One of the most fascinating of the many discoveries to come from the island of Crete is the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus. This beautiful ancient artifact was discovered in 1903 in a chamber tomb in Hagia Triada and is known for its unique features. The sarcophagus has a variety of intricate details on it that archaeologists have worked to interpret for several decades now. By interpreting these details, researchers hope to learn more about this region of Crete during the 14th century BC, when the sarcophagus was built.
The Hagia Triada Sarcophagus: A One-of-a-Kind Minoan Discovery
The Hagia Triada Sarcophagus was first discovered in the early 20th century during an excavation of a local chamber tomb. Experts determined that this sarcophagus is likely from the 14th century BC, sometime between 1370 and 1320 BC. Researchers came to this conclusion based on historical evidence that Crete and Egypt were in significant contact at the end of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, which likely contributed to the intricate details on the sarcophagus. Before Egypt’s influence, Crete’s burial practices looked much different than those depicted on this sarcophagus.
One of the most unique aspects of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus is that it is the only limestone sarcophagus in existence from its time period. No other sarcophagus discovered from the 14th century BC was made of this material. Additionally, it depicts several Minoan funerary ritual scenes that are not present in other burials. These details have led some experts to conclude that the sarcophagus was used to bury an individual of high status in Crete’s society at the time, such as a prince.
The sarcophagus has four sides, each painted with several colors to depict a variety of religious ritual scenes. These paintings use a fresco technique that was typically reserved for walls, floors, and ceilings for the living. Tombs and coffins typically did not receive this type of luxury painting, as it was reserved for enjoyment, rather than to honor the deceased. Painters specializing in fresco would paint murals on wet lime plaster so that the image became one with the wall, or in this case, the body of the sarcophagus.
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All four sides of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus have ornate depictions of Minoan burial practices (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Around the edges of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus are ornamental borders that separate each of the painted scenes. These decorative borders have been compared to those on many ancient Minoan paintings , although the sarcophagus’s borders are much larger. The borders contains detailed pictures, including stripes, flowers, and scrolls. These details reveal the time and effort taken to produce the sarcophagus, which further suggest that it was built for an important person in Crete.
Although the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus was clearly inspired by those in ancient Egypt, one notable difference was the absence of a lid. While some initially speculated that the lid had been stolen or destroyed, analysis of the sarcophagus’s rim suggests that it was never meant to have a lid. It did, however, have drainage holes along the bottom. These could have been used to drain the sarcophagus as the body naturally decomposed, leaving fluids behind.
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The Hagia Triada Sarcophagus: A Glimpse into Minoan Religious Burial Rituals
The details on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus have provided fascinating insight into the burial practices of Crete at this time. One of the ends of the sarcophagus has a scene depicting a chariot holding two goddesses as they are pulled by a griffin, a creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Some believe there are actually two griffins in the picture, although it is unclear. A large bird flies above the two goddesses as they are pulled.
Detail of the goddesses and griffin side of the Hagia Triada sarcophagus (Olaf Tausch / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The other end of the sarcophagus had two images; however, one has decayed over time to the point that it cannot be identified. Some experts believe that it may have been an image identical to the other end, but with two gods instead of goddesses. The second image on this side is similar as well, as it shows two individuals in a chariot pulled by a horse, rather than a griffin.
The other short side of the Hagia Triada sarcophagus depicts two individuals in a horse-drawn chariot (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
The long sides of the sarcophagus are much more detailed than the short sides. Together, the long sides depict multiple stages of a sacred burial ceremony reserved only for important individuals in society. One of these long sides has a scene depicting a sacred animal sacrifice including a bull and two other animals. It is unclear whether they are deer, goats, calves, or some other sacrificial creature or object. A man stands behind the sacrificial scene, playing the aulos, an ancient wind instrument popular throughout Greece.
The damaged side face of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus, featuring a sacrifice scene (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
The rest of this image is interpreted based on remains, as some portions of the painted plaster are missing. Four women to the left of the sacrifice are facing the altar, and the woman in front wears a large feather crown while holding her palms out. To the right of the sacrifice is a rhyton, a ceremonial container into which the blood of the sacrifices is drained. A woman stands to the right of the rhyton, facing away from the sacrifice, holding her hands over a bowl on an altar. This section of the scene has additional elements, including fruit, a double-bitted axe, a blackbird, a tree, and four Horns of Consecration symbols.
Detail of the sacrifice scene on one face of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
On the opposite side of the sarcophagus is the final long image. Like the previous side, it has clear left, center, and right portions. Three individuals are on the left side facing the left, each with different tasks. The first individual, a woman, empties the blood from the sacrifice into a cauldron. The woman behind her holds two more vases, while the man behind her plays the lyre. This image is fascinating, as this is the earliest depiction of a lyre in ancient Greece in existence.
Three men stand in the center of the scene carrying animal models and a boat. The man in the right section of the scene has a white and gold cloak but no limbs, suggesting he is the deceased. It appears he is standing outside of his tomb as he receives gifts from the three men in the middle of the scene. The powerful symbolism in these scenes has shed significant light on the religious burial practices and beliefs of ancient Greeks in Crete in the 14th century BC, particularly for individuals of societal importance.
Detail of the most well-preserved frescoes on the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus. Experts believe the individual on the right represents the deceased (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Visit This Masterpiece for Yourself
Today, the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus is on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete. This museum contains several famous Greek collections and is known for having the world’s largest collection of Minoan art. As archaeologists uncover more about ancient Greece, this discovery will certainly play a role in how ancient Crete is studied. If you ever find yourself in Crete, be sure to check out this fascinating discovery for yourself.
Top image: One of the long sides of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus, showing Minoan burial practices Source: Deyan Vasilev / CC BY SA 3.0
By Lex Leigh