"The top of the cover takes the form of a bed with pillows, and a man and his wife embrace under a large sheet. She wears a complex earring and he a bracelet of twisted strands. There is no costume visible.
On the long side below the man is a frieze with four pairs of Greeks and Amazons in combat. A bead-and-reel molding appears above, and simple pilasters frame the scenes on the corners. The other side, the long panel below the woman, has only a plain fillet molding above, suggesting it was the back of the sarcophagus proper. The frieze features two pairs of horsemen and foot soldiers in combat, with a warrior in fighting pose on foot in the center.
On the left end (facing the frieze with Greeks and Amazons), two lions bring down a bull. The bead-and-reel molding is seen above. On the right end, two griffins are tearing into a fallen horse.
The condition is, generally speaking, excellent, with some traces of a dark brown deposit and an overall light brown to yellow patina.
The sarcophagus is inscribed for Thanchvil Tarnai and her husband Larth Tetnies, son of Arnth Tetnies and Ramtha Vishnai."
This sarcophagus lid is one of my favourite artefacts in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. It's in fact one of many similarly executed sarcophagi from the Etruscan civilisation, showing husbands and wives embracing upon the lid of the tomb. The description on the MFA website tells us:
What this description – as useful as it is – doesn't capture, however, is both the incredible skill of the sculpting, and the emotional effect of the two figures represented here. To achieve the illusion of such a fine sheet draped over the couple, including the folded material and the subtle suggestion of their limbs beneath, is a real skill and a testament to the achievements of Etruscan art. At the same time, the locked gaze of the couple, and the way in which their arms knot around each other – hers on the back of his neck, his on her left shoulder – hints at something more than simply a stock representation of a deceased husband and wife. For me, it's one of those uncanny instances which I discussed during the podcast on the Doryphoros, where we're both made aware of the situated culture of the work of art, and, at the same time, find it speaking to us on a direct, emotional level that seems to transcend time and place.
Bronze hand mirrors like this one are a fairly frequently found luxury good, preserved in burials of high-status Etruscan women. (On the Etruscans, see my previous post on the canopic vase from Chiusi.) One side would have been highly polished to create a reflective surface; the other was often inscribed with a mythical scene. Here, we see the goddess Eos (Dawn) carrying the corpse of her son Memnon, a hero of the Trojan War who was killed by Achilles: his story was originally told in the lost epic, the Aethiopis, of which only summaries and fragments survive.
We're moving back in time a little for today's object. As we make our way into the classical period of Greece, I wanted to pause and travel over to Italy for a moment – not to the nascent city of Rome, but to another civilisation known as that of the Etruscans. The Etruscan civilisation flourished in Italy from around 800 BCE until the gradual annexation of their cities by Rome around 100 BCE. It was an independent civilisation from that of the Romans, with considerable Greek influence from settlements like Pithekoussai along the coast; its people spoke a language known as Etruscan, which we only have an incomplete knowledge of today.
The vase above – known as canopic, after the canopic urns of Egypt, used to house the visceral remains of the dead – is, in fact, a cinerary urn: it would have housed the ashes of the deceased after cremation. It's one of a number of other such urns (for another example, click here), depicted in this extraordinarily eye-catching anthropomorphising style. The lid, as we can see, has been shaped into a head, bearing a (stylised) portrait of the deceased; the fact that it's a woman being depicted is demonstrated by the holes in her earlobes, which would initially have carried earrings. Adding to the imitative style, the arms, extending from the handles of the jar either side, are articulated so as to be moveable – creating the impression that the figure is gesturing towards us from beyond the grave.