Museum Treasures: Roman Sarcophagus
The precise origins of this stone sarcophagus or coffin (currently held in our museum stores) are unknown. It is likely to have been produced in mainland Europe, perhaps in Rome itself, but had found its way into the collections now held by The Potteries Museum by the late 19th century.
The sarcophagus is decorated along one side and at both ends, indicating that it was originally positioned against a wall or in an alcove. It features the central figure of a man flanked by leaves, lion’s heads, cornucopia (horns of plenty) and mythical creatures known as griffins. The sarcophagus is relatively small, suggesting that it could be that of a child or woman – the male figure carved on the side may not, therefore, represent the deceased.
The word sarcophagus literally means ‘flesh eater’ in Greek. The name derives from a belief in the ancient world that it was the stone itself that decomposed or ‘devoured’ the flesh of the body placed within the container. For much of their early history, Romans typically cremated their dead, but by the AD 2nd century burial or interment in sarcophagi was practiced throughout the Empire. This one is known as a ‘lenos’ type, crafted to resemble the trough used to press grapes for wine. Such sarcophagi were popular from the late AD 2nd century.
The imagery on sarcophagi is often symbolic – in this instance the cornucopia may relate to Pluto, the ruler of the underworld and the provider of wealth. Alternatively they may denote Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and merry-making. Both would have offered the deceased the hope of an afterlife filled with pleasure.