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Archaeologists Preserve Pigments from the Past

Date: May 10, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Courtesy of Studia Troica
Archive: Research News

Looters robbing an ancient graveyard in Can, Turkey, in 1998 dropped a heavy marble coffin in their attempt to flee, abandoning the stolen item in a forest. The sarcophagus deemed unworthy of further trouble by the thieves turns out to be a treasure to archaeologists - it's the most colorful sarcophagus surviving from Classical Greek antiquity, according to Professor C. Brian Rose, a University of Cincinnati archaeologist who served on the international team working to save it.

C. Brian Rose and sarcophagus

Rose, who supervises Greek and Roman excavations at the Troy archaeological site not far from where the sarcophagus was found, is co-author of an article reporting on the discovery, which is published in the May 2002 volume of Studia Troica, a publication of the University of Cincinnati and the University of Tuebingen (Germany). Lead investigators on the team are Nurten Sevinc, Reyhan Korpe and Musa Tombul from the Canakkale Museum in northwestern Turkey. Police had notified the Canakkale Museum of the abandoned marble coffin, which had been broken into pieces, and the museum took steps to retrieve and preserve it all.

When many people think of ancient Greek artwork, they mistakenly think of pristine white sculpture, like the Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon. That's because most of the paint that originally covered Greek sculpture has not withstood the ravages of time, said Rose, who serves as head of the UC classics department. The Elgin Marbles are only about 50 years older than the painted Can sarcophagus, which dates to about 400-375 B.C.

Hunt scene

"A lot of sarcophagi found by earlier archaeologists were heavily cleaned so that the resulting object was devoid of color," said Rose. "There was a romantic notion common at the time that everything from ancient Greece was a classical white, but that's because archaeologists rarely took steps to conserve the paint that once existed."

The Can sarcophagus serves as an important reminder that the "snowy white buildings of Classical Athens would have been brightly painted," said Rose.

Battle scene

More paint is preserved on the Can sarcophagus than on the famous "Alexander Sarcophagus" in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, said Rose. That makes it the most extensive painted surface surviving on a sarcophagus of the classical Greek period. On the front of the marble coffin, one scene depicts a man, probably the deceased occupant of the stone coffin, spearing a boar in the eye during a stag and boar hunt on horseback. On one short side of the coffin, the same man in the heat of battle spears a fallen Greek opponent in the eye.

In the stag hunt scene, a figure of a second rider was finished, painted, and later chiseled off probably in an act of "damnatio," or condemnation.

"Because the Canakkale museum dealt with the discovery so judiciously and carefully, we actually have the painting and iconography well preserved," Rose said. "The surface was originally caked with earth. One's first instinct is to take a stick and remove it all, but this would have destroyed the paint. The museum instead patiently waited for months for conservators to arrive."

In the meantime, they sent a photo to Rose, while he was in the midst of teaching at UC. "I didn't really believe what I was seeing when I first saw all the paint. It just takes one's breath away. And some of the iconography, especially the speared Greek, was unprecedented."


He was even more impressed when he saw the sarcophagus in person when he arrived at Troy in June 1999 for the summer season. Upon viewing it, he invited a conservator working on the Troy project, Donna Strahan, to set up a team to preserve the piece and work out a schedule for doing so before the season ended. Strahan is the chief conservator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Because paint tends to stick to the encrusted dirt on top of it rather than the original surface beneath it, the conservators could not use solvents to clean it. Instead they used scalpels, sticks and blower bulbs.

Although the pigment on the sarcophagus was preserved, the looters did cause damage by using a bulldozer to break into the tomb. The resulting surface gouges in the marble and destruction to the left side of the sarcophagus could not be repaired. Despite that, the artifact remains historically significant because of the large amount of pigment it still carries.

Rose also arranged for the remains of the sarcophagus' male occupant to be analyzed by a Tuebingen colleague, Dr. Henrike Kiesewetter. The analysis of the human remains showed that the grave belonged to a young adult male who died in his 20s and was probably a warrior and hunter, as depicted in the scenes. He had multiple healed fractures on his left upper arm and left thigh,and other injuries that indicate he probably fell from his horse during battle. The man lived several years after the injuries. Other signs in the

skeletal remains indicate he continued to remain active, despite a shortening of the left leg and arthritic changes that undoubtedly caused him pain. The cause of his death is not known.

John Wallrodt of UC's classics department also contributed to the team's report in Studia Troica. He found that the best way to get images of the marble coffin's pigments was to hold a scanner up to it, rather than photograph it.

For the last 15 years, Rose has worked in partnership with Professor Manfred Korfmann, director of the Troy project at the University of Tuebingen (Germany). Together they have overseen the publication of 12 volumes detailing the results of their excavations. Since 1994, they have been collaborating with the Canakkale Museum on the publication of a series of Archaic and Classical Greek tombs in the surrounding area.

The funding for the sarcophagus research was supplied by the Taft Semple Fund of the UC classics department, the George B. Storer Foundation, Daimler-Chrysler and the Canakkale Museum.

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