Palmyra, an ancient city now belonging to Syria, is built in an oasis, and flourished in Roman times. The fate of the city was linked with queen Zenobia, the last to revolt against the Romans who finally destroyed the city in 272/273 AD. Palmyra was an independent city after the Seleucids conquered Syria and a trading post between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean sea. The Greco-Roman tradition and the city’s location on the borders of Roman and Parthian territory created the conditions for a particular culture to develop (note 2).
The tokens (σύμβολα, tesserae / tessères) of Palmyra, as mentioned in bibliography, are a particular category of ancient artifacts (note 3). They are tiles with various shapes, made almost exclusively of clay, bearing embossed designs on both sides. Scholars have expressed the opinion that these objects played an important part in Palmyra’s religious festivals, since they were used to access ceremonial meals or in distributions following certain sacrifices. They date between the 1st and 3rd c. AD and provide important information on the deities of Palmyra and Semitic religious history in general (note 4).
The use of such objects was customary both in the Near East and the Aegean civilizations, as early as the Bronze Age and in the Greco-Roman world. In international bibliography they are known as tokens in English and jetons in French, since it is thought they were used as marks just as today. Scholars interpret them as proof of identity, the equivalent of a value or symbolic currency. The Near East tokens, already found since the 8th millennium BC, were along with the common sealings (note 5) —at least following the 6th millennium BC— two components of a common bureaucratic system. Their discovery mainly in sacred places as well as in important tombs linked them specifically to the authorities and elite in control of the economy and distribution of goods (note 6). Stamped clay artifacts, with no traces of their being attached or suspended, date from the Minoan and Mycenaean times. It has been argued that they were used as credentials, receipts and even coins, in the broadest sense, in a pre-currency society (note 7). The bureaucratic system they were part of disappeared after the decline of the Mycenaean civilization. Objects described as tokens reappeared in Euboea and Attica after the mid 9th c. BC (note 8).
The term tessera was used in Roman times to convey the Greek term σύμβολον (token). Small tiles are known as tokens, often shaped like coins, made of metal (copper, lead, iron), clay, bone or glass, stamped as well as engraved. The tokens however are not exclusively coin shaped, as the Latin term tessera suggests by etymologically referring to a square or at least a four sided shapeand confirmedin several cases by material remains of the past (note 9). Written sources mention wooden tokens that have not survived (note 10). Tokens and tesserae seem to have been used both in Athens and Rome for the distribution of goods (note 11). According to written sources, the term token is identified with credentials of the official authorities (note 12). They have also been interpreted as tokens of identity, as entrance tickets to theatre performances , tribunals or assemblies of citizens, archival material of seal engraving, as pawns in games, Charon’s obols and even as amulets (note 13).
The Numismatic Museum has a small collection of ceramic seals and tokens that have not been thoroughly researched (note 14). While studying this collection I spotted some objects of a particular style that distinguished them from artefacts of Greek culture (note 15). The colour, quality and composition of the clay testify to their common origin, while the stylistic features and the inscriptions in a Semitic language (Aramaic) pointed to the East. Research in bibliography finally resulted in Palmyra being the place of origin (note 16).
The tokens of Palmyra are a large assemblage of approximately 1,500 objects (note 17). The greater part is in the National Museum of Syria, Damascus and originates from excavations carried out in Palmyra, from surveys in the city outskirts and private collections handed over. A large number of the assemblage is kept in museums all over the world; in England (The British Museum and Ashmolean Museum), Belgium (Musée du Cinquantenaire andΜusée de Namur), Denmark (the Glyptotek Ny Carlsberg), the United States (American Numismatic Society, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), France (Cabinet des médailles de la Bibliothèque Νationale, The Louvre Museum), Lebanon (American University of Beirut Antiquities Museum, The National Museum of Lebanon, Beirut), Palestine (The Franciscan Monks’ Museum), Russia (Hermitage Museum, Historical Institute, Historical Museum of Moscow), Switzerland (Museum of Cultures, Basle, Geneva Art Museum), Turkey (Istanbul Archaeological Museum), as well as in a great number of private collections (note 18).
The material appears to have been already dispersed from the mid 19th c., since it is first mentioned in bibliography of 1858 (note 19). It was first systematically studied during World War II and the first collection (Recueil) of the material was published in 1955 (note 20). Additional publications were realized in 1959, presenting the new finds from excavations by the Swiss archaeological expedition in the shrine of Baalshamin in Palmyra between 1954 and 1956 (note 21). A more systematic study of the assemblage was published in 1962 (note 22). During excavations that took place in the last decades of the 20th c., both in the Syrian Antiquities’ Department and various international expeditions, more tokens were found. Inthesecases, excavationdataprovidesvaluableinformation. Two large assemblages come from shrines, strengthening these objects’ association with religious ceremonies (note 23).
