Golden face covers from the North Pontic region. Analysis of the archaeological material

Publication type Article
Status Approved
Affiliation: University of Opole
Address: Poland, Opole

This paper discusses golden covers that appear in funerary contexts concerning both Greek and non-Greek elites during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods in the North Pontic region. The symbolic meaning behind this cultural trend and how it spread appears to be complex and multi-layered, as it seems to have been intertwined with the regional elite network that allowed for cultural emulation and the use of covers to become more popular and widespread. This study aims to gather and analyse the published archaeological material that relates to this subject. The focus is placed on the specific context in which the material has been found and its often-difficult chronology. Aspects such as the gender and age of the deceased who were equipped with gold covers is also taken into consideration in this study, in order to better understand the relationship between status and a given social role applied by ancient society. A possible direction in which this mortuary custom spread is discussed in relation to the opposition: polis – steppe/non-Greek world, which reveals that cultural trends among elites may have originated in a non-Greek environment.

KeywordsNorth Pontic region, elites, funerary rites, gold
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2 Golden funerary face covers have been found both in Greek and non-Greek cultural milieus in places such as Scythian Neapolis and Chersonesus, sites in the South-West Crimea such as necropolis “Sovkhoz 10”, the kurgan near Magarach farm, Zavetnoe, Chyornaya Rechka, Ust’-Al’ma, Opushki, Kul’chuk in the North-West Crimea, and also at Gorgippia, Phanagoria, Kytaion, Baturinskaya and Stanitsa Yaroslavskaya in Kuban, as well as the settlement at Kam’yanka (in Russian literature known as Kamenka or Kamenskoye gorodishche) and finally, the city of Olbia (see Table 1 and Maps 1 and 2).1 They were in use roughly from the 2nd century BC until the 3rd century AD and, as a rule, they appear in graves associated with the high social strata of the local population. The tradition of covering the faces of the dead with golden covers have been attested in various regions (such as Asia Minor, Egypt and the Near East) throughout many centuries and appears to be cross-cultural.2 In many cultures such a tradition appeared independently.3 Consequently, drawing conclusions based on a wide diachronic and cross-regional perspective does not seem useful. Therefore, this paper aims to investigate these funerary objects from a local Black Sea perspective, which allows the focus to be placed on the distinctive local character of this funerary practice and its multiple cultural, social and religious meanings. 1. Pogrebova 1957, 148 note 1 also mentions Panticapaeum as one of the places where such face covers have been found; she refers to Chuistova’s article in a local Crimean newspaper; Chuistova 1952 (non vidi); the site is not discussed in this paper due to the lack of more detailed information as to the character of the finds and the place of their discovery. See also Zaytsev 2004, 49.

2. This includes Asia Minor, Egypt and Near East; Pogrebova 1957, 149-152; see the catalogue in Quast 2014, 292-297.

3. As noticed e.g. by Shul’ts 1953, 63 n. 48.
3 The covers and their possible symbolic meaning have been the subject of examination on several occasions, especially in connection with funeral assemblages from Chersonesus and Scythian Neapolis, where face covers have been discovered in larger quantities than at other sites.4 Interpretations that often come up in previous research suggest a possible apotropaic function of the covers. This interpretation is often based on Fodor’s ethnographic research of the ancient Hungarians regarding the use of funerary face covers and masks during the 10th century.5 According to such an interpretation, covering the face protected both the living (from the interference of the dead) and the deceased (from evil spirits).6 This, however, is not the only possible interpretation of this funerary custom. As will be discussed later, comprehensive and comparative analyses of the graves in which the face covers were found have led to new observations which have gone far beyond the simplistic interpretation that face covers were associated with fear of/for the dead. The examination of new material, discovered during archaeological excavations carried out during the last few decades, may help to further our understanding of this particular funerary rite, especially with regards to the gender, age, social status and cultural background of the deceased.7 4. Pyatysheva 1956; Pogrebova 1957; 1961, 108-110; Zubar’ 1982, 110-113; Zhuravlev, Novikova, Shemakhanskaya 2017; Zhuravlev, Novikova, Kovalenko, Shemakhanskaya 2017, 18-25 (cat. 29-41).

