Ancient Greek Burial Coffins and Tombs


Numerous excavations and the close scrutiny which modern scholars have given to Grecian graves have made it possible to state with considerable accuracy the materials used for coffins, and the various styles of coffins, tombs and monuments used in ancient Greece.

The earlier coffins were usually made of baked clay, but writing show that, in the case of those Athenians who fell in battle, and whose bodies were not found, chests of cypress-wood were buried as memorials. Stone coffins, also, were probably used among the Greeks.

The coffins of baked clay were crudely fashioned, as might be expected from such coarse material. Sometimes, however, these pottery coffins were very highly decorated. They were painted in brilliant colors, with representations of lily-leaves and palms, the flowering acanthus and the lotus, and with wreaths and arabesques and intricate tracery.

At a later period, the coffin became more complicated and durable. One interesting example is the coffin of a child, unearthed at Athens in the beginning of the 19th century. It has an elliptical form, and looks like a movable bath-tub. Many utensils were found in this coffin, packed away with the skeleton.


Many ancient Greek tombs were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries, allowing a look at the construction and the varieties. For all practical purposes, there were four kinds of tombs, differing from each other in general form. They were known as (a) the stelae or shafts, (b) the kiones or columns, (c) the trapezae or square-cut tombs, and (d) the naidia [heroia] or temple-like structures. There were also tombs which were merely heaps of earth. These mounds were often found to be the most lavish of burial sites, since it was possible to display a large amount of riches in the mound.

The stelae were slabs of stone, standing upright in the ground. They were often made of marble and the shape was frequently that of a little chapel.

The second species of tomb, the Kion or column was very shapely, having a double base and an Ionic fluting at the top.

The third division of the tombs is the so-called trapezae. It was a tomb of this type that was used to mark the resting-place of the orator Isocrates and his immediate relatives.

The heroum or fourth division of the tombs, had many of the features of the Greek temple. The heroum differed from many small temples only in that its opening faced toward the west, while the entrance to the temple looked in the opposite direction.

A favorite scene carved on to Greek tombs was an idealistic representation of the dying scene. The occupation of the deceased was also popular, such as was cut in relief on the tomb of a knight who fell in battle showed a mounted horseman; or that of an athlete is seen his figure, with his dog.

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