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Sarcophagus with Architectural and Apotropaic Imagery

2nd century - 3rd century
55 cm x 173 cm x 41.2 cm (21 5/8 in. x 68 1/8 in. x 16 1/4 in.)

On view


Additional Images
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Additional Image Detail of vegetal decoration on lid
Detail of vegetal decoration on lid
Additional Image Lid
Additional Image Proper left side
Proper left side
Additional Image Proper left, raking view from above
Proper left, raking view from above
Additional Image Proper right side
Proper right side
Additional Image Proper right, raking view from above
Proper right, raking view from above
Additional Image Raking view from above
Raking view from above
Additional Image Three-quarter view
Three-quarter view

Although lead sarcophagi are found throughout the Roman Empire after the first century, this type occurs in abundance only in eastern Mediterranean provinces, especially in the area now occupied by Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. The Dumbarton Oaks example is typical of these lead coffins in design and detail: columns divide the long sides into panels containing images of sphinxes, clusters of laurel, ivy leaves, Medusa masks, dolphins, and kraters (vases for mixing wine and water). Rope borders with scrolling leaves frame these panels, motifs often repeated on the lid along with rosettes. One end of the coffin displays a six-rayed star of rope with double rosettes at the ends and center; the other end has a temple façade with kantharoi (drinking vessels) and scrolls between columns, and ivy leaves along its pediment.

Within the cultures around the Mediterranean Sea before and during the Roman Empire and for centuries beyond, many diverse images constituted a rich repertory of apotropaic symbols, that is, images that served to keep away evil spirits. Such amuletic symbols—for example, the Medusa mask, the ivy leaf, and the rope—were even used to protect the deceased from the evil effects of bad-intentioned wishes and spirits. The belief in such spirits is attested by the very efforts taken to avoid their influence.

Lead itself was considered an effective means of conveying curses and, conversely, warding off evil spirits. A long tradition existed in the ancient world of “curse tablets” written on lead, in which the writer hoped to gain power over another person or a situation, to condemn individuals or spirits to failure. Sarcophagi were no doubt fabricated of lead in the belief that the material would enhance the efficacy of the protective images, as it would ensure the success of the curse tablets.

- S. Zwirn

A. Müfid, "Die Bleisarkophage im Antikenmuseum zu Istanbul," Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Ergänzungsheft 16 (1932): 337-446.

M. H. Chéhab, "Sarcophages en plomb du Musée National Libanais," Syria 15 (1934): 337-50.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 12, no. 13.

G. M. A. Richter, Catalogue of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Cambridge, 1956), 47-48, no. 32, pl. 20.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 40, no. 145.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 28, pl. p. 29.

Related bibliography: see Guidebook Description, background references.

Acquisition History
Said to have been found near Tyr, in Mahalib, Syria.

Collection of father Joseph Naayem, New York.

Sent by Father Joseph Naayem on consignment to Joseph Brummer, December 30th, 1937.

Purchased through Joseph Brummer (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., January 4th, 1941;

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.

Colonnades | Columns | Dolphins | Leaf-Like|Leaves | Masks | Medusa|Gorgon Medusa | Six-Rayed | Sphinxes | Temples | Vine Trellis