The second Lebetes Mystery

11 Jul

The Regolini-Galassi tomb contained three large bronze cauldrons, decorated with animals heads, so-called lebetes (see previous entry).  When trying to visualise the RG tomb in its original state, we not only come across the question where these three lebetes were positioned (see the first Lebetes Mystery) but also how (in other words, if they had a certain support and if yes, which one).

Currently, we know about two nearly identical iron tripods that have the right dimensions to carry the lebetes (Pareti catalogue, numbers 308 and 310).  In the Vatican museum, the two 5-headed lebetes are displayed on top of these tripods. In fact, as they are heavily damaged and corroded, one lebes is shown on a physical reconstruction of the tripod (as can also be seen on this image below from the Pareti catalogue from 1947) .

Lebete and tripods

The two 5-headed lebetes, the reconstructed tripod and one of the original tripods (from Pareti, 1947)

On the other hand, both Grifi (1841, tav. VI) and Canina (1846, tav. LVIII) describe and depict in detail another iron tripod and note that there are two of them.

tripod Canina

One of the two missing tripods, depicted in Canina (1846)

In the Vatican museum, we currently have a very similar tripod in bronze from one of the tombs that surrounded the RG tomb (i.e. the Tomb of the Tripod), but the Canina drawing is too detailed and the differences are too many and too obvious to accept that Canina confused both objects.

bronze tripod from the Tomb of the Tripod

Bronze tripod from the Tomb of the Tripod (Vatican Museum)

Both Grifi (1841, tav. XII) and Canina (1846, tav. L) have clearly depicted these tripods (see letter G in the image below, compare with the 1836 image in this blog entry) so we need to accept that there were two more tripods in the tomb that we don’t have anymore today. The tripods were maybe in bronze, not in iron, as the drawing above suggests a very good conservation.

Canina ground plan RG tomb detail

Detail of the ground plan of the RG tomb by Canina (1846)

Finally we have also a bronze holmos that was standing in antechambre.  The combination holmos – lebes is very common for ceramic versions (see examples below), so we could envision that one of the lebetes was positioned on the holmos.


Bronze holmos from the RG tomb in the Vatican Museum

lebeti on holmos

Several examples of lebetes on top of a holmos support

All inside views of the tomb by Grifi and Canina (see below) show that the two tripods next to the bronze bed are empty, so we have three lebetes, five possible supports for the lebetes and two of them are empty, so this looks easy : we put the two iron tripods in the cella with a large and a small lebes on top, and we put the third lebes on the holmos (see 3D visualisation).

inside view by Canina

Inside view of the RG tomb by Canina (1846)

But this does not comply with the available evidence, the holmos is always depicted empty, both in perspective views (see image above) and in the plan views by Grifi and Canina below (indicated as B).  Pareti notes very correctly that the heavy lebetes could not be put on the holmos, which is made of thin sheets of bronze, and not capable of carrying heavy weights.  So it is quite probable that the holmos did not carry any object at the closure of the tomb.

entrance RG tomb Grifi 1836

The entrance of the RG tomb by Grifi (1836)

entrance RG tomb Canina 1846

The entrance of the RG tomb by Canina (1846)

And there are more observations that lead us to believe that the holmos was not used as support for another object.  First of all, we have to notice that the bronze holmos is not at all functional, it is most probably a bronze replica of a ceramic holmos.  A ceramic holmos  was used for cooking and warming food, with charcoal burning in the cone shaped foot of the holmos and hot air flowing between the bell shaped top part of the holmos and cauldron, standing on the holmos.  The top part of the bronze holmos of the RG tomb is closed on the inside, so it can not function at all, hence it is a replica for funeral use, depicting a household device for cooking.  Also, nearly every holmos we know today is made of ceramic material, there are nearly no bronze ones.

ceramic holmos with bronze cauldron

Bronze cauldron on ceramic holmos (Tomb of Boccoris, Tarquinia, 8th cent BCE, Museo Nazionale, Tarquinia)

Secondly, it has been proposed that incense could be burning in the top part of the bronze holmos.  Although this is completely contradictory to the function that this bronze holmos mimics, this is technically possible.  But there is other evidence that contradicts such a use.  If we consider the tripods as supports for incense burning, and if we look closer to all available tripods, we see that all of the tripods have supports to put fire under the recipient that contains the incense.  So it looks like the incense was heated, not burned.  Mrs. Hamilton Grey, who visited the RG tomb in 1838, describes in her book Tour to the sepulchres of Etruria, pg. 25 : “…a tripod, with a vessel containing some strange looking lumps of a resinous substance, and which on being burnt proved to be perfumes so intensely strong, that those who tried them were obliged to leave the room“. So maybe the incense was not supposed to be burned, but to be heated.

