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date: 02 December 2022



  • Donald Emrys Strong
  •  and Susan E. C. Walker


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age

A sarcophagus is a coffin for inhumation which in ancient times was often richly decorated. In Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece (see minoan and mycenaean civilization) two standard shapes of terracotta coffin—the bath-tub and the chest on four legs with a gable roof—were in use especially from the 14th to the 12th cents. bce, and some, including the famous Haghia Triada sarcophagus, were richly painted. In the late Archaic period sarcophagi of painted clay and rectangular or trapezoidal form were made at or near Clazomenae in western Asia Minor. Sculptured stone sarcophagi appear first in the 5th cent. bce: the finest anthropoid and casket sarcophagi with sculptured reliefs were made by Greek craftsmen for the kings of Sidon from the 5th cent. to about 300 bce; anthropoid sarcophagi are also known from other sites on the Mediterranean and Black (Euxine) Sea coasts. A distinctive type of sarcophagus with ogival roof was made in Lycia. Some Hellenistic wooden sarcophagi with painted decoration have survived in southern Ukraine.

The Etruscans used sculptured sarcophagi of clay and stone from the 6th cent. bce; the two commonest forms are the casket with gabled lid and the type with a reclining effigy of the dead. A few families of republican Rome buried their dead in sarcophagi: that of L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (consul 298 bce) imitates the form of a contemporary altar. The prevailing rite of cremation in Rome gave way to inhumation in the early 2nd cent. ce, and the rich series of Roman sculptured marble sarcophagi begins about the time of Trajan. These were made all over the Roman world; two of the best-known centres were in Athens and Docimium (Phrygia), where large sarcophagi were made with figures set between columns. At Rome, especially in the 3rd cent. ce, roughly cut chests were imported from the Greek island quarries of Thasos and Proconnesus (see propontis) to be decorated to the taste of local clients. In some areas with no local supply of stone decorated lead coffins were made, notably in Syria-Palestine and in Britain, where they were often set inside plain stone chests.

See dead, disposal of; art, funerary, roman.


  • R. M. Cook, Clazomenian Sarcophagi (1981).
  • V. von Graeve, Der Alexander-Sarkophag und seine Werkstatt (1970).
  • P. Demargne, Fouilles de Xanthos, 5.
  • Tombes maisons, tombes rupestres et Sarcophages (1974).
  • G. Koch, Sarkophage der römischen Kaiserzeit (1993).
  • C. Robert and others, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs (1890– ).
  • M. Koortbojian, Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi (1995).
  • J. Huskinson, Roman Children's Sarcophagi (1996).