Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!

The "Hercules Sarcophagus" is quickly debunked, but 60 years later a fragment resurfaces as genuine in a prominent academic journal


Hercules shown opening the Strait of Gibraltar on the side of a fake ancient sarcophagus.

On March 9, 1850, workers quarrying stone for a harbor project at Tarragona, Spain, found a marble sarcophagus with strange carvings and inscriptions. The diggers had broken the sarcophagus before they noticed the depictions on it, but local antiquarian Don Buenaventura Hernández y Sanahuja collected and studied the surviving pieces.

On one large panel Hercules stands astride the Strait of Gibraltar, a zodiac arching over his head. To his right, a procession of colonists and their animals head from Egypt (identifiable by a crocodile and palms) to Spain. These images seemed to match well with legends about Hercules.

In his tenth labor, stealing the cattle of the three-headed monster Geryon, Hercules split into two a mountain at the junction of Africa and Europe, opening the Strait of Gibraltar and creating the Pillars of Hercules. Ancient authors preserve other traditions that meld the Greco-Roman hero with the Phoenician god Melqart as "Egyptian hercules." These say Hercules led an army into Spain and died there (Sallust) and that his bones were buried at Gades, ancient Cadiz (Pomponius Mela).

The sarcophagus imagery implied a cultural link to Hercules and the land of the pharaohs, something that would please 19th-century Spanish patriots. Hernández Sanahuja published the carvings as "Ibero-Egyptian" in his Resumen Historico-Critico de la Cuidad de Tarragona Desde su Fundacion Hasta la Epoca Romana (1855).


Hernández Sanahuja claimed the Hyksos moved to Spain after being driven out of Egypt and built Tarragona's early walls. The Egyptians pursued them, however, and joined with the natives against the Hyksos. The tomb had been "constructed to receive the remains of the leader who had brought the Egyptians colonists to Spain, or perhaps one of his descendants" (quoted in Padró i Parcerisa 1980).

"This theory, which is in agreement with Spanish traditions, with the theognony and myths of the Egyptians, with the ancient writers and geographers, and finally with the general histories of all the peoples of the Mediterranean shores, is to be found explicitly confirmed in these sarcophagus fragments, in the teeth of modern critics, who in envy of our glories and the priority of Iberian civilization in Europe have sought by sophistry to annul a fact which cannot be doubted, as I have proved" (quoted in Padró i Parcerisa 1980).

??????????Patriotic fervor
Scholars outside Spain quickly rejected them as an obvious hoax (E. Hubner, Die Antike Bildwerke in Madrid, 1862). The cartoon-like nature of these carvings is best captured by a fragment that shows an elephant headed-god wearing a kilt and holding a mummy in its trunk while standing on a boat with an owl. Oddly, a ushabti or servant figurine published by Hernández Sanahuja as found in the Egyptian tomb appears to be authentic, "though brought from heaven knows where" (Padró i Parcerisa 1980).

Was Hernández Sanahuja responsible for the sarcophagus with its crudely executed carvings and inscriptions? And possibly put a real ushabti with it? Maybe not. His Resumen Historico-Critico de la Cuidad de Tarragona is now rare because he destroyed every copy he could get (Moffitt 1994).


Nonetheless, almost 60 years afterward, a piece of the sarcophagus enjoyed a second life. In 1916, A.L. Frothingham published an article in the American Journal of Archaeology using an end piece of the sarcophagus as evidence of Phoenician iconography. The Phoenician Tablet of Tarragona, as he called the fragment, shows two figures, one male and one female, standing between two palm trees with snake-like figures on either side of them "The Phoenician Tablet of Tarragona." Frothingham interpreted the two figures as Baal and Tanit, two deities in the Phoenician pantheon and the sources of other life, asserting that the spiraling mass between the two figures was essentially an embryo fed with fire and water from them. And although it is clear that he had some understanding of the origin of the piece (thus: "of Tarragona"), it would seem that he did not know its exact origin, since he describes the fragment as part of a circular artifact and not part of the bogus sarcophagus. In 1921, Pierre Paris published a scathing commentary in Revue archéologique, denouncing the sarcophagus as nothing but "une enfantine parodie" of Egyptian art.

The Sarcophagus of Tarragona is impressive, but not because it was technologically complex or because it was believed to be genuine for any length of time. It shows how nationalism can look to the past--or even fake the past--in search of powerful symbols, here attempting to link Spain with the glories of ancient Egypt. In this regard, the sarcophagus may have a close parallel in the recent "finds" at the Roman city of Iruna-Veleia in northern Spain, from a depiction of Christ's crucifixion, to Nefertiti's name, to the earliest written messages in the Basque language (see "The Veleia Affair" ). But it also shows that hoaxes can have a second life when a fragment is separated from the "original" and later scholars are taken in--until someone recognizes it and condemns it once more.