Funerary Rituals

The Funerary Traditions of Our Cordoban Ancestors

By Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Lead sarcophagus (376 - 400) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Burials and rites

Archaeological remains have provided us with a wealth of information about burials and funeral rites, and evidence dates back to the Neolithic age. Whether individual or communal tombs, large structures or simple graves, cremations or burials, the practices adopted and the items used (such as gravestones, burial urns, sarcophagi, and the deceased's belongings) have developed in line with people's tastes, while at the same time reflecting social differences. 

Bracelet (4300 a.n.e. - 3980 a.n.e.) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Evidence of man's belief in the afterlife dates from as far back as the Neolithic period, when burials that reflected those convictions began to appear. The presence of human remains dating from between the 5th and 4th millennium BCE in the Cueva de los Murciélagos (Bats Cave) in Zuheros, Spain, confirms that it was used as a burial site. This bracelet is one of the funerary objects found there.

Arrowhead (III Milenio a.n.e. - II Milenio a.n.e.) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

By the time of the Chalcolithic period, between the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BCE, a new type of burial site had emerged: the dolmen. This was a type of megalithic tomb made from large vertical stones supporting others that were laid horizontally. The structure was then covered with earth to form an artificial cave, in which burial urns were placed. They have also been interpreted as boundary stones, used to mark areas occupied or used by groups of people. Dolmens have been documented in the province of Córdoba, especially in the north. This series of triangular arrowheads, made from different colored flints, is from the Dolmen de las Casas de Don Pedro megalithic site in Belmez (Córdoba).

Ceramic urn (250 a.n.e. - 200 a.n.e.) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Necropolises such as those in Fuente Tójar and Almedinilla are a fount of information on beliefs about the afterlife in the Iberian world. The funerary rite used by the Iberians was cremation, and their graves were usually cists, which were burial chambers typically lined with stone. Stones would be used to line a hole dug into the earth, into which one or more ceramic urns containing the ashes of the deceased would be placed. This would have been covered over with a larger stone slab and funerary objects would have been placed all around it. These included vessels filled with offerings, as well as objects that had been used by the deceased—mainly items of personal adornment and weapons.

Iberian lion (450 a.n.e. - 400 a.n.e.) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Sculptures of animals were placed next to certain graves, which were probably those of the political and warrior elite. Lions, bulls, and other animals, depicted in defiant poses, appear in burial sites in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. The animals would have been placed there to protect graves and funerary objects from potential looters. These depictions also reveal the rigid structure of these societies: it was the military commanders and representatives of the aristocracy who had the means to pay for these funerary monuments and animal sculptures. As a result, they became a symbol of the power of the ruling classes.

This sculpture of a lion has its jaws open and its mane is depicted with a schematic pattern. It is an example of hieratism and frontality in Iberian art, and would usually have been placed on a pillar or column, elevating it above the ground. Its use is linked to a long eastern tradition in which both the bull and the lion are symbols designed to ward off evil, as well as being guardians of order and defenders of sacred spaces. Originating in Nueva Carteya (in Córdoba province), this sculpture is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of Iberian art.

Glass funeral urn (S. I - S. II) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Among the various Roman funerary traditions, cremation was the oldest, and consisted of burying a vessel containing the ashes of the deceased along with their funerary objects.  The urns were made of stone, ceramic, or glass. The latter were usually placed inside cylindrical lead boxes, which were then placed inside the grave or funerary monument.

Funerary relief (41 - 68) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

One of the most common types of funerary monuments in the Roman era was the columbarium: a communal burial place that was an integral element of funeral associations known as "collegia funeraticia." The columbarium was used as part of the cremation ritual, and its name is derived from its resemblance to a dovecote, since "columba" is the Latin word for "dove." Columbaria were divided into compartments in which burial urns were placed. This funerary relief is from a columbarium and depicts the deceased person reclining on a bed, taking part in the funeral banquet.

Lead sarcophagus (376 - 400) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Whether in luxurious marble sarcophagi or simple lead coffins, burial became more common from the 3rd century onward, influenced by the spread of Christian beliefs. Tombs took various forms, from simple graves covered with tiles, bricks, or stone, to large funerary monuments. Sometimes, the body of the deceased would be placed in a sarcophagus made of stone, wood, or lead, and buried either in the ground or in a funerary monument.

Tombstone of Servilia (100 - 150) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

The purpose of funerary inscriptions was to remember the deceased. They would be carved in stone and read by passersby on the roads in and out of the city, where the necropolises were located. At first, they only mentioned the name of the deceased, but over time, the text came to include other information such as their age and profession. They began by invoking the Manes deities (deified spirits of the ancient Roman dead) by including the letters "D.M.S.," followed by information about the deceased and, occasionally, the name of the person who had paid for the inscription. The inscription would end with the letters "H.S.E.S.T.T.L.," which stood for "Hic Situs Est" (Here lies), followed by "Sit Tibi Terra Levis," (May the earth rest lightly upon you), as good wishes to the deceased.

The inscription on this gravestone is a lyrical expression of the emotions that the deceased, Servilia, inspired in those close to her, and offers a glimpse into her last moments. It shows the role of women in Roman society: a faithful wife, loving mother, and sacred protector of the home, living a life of modesty as a mother to many children. The inscription is as follows: "In dignified modesty for which she is praised with all names, here lies Servilia, taken by a merciless death. She died a sweet wife; loving mother; cherished daughter; beloved sister, distinguished by her outstanding richness of spirit; sacred protector of her home, admirable for her life of modesty: a beauty that itself affords an admirable charm. A mother 4 times by the repeated design of the goddess Lucina, she died with eternal love for her wonderful offspring. Her sorrowful parents mourn her wounds; the cheeks of her brother are wet with tears for this tragic moment."

