Author: Lungu Virgil

The Hypogeum tomb: funerary complex of exceptional value in Tomis

A unique monument in our country and one of the rarest of this kind in the world, was excavated in February 1988 on th occasion of salvage archaeological excavations in the large area of Tomis necropolises, on the steep slope of Constanţa, near restaurant „Zorile”, at the end of Ştefan cel Mare street. It is a funerary complex, a construction made of brick and stone, with an access way (dromos), measuring 1,80x2,30x2,05 m.
             Thus, the rich Dobrogean area offers another of its large number of history and archaeology treasures, brought to light by research especially in the last decades, as relevant proofs for ancient settling and for the high level civilisation and culture flourishing centuries and millenia ago on the territory between Carpathians, Danube and Black Sea.
The complex inside description
The complex is completely covered inside by a fresco, painted in à seco technique (meaning on dry plaster), in a large scale sequence of anthropomorphous, zoomorphous and fitomorphous images, with the aim to respect specific compartments (arches, walls, vault), by framing the different images.
             Transition from walls to vaults is marked by a continuous egg-motives band. A scene with four pidgeons drinking water from a cup, framed by a vegetal motive, is pained over the entrance to the family tomb, on the southern side, in a natural manner, with lively chromatics. The western wall shows at its turn, a rich zoomorphous and fitomorphous decoration: two partridges (one of them drinking from a cup of the same type and other two picking around) and a rabbit eating grapes from an upturned basket.
             Remakable are the attention and skill by which the ancient painter has managed to show light accents reflections and shaddows.
             On the southern side of the chamber, a ritual meal is depicted in an arch with ample opening, a scene in which seven male persons are presented in specific position: five leaning on a kliné (the specific bed for Roman feasts) and two standing, one to the left of the image, near the round table and the other one on the opposite side. The two standing persons are holding ritual vessels in their hands. The persons’ clothing is the typical Roman one, the author trying to individualize them at the same time. In middle ground one can see the stylized shapes of some trees, suggesting that the banquet is taking place outside, in nature. The entire scene inscribes in a bright background, the shapes being marked by sharp edges and warm tones.
             On the eastern wall, which is very well preserved, like the entire ensemble, two peacocks are depicted, picking from a basket with fruit (pomegranates). Vegetaton is suggested by some plants and trees. Reflexes and light effects are painted with special skill and accuracy, with a painting zest giving them a modern character of remarkable visual force.
             The vault of the entire edifice presents a continuous fitomorphic decoration, the vine arabesques delimiting surfaces in which different stylized plants are inscribed.
             Chromatics is lively, using numerous colors, but red and black are predominant.
The funerary inventory
             Inside the chamber, under the present level, the bodies of four decesed were deposed in wooden coffins (three men and a woman), oriented with heads to West and hands along the body, according to the ritual specific for that epoch. To these a skelleton near the entrance and another, of a child deposed in an amphora, are to be added. Inhumations were made successively, so the chamber was used for a long time.
             The funerary inventory is represented by personal objects belonging to the woman: a philacterium (a little receptacle for keeping relics), a number of pearls, two bracelets of twisted bronze wires.  Unguentariums (little spindle-shaped phials, with a bulb at the middle, containing cosmetic substances) were found inside the coffins. Although the mentioned pieces are not many, they offer important chronological reference points for dating the entire funerary monument; they have analogies in other graveyards. Thus, similar unguentarium pieces were found in the Christian necropolis of Callatis, dating from the second half of the 4th century AD,as well as in another necropolis of Tomis, where similar pieces were found together with a „Zwiebelknoffibel”-type fibula, a piece in fashion during the years 340-380 AD.
             There are analogies for the bracelets at pieces discovered in Dobrogean graveyards, in Histria, Noviodunum, Callatis.
             The glass pearls can also be dated to the 4th century AD and identical pieces were discovered in Callatis necropolis.
Chronology of funerary complex
             The chamber in Tomis can be placed chronologically in the epoch following emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great (307-337) until the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 5th century AD. Building the funeral chamber and successive burials took place during this period. Similar chambers, built of limestone and bricks, have their model in hypogeic type tombs built in Dobrogea even from Hellenistic period; they are present during the Roman period and continue to appear in the Roman-Byzantine period.
             The painting of the entire tomb also pleas for placing the monument in this time period. The vessels (seeming to be of silver) held by the two persons shown standing, as well as the plate with pearled decoration on its edges on the table, find significant analogies with similar pieces in the hoard from Pietroasa; the patera (ritual vessel in shape of a deepened saucer, with a handle) and the trilobed jug in the hands of the person to the right of the image are very similar to the ones held by a person painted in the chamber in Silistra, dated to the period of emperor Teodosius I (379-395 AD). A similar scene is also shown on a silver tray found in Cesenna and dated aproximately the same.
