Sepulcrorum Ambitione

Social and religious messages evoked through Roman Tomb Architecture in rural Cilicia Campestris

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Tombs are since the origins of appearance relevant and meaningful symbols for living more than for deceased. Every civilization assumed in different places and periods independently the same priorities in relation to the funerary sphere: the memory-transmission of the deceased in observation of rules concerning religion and tradition.

The case study of a rural area situated in Cilicia Campestris (Kozan-Adana) shows in part some of these activities even outside the big urbanized cities. The analyzed tombs imitate sometimes the architecture of houses to underline the function of an eternal place for the dead, some temple-tombs explain trough architectural features the elevation to the sacred sphere, gardens are created around the tombs to receive visitors, inscriptions are placed where passers-by will definitely see them to transmit important qualities of the owner, and often the choice of an absolutely dominant position to erect funerary buildings transforms the structure into a territorial marker.

Generally, in the XXth century, scholarly research concerning funerary documentation in Asia Minor has primarily focussed on monumental tombs belonging to well-known necropoleis of ancient cities, on sarcophagi decorated with mythological imagery and often only considering the epigraphical remains excluding an analysis of the funerary structures.

Recently a lot of new studies on roman imperial tombs appeared with the goal to repair the gap in funerary documentation, adopting modern archaeological methods, normally supplying exhausting plans of the structures and the analysis of other archaeological materials found there. In spite of all that new researches, it remains still uncommon to gather anywhere information about free-standing tombs of rural areas situated far from bigger cities.

The case-study of a rural area situated in south-eastern Turkey demonstrates the various aspects of funerary contexts outside the common mentioned areas and is derived from the experience of participation in field surveys over three years. The research [1], that started in 2003 in collaboration with the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Istanbul under direction of Prof. Adolf Hoffmann and Prof. Mustafa Sayar of Istanbul Üniversitesi, was organized to investigate the presence of an over dimensioned, extraordinarily good erected Hellenistic fortress discovered just a few years ago on the top of the mount Karasis, near ancient Sis, modern Kozan, and approximately 30 km north of ancient Anazarbos, founded by the emperor Augustus in 19 B.C.

Trento University, with a research team directed by Prof. Mariette de Vos, had to investigate the surrounding landscape to understand the relationship between the fortress and other conserved monuments in proximity of the mountain.

During these field-surveys the most observed territories were principally the slops of the Karasis, a 1050 m high mountain and the shores of the artificial lake just at the foot of it. Between 2003 and 2005, during three summer-expeditions, 25 sites were discovered and mapped through total stations, Geo-positioning System, and the documentation of small finds lying on surface. No excavation has been carried out.

The discovered sites refer to one monumentalized Hellenistic water-source, 14 monumental tombs, 6 probably late antique rock-cut tombs, 5 inhumation cemeteries, 9 late roman settlements with oil presses, 11 Byzantine Churches, one Byzantine monumentalized water-source, and 3 Armenian Churches.

The considerable archaeological stratification of the discovered rural sites makes the analysis sometimes very arduous, so that in this heterogeneous landscape sure information about the roman occupation of the territory can be understood only in contexts belonging to roman monumental tombs with their inscriptions, their architectural feature, their funerary furnishings and their specific position.

These tombs are positioned in beautiful, panoramic places, from where vast areas can be dominated. Consequently they can be considered as territorial and social markers imposing their presence. The location was in fact a crucial and integral aspect of tomb’s message and meaning.

On the other hand free-standing tombs can be considered as property markers and permit us to relate possible near situated settlements, which might have been in the majority of cases the matter of Karasis tombs erection.

Different dimensions of funerary structures can be charily related to social-status, which often conditions the forms of expression. An interesting aspect concerns also the study of the identity of the tomb-owners by analyzing their inscriptions, but sometimes new difficulties emerge because a large number of these epigraphic attestations list only the names or the relationships of the buried. This means that only in case of well-known families it becomes possible to achieve sure information about the social position of the owner.

This kind of problem emerges also from the rare conserved inscriptions belonging to the Karasis- tombs. One of them, discovered at site 11 [2], shows the relevant meaning of funerary epitaphs as markers of identity and how they played a prominent role in the perpetuation of memory, forming an intrinsic element of the decoration of the tomb. Numerous monumental tombs are inscribed with epitaphs which are prominently located at eye level, on the socle at the façade of the tomb, revealing a desire to arrest the attention of the living.

They can also appear on door lintels, where the message generally establishes ownership of the tomb and lays down the conditions for the right of burial within, which is the case of the mentioned inscription.

In Roman Imperial period particularly close connections between tomb architecture and contemporary religious architecture existed. Free-standing columns, elaborate decorated entablatures, and pediments are practically synonymous with temple architecture and numerous tombs adopt these elements also in rural areas.

Architectural details of monumental tombs demonstrate the will of the owner to self representation, evidence that reflects the complex hierarchy of roman society.

The study of funerary evidences has the potential to supply important information about aspects of the inherent society. But the relation between the group of the living people and the "dead one" can’t be considered a direct approach. Following the theories of Post-Processual Archaeology we have always to remember that what can be captured observing funerary remains is only a metaphoric image of reality. Aspects of the social and cultural belonging were reorganized by the community with a new symbolic order and expressed through the filters of ideology (ideas, beliefs and meanings). In fact there is sometimes a transmission of symbols from the living to the dead to express particular ideas. Anyway the multitude of variables that can be found in cemeteries imposes obligatory to investigate also the characteristics of other near archaeological evidences like settlements, temples and so one.

This has been the main purpose of the investigation around the Karasis Mountain, which has demonstrated how this territory was rationally used since ancient times. The studied archaeological landscape has shown that the exploitation of the soil and generally of the area is quite similar also today [3] and therefore sometimes providing interesting parallels between ancient and modern times in Cilicia Campestris.

  1. The following short relation can’t supply specific information about the results of the Karasis-Project, because of forthcoming final publication. Previous results are published in S. Conti, B. Scardigli, M.C. Torchio (a cura di) Geografia e viaggi nell’antichità, Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi (Certosa di Pontignano, 9-10 ottobre 2005) Ancona 2007, pp. 13-39, 67-81 and in IstMitt 57, 2007.

  2. See M. de Vos, M. Andreoli, R. Attoui, S. Polla, IstMitt 57, 2007, p. 452.

  3. M. de Vos, M. Andreoli, R. Attoui, S. Polla in Geografia e viaggi nell’antichità, p. 26.