Please see the book Stone Sarcophagi of the Roman Empire for additional information regarding each photo. The book is available at Amazon.com and Xlibris Booksellers.
BARRY FERST PH.D. - May 2018
From 125 to 450 C.E., many Romans thought it fashionable to buy stone coffins in which to inter their dead. The coffin was an oblong stone box approximately six feet by three feet and three feet in height with an interior cavity for the deceased. Scholars refer to these coffins as lithos sarcophagi (Gk. lithos = stone, sarx = flesh, phagein = to eat), for as time passed, all that would remain of the deceased were teeth and bones. Many of these “flesh-eaters” were without decoration, and many others displayed simple, standardized motifs. Richly carved marble boxes were purchased by the wealthy. Fixing the era of the Roman Empire with Augustus Caesar’s assumption of imperial power in 27 B.C.E. and ending it with the textbook date of 476 C.E., the “sarcophagus fashionable era” spans the years between Emperor Hadrian’s enthusiasm for things Greek,125 C.E., and the twilight that signaled the approaching European Dark Ages, approximately 450.
I first noticed Roman sarcophagi in 1984 during a tour of Europe. After more travels, I decided to inventory the sarcophagi I came across, focusing on whole sarcophagi or entire front panels (at least three-quarters complete) and not bothering with fragments. To date I have driven a hundred thousand miles across four continents visiting museums, churches, city parks, archeological sites, catacombs, castles, palaces, and villas--any place that might have what I was after. I found sarcophagi re-used as flower boxes, water troughs, cisterns, altar tables, wall décor, and once, as corner blocks on an Ottoman fortress. Sometimes, completely by chance, I found a sarcophagus in a parking lot or under a clutter of bushes.
The imagery, symbols, and signs on sarcophagi are an unparalleled source for understanding the sentiments of upper- and professional- class Romans, and those in the lower classes who had secured some degree of financial success. Though not the focus of this website and accompanying book, Stone Sarcophagi of the Roman Empire, I have tried to understand what the iconography reveals about the beliefs operative in the Roman Empire, whether those be various cultic creeds, religions, superstitions, social perspectives, or metaphysical philosophies. Nevertheless, I understand Franz Cumont’s warning: “It is especially difficult to ascertain up to what point ideas adopted by intellectual circles succeeded in penetrating the deep masses of the people.” (After Life in Roman Paganism, p.2)
Today, approximately two thousand complete sarcophagi, meaning complete trough (the section that holds the body), or front panel frieze (at least three-quarters), exist. How many sarcophagi were made is unknown, for production and purchase records don’t exist. From certain stylistic features of imagery and motifs, researchers conclude that there were ateliers in Rome, Arles, Athens, and Alexandria, and a few other small regional workshops, yet this knowledge still does not support an accurate calculation of the number of sarcophagi produced. However, there are two sources of information that may be of some limited use. By surveying the layout and size of the Tarraco necropolis in Tarragona, Spain, the Assos and the Hierapolis necropoleis in Turkey, or Isola Sacra at Ostia Antica, researchers can guess at possible numbers. Moreover, thousands of fragments are in museum collections, and this information, too, would aid in rough estimates.
This website (and book) is a product of twenty-five years of research and fourteen expeditions across four continents. On wintry evenings before the fireplace in my Montana home, I sat fashioning my next trip from the information files I had assembled on the alleged locations of sarcophagi. Then, to personally confirm the information I had gathered, I drove across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa (not to mention travels to American sites), searching out any place, according to my information, that was supposed to have a Roman Empire era stone sarcophagus.
It is difficult to say when the thought of such a project first arose. In 1984 my wife and I embarked on what we saw as the culturally required capstone Grand Tour of Europe. On this first adventure, I photographed a few carved sarcophagi, not really understanding what they were, to serve in a picture collection I use in my teaching. We found traveling so exciting, and yes, “broadening”, that I decided to go and go again and to focus future travels on wherever the Romans had their empire. Then, about 1992, while researching what I would see on a drive which would circle through the Mediterranean coast of Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, up the Italian boot and back to France, I realized that the sculpting on sarcophagi provided access into the aesthetic sensibilities and religious beliefs of the peoples of the empire. Nevertheless, I suppose it was in 1995 during a Christmas in Paris, when I chose to spend afternoons in the Louvre Museum taking “tourist snapshots” of sarcophagi that I should mark out as the official beginning of my sarcophagus search.
