, a double loop-in chain with a round pendant suspended from the centre. She also wears a ring, in similar design to her necklaces, on her right ring finger. Most of her hair is hidden beneath her jewellery; only the thick locks covering the upper half of the ears are exposed. Her hair is veiled, indicating a sign of modesty and demure appearance. The veil continues over her shoulder, and falls behind her upper arms.The Beauty of Palmyra also wears head ornamentation: a central head ornament, two head-chains, and pendants. The central ornament is composed of a rectangular bezel, partially damaged, fastened where the headband meets the turban. The borders of it are decorated with incized, oblique lines. Above and below this, oval bezels with beaded borders are linked into the central square bezel. The lower head chain is comprised of alternating rounded beads together with conical beads, concealing a majority of her forehead. Above this, the upper head-chain is comprised of round elements of incised borders, that are linked by beaded elements. All head adornments run from either side of the forehead bezels down towards the top of her ears. Beneath all of her fine jelwellery, she wears a tunic and a himation. The tunic is wide in neck line, rounded, and tight-fitting sleeves that end above her elbows. The cuffs of the tunic are also decorated, with a narrow border of incized, oblique lines. Her himation, traditionally a form of Greek dress, falls over her left shoulder and diagonally under her right arm, and is fastened on her left shoulder by a brooch. This brooch is circular in shape; decorated with a central inlay, and a pattern of circular patterns and dots.

There is damage to the statue, as aforementioned in discussion of her nose. The left wrist, elbow and lower left side of the veil are all missing. There is severe damage to the veil on the crown, but less to the turban, frontal ornament, head chain, left hair ornament, right cheek, mouth, drapery below brooch, right hands, and ring fingers. There are two cracks: from right eye to left side of chin, and from right side of veil, across right shoulder to right elbow.

Choice of methods

Visual examination

  • Macroscopic
  • Microscopic in situ

Technical imaging

  • UV
  • VIL


  • XRF
  • FT-IR

Visual examination

The face appears white. The closed, smooth and very full lips have traces of red colour. Circular spot of red colouring on each cheek. Traces of black colouring on hair and locks of hair on cheeks. Yellow colouring on the turban with traces of a pale pink in some of the folds. On the diadem under the turban pale pink in several places in a few cases with minute traces of gold on top. Two head chains, both with flanking ornament; the upper one attached centrally over diadem, looped around temples, bear traces of yellow colouring while the lower one attached centrally below diadem has traces of red colouring. In some places on top of the red colour, minute traces of gold are observed. On the frontal ornaments consisting of four superimposed plaques, attached at the top to upper edge of turban, traces of yellow colouring are found. The ”hair slide” attached to hair at the sides of head and covering ends of head chains, comprises diamond and pendant ending in globules, bears traces of yellow. On the veil, held well away from the head by the hair and turban traces of red and yellow are found. The red colour is primarily found in the vertical cracks. On the ear-rings traces of yellow colouring. The V-necked tunic has narrow bands with oblique incisions, borders and short sleeves with traces of yellow colouring. On the bracelet on the sculpture’s right arm are traces of yellow and minute traces of gold. The brooch has a circle enclosing polygon; interwedged diamonds and globules and a sunk centre inside beading. Yellow colouring covers the whole surface except the centre. Gold is found with the microscope in two places on top of the yellow. The seven necklaces are all covered in yellow except the uppermost one. On number six, minute traces of gold are found on the beaded oval with sunken centre and on two of the four striated pendants at the bottom. All rings – two rings on middle joint of the left hand’s ring finger and one at the base of the right hand´s ring finger – bear traces of yellow.

Technical imaging

UV-FL: A strong pink/orange fluorescense is distributed in folds on the turban and on the diadem under the turban suggesting the use of an organic lake. The veil and the left han exhibit a blue/white fluorescense. Areas with red and yellow painting absorb UV-radiation and appear darker on the lips, however less characteristically. Areas along the lower edge of left hand, the veil and the left hand bracelet exhibit a strong yellow/greenish fluorescense due to modern plaster.

VIL: VIL-imaging was performed without any result regarding the presence of Egyptian blue

Other types of investigation

XRF: XRF-analysis showed a high content of iron (Fe) and lead (Pb) on several of the coloured areas possibly suggesting the use of lead white and iron oxide pigments which are the principal colorants in naturally-occurring red and yellow ochres respectively.