Tombstone of Actius (S. I - S. II) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

"Actius, a murmillo gladiator, was victorious 6 times. He died at the age of 21 and is buried here. May the earth rest lightly upon him. His wife made this monument to her husband at her own expense. That which any of you would want for my deceased, may the gods do the same for him whether alive or dead." A large number of funerary inscriptions for gladiators who died in combat have been found throughout Hispania. Those from Córdoba come from a small part of the area occupied by the western necropolis. This suggests that there may have been an area set aside specifically for gladiators, very close to the amphitheater.

Early christian sarcophagus (300 - 350) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

The replacement of the ritual of cremation with burial, seen from the Late Roman Empire onward, was consolidated in the Visigothic era, when the Christian religion became widespread. Burials now took place within the city, close to the main places of worship. Tombs varied enormously, from simple graves dug into the ground to brick constructions covered with overlapping "tegula" tiles, or stone sarcophagi. They were usually marked with different types of inscribed gravestones. The funerary objects could be items made of ceramic, glass, or metal, which were usually placed around the deceased's head. They might have included items such as a ceramic jug and personal adornments, such as fibula brooches, belt clasps, or pendants.

Paleochristian sarcophagus with figurative decoration on the front. It features 5 groups separated by columns with a spiral pattern, topped with Composite-order capitals, and segmental arches and pediments. They depict Biblical themes: the sacrifice of Isaac, the denial of Peter, the feeding of the 5,000, original sin, and the miracle of Moses and the rock on Mount Horeb. Scenes from the story of Jonas are also depicted in the spaces between the columns.

Detail of some of the images, in which the faces of the people shown have been damaged as a result of iconophobia in subsequent periods.

Tombstone emiral (881 - 900) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

In Al-Andalus (or Muslim Spain), the dead were usually buried. Funerary inscriptions have enabled the main cemeteries of Muslim Córdoba to be documented. One of the most important ones is to the south of the Guadalquivir River, on the ruins of the old suburb of Secunda. Arab literary sources show that there were 12 cemeteries in 10th-century Córdoba. It was usual, in the cities of Al-Andalus, for cemeteries to be located on the outskirts of the urban center—near the gates of the medina (old town) walls at first, and later on the edges of the suburbs.

The body was placed in the ground on its side, with the head pointing south and the face looking towards Mecca. Once covered with earth, the burial place was marked with stones or bricks. Sometimes both the head and feet of the deceased were marked with gravestones, which were inscribed with a funeral prayer. This began with the profession of faith ("In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate"), followed by passages about the vanity of earthly life and the name of the deceased. It ended with the affirmation of the Islamic faith ("There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet") and the date of death.

Mozárabe funeral headstone (1037 - 1040) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

Mozarabic inscriptions offer the greatest amount of information about this community of descendants of the Hispanic Visigoths, who continued to live in Muslim lands while preserving their religion, their ecclesiastical organization, and their Latin language. Although relations between the 2 communities were peaceful and frictionless to begin with, the mid-9th century saw a movement of religious fervor under the command of Abd ar-Rahman II, which drove many Mozarabs out of Córdoba.

The inscriptions usually begin with the name of the deceased, sometimes with the phrase "Famulus Dei" or "Famulus Xpti" (Servant of God or Servant of Christ). This is followed by the age of the deceased and the date of their death. It is worth noting the inclusion in this inscription of the expression "beate memorie" (of blessed memory), which already featured in other inscriptions of this period. "Famula Dei" has also been used instead of the usual phrasing, in reference to the father of the deceased being a Servant of God. It reads: "María, of blessed memory, daughter of a Servant of God, died on Saturday night, close to midnight, 10 days into the month of November in the year 1037."

Hebrew headstone funeral (S. XI - S. XII) by UnknownMuseo Arqueológico de Córdoba

The Mozarab and Jewish minorities would have had their own necropolises, although their locations are unknown. Unlike the Muslim cemeteries, which were integrated with the space around them, Jewish cemeteries were enclosed by a wall. The bodies of the deceased were placed on their backs with their arms by their sides or crossed over their chests, and their feet pointing east. They were not buried with a lot of funerary objects such as pendants, earrings, and other adornments. Graves were marked with a gravestone featuring an inscription, which would be put in place a year after the date of death.

This gravestone with Hebrew text on both the front and the back is dedicated to Rabbi Amicos, a prominent figure in the Jewish community of Lucena around the 11th century. The importance of Lucena as a city with a predominantly Jewish population between the 11th and 12th centuries is well-known. Many Jewish intellectuals settled in Al-Andalus, and Lucena became one of the largest centers of rabbinical studies for the Hebrew community—larger even than Córdoba. The funerary inscription reads: "Rabbi Amicos, may he sleep and rest in peace until the coming of the Consoler (Messiah), preacher of peace at the gate (city) of Jerusalem and bringer of peace, commanding him to raise his dwelling place in peace."

Credits: Story

"Funerary Rituals"

Organized by
Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba
Consejería de Cultura de la Junta de Andalucía

Curated by Francisca López Garrido
Texts: Francisco J. Morales Salcedo y Francisca López Garrido
Photos: Darío Muñoz Leva
Digital composition: Francisca López Garrido

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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