The tokens of Palmyra are almost exclusively ceramic. A handful are made of copper, glass, lead and iron (note 24). The dimensions of intact artefacts range from 9 to 35 millimetres. Most of them bear an image on both sides, while very few on only the one. Their shapes come in an exceptionally large variety which includes those tokens resembling spears, leaves, crescents, temples, alters, funerary steles, Arabian shields, rectangles, polygons, circles etc (note 25). They were made of different coloured clay due to natural minerals (note 26). Theyoftenretaintracesofredpolish (fig. 3) (note 27).
The tokens found in the Numismatic Museum and which can be attributed to Palmyra (figs. 1-6) have all been made of light brown clay. Based on the similarity of the clay and imagery, no more than fifteen can be identified with relative certainty. Out of those we shall present the ones that preserve their imagery in the best condition and can be attributed with absolute certitude to the Palmyra assemblage. The rest have –some more, some less– possibilities of being included in the assemblage. The quality of their clay, the colour and texture of their surfaces as well as their seals are related with those that have survived more satisfactorily, but whose state of preservation requires further study, hopefully yielding more results (note 28).
The images depicted in the tokensof Palmyra are rendered in two types of seals. The first includes flat seals (molds) with predetermined types, that usually refer to the occasion for which the tokens were issued, while to the second belong private seals that took their subject matter from the sculpture of the day (note 29). Both types of seal can often be distinguished in the same object. It is certain that the imagery of the private seal was not included in the initial design since tokens have been found that bear the same combination of images on their two sides, the only difference being in the impression of the private seal (note 30). The combination of seals made the object distinct and ensured its uniqueness, excluding its being handled by undesirable users. Moreover, the presence of private seals ensured protection from any kind of counterfeiting. Flatseals/moldsbelongedtothemaker, while private seals were the property of the person carrying out the order, or the one finally using the token. The inscription was also a matter of choice and distinguished the object.
The crafting of these particular tokens was a time consuming, detailed process. Two models were initially used, one for each side, for the forming of the design in damp clay. Their makers seemed to have had a series of samples of drawings or models that they showed to the customers for them to chose from and order. The place intended for the inscription and the impression of the personal seal of the customer – recipient was initially left blank to be filled in later, making the object entirely personal. The details of the bas relief were then executed with the pastillage technique and the help of a small spatula. This task required skills equal to those used for seal engraving and seems to have been the result of a long period of apprenticeship. The molds used for the production are believed to have been made of plaster, which was plentiful in its natural state in the region of Palmyra. After the molding of the clay, the tokens were left to dry in the sun and then they were fired in the kiln. A few days were needed for their production to be completed (note 31).
The subject matter of the images of the Palmyra tokens reproduces those created in the Hellenistic period and subsequently were used for centuries in the whole of the East. The art is related to the monumental sculpture of Palmyra that originates both from temples and tombs. The small scale of the tokens made this art accessible to worshippers. The style is a mixture of Greek, Greco-Roman and local elements. The garments worn by the figures are almost always Greek or Greco-Roman. Thedepictionofnature, however, whenattemptedis realized without the use of perspective, according to the Asian style. The figures are surrounded by astral and cosmic symbols. Usually the deceased priests are pictured in heaven among the stars and celestial spheres. In this manner they “unite” with the gods of salvation who are included in the same tokens. The Palmyra tokensechoNeo Platonic astronomical and eschatological theories as adopted by a Semitic religion (note 32).
Most of the examples of the Numismatic Museum bear typical subjects from the imagery of the Palmyra tokens. The most usual subject depicted is that of reclining figures (figs. 1b, 3b, and 4). There are over one hundred tokens among the ones known to date belonging to this specific type (note 33). Most often they are identified as depictions of priests as well as deities. The images of priests are usually accompanied by an inscription that translates as “the priests of Bel” i.e. the priests of the god Baal (note 34). The figures seem to be participating in banquets (symposia), without however being clear whether the latter were taking place on earth or in Paradise (note 35). Depictions of priests are found among the tokens at the Numismatic Museum, either as busts or in banquet scenes (fig. 1a and b) (note 36).
