PAINTED FUNERAL CHAMBER IN TOMIS (CONSTANTA)
Description of the archaeological site
and of the painted walls
Dr. Constantin Chera
During the last years archaeological excavations have brought to light in Dobruja, the territory between the Danube and the Black Sea a number of funeral hypogeum type monuments with fresco decorations. Constanta – the ancient Tomis - has always been a fertile ground for archaeologists. The former brilliance of the Pontus Euxinus metropolis is illustrated by quite representative discoveries of this kind. The town development works carried out in the area of a well-known Roman necropolis, were paralleled by archaeological investigations during which over 100 graves dating from the Roman period could be studied.
In the area covered by the necropolis – including both cremation and inhumation graves of the 2nd-4th cent. A.D. – a monument of an entirely exceptional value was found on February 25, 1988 – a funeral chamber with dromos (access corridor).
Before describing the burial vault, we shall briefly review other representative finds, suggesting the importance and the wealth of the necropolis researched on the Romanian coast. Worth mentioning is the limestone sarcophagus with several symbols on one of the sides: a comb, two strigils, a patera, a mirror, a case and a chair, all of them carefully carved in good-quality limestone. On the same side, on a “tabula ansata”, there is a Greek inscription, revealing the name of the person who laid it and of the woman buried there. The monument was dated to the end of the 2nd cent. A.D. The inscription also points to the Romanisation process in full swing at that time. Considering that in Tomis other funerary stone constructions requiring a great effort and a large amount of limestone have been found, Tomis people might have had great material possibilities to erect durable sepulchral places. Besides this, the copious funerary inventories, especially those from the Roman age, come to confirm the prosperous economic situation of the West-Pontic metropolis during this period, but also in the Roman-Byzantine one.
The particular value of the funeral chamber (2.80x3.30x2.05 m) is given by the artistic achievement of the inside. On the plaster covering the building material entirely, one can see a series of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and phytomorphic, as well as geometric representations, painted in the a seco technique. The whole monument is painted, but the artist pursued a specific arrangement (vault, arches and walls). On all the walls there are simple rectangular frames. A continuous belt with ova marks the transition to the vault. On the southern wall, over the entrance into the tomb, one can see a scene with four doves drinking water from a cup, against a plant background, the painting having been achieved in a naturalistic manner,, in bright colours. Two scenes with a rich zoomorphic and phytomorphic decoration adorn the western wall. The scenes, painted in the same manner, render four partridges, two of which are drinking water from the same type of cup and the other two are pecking nearby, while a rabbit is eating grapes from an overthrown basket. Noteworthy are the care and the technique used by the ancient painter in order to manage rendering the accents of light and the respective reflexes and shades.
On the northern side of the chamber, in a generous arch, one can see a funerary feast, attended by seven men arranged in different positions: five are lying on a cline (the specific Roman bed), one is standing to a side of the round table and is probably the host, another one, the servant, on the opposite side. The two standing characters hold ritual vessels in their hands. The attempt to individualize them is enhanced by the typically Roman clothing. In the background there are stylised silhouettes of trees, projecting the banquet into an open-air environment. The whole scene is placed against a bright background, shapes are well delimited by strong contours.
The eastern wall, quite well preserved, as is the whole ensemble, shows two peacocks face-to-face, pecking from a basket full of pomegranates. Several plants and trees suggest vegetation.
The vault of the whole edifice evinces a continuous phytomorphic decoration. The arabesque of the creeping stalks delimits areas within which there are other stylised plants.
The most frequent colours are red and black, as well as yellow, blue, green and white. The funerary inventory of the five people buried last consists of personal items: a philacterium, several polyhedral faceted beads, two bronze bracelets of wound wire, a spindle-shaped unguentarium, two bronze earrings and an amphora. The inventory provides important chronological references for dating the complex to the 4th cent. A.D. The chamber was built and then repeatedly used, probably by a family, in the post-Constantine period, up to the beginning of the 5th cent. A.D.
The painting of the tomb can easily be interpreted as a rendering of the paradise. The image with the doves and the one with the partridges drinking from kantharos-type cups can also be related to the symbols of the nether world, symbolizing souls thirsting after divine knowledge. The funerary feast scene probably proves the Christian religion related beliefs of the owners. Some objects suggest the mystery religions frequent in Tomis during the 3rd and 4th cent. A.D.
Similar scenes and symbols and interpreted in the same terms are to be seen on the mosaic of the Gala Placida mausoleum in Ravenna, in San Pietro e Marcellino catacombs in Rome, on a silver plate from Cesenna, but also in other similar tombs found in Scythia Minor.
Typologically, such burial monuments are related to hypogeum graves built already in the Hellenistic period and then used for a long time in the Roman and Roman-Byzantine epochs.
As most important objectives for the on site laboratory we consider: an accurate, precise analysis of pigments and applying techniques, as well as a detailed, computer assisted registration of the entire painting on a modern support, using the most recent techniques, so as to create an exact visual chart of the monument. As final preservation works have not yet begun, these results could be used to study and elaborate the most favourable environmental elements to be applied for a protecting building around it.