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This Sarcophagus Was Painted Red

sarcophagus detailWhile ancient marble sculptures are often thought of as pristine and white, we know that many were once painted with bright colors.  This sarcophagus is no different.  Recently, while removing plaster and other old restoration materials, conservators have discovered several areas of what is believed to be original red paint.  Further research will help to determine what this ancient pigment was composed of, and conservators will continue to work cautiously to protect these areas.

The best preserved color is in the protected undercuts of the marble, visible in this photo as faint pink.  Also shown in the photo are accretions, which are evidence of root growth around the marble when it was buried in the ground.

What is this object?

This is the lid of a Roman marble sarcophagus, or stone coffin, from around 180 A.D.  It is one of ten sarcophagi discovered in 1885 during a construction project in Rome. Though there are no inscriptions on them, it is likely that the tomb belonged to an aristocratic Roman family that is named on several funerary altars found nearby.  Marble was an expensive material that had to be imported. It required skilled artisans to produce such elaborate carvings, so only a wealthy family could have afforded such luxuries for their dead. Seven of these sarcophagi, including the base of this one—the Garland Sarcophagus—can be seen in the Roman Funerary Practices gallery.

Why does it look like this?

Looters in ancient times often damaged lids of sarcophagi in order to steal the grave goods, and this one was most likely broken for this reason.  The base, however, has remained intact.

What happened to it?

The sarcophagus lid was treated to be featured in Treasures of Heaven an exhibition at The Walters.  The work was done in the galley because the object is too large to be treated in the conservation labs.  Treating the object there also allowed an opportunity for visitors to see what normally happens “behind the scenes.”

Conservators removed the old, discolored and unstable restorations and replaced them with stable conservation materials that more closely resemble the original marble.  Since traces of paint have been found on another sarcophagus at The Walters, care will be taken during cleaning to preserve any fragments of paint that may lie beneath the dirt and old fill materials.