The gods of Palmyra have a dynamic presence in the subject matter of the Palmyra tokens. In the Numismatic Museum collection a very important image has been found, that of the sacred marriage of the god Bel and his wife Astarte-Atargate (fig. 3b). The incense offered by worshippers on the other side of the same token (fig.3a) is most probably intended for these two deities (note 37). The scene of the sacred marriage adorns numerous tokens found in the courtyard of Bel’s shrine, which, according to scholars, is considered the largest in Palmyra (note 38).
The depictions of gods, as referred to above, are accompanied or surrounded by astral symbols (fig. 2a) (note 39). They are often represented by them. In fig. 5a, the circular protrusion that dominates the field is identified as the celestial sphere, a symbol of the god Bel. The crescent below the sphere symbolizes either the moon or the entire sky (note 40). The tokens have numerous references to death and the afterlife. The depiction of a wreath in fig. 2b symbolizes victory over death (note 41). The subject matter also includes tokens that are deterrents against evil, such as the head of Medusa (fig. 6a) (note 42).
Three examples found in the Numismatic Museum assemblage connect the token with its client – recipient and are of stamps of private seals. The stamp of an oval seal can be distinguished in fig. 1b, on the left of the image. The depiction of a winged figure on a small oval seal in fig. 6b has been interpreted as being the goddess Tyche (Tύχη) (note 43). The stamp of a minute seal can be seen in the centre of the wreath in fig. 2b. The inscriptions either cover the whole of the token’s face (fig. 5b) or are restricted to the exergue i.e. the area below the image separated from it by a horizontal line (figs. 1b and 3b) (note 44).
As a rule, the Aramaic language of Palmyra is used for the inscriptions of tokens. These are rarely in Greek, despite the official languages being Greek and Aramaic in Palmyra during the Roman era and the official city inscriptions being bilingual (Aramaic-Greek and rarely Latin). The preference for Aramaic is possibly indicative of the nature of religious events for which the tokens were issued. The inscriptions’ content is usually limited to recording the proper names of males (priests) and names of gods, without giving information about the events for which these objects were produced. Often the proper names coincide with names of the royal family. It is not however possible to prove that the tokens were issued by the rulers (note 45).
The most ancient Palmyra tokens date from the first half of the 1st c. AD and the later ones from the 3rd c. AD. The tradition of their production vanished after the city’s final fall in 272/3 AD. Till now, according to published data, a handful of these offer clues leading to their exact dating. The catalogue of proper names included in the first publication (Recueil) did not help in successful dating, because the Palmyra inhabitants used to give their children names from previous generations, making it unclear whether the name refers to an individual or /and some ancestor or descendant of his. Nevertheless, some sort of chronological distinction of the objects has been achieved based on their stylistic features, scale and typological differences in their inscriptions. It appears that during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD there was a greater variety of images and shapes, while during the 3rd c. AD images became more standardized, the scale decreased and inscriptions became more brief (note 46). Most surviving Palmyra tokens date from the late 2nd and 3rd c. AD (note 47).
The Palmyra tokens and the inscriptions written on them give important facts for analyzing identity, society and the organization of the state (note 48). They provide important information on the role of troupes in the Greco-Roman world (note 49). As previously mentioned, the tokens’ subject matter gives us remarkable testimonies on the city’s religious life, as well as its relations with other regions and religious customs (note 50). Specifically the study of these unusual objects makes it possible to cast light on aspects of Palmyra’s society, such as the role played by the city’s four tribes, the great families or particular social groups in religious ceremonies and events (note 51).
Comparing the tokens of Greece and the West in general with those of Palmyra, it appears that the latter belong to those tiles that gave their owners entrance rights, secured a seat at spectacles or participation in meals and banquets. Their subject matter as well as the places they were found is proof of their religious nature. It is likely that they were a means of controlling the entrance to certain temples or rituals. It is however very possible they were distributed to facilitate the reception of visitors-pilgrims. The distribution of tokens for religious reasons is witnessed both in the East and in Rome (tesserae pelegrinorum). These are identification tokens that allowed the control of the identity of the bearers, who were usually foreign travellers. After the completion of their mission, the tokens could be kept as mementos and transferred all over the world, giving rise to imitations and influences (note 52).
This tradition, however, is not unknown in the East. The Palmyra tokens are similar in their crafting with artifacts known as Saintes Empreintes — sacred imprints of seals. These are the, larger scale, ceramic Greco Buddhist tiles that may not necessarily have been imitated by the craftsmen of Palmyra, but whose existence was nevertheless known to the latter (note 53).
