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Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia


When a large construction project was launched on Gosposvetska Street in downtown Ljubljana in August 2017, Slovenian archaeologists in this ancient city naturally anticipated some interesting discoveries. But what they didn’t expect to find was an unusual glimpse into an early Christian community, and the important—and as yet unknown—woman its members chose to spend their afterlives close to.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Ljubljana cemetery excavation [Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]


The capital of this small central European country was established as the Roman settlement of Emona some 2,000 years ago, populated by thousands of colonists driven out of northern Italy by land shortages, and joined by veterans of the wars that helped to establish the Empire. From previous excavations in the area, the archaeologists knew that part of a Roman cemetery likely lay under Gosposvetska Street, and that more ancient graves would be uncovered.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Sarcophagus burial in 4th century AD cemetery in Ljubljana [Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]
The excavations ultimately revealed a late-Roman cemetery complex containing more than 350 burials—ranging from simple graves and sarcophagi to family mausoleums—centered around the burial chapel of what appears to be a very important woman, according to Slovenian archaeologist Andrej Gaspari. The local Christian community flourished after the last major state persecution under Emperor Diocletian in the early 300s, and ended only with the destruction of Emona by the Huns in the fifth century A.D.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Jewellery found in grave of a young girl buried in expensive limestone sarcophagus
[Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]


The most stunning artifact recovered beneath Gosposvetska Street was a transparent blue glass bowl found next to the woman’s body. The 1,700-year old vessel is decorated on the outside with grapes, and vine leafs and tendrils. A Greek inscription on the inside of the bowl instructs the owner to “Drink to live forever, for many years!”

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Exceptional blue glass bowl found in sarcophagus of woman [Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]
This exquisite drinking bowl could have been used in both regular daily life as well as for burial ceremonies, and an analysis of its chemical composition points to its manufacture somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region. The grapevine decorations have their role in the Christian Eucharist and Communion, but have their origins in motifs associated with Dionysus, the pagan god of wine and ecstasy.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Jet bracelets found in central woman's burial [Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]


Archaeologists are also interested in how the woman’s tomb developed over time. It seems that possibly within a decade of her burial, her square chapel was demolished and a larger (30-by-40-foot) structure was built to enclose her tomb. Around the new structure and inside it, Emona’s Christian community began to practice a burial practice known as ad sanctos, in which the deceased are interred near the tombs of saints and other remains considered holy.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Gold and glass bead necklace found adorning the body of a woman buried in a simple grave in the cemetery
[Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]
And who was the woman honored in the chapel? If archaeologists are correct that she was the first person buried in the cemetery under Gosposvetska Street and that her grave played the central role in the necropolis, she was likely a very distinguished person in Roman Emona.

Grave of important woman found in early Christian cemetery in Slovenia
Coin from 4th c. AD, featuring the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, found in excavation
[Credit: Arne Hodalič and Katja Bidovec]
Her social status, religious affiliation, and place of birth, however, are only a matter of speculation for now. Planned analysis of her physical remains should hopefully answer some of those questions in the future. In the meantime, most of the valuable finds from Gosposvetska Street are now display in the treasury of the City Museum of Ljubljana.

Author: Marjan Žiberna | Source: National Geographic [January 28, 2019]

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