Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique Oecumene – conference report

by Stefan Ardeleanu and Jon C. Cubas Díaz (first published on

Although funerary contexts represent a major proportion of the entire material evidence from Late Antiquity, until today no comparative pan-Mediterranean panorama exists on this central topic of Late Antique everyday life. Therefore an international conference organized by researchers at Heidelberg University’s Collaborative Research Centre 933 “Material Text Cultures united 30 specialists for Late Antique funerary habits. The first focus was given to questions on how funerary inscriptions were incorporated in mortuary practices, how they were perceived and in which ways they were treated in Late Antique societies. The conference’s second pillar stressed the many regional differences of burial practices that emerged across the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and which can be understood notably better today based on an amazing amount of multidisciplinary approaches.

After the introduction by the organizers, Session 1 “North Africa” began with CORISANDE FENWICK’s (London) and MOHEDDINE CHAOUALI’s (Tunis) paper on a recent project that works on a Late Antique cemetery with an adjacent cemetery church in Bulla Regia from an explicitly interdisciplinary perspective. The project does not only concentrate on the well-preserved epitaphs (4th-6th century), but also on a DNA, osteological and archaeobotanical analysis of the tombs. STEFAN ARDELEANU (Heidelberg) provided an updated overview on regional diversities of Late Antique epitaphs from North Africa. This region has an extremely rich record of ‘ritualized epitaphs’ on tomb types such as mensae and cupae, which attest a complex system of commemorative rites intensively practiced until the late 6th century. In some well-preserved churches with burials, the orientation and the layout of mosaic epitaphs can help to reconstruct liturgies in such funerary spaces. DAVID MATTINGLY (Leicester) and YOUSSEF BOKBOT (Rabat) examined Late Antique burial mounds in the Northern Sahara with a spectacular set of wall paintings at Torf Jorba and Foum Larjam. The paintings appear in chapels attached to the tombs that are considered to be used for ritual incubation in close proximity to the buried ancestors. Their iconography shows some Mediterranean trends, such as orantes, but even more striking are several Saharan topics, such as family groups with particular clothing styles, horses, camels and breeding scenes.

The international conference “Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique oecumene – Contextualizing Epigraphic and Archeological Evidence of Mortuary Practices” brought together 30 specialists for Late Antique funerary habits from 11 countries and various disciplines. Photography: Solvejg Langer

Session 2 “Egypt” started with a paper by INA EICHNER (Vienna) on a necropolis excavation at the Paulos-monastery in Thebes. Eichner convincingly pointed out the social hierarchies of monastic burial patterns which also included burials for females and children, probably donated to monasteries. Of course, the climatic conditions in Egypt reveal much of otherwise unknown funerary habits (well-preserved lunges, epitaphs on wooden crosses). LAURA WILLER’s (Heidelberg) paper was dedicated to protection of the body and of tombs from Late Antique Egypt. She showed the variability of functions that amulets and personal grave goods (in some cases tokens inscribed with apotropaic phrases) could take in funerary practices. In most cases, their presence was more important than their mere visibility.

In Session 3 “Near East”, LIDEWIJDE DE JONG (Groningen) focused on the Al Bass-cemetery in Tyre and its development from Roman to Late Antique times. In Late Antiquity, burials dramatically increased, as did the re-use of tombs. Older enclosures were enlarged, prompting the extension of burial activity towards the street. Late epitaphs present an interesting variety of professions, perhaps pointing to nucleated burial spots for associations. DAVIDE BIANCHI (Vienna) explored burials in churches in Arabia and Palaestina. Out of a variety of well-documented tombs, two main burial groups were determined: monastic and diocesan ones. Single burials appear mostly at privileged spots of churches, while ossuaries with multiple burials seem to have been reserved for ordinary people, i. a. for women and children. Apparently, they are to be seen as donations for monasteries and as a symbol of care of the poor (perhaps in hospices). PIERRE-LOUIS GATIER (Lyon) discussed two classes of epitaphs from Late Antique Arabia: epitaphs with the name of the deceased on stelae/sarcophagi and property inscriptions on lintels of mausoleums, giving the names of the tomb’s founder or its occupants. Some formulae might hint at Christian burials from the late 4th century onwards, but the overall picture is very inconsistent. There are entire regions and cities with no more than a handful of Christian inscriptions, but other sites with more than 800 stelae with crosses.