5. See Zubar’ 1982, 111; Fodor 1972.

6. Fodor 1972, 172. Similar interpretations were also put forward by Oreshnikov 1894, 7-8 who points out the apotropaic function of the covers, and Litvinskiy 1972, 141 who points out that a fear of the dead was the main reason behind this practice. See also Pogrebova 1957, 149; Rieth 1973, 29-30. It has to be pointed out that there is no good reason to interpret North Pontic face covers as a cheaper substitute of golden funeral masks as it has often been argued (Oreshnikov 1894, 8; Shul’ts 1953, 63 n. 48; Zubar’ 1982, 110-111; Zubar’, Meshcheryakov 1983, 109-110; Papanova 2000, 124; 2006, 204-207; see also Kuftin 1941, 39, and Fodor 1972, 172-173 who argues that face covers and funeral masks bore exactly the same symbolic meaning). Golden funeral masks appeared in the northern Black Sea region later than face covers and in fact, it would be more convincing to interpret them as a more elaborate and more luxurious version of face covers. At any rate, it should not be ruled out that the masks bore a different symbolic and/or religious meaning than face covers and therefore, they should be examined separately (see Zaytsev 2004, 49). There are three golden funeral masks known from the northern Black Sea region. The first mask, which has been lost, was discovered in a grave complex with creation at the necropolis of Olbia; the second, now kept in the Hermitage (Inv. No. Ol. 21), comes from a stone tomb located in a kurgan near Olbia and dates to the 2nd/3rd c. AD (Rusyaeva 1992, 180 with fig. 2; Papanova 2006, 205; Butyagin 2009a, 172); it should be noted that this mask has a Sarmatian tamga carved on it, which suggests that it can be associated with a Sarmatian cultural milieu; the third and most famous mask comes from the Bosporus and dates to the 3rd c. AD (Butyagin 2009a).

7. See especially the volumes on the settlement and the necropolis of Ust’-Al’ma: Puzdrovskii, Trufanov 2016, 2017a, 2017b.
4 The aim of this study is to gather and examine the archaeological material from northern Black Sea necropoleis with special focus being placed on the chronological timeframe and the archaeological context in which golden face covers have been recorded. Several theories explaining the use of face covers will be touched upon, which will bring attention to the social and religious context of this funerary custom among North Pontic elites (belonging to both Greek and non-Greek cultural milieus), and to cultural contacts and emulation between elite families.8 Multi-layered and overlapping meanings behind burial rites will also be discussed, concentrating on the diversity of cultural and social contexts in which funerary practices should be interpreted. Additionally, the importance of the use of gold in religious symbolism in funerary contexts will addressed, in order to demonstrate the spiritual meaning of the gold in mortuary rituals. 8. Notably, the question of the elite network and cultural transformations among the non-Greek Crimean elites has thoroughly been discussed by Mordvintseva 2017, who has analyzed funerary complexes looking for the so-called prestige objects that were used to manifest power and status and reflected a given socio-political structure in the region.
5 The catalogue of finds that accompanies this paper presents the chronological and geographical distribution of golden face covers discussed in the text (Table 1).9 It also provides references to the most important publications and, wherever possible, high quality illustrations. Plates 1 and 2 offer a reproduction of drawings and photographs published in the Soviet Union, access to which may be limited to non-Russian and non-Ukrainian readers. It is hoped that further archaeological excavations, especially at places such as Ust’-Al’ma, will provide more material that will broaden both the catalogue and our knowledge of northern Black Sea societies. 9. A valuable (though incomplete) catalogue of finds of golden face covers and funeral masks from the Black Sea region (as well as from the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean) is provided by Quast 2014, 292-302.

Discussion of the material

7 The earliest face covers were found in the Mausoleum of Scythian Neapolis (Table 1, No. 1). They date to the end of the 2nd and 1st century BC/early 1st century AD and are associated with the wealthiest members of the city whose burials were situated in the Mausoleum and should most probably be associated with the local aristocracy. Most of the covers were found near the head of the buried individuals. A full set of eye and mouth covers have been found in the following three graves: grave IX (skeleton no. 72; Plate 1.7), family grave III (skeleton no. 5; Plate 1.1) and child grave XIX (skeleton no. 24; Plate 1.2). In collective grave II (skeletons nos. 30 [Plate 1.5] and 52;), child grave XI (skeleton no. 9; Plate 1.4) and grave VI (skeleton no. 3; Plate 1.6) only eye covers have been recorded. In six graves (I (skeleton no. 23), X (skeleton no. 53 or 54), XII, XIII (skeleton 56), XXIX (skeleton no.10) and XXXII (skeleton no. 16)) only single eye or mouth covers or their fragments have been found.10 10. Pogrebova 1957, 142;1961, 108-110.

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