On the model of “outsider art”, I should call my research “outsider scholarship”. I am not trained in archeology, nor a specialist in the art of the Roman Empire. Yet the love of travel, and my interest in popular culture, especially how abstract, academic philosophy is transformed by the man/woman on the street, kept me on the track of sarcophagi with their billboard presentation of the deceased’s cultic adherence or social perspective. I learned that Classical archeologist Carl Robert published the first attempt at a corpus of Roman sarcophagi, the Antike Sarkophagreliefs (1880-1919). I learned that in the early twentieth century, Classical Art historian Gerhardt Rodenwalt also was researching sarcophagi, and he was followed by Franz Cumont, Andre Grabar, Edmond-Frederic Le Blant, J.M.C. Toynbee, and Joseph Wilpert. I soon added a list of contemporary scholars that focused on a kind of sarcophagus such as “life sarcophagi”, “mythological sarcophagi, or “bust sarcophagi”. There is Princeton University’s Micheal Koortbojian with Myth, Meaning, and Metaphor on Roman Sarcophagi; Jas Elsner’s Rome and Christian Triumph; Nancy and Andrew Ramage’s Roman Art; Diana E.E. Kleiner’s Roman Sculpture; and, Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives. One of the finest books I came across was by Paul Zanker and Bjorn C. Ewald, Living With Myths: The Imagery on Roman Sarcophagi (published in German in 2004, translated in 2012). But in many of these excellent books the discussion of sarcophagi is often limited to a sub-section, or chapter or two, and none had the entire corpus of existing sarcophagi or friezes.
So, for better than twenty-five years, I have tried to discover the present location of sarcophagi. The information offered in Stone Sarcophagi in the Roman Empire has been harvested from academic texts, journal articles, pdf monographs, travel books such as the Blue Guide and Michelin Tourist Guide, museum brochures, newspaper and magazine reviews, and internet academic and tourist sites. Among other things, I learned that there were locations that are repositories for a great number of sarcophagi such as the Vatican Museum or Pisa’s Camposanto. I also concluded that a few museums had a not-to-be-missed sarcophagus such as the Rijksmuseum in Leiden and the Velletri Archeological Museum. Here in this website are my “tourist photos”.
As useful as books and articles are, I wanted to go and see for myself these stone sarcophagi. Of course, I wanted the walk the galleries of the Louvre and the Vatican museums, but I also wanted the experience of trudging into the semi-arid Syrian landscape of Palmyra to see where people found it fit to live and entomb their dead. I wanted to see if the caskets were actually where the books and articles said they were, because I could tell that some of the pictures were quite old, and I wanted to see if I could locate other caskets that hadn’t been recorded. Though I planned my travels around taking my snapshots of sarcophagi, from my sources of information I frequently had no idea what I was going to find. Was it sculpted with Greco-Roman mythology? Was it a billboard for the deceased’s cult? Would it have only figural elements like bowers or Medusa heads? Would it be inscribed? Would the box be completely bare? And finally, I decided to photograph every sarcophagus or frieze (at least three-quarters of either) that existed. I began photographing my travels before digital cameras, and so have approximately seven thousand, 35mm transparencies (slides), about three hundred of which are photos of sarcophagi. If these photos were shot in museums—“No flash! No flash!”—they were taken without supplemental lighting, and so do record the object but not with the best of clarity. With the advent of digital, point-and-shoot cameras, things got easier and photos better, and finally with the advent of CMOS photography, I could shoot under just about any light conditions. So, as I hustled from museum to museum, down the stairs to some dank crypt or catacomb, on a stop-watch tour of a palace or villa, I would snap the best picture I could. I have purposely not photoshopped out any elements, such as museum barriers, a tourist’s arm or leg, a bush or obstructing chair. I wanted reality, because these sarcophagi meant something real to the people who purchased them. This inventory is meant to show (almost) every existing sarcophagus or front frieze panel, and alert scholars to their present location. I hope that researchers themselves will travel to the places where sarcophagi they are interested in are located so they may fully study the “living” original. With the arrival of the public internet in the mid-1990s my searches became easier. I could visit websites of archeological museums and other institutions, searching for anything about sarcophagi. And after the hard copy and cyberspace desk-search, came the Jack Kerouac on the road blundering. Twenty years ago, a road trip meant a bunch of fold-out maps stuffed into your glove box or your car door panel pockets. Along the way, those maps gave way to MapQuest and finally in-dash GPS.