Session 4 “Asia Minor” was opened by EVELIEN ROELS (Heidelberg) who discussed an epigraphic habit very peculiar to Southwestern Asia Minor: a group of text-loaded tombs for elite members. Although her latest examples stem from the early 3rd century, this interesting habit shows what kinds of rich epigraphic habits got lost during Late Antiquity. On the other hand, the intra-urban tombs are clear forerunners of a well-known Late Antique practice. Some of these tombs were also discussed by MARTIN STESKAL (Vienna) who presented the development of burial activity at Ephesos. He showed how burials were constantly “on the move” in this town. Early Byzantine tombs seem to have been concentrated around churches but were then moved to the harbor and other places around Ephesos’ equally “moving cityscape”. There are spectacular communal monuments, such as the Seven-sleeper’s-coemeterion, and richly-painted early Byzantine tombs for individuals/families.

Evidence from the tombs and their surroundings is a key factor in the understanding of continuity and transformation processes on multiple cultural levels.

JON C. CUBAS DÍAZ (Heidelberg/ Göttingen) took on Rough Cilicia’s Late Antique necropoleis and funerary epigraphic habits. In Korykos, burials were placed at highly visible locations. The many epitaphs mentioning professions allow a unique insight into the city’s economic structures and show clear local patterns for self-depiction there. In some cases, a clustering of certain social groups in the necropoleis can be detected. In contrast to that, tombs in Karakabaklı were not inscribed at all – and positioned off the road. SYLVAIN DESTEPHEN (Paris) closed the session with an overview on Late Antique funerary epigraphic cultures in the most important cities along Asia Minor’s Western and Southern coasts. The general trend of decreasing epitaph numbers throughout the 3rd and 4th century is also obvious in this region. Again, a high regional epigraphic diversity is clearly detectable in the vast numbers of non-funerary Late Antique inscriptions in the records of Aphrodisias and Side, while Late Antique epitaphs make up the majority in Laodicea Combusta or Kyzikos.

JEREMY OTT (Berkeley) introduced Session 5 “Southeastern Europe” with a case study on Late Antique burials in Corinth. The Asklepieion-cemetery revealed an astonishingly rich dataset of grave goods from many non-elite tombs that seem to attest drinking and libation rites. With regard to the forum’s burial clusters, Ott interprets the presence of belts as signs for non-local origins and thus for immigrated groups. JULIA VALEVA (Sofia) took the audience on a tour to Late Antique painted tombs from Thrace and the Northern Provinces of Eastern Illyricum. The wall paintings show iconographic and thematical similarities with the Roman catacombs (biblical scenes, coena funebris). However, the painting styles doubtlessly originate in long regional traditions. In Philippopolis and Brestovik, rooms and installations for ritual dining at and over the tombs were found, making contextual analysis of painting and of archaeological traces of funerary dining possible. Salona’s Late Antique funerary inscriptions were the topic of EMILIO MARIN’s (Zagreb) paper, who focused on epitaphs excavated in their archaeological contexts. A very particular class of epitaphs, known only from the Northern Adria region, consists of funerary inscriptions on tomb covers describing themselves piscinae. Marin suggests an interpretation of the term as equivalent for ‘tomb’.

FULVIA MAINARDIS’ (Trieste) presentation on Eastern Venetia et Histria opened Session 6 “Italy and Rome”. At Aquileia, Concordia, Tergeste, Forum Iulium and Iulium Carnicum, rich evidence for the elsewhere often invisible 4th century funerary contexts exists. Cremation and burial in mausolea next to villae were maintained, whereas also typically Late Antique fashions such as massive re-use of building material for funerary monuments and intra-basilical burials can be detected in the very same centers. WOLF ZÖLLER (Heidelberg) examined Early Medieval papal epitaphs from Rome. He demonstrated that many papal epitaphs in St. Peter’s tended to cluster in the narthex, thus at an important point of the liturgy (in proximity to the secretarium) and also of pilgrim and visitor movement. The topology of papal inscriptions in these two churches can be studied well adhering to detailed reports of visitors throughout the centuries.

In over 25 talks the conference gave a Mediterranean-wide overview on Late Antique funerary landscapes, not only examining global trends, but also local and regional habits. Photography: Christian Grünert

NORBERT ZIMMER-MANN (Rome) discussed questions of tomb ownership in Roman catacombs. His main hypothesis is that Rome’s bishop owned the catacombs and that he was also responsible (and paid!) for the interment of the poor. There are regiones (Marcellino e Pietro) with extremely rare and poor tomb marking, supporting the idea of burials for the poor organized ecclesiastically. Different ownership patterns were at work in the Jewish catacombs (Randanini), where wealthy families marked their kokhim by elaborate marble inscriptions. ANTONIO FELLE (Bari) shed light on the epigraphic diversity within Rome’s catacombs. He illustrated the way in which new mapping techniques of inscriptions can considerably contribute to the understanding of very particular funerary spaces. Felle showed not only that the richest epitaphs clustered around the central martyr’s complex at the Domitilla catacomb, but also recalled the epigrafe povere, for which several examples with very characteristic handwriting patterns exist.

