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Roman sarcophagus with the myth of Medea, circa 140-150 AD, from Rome, exhibited in the Antikensammlung Berlin (Berlin) Sarcofago col mito di medea, da roma, vicinanze di porta san lorenzo, 140-150 dc ca. 02.JPG
Roman sarcophagus with the myth of Medea, circa 140-150 AD, from Rome, exhibited in the Antikensammlung Berlin (Berlin)
Roman sarcophagus with Apollo, Minerva and the Muses, circa 200 AD, from Via Appia, exhibited in the Antikensammlung Berlin Sarcofago con apollo, minerva e le muse, dalla via appia, 200 dc ca. 01.JPG
Roman sarcophagus with Apollo, Minerva and the Muses, circa 200 AD, from Via Appia, exhibited in the Antikensammlung Berlin
The Gothic sarcophagi of Don Alvar Rodrigo de Cabrera, count of Urgell and his wife Cecilia of Foix, circa 1300-1350, made of limestone, traces of paint, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) Double Tomb of Don Alvar Rodrigo de Cabrera, Count of Urgell and His Wife Cecilia of Foix MET cdi48-140-1-3-4.jpg
The Gothic sarcophagi of Don Àlvar Rodrigo de Cabrera, count of Urgell and his wife Cecília of Foix, circa 1300-1350, made of limestone, traces of paint, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Grave of Catharina Mansdotter, the Queen of Sweden, in Turku Cathedral in Turku, Finland Karin Mansdottir's grave.jpg
Grave of Catharina Månsdotter, the Queen of Sweden, in Turku Cathedral in Turku, Finland

A sarcophagus (plural sarcophagi or sarcophaguses) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and usually displayed above ground, though it may also be buried. The word sarcophagus comes from the Greek σάρξ sarx meaning "flesh", and φαγεῖν phagein meaning "to eat"; hence sarcophagus means "flesh-eating", from the phrase lithos sarkophagos (λίθος σαρκοφάγος), "flesh-eating stone". The word also came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was thought to rapidly facilitate the decomposition of the flesh of corpses contained within it due to the chemical properties of the limestone itself. [1] [2]



Sarcophagi were most often designed to remain above ground.[ citation needed ] The earliest stone sarcophagi were used by Egyptian pharaohs of the 3rd dynasty, which reigned from about 2686 to 2613 B.C.

The Hagia Triada sarcophagus is a stone sarcophagus elaborately painted in fresco; one style of later Ancient Greek sarcophagus in painted pottery is seen in Klazomenian sarcophagi, produced around the Ionian Greek city of Klazomenai, where most examples were found, between 550 BC (Late Archaic) and 470 BC. They are made of coarse clay in shades of brown to pink. Added to the basin-like main sarcophagus is a broad, rectangular frame, often covered with a white slip and then painted. The huge Lycian Tomb of Payava, now in the British Museum, is a royal tomb monument of about 360 BC designed for an open-air placing, a grand example of a common Lycian style.

Relief on a Roman sarcophagus, which represents the triumph of Dionysos, circa 260-270 AD, marble, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons 3rd century CE.jpg
Relief on a Roman sarcophagus, which represents the triumph of Dionysos, circa 260–270 AD, marble, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

Ancient Roman sarcophagi—sometimes metal or plaster as well as limestone—were popular from about the reign of Trajan, [3] and often elaborately carved, until the early Christian burial preference for interment underground, often in a limestone sepulchre, led to their falling out of favor. [2] However, there are many important Early Christian sarcophagi from the 3rd to 4th centuries. Most Roman examples were designed to be placed against a wall and are decorated on three sides only. Sarcophagi continued to be used in Christian Europe for important figures, especially rulers and leading church figures, and by the High Middle Ages often had a recumbent tomb effigy lying on the lid. More plain sarcophagi were placed in crypts. The most famous examples include the Habsburg Imperial Crypt in Vienna, Austria. The term tends to be less often used to describe Medieval, Renaissance, and later examples.

