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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Phoenician mortuary practices of the Achaemenid Period

The Phoenicians as a politically, religiously, and perhaps even ethnically distinct entity on the Levantine coast emerged at the end of the Late Bronze Age about 1200 BCE, as one of the successor cultures to the Canaanites.  From their homeland on the coast of the Levant, the Phoenicians spread throughout the Mediterranean and its islands including Cyprus, Sicily and Malta. Some scholars have observed that Iron Age Phoenicia was not a nation, but rather a collection of cities built around natural harbors along the coast. While they shared a common culture, these small states remained independent, competing with each other in the international marketplace. 

"Depending on how evidence is weighed [based on Ugaritic texts and classical sources], Phoenician religion might be presented on the one hand as inclusive and diverse – a “conservatively” polytheistic society easily able to incorporate or syncretize new deities, customs and traditions or on the other hand as highly place-specific – a model in which Phoenicians were devoted to city-gods only, with little shared pantheon above the local or regional scale," Helen Dixon, University of Michigan, observes.

This variety in religious practices initially resulted in the use of both cremation and inhumation in mortuary practices and funerary art often expressed influences by non-Phoenician ruling administrations like New Kingdom Egyptians, Assyrians, and Achaemenid Persians.  By the Achaemenid period, however, adult cremation abruptly disappears from sites in the Phoenician cultural sphere.  This corresponds with the increasing importance of Zoroastrianism in the 5th century BCE. In Zoroastrianism, water (aban) and fire (atar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. A corpse is considered a host for decay. Consequently, scripture enjoins the safe disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the good creation.

For inhumation burials, the use of sarcophagi during the Achaemenid period along with epigraphic evidence points to a consistent and insistent emphasis on the integrity of the burial. Deities, including Astarate, are invoked to assist with the procurement of blessings and to enforce curses and righteousness is defined by political accomplishments or the building of religious shrines.  Although Egyptian iconography persisted, it was supplemented by Persian iconography. A paucity of grave goods was referenced in inscriptions as a deterrent to grave robbing and what few ceramic vessels have been found in Phoenician burials have been ceremonially broken. Wealthier burials, though, apparently included the use of expensive resins such as myrrh to anoint, perfume or preserve the body and the deceased were dressed in special garments with head ornaments, particularly royal women whose head ornament was described as a gold bridle. However, there apparently were no extensive preparations for a “next life,” no large quantities of food or drink on which to survive or any biographical depictions or texts to accompany the dead. With the exception of the occasional appearance of amulets or other possibly apotropaic items, there was no preparation for an encounter with an underworld deity or space or expectation of  a future meeting one's deceased ancestors.

Read more about it in Dixon's dissertation, "Phoenician Mortuary Practice in the Iron Age I – III (ca. 1200 – ca. 300 BCE) Levantine “Homeland”:

https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/99972

Sarcophagus made from Greek marble. burial grounds of Antarados, northern Lebanon. 480-450 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor McLeod

Anthropoid sarcophagi, from Sidon, 5th century BCE, National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon courtesy of Carole Raddato.


Phoenician sarcophagus of the fifth century BCE, from the Carthaginian colonization of Sicily. Discovered in Palermo. Regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.



Sarcophagus of Eshmunazar II, king of Sidon, Phoenicia, ca first quarter of the 5th century BC.E. at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Fred Romero.

Marble anthropoid sarcophagus, last quarter of the 5th century B.C.E., Graeco-Phoenician found on Cyprus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.




Phoenician sarcophagus of the fifth century BCE, from the Carthaginian colonization of Sicily. Discovered in Palermo. Regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.



Marble anthropoid sarcophagus, last quarter of the 5th century B.C.E., Graeco-Phoenician found on Cyprus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Phoenician marble sarcophagus found in Cádiz. Spain, 5th century BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Professor Ángel M. Felicísimo, University of Mérida.

Phoenician marble sarcophagus found in Cádiz. Spain, 5th century BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Professor Ángel M. Felicísimo, University of Mérida.


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