Society, Ritual, and Death at a Port in Roman Greece

Posted on May 8th, 2007 by

For many summers now, Dr. Joseph Rife, a professor at Macalester College, has been conducting excavations and research in the Greek port town of Kenchreai near Corinth. His colleagues have been from all over the globe: France, British Columbia, and the United States. Their focus has been on a collection of fifty-nine tombs which contain over 800 people’s remains.

From the 1st century to the 3rd century CE, the Koutsongila Ridge overlooking the port of Kenchreai was a popular area for burial, with 29 “cyst” graves that were simple, narrow, rectangular pits dug into the earth, and 30 chamber tombs that contained niches for burial urns and loculi (indentations in the earth where multiple corpses could be placed in the supine position). These tombs were constructed in a highly conspicuous area, easily visible from the sea. The nearest graves were found only thirty or fourty meters from homes.

Dr. Rife has been focusing on two main areas of the culture of the ancients who lived and buried their dead in this area. His goals are to shed more light on the socio-economic diversity and class structure of this port town and to discover their cultural identity. Using team members skilled in mapping, photography, geology, and biology, Dr. Rife is beginning to reconstruct the social structure of the port town through his team’s discoveries.

The most impressive of Dr. Rife’s discoveries has been the chamber tombs. Each tomb was constructed by one person for his or her family and decendants. There is evidence that offerings to these tombs continued until the late 3rd century, which indicates that four to eight generations were buried and remembered in these tombs. The chamber interiors were covered with plaster and painted in yellow, red, and green hues with some hightlighting done with expensive imported Egyptian blue paint. The wall paintings are distinctly Roman and are similar to the Pompeian 4th sytle.

Besides the tombs being uniform in shape and structure, the offerings left for the dead are similar. Jewelry, sandals, coins, lamps, and various drinkig vessels were found with the remains. The remains of the cyst graves and the chamber tombs indicate that people of both genders and all ages were laid to rest in the cemetery. However, the grandness of the chamber tombs suggest that the local elite constructed these.

Dr. Rife calls the tombs at Kenchreai a “local phenomenon,” with their Western sytles of decoration and their Eastern architectural design. All the tombs were probably constructed around the same time in line formations, indicating meticulous planning by the citizens of the town.

Over the next three summers, Dr. Rife can be found back at the Kenchreai site, where he and his team plan to excavate further south. This time around, Dr. Rife will be surrounded by three times as many people on his team and they hope to excavate remains of houses and a large structure which is perhaps the Temple of Aphrodite that the Greek historian Pausanias mentioned in his writings.

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