The few days required for the production of Palmyra tokens led scholars to the conclusion that this was an order that could not be carried out directly, but was intended for a scheduled use. Although the subject matter of the images often refers to death and the afterlife, the funerary use of tokens was excluded to the extent of its being related to the actual day of death. It is however likely that their use was associated with ceremonies or banquets subsequently taking place in honour of the deceased, at some planned time after the burial. This hypothesis is supported by the content of the inscriptions on certain tokens, related with the seventh or tenth day, permitting scholars to speculate that these are perhaps specific days after the death (note 54).
Archaeological finds after systematic excavations were to complete initial assumptions regarding the use of these objects that had been mainly based on the latter’s pictorial decoration and on written sources of antiquity. It is a well known fact that when ancient objects are separated from their environment without a scientific excavation survey, they lose the information which would help “restore history”, archaeology’s objective. We have to rely on conclusions drawn from excavation data, since we cannot know the archaeological environment of objects kept in museums and private collections since the early 20th century or those originating from antique dealers.
During excavation works in Palmyra, two important finds came to cast light on the use of tokens. A great number of tokens were discovered in and around the banquet area situated in the courtyard of the shrine of Bel. Most were found in the foundations, in the drainage system of the banqueting area. Therefore these objects had been thrown away after their objective had been completed. This proves that the participants in banquets did not, when leaving, necessarily take the tokens with them. There is a great variety of pictorial subjects in the tokens of the shrine of Bel. They depict many of the gods of Palmyra and are not exclusively connected with the cult of a particular sanctuary. This observation allows us to conclude that the sacred meals were not necessarily organized in honour of the god whose shrine it was (note 55).
The finds from the temple of Arşu give us a different picture. The shrine is associated with one of the four tribes of Palmyra and is situated in the region of the so called “Hellenistic City”, which is not however well preserved, either because of corrosion and natural wear and tear or because of its destruction by the Roman emperor Aurelius in 272/3 AD. In that area, during excavation works in 1980, one hundred and twenty five tokens came to light, which most probably had been placed inside a jar. They were found scattered round the shattered vessel. They all bear the image of the god Arşu. This finding dates from the 2nd c. AD, offering research important data on the role of tokens and the study in general of religion and the society of Palmyra, since it documents the relation of the god Arşu with one of the tribes, that of Bani Mattabôl. According to scholars, these are either tokens that were stored temporarily, to be distributed for a banquet that never took place, or they have been collected after checking the entrance to a banquet, which as a theory is considered more probable. It is possible that there was a filing system for tokens distributed and collected at banquets for a specific period of time. This hypothesis is reinforced by signs of the shrine having been abandoned during the 3rd c. AD (note 56).
Several tokens come from other shrines in Palmyra. The gods depicted are not necessarily identical with the primary deity of the shrines. This makes it very probable that the sacred meals were not connected with the worship of the gods in whose shrines the meals were hosted. Isolated finds have been also found outside shrines, inside the city of Palmyra (note 57).
The excavation finds mentioned above contribute in interpreting religious practices in Palmyra, giving important clues at the same time about the use of tokens and the functions of shrines. In conclusion we should mention that the study of these objects, undoubtedly associated with religious ceremonies, give much information on the role of troupes, tribes and the religion of Palmyra. The inscriptions’ frequent reference to tribes, mainly during the 1st and first half of the 2nd c. AD, shows that tokens were used at events that had a traditional character (note 58). All scholars agree on their use for entrance to ritual meals and banquets. The latter were hosted by religious groups and took place in the shrines of Palmyra. They were most probably organized by priests, maybe by those depicted on the tokens. The meals and banquets were not necessarily held in honour of the god to whom the shrine was dedicated and in which they took place. It is worth noting the indicative use of the shrines which were most probably public spaces, by groups that could be described as “not belonging to the state” (note 59).
The exact origin of the Numismatic Museum tokens is unfortunately unknown. Their contribution, therefore, to the research on the Palmyra tokens will be restricted to the addition of new types and combinations as well as to increasing the documented examples in the case of repeated images. We hope that, when finished, the research will enrich our knowledge on these particular objects, contribute to their more complete publication and lead to their inclusion in the whole collection (Recueil) of the Palmyra tokens and its supplementary edition, according to the vision of its scholars (note 60).
Doctoral Candidate of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Ministry of Culture and Sports
Epigraphic and NumismaticMuseum