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Kate Honeker

Archaeology, University of Nottingham

Thesis title:

Sculpture, memory and meaning in the sarcophagi of Roman Syria

Sarcophagi are an important source for understanding artistic traditions and cultural expression in Roman Syria: from the monumental marble chests with sculpted scenes from Greek mythology, shipped from Athens to Tyre; to the limestone creations of desert Palmyra, proudly bearing sculpted busts of generations of ancestors. My research aims to establish the importance of this overlooked branch of Near Eastern art. Impacted by Orientalist discourse that assumes western superiority over eastern cultures, Syrian art is often labelled ‘provincial’ and considered derivative of Graeco-Roman styles. In reality, Syrian sarcophagi in their many forms were products of a complex merging of cultures and artistic traditions, widely used and ingeniously adapted to suit myriad local communities across the region. My research focuses on production and significance:

• How did decorated sarcophagi reflect local artistic traditions?

• What can they tell us about ancient ideas on death, grief and the afterlife?

• To what extent did sarcophagi undergo a process of mass-production and how much scope did the patron have for individualization?

• Can we trace the spread of designs between Syrian workshops, and from Roman imports?

A comprehensive study like this is yet to be undertaken and so my research promises to make a significant contribution to research on the art of Roman Syria, to increase the visibility of sarcophagus collections and enhance appreciation of the knowledge they can offer on life and death in the region. The current political situation in Syria and the impact of civil war have left the future of archaeological research in the area uncertain. The destruction of cultural heritage has created an urgent need to preserve the rich history of Roman Syria by illuminating the objects that have survived.

Research Area

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology of Literate Societies


Honeker, K. (2023). THE EBB AND FLOW OF PALMYRA - (R.) Raja Pearl of the Desert. A History of Palmyra. Pp. xiv 231, ills, maps. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Cased, £19.99, US$29.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-085222-1. The Classical Review, 73(2), 579-581.

Honeker, K. (2021). Review of (M.) Sommer (ed.) Inter duo Imperia. Palmyra between East and West. Chapters VIII & IX translated by Diana Sommer-Theohari, Stuttgart, F. Steiner, 2020 (Oriens et Occidens, 31), 167 p., fig., 40 €, ISBN 978-3-515-12774-5. Latomus 80(4), 974-977.


'Memory and meaning in the sarcophagi of Roman Palmyra', Experimental and Experiential Approaches to Identity Formation in the Ancient World, 4th-5th April 2024, University of Liverpool.

Public Engagement & Impact

In connection with the British Museum touring exhibit Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries, I contributed to the 'Big Discovery Weekend' that took place during the final days of the exhibition's time at the University of Nottingham Museum, Lakeside Arts (26th March - 19th June 2022). In particular, I aided artist Shamila Chady in the running of a clay sculpting workshop for children and families. The aim of this hands-on event was to increase awareness of objects in the exhibit and engagement with sculptural practice, as participants were enouraged to recreate selected artefacts on display, including a fired clay mask of the Mesopotamian demon Humbaba.



The Roman Society