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Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki


'Ellada' or 'Hellas', the name of a woman who was probably of Athenian origin, lived, died and was buried in Thessaloniki. Time went by and when Langadas street was being opened in 1929, the sargophagus of Attic origin, which had 'housed her remains' for 1,600 years, was found. Inside her impressive marble sarcophagus depicting Amazons in battle, a gold signet ring was found with the carved bust of Athena on its bezel and the name of its owner engraved round it in the 'dedicatory' dative case (ΕΛΛΑΔΙ).

Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki
Gold ring with carved bust of Athena on its bezel and the name of its owner, Hellas,
engraved round it [Credit: AWMT]
The massive, heavy sarcophagus was moved to the old Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and then, 33 years later in 1962, to today’s Archaeological Museum. The handful of grave goods were also quickly gathered and recorded, only to be locked away in its storerooms. Some 300 marble sarcophagi recovered during the various excavations of the ancient cemeteries of Thessaloniki were likewise shut away in the museum's storerooms.

The only exception was a couch-shaped sarcophagus discovered unplundered in 1837 near the Kalamaria Gate wherein were found the bones of a couple, a wooden box with gold jewellery and a magic text inscribed on gold sheet and which had been "acquired" by the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki
The sarcophagus of Attic origin which contained the remains
of a woman called Hellas [Credit: AWMT]
Another 90 years went by until the storerooms were opened again for the Ministry of Culture’s programme for the digitalization of archaeological material and which provided an opportunity for the finds to be restudied.

The findings were presented at the 31st conference on the Archaeological Work carried out over the past year in Macedonia and Thrace (31st AWMT) by P. Adam-Veleni and A.Touloumtzidou in their monograph, Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki: Historical and Social Contexts.

Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki
Oil lamp, find from sarcophagus of Thessaloniki [Credit: AWMT]
According to the researchers of the sarcophagus and its contents “…the name Hellas is encountered five times in Athens, while only twice in Macedonia. Combined with the Attic origin of the sarcophagus and the similarities of its representation with copper engravings from Athens could perhaps suggest that Hellas originated from Athens.”

For the most part, the owners of the sarcophagi (both inscribed or plain) were high ranking Roman citizens of the time (1st to 3rd centuries AD). Grave goods included gold rings, pendants depicting Tyche/Fortuna at the helm with the horn of Amalthea, a pendant shaped like an oil lamp, and jewellery with the figure of the god Asclepius.

Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki
300 marble sarcophagi have been found in excavations in the ancient cemeteries
of Thessaloniki [Credit: AWMT]
Of particular interest is a double gold danake with the head of Alexander the Great on one side and a nude Alexander seated on a rock and Bucephalus on the other. The inscription ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ is on its perimeter.There is also a gold ring with a sardonyx stone depicting the embossed hands of a man and woman joined in a hand shake, and inscribed ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ.

‟In general," say the researcher, "the right hand handshake in the Roman world symbolizes mutual faith in the closing of an agreement or contract. Rings with similar depictions often accompanied by the inscription ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ, were however wedding rings given by the future husband to his wife to be worn on the middle figure of the left hand, since the vein starting from that finger was believed to end up in the heart.”

Gold grave goods in sarcophagi of Thessaloniki
Gold danake from a sarcophagus of Thessaloniki [Credit: AWMT]
At the same time, “the small number of gold coins in the unplundered sarcophagi do not suggest the poverty of their owners but very likely is related to the bequeathal of property to the relatives, leaving the deceased the luxury of strictly personal objects such as signet rings. In the difficult economic conditions prevailing in Macedonia during the 3rd century AD, under the shadow of raids by the barbarians, Charon’s obol is replaced less often by gold coins and more frequently by the danakes. The latter, especially those that depict Alexander the Great, clearly reflect the myth sought after by the ruling class when recollecting its glorious past”.

Source: Archaiologia Online [March 16, 2018]

TANN

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