XRF 01: The red colour on the frontal jewellery exhibited a fairly high content of iron (Fe) and lead (Pb) and a smaller amount of zinc (Zn) and arsenic (As). XRF 02: The red colour on the lips indicated a content of lead (Pb), zinc (Zn) and a fairly large amount of iron (Fe). XRF 03: The red blush on the cheeks, indicated a small amount of zinc (Zn), lead (Pb) and iron (Fe). XRF 04: The black colour-layer of the hair indicated a large amount of lead (Pb) and a smaller content of arsenic (As), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and iron (Fe). The same amount of iron and lead were observed in another place on the hair.

XRF 05: A white area, next to the black layer had a large content of lead (Pb). XRF: 06 A white area next to the red jewellery revealed a lead (Pb)content, iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn). XRF 07: The yellow colour layer on the turban revealed a large content of both lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn) and a smaller content of arsenic (As) and iron (Fe) XRF 08: The yellow colour on the cuff-bracelet on her right sleeve showed a large content of lead (Pb), iron (Fe), titanium (Ti) and zinc (Zn). XRF 09: At the left side of the veil a relatively high content of zinc (Zn), lead (Pb) and iron (Fe) was present.

FT-IR: A sampling strategy has been developed on the basis of the preliminary investigation. A sample with a surface area of circa 0.25-1 mm2 was taken of a brown semi-transparent material covering minute traces of gold on top of a pale pinkish layer identified as madder lake by UV-imaging. The FT-IR spectru showed similarities to calcium carbonate, silicates and beewax probably without the fatty acid. The absence of the fatty acid may suggest the use of Punic wax, but this has not been confirmed.


Ingholt Archive

H. Ingholt (1928), Studier over Palmyrensk Skulptur, København, 148-149.

D. Mackay (1949), The Jewellery of Palmyra and its Significance, Iraq XI, 176, pl. LVIII,2.

M. Grant (1960), The World of Rome, London, 241, pl. 16.

M. Gawlikowski (1966), Remarques sur l’usage de la fibule à Palmyre, in M-L. Bernhard (ed.) Mélanges offerts à Kazimierz Michałowski, Warsaw, 417, fig. 5.

M.A.R. Colledge (1976), The Art of Palmyra, London, 62, 71, 97, 107, 113-114, 118, 120, 124, 138-139, 144, 148, 150-152.

I. Browning (1979), Palmyra, London, 33-34, 38, fig. 7.

G. Ploug (1995), Catalogue of the Palmyrene Sculptures, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 188-192, no. 77.

F.O. Hvidberg-Hansen & G. Ploug (1993), Catalogue fra Palmyra Samlingen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, København, cat. no. 76, 121-122.

M.L. Sargent & R.H. Therkildsen (2010), The Technical Investigation of Sculptural Polychromy at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 2009-2010 – An Outline. Tracking colour. The polychromy of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Preliminary Report 2 (online), 11-26.

R. Raja (2015), Palmyrene funerary portrait in context: Portrait habit between local traditions and imperial trends, in Fejfer, J. et al. (eds.), Tradition: Transmission of Culture in the Ancient World, Copenhagen, 348-351, fig. 21-22.

R. Raja & A.H. Sørensen (2015), The “Beauty of Palmyra” and Qasr Abjad (Palmyra): New discoveries in the archive of Harald Ingholt, Journal of Roman Archaeology 28:1, 439-450.

R. Raja & A.H. Sørensen (2015), Harald Ingholt & Palmyra, Aarhus, 24, 48-51.

S. Krag (2017), Changing identities, changing positions: Jewellery in Palmyrene female portraits, in Long, T., and Sørensen, A.H. (eds.), Positions and Professions in Palmyra, Palmyrenske Studier 2, Copenhagen, 40-41, fig. 6.

S. Krag (2018), Funerary Representations of Palmyrene Women. From the First Century BC to the Third Century AD, Studies in Classical Archaeology 3, Turnhout, 42, 53, 59, 62, 108, 323, cat. no. 587.

  • IN 2795
  • Relief
  • c. 190-210 C.E.
  • Roman Imperial
  • White limestone.
  • Bought in Syria in 1929 from a private collection.
  • H. 55 cm.; W. 40 cm.; D. 18 cm.

Selected photos

  • In2795_t_0
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  • In2795_t_180
  • In2795_t_270
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  • In2795_uv_d_madder
  • In2795_uv_t_90
  • In2795_uv_t_270
  • In2795_mi_0_gold_on_red_4
  • In2795_mi_0_gold_on_red_5
  • In2795_mi_0_gold_on_yellow
  • In2795_mi_0_wax
  • In2795_t_0
  • Billede1
  • In2795_t_0__pointer