Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

Project manager / blog editor:

Friday, 23 June 2017

Exhibition: Journeys to Tadmor: History and Heritage in Palmyra and the Middle East



Our project is coming to an end. Most of our research finished last December, although publications will continue to come out for quite a while. Thanks to a special grant from our sponsor, the Research Council of Norway, we did, however, get a six months extension in order to work with communication and dissemination. Over the last months my colleagues Birgit and Håkon have been working hard together with colleagues from Bergen City Museum and British artist Amanda Chambers to plan and prepare for our final activity, the exhibition Journeys to Tadmor: History and Heritage in Palmyra and the Middle East.

Last fall, while we were pondering how to to communicate the importance of social networks in the distant past of the Near East to a modern public, we were contacted by Amanda, who had been moved by the Islamic State's wanton destructions in Palmyra in 2015 to produce her artwork Exhume. Amanda were looking for possible venues to display her art in Norway. As we care deeply about Palmyra, a place around which much of my own scholarship revolves and from which we all have fond memories, we decided to tell our project-story about the networked past of the Near East focused through the city. We also wanted to highlight the relationship between past, present, and future, and the role og heritage and history. Thus, although our emphasis is certainly on the Roman period, we decided to use the Aramaic and Arabic name for Palmyra – Tadmor, and to follow this remarkable place through history.

To our luck, Bryggens Museum, a part of Bergen City Museum were able to accommodate us in their schedule this summer. Bryggens Museum main focus is Medieval Bergen, but they also have frequent special exhibitions and resident artists. As Bergen, like Palmyra, was build on long-distance trade the venue felt all the more relevant. Our project is funded by the Research Council of Norway  SAMKUL program, which supports research addressing 'the cultural precondition of societal development'. Projects are encouraged to engage with stakeholders and the public and they generously agreed to cover most of the exhibition costs.

While we have done research on Palmyra in Bergen for more than a decade, our otherwise fine city does not boast a collection of classical art. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, however, has the largest collection of Palmyrene sculpture outside Syria, and generously agreed to lend us a funerary bust depicting the Palmyrene couple Atenatan and Salmat who lived in the second century CE along with three tesserae – clay tokens that were used as entrance tickets to religious banquets in ancient Palmyra. Our own university museum has coins from rulers that were involved in the dramatic events in Palmyra in the third century CE, including Vaballathus, Aurelian and Diocletian, along with ethnographic material documenting trade goods as well as Bedouin life in the Near East. The University library in Oslo kindly lent us their first edition of Robert Woods famous Les Ruins de Palmyre (1753), the book that made Palmyra famous throughout the world, and together with our own library they came up with books by Norwegian authors who have been inspired by the fate of Zenobia and Palmyra. With tourist memorabilia, 3D prints, digital models and lots of photos we have what we need to relate the story of Palmyra from the Bronze Age beginnings until todays sad destruction and debate on the role of cultural heritage in the Middle East as well as in the West. Through Palmyra we hope to show how networks connected people and places in the past, how they are sometimes and with dramatic consequences disconnected, and how networks also stretch across time.

The exhibition opens on June 30th and stands until September 17th in Bryggens Museum. The catalogue will be put online after the exhibition period.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

New book out: Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East and Beyond


Our project is inevitably coming to an end, but we'll still have results to present for some time to come. Just today we sent our edited volume Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East and Beyond to the press. It is already available for preorder at a special pre-publication price at Oxbow Books.

Below is the cover-text and table of contents:

A recent surge of interest in network approaches to the study of the ancient world has enabled scholars of the Roman Empire to move beyond traditional narratives of domination, resistance, integration and fragmentation. This relational turn has offered tools to identify, map, visualise and, in some cases, quantify interaction based on a variety of ancient source materials. It also provides a terminology to deal with the everyday ties of power, trade and ideology that operated within, below and beyond the superstructure of imperial rule. Thirteen contributions employ a range of quantitative, qualitative and descriptive network approaches in order to provide new perspectives on trade, communication, administration, technology, religion and municipal life in the Roman Near East and adjacent regions.

Sinews of empire and the relational turn in classical scholarship
Håkon Teigen and Eivind Heldaas Seland

Going mental. Culture, exchange and compromise in Rome’s trade with the East
Wim Broekaert

Sinews of belief, anchors of devotion: the cult of Zeus Kasios in the Mediterranean
Anna Collar

Numismatic communities in the northern South Caucasus 300 BCE–300 CE: A geospatial analysis of coin finds from Caucasian Iberia and Caucasian Albania
Lara Fabian

The diffusion of architectural innovations: Modelling social networks in the ancient building trade
Henrik Gerding & Per Östborn

Texture of empire: Personal networks and the modus operandi of Roman hegemony
Michael Sommer

Sinews of the other empire: The Parthian Great King’s rule over vassal kingdoms
Leonardo Gregoratti

Speech patterns as indicators of religious identities: the Manichaean community in late antique Egypt
Mattias Brand

Networking beyond death: Priests and their family networks in Palmyra explored through the funerary sculpture
Rubina Raja

Trade networks among the army camps of the Eastern Desert of Roman Egypt*
Yanne Broux

Palmyrene merchant networks and economic integration in competitive markets
Katia Schörle

Businessmen and local elites in the Lycos valley
Kerstin Droß-Krüpe

The social networks of late antique Western Thebes
Elisabeth O’Connell and Giovanni R. Ruffini


Monday, 7 November 2016

Roundtable: Social Aspects of Religion in Late Antiquity

We are looking forward to the roundtable discussion we are hosting on Friday 11 November on Social Aspects of Religion in Late Antiquity. Besides members of the NeRoNE project and the research group Ancient history, culture and religion, we are happy to have some international guests with us around the table: René Falkenberg from Aarhus University, Giovanni Rufini from Fairfield University (Connecticut), and Mattias Brand from Leiden University.