In the same book, Mrs. Hamilton Grey writes (pg. 334) on the other hand: “One vase for perfumes, also made of bronze, stood towards the entrance, consisting of three globes, one above the other; near to which there was something like a candelabra, and beyond it, just at the door, was a tripod surmounted by a vessel in which incense had been burned, probably during the funeral rites, to prevent infection.”  This description again hints at the same conclusions above: at the entrance, there was a holmos without any other vessel on top, then an elaborated tripod (“candelabra”, see top image) without any vessel, then another type of tripod with a vessel on top, in which we can locate the resinous incense that she describes on pg. 25.

All this brings us to the conclusion that in the cella, there were incense burners with even incense in them, while in the antechambre, all supports, that can be interpreted as incense burners, are empty.  This looks pretty much like another mystery…  One of the next blog entries will try to solve this mystery !

This blog is part of the Etruscanning project, that is been funded with support from the European Commission. This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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6 Responses to “The second Lebetes Mystery”

  1. christieannray July 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    I agree that the holmos would not have been used for incense, but if there was a ritual/ceremonial function for the incense during the funrerary rites, there should be something to indicate the presence of incense in both of the burial locations and not just the cella. Pareti suggests that the small wheeled object that was placed beside the funerary bed in the antichamber (number 240 in Pareti’s catalogue) might have been used for incense, see pages 290-291, where he calls the object a “brucia-profumi di bronzo, con ruote.” Unfortunately, I haven’t found any parallels that would confirm that it could be what he suggests, but I’ll keep looking. Most Etruscan incense burners that I’ve seen look more like this one from the Louvre:

    • danielpletinckx July 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

      Indeed, I start to think that two type of incenses were used, one that is burned (typically ending in a kind of “flower” on which the incense was put), and one that is heated, typically in bowls and lebeti, and that is put on a tripod with fire underneat. I intend to make a blog entry entitled “The smell of eternity” that goes into this topic. Anyway, by conincidence I did some research this morning, and here is another link to an Etruscan incense burner, very similar to what you point out

      When you look at the “brucia-profumi di bronzo, con ruote” you will see that it contains both systems, the flower like pins that are probably used for incense burning, but also the semispherical central part that probably contained burning charcoal with an overarching support on which a bowl could be placed with a perfume that was heated. If would be great if you could find some more information on this incense issue !

    • danielpletinckx July 14, 2011 at 8:46 am #

      Hi Christie,

      I found a similar object to the “brucia-profumi di bronzo, con ruote” which is described as a “food cart”, please look at page 181 (fig 28) of

      So we should not conclude too fast that this cart was an incense burner…

  2. christieannray July 19, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Ooh! Good find!

    Food was usually incorporated into funerary rituals (feasting, offering, etc.), so it would be logical if this was a foot cart. Pareti suggests the plant-like decoration around the perimeter is lotus flowers on stalks, but my first impression was that they looked like they might be sprouting corn stalks, which may fit better with the foot cart theory. Pareti briefly mentioned that this might have been used for food, but suggests that the fragility of the piece may mean it was more of a symbolic piece, rather than functional one (like many of the other pieces in the tomb). Pareti notes a few parallels from Veii, Vetulonia (which you found), and a third from the Tomb of the Barberini in Praeneste, but I have not been able to find images so far.


  1. The mystery of the empty bed « Virtual reconstruction of Regolini-Galassi tomb - August 9, 2011

    [...] of the shields, resulting in the fact that they cannot be placed like depicted by Grifi and Canina. Instead we have chosen to place them on both sides of the antechamber. Of course, there are other [...]

  2. Objects do speak « Virtual reconstruction of Regolini-Galassi tomb - August 20, 2011

    [...] each other.  Further study will show if these observations are maybe the solution to the first and second Lebeti Mystery?  So, stay tuned and feel free to give your input and observations by posting a [...]

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