Session 7 “Germaniae” started with ROLAND PRIEN (Heidelberg) presenting Late Antique tombs from the Palatine region and the neighboring areas. After giving a concise historiographic survey on the problems of archaeological research by connecting grave goods to various ethnicities or militaries, Prien directed attention to often neglected small and rural Late Antique cemeteries. In this area, epitaphs are extremely rare, while cremation was still widely practiced. Grave goods show an increasing complexity, in some cases culminating in very rich elite burials with sophisticated weaponry furnishings. JONAS OSNABRÜGGE (Heidelberg) discussed local diversities in the epigraphic and typological record of funerary markers in Late Antique Germania Superior. A few military stelae from Berbetomagus and Augusta Raurica still followed established iconographic and epigraphic norms into the 4th century The first Christian epitaphs show a change of the texts’ supporter to cover plaques of tombs, transporting several decorative elements from the vertical stelae to this new horizontal marker type.

Session 8 “Galliae” was inaugurated by HILTRUD MERTEN’s (Trier) paper on some contextualized examples of epitaphs within the rich Late Antique record of epitaphs in Trier. Building on multidisciplinary excavations in St. Maximin. Merten focused on the most current tomb type – a plastered caisson with an integrated marble epitaph. The caissons were probably used for commemorational rites, while their placement above circulation level must have severely impeded movement during masses celebrated in the church. Accessibility and readability of epitaphs were also central topics in MORGANE UBERTI’s (Madrid) contribution on Late Antique tombs in Aquitania. The cemetery at Neuvicq-Monguyon yielded several epitaphs on sarcophagi still in situ with clear evidence for “moving while reading”. Although not detected archaeologically, a path along which all tombs were oriented can be reconstructed. This orientation seems to have been maintained even into medieval times, when the tombs were apparently reopened and reused for secondary burials.

How were funerary inscriptions incorporated in mortuary practices, how were they perceived and in which ways were they treated in Late Antique societies? The conference provided ample opportunity for discussion on these and other questions. Photography: Christian Grünert

JORGE LÓPEZ QUIROGA’s (Madrid) paper was the first contribution of Session 9 “Hispaniae”. Thanks to decades of systematic and high-leveled excavations on the Iberian Peninsula, he was able to present several “anomalous” inhumation habits, such as burials with traces of violence as well as opposite or intermingled body positioning, perhaps indicating original familial funerary habits. ACHIM ARBEITER (Göttingen) took the audience on an impressive tour on Hispaniae’s Late Antique funerary varieties. He presented divergent local shapes of decorations on sarcophagi and epitaphs before turning to distinct workshops of funerary mosaics and differentiated intra-basilical burial patterns. Some churches with dense burials above circulation level raise the question how common liturgies would have been practiced with high amounts of funerary monuments rather obliterating than supporting communal masses.

The conference was closed by a conclusion given by KATE COOPER (London), who reminded the audience to concentrate also on unexpected evidence which does not necessarily show up in our archaeological record. From this stimulating keynote speech, a final discussion emerged that touched the ubiquitously present question of Christian vs. non-Christian epitaphs/burials. The announced proceedings will in fact be a first overview on Late Antique burial cultures of the entire Mediterranean. Further, with its many papers combining new natural sciences and changing archaeological and epigraphic methods, this conference stresses the high potential of contextual approaches to the analysis of a central aspect of Late Antique life.

The international conference “Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique oecumene – Contextualizing Epigraphic and Archeological Evidence of Mortuary Practices” took place from May 30 to the 1st of June in Heidelberg. It was organized by Stefan Ardeleanu, CRC 933 „Material Text Cultures“ at Heidelberg University, and Jon C. Cubas Díaz, Institute for Christian Archaeology and Byzantine Art History Göttingen and CRC 933 “Material Text Cultures” at Heidelberg University.

Conference Overview (PDF)

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Ute von Figura (2019, 26. August). Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique Oecumene – conference report. Materiale Textkulturen. Abgerufen am 13. Juni 2024, von

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