Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Bedding Down for Eternity Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] The face of a bearded man carved in ivory stares out from the remains of an ivory funerary bed from the Fossa necropolis in central Italy. (Giovanni Lattanzi) [LARGER IMAGE]

Magnificent ivory decorations for a funerary bed--the most important yet found in Italy--have been recovered from a Hellenistic-era (323-first century B.C.) chamber tomb in central Italy's Abruzzo region. The tomb is one of five dating to this period recently found in the Fossa necropolis, which holds burials dating to between the tenth and first centuries B.C. Excavations at Fossa, conducted by Vincenzo D'Ercole of the Archaeological Superintendence of Abruzzo, have laid bare centuries of changing burial practices in this part of the peninsula.

While all five of the Hellenistic tombs yielded remains of decorated wooden funerary beds, the last to be explored, a rectangular building six-and-a-half feet wide, yielded the most ornate example of all. Clearing away four large blocks of the tomb's collapsed roof, D'Ercole found the ivory decorations that once covered the wooden bed, which had long since rotted away.

D'Ercole says he is most excited by the quality and decorative richness of the sculptures affixed to the bed, which include male and female faces fashioned on hippocampi (legendary horse-fish creatures), dolphins, lions, and panthers. A black and white glassy paste used to create eyes lent the bearded faces a lifelike appearance.

Two hundred examples of funerary beds have been excavated in Italy; they were a status symbol among monied families of the region and were reserved for mature women who died after 40. The Fossa necropolis' chamber tombs all housed more than one burial, likely functioning as family mausoleums where the dead were placed in matrilineal order. D'Ercole believes the cemetery belonged to the nearby but as yet unexcavated city of Aveia.

Investigations at the Fossa necropolis, which extends over a little more than an acre, have so far yielded 531 tombs belonging to a pre-Roman people known as the Vestini. The oldest tombs of this group include three- to nine-foot-high circular tumuli measuring between 30 and 60 feet in diameter that held single burials. Women buried in the tumuli wore large, perforated iron disks that were used to fasten clothing. Large leather belts with etched plaques or bronze decorations also kept garments tight around the waist. Male tombs are characterized by iron weapons such as short swords, lances, and clubs, and by circular bronze shields. Judging from their weapons, the Vestini appear to have fought on foot, first throwing their lances, then using daggers and iron clubs for hand-to-hand combat. Male tombs are also marked by lines of standing stones, oriented toward the west and arranged in decreasing order by height. D'Ercole says the stones are a unique discovery; no similar grave markers have ever been found in Italy.

Tumuli vanish from the Fossa necropolis at the beginning of the sixth century, replaced by burials that include the accouterments of a funeral banquet: iron spits for cooking meat, bronze graters for spices, bronze strainers and funnels for filtering drinks. Male tombs reveal a change in the style of fighting; the Vestini now rode horseback and carried long iron knives. Chamber tombs such as the five containing funerary beds appear between the middle of the fourth and the first centuries B.C.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America