A Well-furnished Roman Sarcophagus

Although Roman furniture is well represented in frescoes, mosaics and sculptures few pieces of wooden furniture survive. The pieces we have for study survived in wet environments such as ship wrecks and wells or were carbonized and buried during the eruption of Vesusius in 79 A.D. Most of the carbonized pieces are from Herculaneum and were preserved and sealed in place by meters-deep pyroclastic material. Pompeii was not entombed as deeply as Herculaneum and contemporary records tell us that some residents (and looters) were able to go back and retrieve household valuables. From Pompeii we have a few plaster casts of the impressions left behind by wooden pieces.

Another source of Roman furniture came to light in 1930 in Simpelveld in the Netherlands when a man digging a foundation for a house uncovered a sarcophagus. The outside of the sarcophagus was not decorated, but the inside revealed a furnished villa for the deceased.

The Simpeveld Sarcophagus is in the collection of the Rijiksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, is dated between 175-225 A.D., made of  sandstone and measures 205 cm (about 81 in) in length. It is presumed the sarcophagus was made to hold the (cremated) remains of a wealthy woman.

Our reclining resident.

The woman is resting on a three-sided paneled couch, or lectus. Each end is angled outwards to facilitate a cushion and aid in the comfort of the recliner. A lectus (with variations to the number of sides) might be used for sleeping or dining, or both. As you can see they had turned legs.

At the end of the lectus is a roofed structure that some researchers think may be a depiction of the deceased’s villa. It may be something else entirely. The last piece is some type of open cupboard.

On the other side of the sarcophagus there is a sturdy stand with three large containers, an ornate round table, another stand with crockery and jugs (one with its neck turned outwards), a cupboard with doors, an open space and a cupboard with five niches.

The round table is a mensa delphica with three legs ornamented with lion heads and claw feet. In the photo above, right, is a similar table from Herculaneum.

The cupboard has frame and panel doors. Here also we have a similar example from Herculaneum with hingles made of a series of wood cylinders, similar to a piano hingle. And a drawer!

At the end, closest to our resting resident, are a curved-back chair and a chest with a keyhole. The chair may be a cathedra, which was known as a woman’s chair. Based on other sculptural evidence a cathedra may have been made of wickerwork.

Every home had a chest for storage of valuables. They were often bound with iron straps and were locked. Above is a chest found in Herculaneum.

I did not find any full photos of the opposite (short) end of the sarcophagus. It looks as though there are two other open pieces.

Without all the missing contents we don’t know which of the pieces would have been the lararium, or household shrine. If I had to guess my choice would be the open cupboard with the the five niches to accomodate a lamp, incense, salt and dishes for offerings.

One thing to consider is each piece of furniture may not be to scale. For instance, if the cupboard with the frame and panel doors were of a larger scale it might be an armarium, for the storage of arms, and would typically be found near the entrance of a home. The armarium is the ancestor of the modern armoire.

The Simpelveld Sarcophagus is unique. Usually the decorative work on the outside of a sarcophagus is what interests us. There are often depictions of heroes from mythology, a bacchanal in progress, or scenes from the life of the deceased. For the Simpelveld Sarcophagus we have to look inside the thing and what do we find? A cosy Roman home packed with household goods and a reclining resident.

Suzanne Ellison

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12 Responses to A Well-furnished Roman Sarcophagus

  1. Chris…are there any well documented studies of these wood piece and there construction? Is that on your editor’s desk for LOP? That would be awesome!

    • saucyindexer says:

      Jay, there is a book by Stephan Mols published in 1999 that looks at form, function and construction techniques. I have not read it (it is pricey) and do not know if it has been evaluated by a woodworker.

      • Thank you so much!…I will check it out…

      • bsrlee says:

        You’ll find his books under S. T. A. M. Mols – Wooden Furniture in Herculameum. I picked up a copy several years ago when it was on a special offer(!) for 25 pounds instead of 170 which it still sells for today. Big, heavy book, lots of B&W photos which show some external details. The author laments most pieces are too fragile to put through an x-ray machine and obviously he didn’t have the budget to get one of the nice new portable units.

        You really need to read it in association with ‘Roman Woodworking’ by Roger B. Ulrich, they do really compliment each other. You could also have a look at ‘Roman Furniture’ by A. T. Croom which has a more British and Northern European emphasis and a fair number of reconstructed pieces. Skip ‘Pompeian Households’ by Penelope Allison, its mainly glass and metal, no woodwork or furniture.

        None of these books appear to be by woodworkers, but if you can get to read them (or score a .pdf scan, which do show up from time to time) they are well worth the reading time and should inspire you. Ulrich has more technical construction examples but can’t tell a box joint from a dovetail, and the Romans used a weird semi-dovetail when making small boxes, one side is sloped and the other is at right angles with very small, equal sized pins & tails but they used ‘normal’ dovetails in large scale framing such as the revetments along the Thames in London.

        Another thing that may puzzle you is that the elaborately turned spindle legs on beds and similar furniture was covered in bronze sheet spun to the same shape – I’m guessing that they were made of multiple short units with the sheet spun into place then the legs were assembled around an rod which survives in some examples where they used iron.

        • bsrlee says:

          Another thing from the above books – the Roman ‘piano hinges’ were made with interlocking white bone cylinders alternating with ‘ebony’ (carbonised wood, I don’t know of a species analysis) cylinders, which were attached to the furniture with pins going alternately into the door and carcass. In most places they find the bone cylinders but at Herculaneum they found the hinges still in place.

          If you want a project, there is a surviving stool with a inlaid veneer star pattern in the seat. So far they haven’t found any veneer inlaid tables which are mentioned as excessive luxuries by some ancient authors. Otherwise, take a careful look at the furniture in some of the frescoes, it was painted and LOUD such as a bright yellow and lime green armarium.

          • saucyindexer says:

            Thanks for all the detail! Now I’m going to have to track down Mols book (at a reasonable price).

  2. Eric R says:

    Thank you Suzanne.
    Your findings and subsequent postings are always very interesting.
    LAP is very lucky to have you onboard.

  3. neitsdelf says:

    >The Simpelveld Sarcophagus is unique.

    Sounds like Estruscan practice. The Estruscans *may* have founded the city of Rome and certainly were influential during its entire history. This I learned from “The Mysterious Estruscans” by Prof. Steven L. Tuck (The Great Courses lecture series).

    In their necropolises the Estruscans carved architecture and furnishings out of stone to further a deceased’s “life after death.” In particular he mentions that the Tomb of the Shields and Chairs (c. 520-500 B.C.E.) is important for its furniture–beds, chairs, footstools (all carved from bedrock!).

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