Although the approach roads to Assos were lined with tombs and these were mentioned by earlier travellers, most traces have now disappeared. Luckily, however, recent excavations outside the main gate (and well down the steep hill crowned by the acropolis) have taken out a lot of landslip material, revealing at a depth of about two metres below the present ground level the original paving slabs and, with them, a great cluster of sarcophagi (some set on plinths as at Hierapolis) around the gate. Only a small area has yet been cleared, and it is to be hoped that further excavation will bring to light some vessels which have not been plundered of their valuables. In spite of such robbing (which took place in Antiquity, it seems) the condition of the Assos complex is excellent, with vessels from the Hellenistic and Roman periods forming a fine ensemble with the gate itself. I know of no other classical site which offers such an extensive necropolis complex and city gate, for those with a post-population have usually had the vessels robbed and the walls and gate destroyed.

How long did such cemeteries last? Of course, newer tombs certainly replaced oldfashioned ones, but the main point to bear in mind is that plots were owned by families, who might bury their dead in the same vessels for generations. This was both a pagan and a Christian practice. For example, on one of the streets of tombs leading to Ephesus, Wood (1877, 121) mentions opening two Christian sarcophagi. One contained four sets of remains, the other no fewer than fourteen - eight laid in one direction, six in the other.

Sarcophagi and their continuing popularity

Sarcophagi are important artefacts for the understanding of antique art. Friezes on buildings, freestanding statuary and especially painting and wall decoration have suffered badly with the centuries. Sarcophagi, being smaller and more numerous, have often survived well, and tell us a lot about styles, tastes and religious and mythological beliefs. The roughest, blocklike rather than refined, have survived in the open air; the very best, on the other hand, were works of art and very expensive, and were therefore carefully sheltered from the weather, and probably reused through generations. The traveller to Turkey (or, indeed, Italy or North Africa) will quickly become aware not only of the popularity of stone and marble sarcophagi for prestigious burial, but also of the fact that such vessels were clearly made according to various specific types. Even the most sumptuous seem to have been made on a production line, and we may imagine that pattern books, from which clients might choose befitting vessels, must have been just as common for sarcophagi as they surely were for mosaics.

Making sarcophagi

Turkey retains a large number of sarcophagi, because the best material for the construction of sarcophagi was finely grained marble of which several varieties were available locally. This was admirably suited to sculpting in bas-relief, or even in full three-dimensional figures (attached to their support by the smallest possible stem of material). Turkey had (and has) plentiful marble supplies, and so a lot of Turkish marble found its way to Italy from the 1st century BC onwards, for veneer, column or other architectural members, or as sarcophagi. It is not difficult to tell that vessels were ordered direct from the quarry to be finished on site, because many sites still have unfinished sarcophagi. The marble or limestone block would be hollowed out inside at the quarry so as to reduce weight and facilitate porterage. Then, to lose yet more weight, the main lines of the design on the outer faces would be blocked out: nascent garland sarcophagi, or those with unfinished heads, are the easiest to spot. But why are there so many unfinished vessels in existence, so many of them clearly used for burial - in esse rather than just in posse? We do not know; but lack of local craftsmen, a change in personal fortune, or even an actual preference for unfinished designs are all possibilities. We might surmise that the actual sculptural work involved in finishing a vessel could perhaps double its price. So many unfinished vessels gives a useful insight into how they were laid out and decorated (SB1.5).

Decorating sarcophagi

As well as a multitude of unfinished specimens, Turkey has in her museums many sumptuously decorated sarcophagi, with the several large and splendid vessels in Konya being outstanding. The type with putti supporting garlands, and also featuring busts of the deceased, is a common one throughout the Roman Empire. Such vessels are so deeply undercut that, with the decorated base and the architectural motifs often incorporated, the figures often seem like actors on a stage. Indeed, in this example, the legs and arms and head of the putti are detached - an indication not only of quality and refinement, but also of why such intricate works had to be finished on site and not before. Little wonder that these gleaming tours-de-force attracted Christian attention; for not only did sarcophagus construction continue unabated into the post-pagan period, but pagan vessels (sometimes suitably christianised) continued in pupularity right into the Italian Renaissance period and even beyond.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey