The mystery of the empty bed

9 Aug

Since the excavation of the Regolini-Galassi tomb in 1836, several hypotheses have been developed on how many people were buried in this tomb.  In older publications, most authors considered that 3 people were buried in the grave: a princess (in the cella), a prince (in the antechamber) and a male relative (in the right hand niche in the cinerary urn, as only warriors were cremated).  Mrs. Hamilton-Gray, who visited the tomb in 1838 and spoke with the excavators, wrote in her book Tour to the sepulchres of Etruria in 1839 (pg. 333-334) that human remains were found on the bronze bed (“… Some bones of the corpse lay upon the bier somewhat more than three thousand years old, and perhaps, had the tomb been opened with sufficient care, the corpse of the warrior himself might have been seen with all his graveclothes on, …”).  On the other hand, Alessandro Regolini, as an excavator, denies this claim in 1843 (see the article “Il lette vuoto, la distibuzione del corredo e la finestra della Tomba Regolini-Galassi” by Giovanni Colonna and Elena Di Paolo, 1997).

Today however, most scholars believe that only two people have been buried in the RG tomb: a princeps in the right hand niche (cremation) and his wive in the cella (inhumation).  In other words, scholars of today believe that the bronze bed was empty.  Prof Richard Beacham (King’s College London) coined the very interesting interpretation that the shape of the tomb reflects the shape of an Etruscan or early Roman house and that the empty bronze bed in the central antechamber reflects the Roman (and Etruscan) custom to put an empty bed in the central room of the house to symbolise the marriage.


Ground plan of the RG tomb (by Malgherini)


Traditional Roman house

The key question however is: was the empty bed used during the funeral and did it belong to the man or the woman? In other words, was the corpse of the woman transported on the bed (on the four-wheeled cart) to the tomb, where the body of the woman was put in the cella and the bed and the cart were left in the antechamber? Or was the bed (and the cart) used to transport the corpse of the man to the location of the tomb, where it was cremated, the cinerary urn placed in the right niche and the bed and the cart placed in the antechamber?  Which scenario is most probable?

The answer maybe lies in the pleurantes, 33 small statues in bucchero (black earthware) that depict mourning women.  It is remarkable that these pleurantes are only reported to come from the antechamber and the right niche.  In other words, no pleurantes seem to be found in the cella, and they appear in two groups. Note that these figurines do not have feet, they seem to be designed to be sticked in the ground of the tomb.

bucchero mourners from the RG tomb

Bucchero mourner statuettes from the RG tomb (photo: Vatican Museums)

Not many of those Etruscan figurines are known today.  In the excavations at the Poggio Gallinaro mound in Tarquinia, five similar figurines were found.  Most figurines are shown to be beating their chest, which is typical for the lamentation ritual.

mourners Poggio Gallinaro

Bucchero mourner statuettes from Poggio Gallinaro

If we look at our current virtual reconstruction, we see that there are several objects in the antechamber that could be linked to the woman, not to the man: there is not only the bed (that belonged – in Roman customs – to the mater familias) but also 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 rather as tools related to a banquet (to keep food warm), hence cannot be related to the man only.

VR antechamber

Virtual reconstruction of the antechamber of the RG tomb (Daniel Pletinckx)

There are two distinct groups of mourner figurines, one next to the bed and one around the urn. The first group of mourners is placed only at one side of the bed, giving way to the right niche.  The second group of mourners is placed around the urn. Note that there are two other (iron) fire-dogs in the right niche, next to the urn (see image below).  Note also that the entrance of the right niche was in fact closed by a wall (see above mentioned paper by Colonna) but we left it open for simplicity and visiblity.

right niche

Virtual reconstruction of the right niche of the RG tomb (Daniel Pletinckx)

However, if the entrance of the right niche was only partially closed by a wall, and as the entrance has a very specific shape (see image below), the result would be a similar triangular window as with the cella.  In other words, in both cases, the triangular windows would allow to look into the room where the remains of the deceased are. In a next blog entry, we will visualise this and do visibility analysis for both windows.

entrance right niche

Entrance of the right niche (photo: CNR-ITABC)

So there are two possible scenarios.  The first is that the empty bed, and the objects that surround it, were already placed at the moment of the burial of the woman (including the objects in the left niche). At the burial of the man, the shields were placed on the wall, and the urn (surrounded by a second group of mourner figurines), the biga and the fire-dogs were placed in the right niche. This niche was partially closed, allowing people to look through the triangular window at the cinerary urn.

The second hypothesis is that, at the burial of the woman, all objects are placed in the cella, and the cella is closed by the wall before or at the funeral.  The window in the wall allows the people at the funeral banquet to have a last view at the deceased. At the burial of the man, the corpse of the man is transported on the bed and cart to the grave and is cremated there. The bed and all other objects in the antechamber and left and right hand niche are placed, the right niche is partially closed and the funeral banquet is held. People can enter the grave (see image below) to have a last look at the cinerary urn (see image above).  Putting the bronze bed in the tomb – as a new home – is relevant if the man and the woman were a couple.

antechambre before closing

Virtual reconstruction of the antechamber at the funeral banquet (Daniel Pletinckx)

Once the funeral is over, the cart and other objects related to the funeral banquet are stored in the tomb (see image below) and the tomb is closed. Personally, we prefer the second hypothesis, but we invite specialists to give us their view and assessment.

antechamber after closing

Virtual reconstruction of the antechamber after the funeral banquet (Daniel Pletinckx)

Note that in the reconstructions above, we have applied the exact measures 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 possibilities but as the bed ends up in the middle of the antechamber, a symmetrical ordening does make sense.  Note also that we have added the lost tripods and added the silver situla, hanging in the window between antechamber and cella, as described by Alessandro Regolini in 1843 (see article of Collona, mentioned above).

VR antechamber

Virtual reconstruction of the antechamber and window of the RG tomb (Daniel Pletinckx)


Silver situla from the RG tomb (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

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.


2 Responses to “The mystery of the empty bed”


  1. A window on eternity « Virtual reconstruction of Regolini-Galassi tomb - August 11, 2011

    […] a previous entry, we concluded that two people were buried in the Regolini-Galassi tomb, most probably a princeps […]

  2. First version of the interactive application « Virtual reconstruction of Regolini-Galassi tomb - October 10, 2011

    […] objects were the result of extensive digital restoration. The situla for example (see image below) was recreated digitally based upon the current physical […]

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