With each trip the collection of photos grew, sometimes by fifty, sometimes by two hundred. There were mythological, warfare, seasons, and daily life sarcophagi; there were many that had bowers, or bowers with bucrania or Medusas; many had a carving of the deceased’s face; hundreds were bare or nearly so. Time for a personality admission. I like to collect things. I did not know that when I was eight and began collecting stamps, but there it was. Along the way, I decorated the shelves in the garden room with a thousand tin toys from different countries and different eras. Above the kitchen cabinets are a hundred tins, cookie tins, coffee, what have you. I guess my collection of sarcophagus photos is my academic stamp collection. As with stamp collecting, though maybe not with baking powder tins, similarities frequently exist, and a jumble of nineteen hundred or more sarcophagi would miss what could be learned. Nevertheless, categorization is far from easy because the same sarcophagus could fit into several possible categories. Should this sarcophagus be categorized as a bower sarcophagus, or rather as a story sarcophagus, or as a marble sarcophagus, or as an Asiatic sarcophagus? Should I follow this prior researcher’s scheme or that one’s? So, with these troubles in mind, and believing that exactitude must at times be swapped out for fuzziness, I use the following system of categorization for photo files on this website.
Four “Photo Files” contain photos of approximately two thousand individual sarcophagi, either complete caskets or front panels, and a fifth Photo File contains support imagery such as necropoleis, lead caskets, ossuaries, and so on. Approximately 3,600 photos are presented here.
- PHOTO FILE 1 (pagan leitmotif) organizes sarcophagi by friezes that display a common activity or symbol.
- PHOTO FILE 2 (pagan stories) organizes sarcophagi by friezes that display non-Christian mythology.
- PHOTO FILE 3 (Christian material) organizes sarcophagi by friezes that display Judeo-Christian material.
- PHOTO FILE 4 (design, device, and motif) organizes sarcophagi by friezes that display various non-Christian architectural-figural devices.
- PHOTO FILE 5 (related material) organizes support material that aids in the understanding of Roman Empire era stone sarcophagi.
My book, Stone Sarcophagi of the Roman Empire, contains several chapters reviewing how I did my research and conducted my travels, along with a list of sites I visited, and supporting information regarding the study of sarcophagi. Nevertheless, most of the book presents “Text File” entries that provide information regarding each photo on this website. In other words, each Photo File image found on this website is reviewed in Stone Sarcophagi of the Roman Empire in a short informational Text File entry. For example, Photo File 2, Proserpina 17 (the website photo), would be in the book located in Chapter Eight, Text File 2, MYTHOS, Proserpina 17. Each Text File is sub-divided by general topic (THEME, etc. written in capital letters), and then by specific subject (character, story, daily life, etc. in lower case), and finally the number of the individual sarcophagus. So, “TF3 CHRISTIAN, two testaments, 6” means “Text File 3 is focused on Christianity, and the subject of a subset of sarcophagi found in Text File 3 is “two testaments” (story-friezes from both the Old and New Testaments), and the “6” (the final number) indicates the sixth sarcophagus in the “two testaments” sub-category. In a Photo File this would be” Photo File 3, two testaments, photo 6”.
As I worked on this project, I began feeling as if I were bringing the dead alive again. As I read the studies by Zanker, Ewald, Brilliant, and Cumont, I too wondered why anyone would want the story of a hunting trip or love affair that turned out badly on his or her sarcophagus. Why would someone select a fruited bower or gorgon head or snake as decoration? Why would someone believe that a picture of a parted curtain or a procession of fantastic sea creatures would signal that the deceased had gone on to another place? Why would anyone believe that after he is dead he is still alive? Or that death was simply a long, deep sleep until she would be awakened as a glorified spirit or with a perfected body? Though not my present purpose, these questions and their graphic expression continues to fascinate me.