Ancient tombs are fascinating finds, especially when they’re intact. They can provide us with clues on how a person died, social status, burial styles, and funerary rites. The last of these is perhaps the most exciting because it can provide a wealth of knowledge about how our ancestors viewed life and death and what may lie beyond. Let’s see what an intact tomb of a woman who died in the Hellenistic period may say about rituals surrounding death in her time.
The Hellenistic Tomb of a Wealthy Woman
Archaeologists discovered the woman’s tomb in 2019 while mining work was taking place in the village of Mavropigi, in the Kozani region of northern Greece. To their surprise and delight, the tomb was found intact 1.5 meters (4.92 ft.) below the surface of a recently demolished home. Archaeologists say the woman died in the late Hellenistic period , near the end of the first century BC.
The Hellenistic era tomb found in Kozani. ( Ephorate of Antiquities )
According to e-ptolemeos.gr, the woman’s grave contained grave goods including five clay pots that may have held perfume, a glass object, and other small artifacts. She was buried wearing some sort of headpiece that consisted of gold and fabric and once held a decorated cloth with golden fibers in her hand. A gold leaf-shaped object had been placed in the deceased’s mouth.
Areti Chondrogianni-Metoki, director of the Kozani Ephorate of Antiquities, says that these are the signs of a burial of a wealthy woman, “We’re dealing with a rich woman or someone who held an important position in the society of the time,” she said .
The woman was buried with grave goods. ( e-ptolemeos.gr)
But the archaeologists are most excited about the discovery of the bronze bed she was laid upon in a north south alignment – this is a unique find according to ethnos. The top of the bedstead is decorated with symbols of the Greek god Apollo and the bed ends were decorated with the heads of mermaids. Chondrogianni-Metoki explained more about the bronze bed’s significance:
“We still do not know if the bronze bed was made for this dead person or was it a burial custom of the era, of the late Hellenistic, early Roman times. Individual parts of the copper bed have been found in other parts of the country, but an entire bed as far as we have been looking for, no.”
A bronze head of a mermaid. ( AMNA)
e-ptolemeos.gr writes that to date other burials containing beds have only included wooden carved beds and this unique discovery can shed light on several aspects: the furnishings people had in the area during the Hellenistic period, their metalworking abilities, social stratification at the time, and their burial customs.
The importance of the bronze bed is emphasized by the painstaking effort that archaeologists devoted to restoring it and creating a miniature reproduction of it in 2020. To complete this task they had to fill in the blanks where the wooden parts of the bed had decomposed in the ground.
Excavating the Hellenistic grave. ( ekathimerini.com)
Death and Funerary Rites in Ancient Greece
There are several aspects of the woman’s burial which we can explore further. The presence of many of the grave goods fits well with other burials from her time. For example, the placing of gold in her mouth may be related to the story of Charon’s obols .
While the archaeological record suggests it’s debatable how popular this funerary practice really was and when it began, classical writers jumped on the story. They popularized the tale of paying the ferryman Charon to carry the spirit of the deceased on a boat ride across the River Styx or Acheron. And the acceptance of this story may have subsequently increased the number of graves following the practice.
Roman skull with an obol (an Antoninus Pius dupondius) in the mouth. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The presence of perfume bottles in the woman’s grave also reflects an important aspect of Greek funerary customs – the anointing of the body with perfumes and later placing those bottles in the grave. Hellenicaworld provides a summary of the three phases of most funerary rituals in the ancient Greek world: the laying out the body, the funeral procession, and the internment of the body or cremated remains.
In the first phase, known as prothesis, relatives, often women, would close the dead person’s eyes and mouth (sometimes with a coin or piece of gold placed inside), wash the body, and anoint it with perfumed oils then dress the deceased in nice clothing, which was usually white. The body was then placed on a bed in the house with its feet pointed towards the door and friends and relatives would come and offer their respects and mourn the loss.
Funeral hymns were sung by the family and sometimes they hired professional mourners. A dish of water was placed at the door so that people visiting the dead could purify themselves from the ‘pollution of death’ on their way out.
This black-figure example shows a “prothesis” scene, the lying-in-state of the deceased on a bed, surrounded by his family members, some of whom tear their hair in mourning. ( Public Domain )
The second part, ekphora, was the funeral procession. In the early morning hours following prothesis, just before dawn, a group of mourners would lead the body to the cemetery. Sometimes the funeral procession could be quite an event , with people singing lamentations, pulling their hair, hitting themselves, and wailing. Musicians played funeral tunes and men walked before the corpse, which was being carried to the final resting place as women walked behind it.
Finally, the body, be it cremated or whole, would be interred. Hellenion states that libations were commonly made as well as offerings of baskets of food and jugs of water and oil, which could be placed alongside the body in the grave. Other objects were also sometimes added to the burial, such as wreaths, which were sometimes made of gold leaf.
Following this three-step funerary procedure, the living relatives and friends would usually bathe themselves to remove the ‘pollution of death’ and hold a feast. Family members would also often return to the gravesite at a later date to make offerings, libations, prayers, and keep the psyche up to date on what has happened since they left their body.
Living a Good Life, Caring for the Dead
According to Dennis Dutton , one of the things we have previously learned about the understanding of death in the Hellenistic period, which is not visible in the Kozani tomb, but is worth mentioning is that the ancient Greeks referred to the spirit as ‘psyche’ and they believed it left the body upon death as a puff of air. But that doesn’t mean the process of dying was quick, instead Dutton writes that it “is only completed when the physical body is destroyed by cremation or decomposition (assumed to take thirty days).”
Dutton also states that:
“Most of the ancient Hellenes did not spend much thought to what happened after death and were more concerned with what was necessary to live a good life, in harmony with others and the world around them. Throughout most of the Hellenic period, the spirits of the dead were not feared for what they could do but for their influence with the chthonic deities and with the spiritual pollution associated with them.”
A respect for the living and the dead is commendable and something that should be remembered today both in our own lives and for archaeologists and others encountering the remains of our ancestors.
Discovering More About the Elite Woman
In the case of the woman found in Kozani, the remains have been taken to the Archaeological Museum of Aiani for further study. According to Greek Reporter, the researchers’ analysis so far suggests that the woman died when she was middle-aged and she may have belonged to a royal family or held an important religious position in her society. The museum laboratory is expected to confirm her age and gender as well as determine her cause of death.
In the meanwhile, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Kozani will be focused on recreating the bed she was buried upon. If they achieve this goal, the life-size reproduction will be exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Aiani.
Updated on May 12, 2022.
Top Image: The Hellenistic tomb of a woman found in the Kozani region of Greece. Source: Kozani Ephorate of Antiquities
By Alicia McDermott