A newly discovered 2,200-year-old tomb in the ancient necropolis of Cumae features figurative paintings in superb condition. The sheer quality and colorfulness of the pictures, not to mention their subject matter, indicates that the people buried within had belonged to the elite.
One picture shows a naked servant bearing a jug of wine and a vase. Archaeologists think the other walls show guests at a banquet, not least because other elements of the festive meal can also be distinguished.
About 400 tombs have been excavated in the Cumae necropolis so far - 80 of them funeral monuments. "For this chronological phase, most of the tombs were painted white and red," Priscilla Munzi, CNRS researcher at the Jean Bérard Center, told Haaretz. "A tomb excavated a few years ago had the funeral boxes painted in imitation marble (onyx). Only the tomb excavated in June was painted with figurative scenes."
That in and of itself suggests the deceased residents in the decorated tomb belonged to high society.
This decorated tomb had three beds and presumably once contained three bodies, Munzi says, qualifying that they have to complete the anthropological study before they can determine that finally. Asked when the paintings were likely to have been made - with the first burial inside, or possibly later, she explains, "The paintings belong to the construction phase of the tomb. It is a single constructive intervention."
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The necropolis was in use from the archaic age to the early medieval period, says Munzi, who has been excavating there with Prof. Jean-Pierre Brun of the Collège de France since 2001.
As for the unclad servant, the ancient Romans regarded nudity as a natural state of being. Furthermore, art that we would call erotic these days was not rare in the domiciles of the upper class. Nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, where not only bodies but art was preserved by the ash from the Vesuvius eruption ash in 79, brimmed with erotic imagery. Not a little of it hailed the phallus, such as the extraordinarily fine sculpture found in Pompeii of the goat-god Pan copulating with a lady-goat lying on her back. Depicting a bare servant with a vase is relatively tame compared with that piece, which inspired the British Museum to install a “parental guidance” warning when exhibiting it.
The sibyl and the god
As for Cumae, ancient Greek sources say it was the first colony town established by the ancient Greeks on mainland Italy, some time in the eighth century B.C.E. Modern scholars believe the ancients weren’t actually the first to settle in that hospitable seaside spot: they built on a preceding Iron Age settlement of indigenous people.
Another powerful city founded by the ancient Greeks in Italy was Poseidonia, where archaeologists found monumental construction and precious ceramics imported from Greece, as well as unusual tombs.
Thanks to its fertile environment, Cumae would become a prosperous city controlling its area of the coast, and growing to about twice the size of Pompeii. (Mount Vesuvius lies smack between Cumae and Pompeii; while Pompeii and Herculaneum were simultaneously destroyed and preserved by volcanic ash emissions, Cumae was 50 kilometers from the volcano; at most it might have suffered a dusting, Munzi says.)
This seaside hamlet, 25 kilometers or 15 miles east of the modern city of Naples on the Mediterranean coast, was also the stomping ground of the famed Cumaean Sibyl, a prophetic priestess of the Apollo cult.
While sibyl oracles were common as dirt in the ancient world, the Cumaean version reached prominence in the ancient circles of Rome possibly less because of clarity or accuracy in prophecy, and more because of proximity.
No less an ancient authority than Virgil described a visit by the Trojan royal Aeneas to the “dread Sibyl” of Cumae. Aeneas was son of Aphrodite and ancestor to Rome founders Romulus and Remus, so he had responsibilities. While the other young men left the ship to frolic, including by despoiling the woods,
“loyal Aeneas seeks the heights, where Apollo sits enthroned, and a vast cavern hard by, hidden haunt of the dread Sibyl, into whom the Delian seer breathes a mighty mind and soul, revealing the future.” Aeneid 6.
Once Aeneas had sacrificed the requisite animals and appeased the greedy god, the Augustan-era poet Ovid decribes what happened next:
“He entered the cave of the Sibyl, and asked to go down to Avernus, to find his father’s ghost. Then the Sibyl after remaining, for a long time, with her eyes gazing at the earth, lifted them, at last, filled with the frenzy of the god, and cried: ‘You ask great things, man of great achievements, whose hand has been tested by the sword, whose faith has been tested by the fire. But have no fear, Trojan, you will have what you desire, and, with me as your guide, you will know the halls of Elysium, and earth’s strangest realm, and the likeness of your dear father. To virtue, no way is barred.”
There is no record of what ensued, but we can say that the newly discovered tomb in Cumae had housed humans, and was a complex one with a series of vaulted burial chambers constructed out of volcanic tuff.
A history of grave robbing
The entrance to the tomb was sealed in the usual fashion – with a large stone. Tombs in ancient Israel were typically family affairs and had the same feature: a stone blocking their entrance, which could be rolled aside to place new bodies within, then rolled back into place to prevent predators and/or robbers from helping themselves to the remains.
It didn’t always work. Ancient tombs are not rarely found with nothing inside, not even skeletons, because of grave robbers – an occupation that seems to go back as many millennia as burial itself.
Cumae’s dead suffered that same ignominious fate: the tombs were raided in the 19th century, says the team.
Yet even so, the archaeologists were able to recover enough human remains and traces of funerary offerings (alabaster perfume vases, bone and bronze elements of a wooden box, game dice and game pieces, and more) to date the tomb to the second century B.C.E., they explain. Especially given that the robbers disturbed the tomb, it is fortuitous that the murals were so exquisitely preserved.
To preserve the fresco, archaeologists removed it, along with fragments found on the ground, in order to reassemble the décor like a puzzle.
Perhaps Cumae was a little behind the times, or the dead had a taste for retro. The archaeologists say the subject matter of the art was untimely – about a century or two out of date.
"This is the first tomb with figured paintings of the second century B.C.E. that we found in Cumae," Munzi told Haaretz. "The other tombs with paintings found in Cuma date back to the end of the fourth century - early third century B.C.E."
The scene was also "unfashionable" for its time, she says: "The theme of the banquet (preparation ceremony) is widespread in the oldest tombs. But this is the first tomb of 2nd century BC in Campania that documents this motif."
Cumae was known for more than its prosperity and frightening sibyls. Come the Christian era, the city’s gorgeous temple to the god of gods Zeus was converted into a basilica. The city would go on to survive until the 13th century, when soldiers on behalf of the king of Sicily would tear down its walls and destroy it once and for all.
The digs were carried out with financial support from the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the French School of Rome and the Collège de France’s foundation. The research was done in collaboration with the Campi Flegrei Archaeological Park, directed by Paolo Giulierini.