Friday, 7 October 2016

On dromedaries and the art of classifying diplomatic gifts


By Birgit van der Lans
At Persepolis. Photo: Magnus Halsnes

Last month NeRoNE went to Iran, where many of our individual interests came together.

Relief IV at Bishapur. Photo: Magnus Halsnes


A good example is this Sasanian rock relief, located in the Tang-e Chowgang river gorge on the road leading to the city of Bishapur. Bishapur was founded by Shapur I and built by Roman soldiers who had been captured after the defeat of Valerian in 260 CE. The relief above, however, was commissioned by one of Shapur’s successors, Bahram II (276 – 294 CE). It depicts the arrival of an Arabian embassy at the Sasanian court, bringing two Arabian one-humped camels, also known as Camelus dromedarius, as diplomatic gifts. The six delegates are ushered in by a Persian courtier while Bahram rides to receive them seated on his horse.

The Arabian origin of the six envoys was already established in 19th century French descriptions of the Bishapur reliefs. Their long, belted garments, short moustaches, characteristic head-cloths as well as the dromedaries all point in the geographical direction of the Arabian desert. It is possible to be more specific about the provenance of the embassy and about its date and occasion if a recent suggestion is followed that the relief depicts the coming of a Himyarite embassy sent by king Shammar Yuhar’ish (287 – 311 CE). In the course of his rule South Arabia was unified under the kingdom of Himyar. Shammar Yuhar’ish is also reported to have established closer diplomatic relations with the Sasanians, presumably in order to support his position vis-à-vis his Ethiopian rivals at Axum, who were in turn backed by Rome. For the otherwise not very successful Bahram II, to depict the arrival of the Himyarite embassy, if this identification is correct, was to publicise a Sasanian step forward in the competition with Rome over influence in the Red Sea region.

This was not the only instance we saw of camels with one or two humps being presented to Persian rulers. In various ways the iconography of the Sasanian reliefs harks back to the stone carvings with which their Achaemenid predecessors represented their dynasty (c. 700 – 330 BCE), cut out of natural rock formations or the stone palace walls of Persepolis. 


a) Bactrian camel with Bactrians 


b) Arabian camel (dromedary) with Arabs. Photos: Birgit van der Lans
Here the eastern stairs of the Apadana feature several camels being presented to the great king at the occasion of the New Year’s festival by delegations of nations subject to the Persian empire: the Bactrians, Arians, Parthians and Arachosians bring Bactrian two-humped camels (fig. a) while the Arabian team brings along a dromedary (fig. b).

The appearance of camels and dromedaries on such reliefs is not difficult to explain. After their domestication in the early first millennium BCE the animals became crucial to the development of long-distance trade because of their ability to carry substantial loads and to travel long distances in arid regions. Camels thus became valuable commodities to those who herded them and to those who obtained them. The association with the caravan trade turned them into symbols of wealth. Especially fine animals could fetch high prices, bring prestige to owners and make good diplomatic gifts.

Yet value and meaning depend on the context of representation. As on Bahram’s relief at Bishapur, the envoys in Persepolis are led by the hand by a courtier, in this case towards the audience hall where they would be received by the king. They are dressed in native outfits and carry objects and animals that represent their origins. Despite these similarities in iconography, the Persepolis camels are classified as ‘tribute’ rather than as ‘diplomatic gifts’.

Although it probably did not matter much to the camels themselves, it did make a difference whether they were handed over as tribute or as gifts. The two types of exchange expressed and constituted different types of social relations and distributions of power. Objects that function as tribute signal an asymmetrical hierarchy of power between rulers on the one hand and subjects, clients or vassals on the other. Whereas tribute displays submission and can be demanded or imposed, diplomatic gifts are associated with the voluntary and reciprocal exchange between equal or nominally independent agents.

Despite its importance, the distinction between tribute and gift (and booty, for that matter) could be difficult to make out in individual cases, for instance when the context of exchange is not articulated and all that survives are the (mostly material) objects themselves. Moreover, the meaning of the exchanged goods and – by proxy – the underlying social relations were subject to negotiation and rhetorical manipulation. Some good examples can be found in Marian Feldman’s study of luxury goods in the diplomatic exchange in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. She shows that goods could be called gifts even though they amounted to tribute in the reality of power relations, while conversely they could be presented as tribute when they had been intended as gifts. The Amarna archive provides perhaps the best illustration of the sensitivities when the distinction was misrepresented or ignored. In one letter the king of Babylon complains that the Egyptian pharaoh had displayed the Babylonian chariots he had sent as diplomatic gifts alongside chariots which the pharaoh had acquired as tribute from Egyptian vassals. Here, failing to distinguish between tribute and gift amounts to a public humiliation (EA 1: 89-92; correspondence between Kadasman-Enlil I and Amenhotep III).

Classifying diplomatic gifts is an intricate art. Even when camels are not confused with dromedaries and gifts are correctly distinguished from tribute, the camel may still end up as dinner.