             Thus, the three burial phases are placed between the beginninig of the 4th century (Diocletian) and 379 (edict proclaiming the Christian religion as only offcial religion), a time when apostasic „pushes” were registered. In this context we could think of an eventual dissimulation of the Christian character of the entire painting on the chamber walls in Tomis. The painting inside the tomb contains scenes with deep historical significance and the painting manner belongs to the so-called „nice” or „aristocratic style” from the fifth decade of the 4th century AD, characterized by Greek-Roman ancient naturalism, from which Christianity would assimilate part of the artistic language. This takeover was not mechanical, but according to spiritual and symbolism needs of the new religion.
             The entire painting is situating us not only at the transition between two distinct periods, the Roman and Roman-Byzantine ones, but also at the border beween the sunset of Paganism and the rise of the new monotheistic religion. Significance and connotations for each of them can be recognized in the painting and their paternity can be equally requested by the two religions. But elements are not missing to determine a Christian character attribution to the chamber: the West-East orientation of the skelletons inside and the missing funerary offerings. All objects found (two twisted bronze armrings, a silver phylakterium, a couple of pearls) represent only personal objects used by the deceased in their lifetime.There is no doubt that the West-East oriented buried persons were Christians and in this respect the phylakterium gains a Christian significance, as much more as St. Chrysostomos informs us that the ladies in Constantinople usually wore the Evangelium in little boxes at the heart during the 4th century AD. Finally, the refrigerium atmosphere is evident, symbolically underlined by two of the painted persons holding glasses in their hands to still the sacred thirst. Then the whole scene could be a reference to Eucharistia, the so-called fractio panis: the six little baskets could contain bread and the plate some fish. Similar scenes are documented in the Christian catacombs in Rome: Priscilla, San Callisto, but mainly SS. Pietro e Marcellino, where the funerary meal scene in cubiculum 78 (the back wall) is most resembling with the one in Tomis.
             Among the Oriental cults largely influencing Christianity is also Gnosticism and its presence in Dobrogea is to be sensed early. In this respect we remind of the gem in Tomis, showing Chnoubis. 
Many philakteriums also come from Tomis necropolises, dated to the 2nd century AD and at least part of them have to be linked to this cult. Some of them were even discovered in Christian tombs.
•P.E. Arias, in Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atena e delle missioni italiane in Oriente, vol. 24-26, nuova serie, 8-9, 1946-1948, Rome 1950, p. 309-344; it is very difficult to decide for one of the North wall painting significances: 1) banquet in heaven, at which the dead are gathered around the table; 2) banquet in heaven at which the living and the dead participate; 3) funerary banquet celbrated by the living in honour of the dead; 4) agapa at which Eucharistia could take place. At the beginning it supposed a banquet very similar to the Mithraic, Judaic or Orpho-Dionysian ones (see P. Bâlă, O. Cheţan, Mitul creştin, Buc., 1972, p.135). Separation of Eucharistia from agapae took place at different dates for the different churches. Thus, if in the West separation appears to be effective around the year 150 AD, in Egypt it was not realized even around 375 (Ibidem, p. 135). From certain passages at Tertullianus follows that in his time the funeral meal sepulchral habit was not in use at the Christians (Tert. Fest. An. 4; resur. 1; apud Th. Klauser, în Gesammelte Arbeiten zur Liturgiegeschichte, Kirchengeschichte und christlichen Archäologie, Ergänzungsband 3, 1974, note 26), but Petrus’ and Marcellinus’ coemeterium offers images in which the funeral meal took place lying on pillows, according to the laic habit (A. Ferrua, in R.A.C., 46, 1970, 1-2, p. 33-35, fig. 22; Fr. Ghedini, in Rivista di Archeologia, 14, 1990, p. 35-63, fig. 14).
1.C. Cârjan, in Pontica 3, 1970, p. 386 – Christian tomb dated to the5th-6th century, with two philakteriums; Dim. Il. Dimitrov, in Izvestiia, 11, 1960, p. 95-101, fig. 7 – Christian tomb from the second quarter of the 2nd century AD at la Reka-Devnia (Marcianopolis) with golden philakterium.
2.See debate about the term at P. Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, Bari, 1980, p. 141-146, 406-407.
3.Very similar little baskets can be seen on the plate from Struma Riha, south-east of Antiochia, dated to the end of the 6th century AD (Ebersolt, in R. A., 17, 1911, p. 407-411).
4.P. Testini, Le catacombe delle antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma, Bologna, 1966, p. 271, fig. 116; E. Jastrzebowska, in Recherches Augustiniennes, 14, 1979, p. 19-20; Fr. Ghedini, op. cit., fig. 9, 14-16.
5.Gnostic traditions and themes were documented for Christianity: G. Ory, Originile creştinismului, Bucarest, 1981, p. 140-142, 147, 154; I. Barnea is right to consider Gnosticism as a Christian heresy; this is proven by the gem from Dinogetia, on which the inscription I A Ω can also be distinguished, having its origin in Apocalipse, I, 8; it is known that this is considered to be the oldest Christian document (see L. Duchesne, Histoire ancienne de l’Eglise, Paris, 1923, p. 133-152).
The explanation of figures
North wall - ritual meal, at which seven male characters participate.
East wall: two peacocks pecking pomegranates.
West wall: depicts four partridges and a rabbit.
South wall: a scene with four doves is painted, drinking water from a cup.
The entire vault of the edifice has a geometric and floral decoration; arabesque stalks delimit surfaces within which various stylized plants are inscribed.

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