In the early modern period, lack of space tended to make sarcophagi impractical in churches, but chest tombs or false sarcophagi, empty and usually bottomless cases placed over an underground burial, became popular in outside locations such as cemeteries and churchyards, especially in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, where memorials were mostly not highly decorated and the extra cost of a false sarcophagus over a headstone acted as an indication of social status.[ citation needed ]

United States

Warner Tomb in Laurel Hill Cemetery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Warner in Laurel Hill.jpg
Warner Tomb in Laurel Hill Cemetery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Sarcophagi, usually "false", made a return to the cemeteries of America during the last quarter of the 19th century, at which time, according to a New York company which built sarcophagi, "it was decidedly the most prevalent of all memorials in our cemeteries". [4] They continued to be popular into the 1950s, at which time the popularity of flat memorials (making for easier grounds maintenance) made them obsolete. Nonetheless, a 1952 catalog from the memorial industry still included eight pages of them, broken down into Georgian and Classical detail, a Gothic and Renaissance adaptation, and a Modern variant. [5] The image shows sarcophagi from the late 19th century located in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The one in the back, the Warner Monument created by Alexander Milne Calder (1879), features the spirit or soul of the deceased being released.


In the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam, it is common for families to inter their members in sarcophagi near their homes, thus allowing ready access for visits as a part of the indigenous tradition of ancestor worship.

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, waruga are a traditional form of sarcophagus.[ citation needed ]


Nearly 140 years after British archaeologist Alexander Rea unearthed a sarcophagus from the hillocks of Pallavaram in Tamil Nadu, an identical artifact dating back by more than 2,000 years has been discovered in the same locality. [6]


Phoenician and Paleochristian sarcophagi have been found in the Iberian Peninsula. [7] [8]

See also

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Funerary art Art associated with a repository for the remains of the dead

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs, tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

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Rhodiapolis City in ancient Lycia

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Ancient Roman sarcophagi

In the burial practices of ancient Rome and Roman funerary art, marble and limestone sarcophagi elaborately carved in relief were characteristic of elite inhumation burials from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi have survived, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000. Although mythological scenes have been quite widely studied, sarcophagus relief has been called the "richest single source of Roman iconography," and may also depict the deceased's occupation or life course, military scenes, and other subject matter. The same workshops produced sarcophagi with Jewish or Christian imagery. Early Christian sarcophagi produced from the late 3rd century onwards, represent the earliest form of large Christian sculpture, and are important for the study of Early Christian art.

Tomb of Payava Lycian sarcophagus

The Tomb of Payava is a Lycian tall rectangular free-standing barrel-vaulted stone sarcophagus, and one of the most famous tombs of Xanthos. It was built in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, for Payava, who was probably the ruler of Xanthos, Lycia at the time, in around 360 BC. The tomb was discovered in 1838 and brought to England in 1844 by the explorer Sir Charles Fellows. He described it as a 'Gothic-formed Horse Tomb'. According to Melanie Michailidis, though bearing a "Greek appearance", the Tomb of Payava, the Harpy Tomb and the Nereid Monument were built according to the main Zoroastrian criteria "by being composed of thick stone, raised on plinths off the ground, and having single windowless chambers".

Harpy Tomb Tomb in Turkey

The Harpy Tomb is a marble chamber from a pillar tomb that stands in the abandoned city of Xanthos, capital of ancient Lycia, a region of southwestern Anatolia in what is now Turkey. Built in the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and dating to approximately 480–470 BC, the chamber topped a tall pillar and was decorated with marble panels carved in bas-relief. The tomb was built for an Iranian prince or governor of Xanthus, perhaps Kybernis.

Cyaneae Human settlement

Cyaneae, also spelled Kyaneai or Cyanae, was a town of ancient Lycia, or perhaps three towns known collectively by the name. Leake observes that in some copies of Pliny it is written Cyane; in Hierocles and the Notitiae Episcopatuum it is Cyaneae.

Roman funerary art Historical Roman art genre

Roman funerary art changed throughout the course of the Roman Republic and the Empire and comprised many different forms. There were two main burial practices used by the Romans throughout history, one being cremation, another inhumation. The vessels used for these practices include sarcophagi, ash chests, urns, and altars. In addition to these, mausoleums, stelae, and other monuments were also used to commemorate the dead. The method by which Romans were memorialized was determined by social class, religion, and other factors. While monuments to the dead were constructed within Roman cities, the remains themselves were interred outside the cities.

