Unearthing the History of Tufts’ Own Tomb Wall with A Funerary Scene

by Sofia Zamboli

mentor: Bruce Hitchner, Classical Studies; funding source: Nathan Gantcher Student Summer Scholars Fund


My research project with Summer Scholars was centered around a tomb wall in the Tufts University Art Gallery’s collection. The object is titled “Fresco with a funeral scene” and was made in the 5th-4th centuries BCE and comes from the Greco-Lucanian culture. My research question for this project was to identify and interpret this unpublished fragment of the tomb fresco from the Ancient Greek, Lucanian, and Roman town of Paestum in Southern Italy. Using high resolution images sent to me by the Tufts University Art Gallery, I was able to make detailed observations of the tomb wall in order to better understand Paestan funerary culture.

After doing extensive background research and comparisons, I learned that Southern Italy was colonized by Greece in the 8th century BCE. Many of the previously Greek outposts and temples can be visited today in Italy, including Paestum. In 500 BCE, the Italic tribes in Central Italy were gaining power and decided to take over Paestum, a successful port city not too far away. The Lucanians, one of the Italic tribes from the Apennine mountains, invaded. They did not eject the Greeks; instead the Greeks and Lucanians lived harmoniously together. They intermarried and formed a unique Greco-Lucanian culture. Many elements of this are apparent in the tomb wall that Tufts owns.

Every culture has always had its unique funerary traditions. This was no different in Paestum. Hundreds of painted tombs have been discovered in Paestum, with new discoveries still being made. One might ask why the tomb walls display such different styles. This is because of the presence of diverse painting schools in Paestum. These painting schools were led by artisans who then trained others interested in their trade. Some tomb walls employed a wispy style made with free brush strokes while others were more precise. This was due to differing Italic and Greek stylistic preferences. The Italic style was less rigid than the Greek.

Once the tomb was assembled, it was typical that a procession would take place to the burial site. Once there, funerary events took place. This was especially true for the elite. Bloodshed was seen as a form of honoring the dead. Some common events that took place were sporting events such as boxing, pankration (an extremely violent form of wrestling), and chariot racing. Often music accompanied these events. All of this is depicted on Tufts tomb wall.

There are five figures visible on the Tufts wall. Beginning on the left is an unknown figure. Heavily damaged, it could be a spectator observing the match, but it is hard to tell. On the right of the Unknown Figure is the Judge. He probably serves as a referee, ready to interfere if anything goes wrong. This can be inferred based on his dress and baton. To the right of him is the Aulos Player. This small, pudgy figure plays a double-aulos, a wind instrument made out of bone. He mimics the movement of the boxer in front of him and sets the tone for the scene. He is a figure that represented the Dionysiac cult in Paestum and can often be seen partaking in theatrical spectacles. The two boxers follow with the one on the left wearing a pelt, probably as a differentiating mechanism from the one on the right. Note red splatters of paint, which represent blood. Use of vegetal motifs can be seen throughout the fresco. A mediterranean olive branch is used as a border at the top and small olive trees are used to separate figures. After doing my research, I have come to the conclusion that the tomb wall is either the northern or southern wall. Tombs were oriented towards the east and this wall would have been one of the long sides of the rectangular tomb. While many necropoli exist in Paestum, this tomb comes from either the Arcioni or Andriuolo necropoli. This appears true because the tombs in those necropoli have the most similar iconography and the largest number of boxing scenes. Another subject for exploration is to ask who was buried inside this tomb. While it is hard to know who exactly inhabited this tomb, the person was most surely part of an elite class due to its highly decorative nature. This person could even have been a boxer, given the boxing scenes on the tomb walls, or merely a fan of boxing. Doing research about a tomb wall located so close to campus was an extremely challenging, interesting, and fulfilling project.

4 thoughts on “Unearthing the History of Tufts’ Own Tomb Wall with A Funerary Scene

  • October 23, 2020 at 5:44 pm

    This is such an awesome project! I didn’t realize that Tufts had such an interesting (and, at least partially, unexplored) art collection. Your interpretation of the piece was very interesting. I would be curious to learn more about the history of the piece itself (i.e. its journey from its original site all the way to the Tufts gallery).

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    Congratulations Sofia! You did an awesome job with this project, especially with all the COVID-related adjustments you had to make, like working from pictures and being unable to travel. Your conclusion is super interesting too, especially that you could even draw conclusions about which wall on the tomb the fresco may have come from!

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:14 pm

    I am curious to know more about how the school acquired this object! It’s fascinating how much history, tradition, and story can be unraveled from one item!

  • October 23, 2020 at 11:26 pm

    Does a lot of what we know about the burial/funereal traditions of ancient Italian/Greeks, or even all ancient civilizations, come from these sorts of burial walls that have been preserved? I imagine there aren’t too many that are in good condition; is the value of these walls more insight into personal traditions or civilization-wide beliefs?

Leave a Reply