The smell of eternity

19 Jul

When browsing through the list of objects in the Regolini-Galassi tomb, many objects seem to be related to incense burning. In recent years however, the understanding of Etruscan funeral rites has improved a lot through study and archaeological research. In this blog entry, we try to look into the possible interpretations of the incense related objects in the RG tomb.

When we have a look at Etruscan incense burners, we see that these objects (also called thymiaterion) only appear from the 6th century BC and consist of a small bowl (max. 15 cm) on a pedestal.  None of the objects in the RG tomb are similar to these typical incense burners.  On the other hand, the larger tripods from the RG tomb  have a support for a heating source but also do carry additional holders that could be used for incense burning (see image below).


Detail of (a reconstruction of) an iron tripod from the RG tomb (photo: René van Beek)

The second object in the RG tomb that many authors link to incense burning is the bronze holmos.  When we analyse the different Etruscan objects that are described as holmos, we see an evolution (see image below) from a very practial kitchen tool, 25 cm high, that supports and heats vessels through burning charcoal in the lower part, to a more  elaborated stand (over 1 m high)  that still looks like having the same function, but with one or two spherical parts added between the foot and the support.  These spheres allow the smoke and sparks to settle.  The “handles” between the spheres provide additional strength and handling capability when turning the holmos upside down to remove the ashes after use.

Etruscan holmoi

Evolution of Etruscan holmoi (all objects are dated 7th century BC)

However, many holmoi that we have today come from graves, where they probably had a symbolic function and were not designed to be operational.  Especially the bronze holmos that has been found in the RG tomb (see a similar example from Praeneste below) looks like being purely symbolic, but still referring to food preparation to my opinion.  In any case, it could serve as a stand to carry some bowl or vessel (as shown below).  Pareti expressed doubts that the holmos of the RG tomb could support a lebes (as they are quite heavy as they are cauldrons for real use), but we consider it as possible that it could carry the smallest 6-headed lebes.


Bronze holmos with lebes from the Praeneste necropolis

One of the decisions that we need to make in this virtual reconstruction of the RG tomb, is the place of the three lebetes and the bronze holmos.  The most logical solution is to put the two identical 5-headed lebetes in the cella and to put the smaller 6-headed lebes on the holmos in the antechamber.  As described before, in the early drawings a 5-headed lebes is missing and the holmos is always depicted empty.  So what is the solution ?

As there are many elements that make us believe that the two persons that found their last resting place in this tomb are man and woman. As the lebetes are real bronze cauldrons, used for cooking, they could come from the same household, so it is conceivable that one 5-headed lebes was put in the cella as a funeral gift for the woman, and an identical 5-headed lebes was also given to the man as a funeral gift. As the lebes was too heavy for the funeral holmos to be put on top, it was put in the storage room (the left niche).

In other words, we should see the lebetes purely as objects linked to cooking (hence playing a role in the funeral banquet and given to the deceased as a utility for the afterlife). The incense reported by Mrs. Hamilton Gray (Tour to the sepulchres of Etruria in 1839, pg. 25) can be present in the small recipients of the iron tripods (see above).

The same holds for the empty tripods in the antechamber.  These tripods  were used during the funeral banquet (hence empty) or were just symbolic as a utilitarian object for the afterlife.

The next object is a bronze cart.  All drawings of the RG tomb show, next to the bronze bed, this peculiar object, described as incense burner on wheels.  But was this cart really used for incense burning?

virtual reconstruction RG tomb

Virtual reconstruction of the antechamber of the RG tomb (D. Pletinckx) with bronze cart on the right

This cart consists of a large bronze “table” of 104 by 30 cm on wheels, bordered with stylised plants,  a bronze bowl of 27 cm wide and an overarching bronze support with a round centrepiece on which a vessel could be put (see images below).


Side view of the incense burner on wheels from the RG tomb (Canina 1846)


Top view of the incense burner on wheels from the RG tomb (Canina 1846)

A very similar cart has been found in Vetulonia, but is described by Randall-MacIver as a food-cart or porta-vivande.  The only functional difference with the RG cart is that there are two vessel supports above the bowl instead of one. To our opinion, the bronze RG cart makes much more sense as food cart than as incense burner, as the bowl could be filled by charcoal, a vessel could be put on top of the overarching support to be heated or kept warm and food or objects can be placed on the table surface.  Probably both carts are not sturdy enough to be used in real life and are kind of symbolic copies of real life objects.


Bronze "food cart", Vetulonia, around 700 BC

A somewhat similar cart was found in Bisenzio, which again consists of a support for a vessel, with a holder for a heating source (one side of the cart has no decoration to provide access to put the heating source).  Again, this device seems more appropriate for serving and heating food than burning incense.

bronze cart from Olmo Bello necropolis

Bronze cart, Olmo Bello necropolis (Bisenzio), around 750 BC (Villa Giulia, Rome)

More and more authors are convinced that the bronze bed, that we have in the antechamber, is an empty bed and that the remains of the deceased are the cremation rests in the large cinerary urn in the right hand side chamber.  It is conceivable that the absence of incense burners is simply linked to the fact that there was no decaying body and no need to mask the odor, hence that all objects such as the tripods, the holmos and the bronze cart have to be interpreted as objects linked to a funeral banquet.

The point that we want to make here is that in this Regolini-Galassi tomb, we find very few objects that directly can be indentified as incense burners.  In the cella, we probably have two bronze cauldrons (lebetes) on tripods, which carry additional small recipients that could be used for incense burning.  The cauldrons on tripods rather have to be associated with a funeral banquet, the tripods carry a bowl under the cauldron in which a flame can be burning to heat the cauldron. Incense was reported to be present in one of the vessels, possibly in the small recipients of these tripods.  In the antechamber, we have empty tripods, again with a support for a heating device, a bronze holmos, two bronze cauldrons and a food cart. All are food related objects but no incense burners.  In our opinion, nearly all objects in both the cella and the antechamber need to be interpreted as objects that were used (or at least symbolised use) in a funeral banquet.

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.



3 Responses to “The smell of eternity”


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

    […] the fire-dogs and the food cart (that has been interpreted as incense burner but to our opinion has much more to do with food than with incense).  The two tripods also have been interpreted as “altars” but  should be interpreted […]

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

    […] museum (see image below). The first object is the bronze holmos, a symbolic replica of a ceramic holmos, that was used in Etruscan times as a stand to warm food and that was put in the tomb for the deceased to be able to continue to feast in the afterlife.  […]

  3. The holmos and lebes digitally restored « Virtual reconstruction of Regolini-Galassi tomb - November 28, 2012

    […] bronze holmos of the Regolini-Galassi tomb is a very elaborated and beautiful object that has suffered significant damage and […]

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