Konya Archaeological Museum

Konya Archaeological Museum is a state archaeological museum in Konya, Turkey. Established in 1901, it had been relocated twice before moving to its present location in 1962. One of the most prominent displays in the museum is of sarcophagi and other antiquities from the ancient city of Çatalhöyük. Other exhibits relate to the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and the Byzantine periods; artifacts consist of ceramic ware, stone and bronze wares, ornaments and inscriptions. A prominent display is of a marble sarcophagus of the 3rd century BC with elaborate sculpting events depicting the life of Hercules. In the outer open yard of the museum, there are a number of small sculptures, sarcophagi, column heads, and epigraphy.

Tombs at Xanthos Tomb complex in Turkey

Xanthos, also called Xanthus, was a chief city state of the Lycians, an indigenous people of southwestern Anatolia. Many of the tombs at Xanthos are pillar tombs, formed of a stone burial chamber on top of a large stone pillar. The body would be placed in the top of the stone structure, elevating it above the landscape. The tombs are for men who ruled in a Lycian dynasty from the mid-6th century to the mid-4th century BCE and help to show the continuity of their power in the region. Not only do the tombs serve as a form of monumentalization to preserve the memory of the rulers, but they also reveal the adoption of Greek style of decoration.

Lycian sarcophagus of Sidon

The Lycian sarcophagus of Sidon is a sarcophagus discovered in the Ayaa necropolis, in Sidon, Lebanon. It is made of Parian marble, and resembles the shapes of ogival Lycian tombs, hence its name. It is now located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. It is dated to circa 430-420 BC. This sarcophagus, as well as others in the Sidon necropolis, belonged to a succession of kings who ruled in the area of Phoenicia between the mid-5th century BC to the end of the 4th century BC.

Royal necropolis of Byblos Phoenician necropolis in Lebanon

The royal necropolis of Byblos is a group of nine Bronze Age underground shaft and chamber tombs housing the sarcophagi of several kings of the city. Byblos is a coastal city in Lebanon, and one of the oldest continuously populated cities in the world. The city established major trade links with Egypt during the Bronze Age, resulting in a heavy Egyptian influence on local culture and funerary practices. The location of ancient Byblos was lost to history, but was rediscovered in the late 19th century by the French biblical scholar and orientalist Ernest Renan. The remains of the ancient city sat on top of a hill in the immediate vicinity of the modern city of Jbeil. Exploratory trenches and minor digs were undertaken by the French mandate authorities, during which reliefs inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs were excavated. The discovery stirred the interest of western scholars, leading to systematic surveys of the site.


  1. WordInfo etymology. As a noun, the Greek term was further adopted to mean "coffin" and was carried over into Latin, where it was used in the phrase lapis sarcophagus, "flesh-eating stone", referring to those same properties of limestone.
  2. 1 2 "Columbia University Department of Archaeology". Archived from the original on 2012-12-18. Retrieved 2008-01-01.
  3. Presbrey - Leland, ‘’Commemoration: The Book of Presbrey - Leland Memorials’’, Presbrey-Leland Incorporated, 1952 p. 79
  4. Veit, Richard Francis (2008). New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape . Rutgers University Press/Rivergate Books. p.  169. ISBN   978-0813542362.
  5. Presbrey - Leland, ‘’Commemoration: The Book of Presbrey - Leland Memorials’’, Presbrey-Leland Incorporated, 1952 pp. 79–85
  6. Kabirdoss, Yogesh (28 June 2018). "ASI finds 2,300-year-old sarcophagus in Tamil Nadu". Times of India . Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  7. "Sarcófagos antropomorfos fenicios de Cádiz". Cultura en Andalucía (in Spanish). Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  8. "Sarcófago paleocristiano". España es Cultura (in Spanish). Sociedad Mercantil Estatal para la Gestión de la Innovación y las Tecnologías Turísticas, S.A.M.P. (SEGITTUR). Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte . Retrieved 29 September 2018.