Throughout the history of ancient Rome, both burial (inhumation) and cremation were used as methods for disposing of the dead. In the early imperial period, cremation was the preferred method. Survivors of the deceased collected the cremated remains (ossa or cinerēs) of the dead and deposited the combination of ash and bone fragments in vessels typically identified as cinerary urns, altars, chests, or ossuaries. Although used by all strata of society in metropolitan Rome during the early imperial period, cinerary urns demonstrate predominantly the artistic achievements and interests of Rome’s slaves, freed slaves, and new Roman citizens born from formerly enslaved families. Cinerary urns were produced in an array of forms (e.g., altars, chests, and vases) and materials ranging from terracotta and glass to alabaster and granite, but white marble vases and chests (cineraria) are the most prevalent to survive from antiquity. Overlooked and understudied in scholarship on the art of slaves and freedmen, marble cinerary urns are valuable for study because they functioned as both practical and ritual objects that preserved the cremated remains of the deceased and commemorated their social identities after death. These marble vessels also continued to serve as devotional objects for the living who maintained the funerary cult of the dead.
For art historians, the relief decoration on marble cineraria is exceptional for its rich imagery and so-called “plebeian style,” but also for technical details of the sculpting (i.e., tool marks) that are detectable upon close examination. These tool marks and the varying states of completed carving reveal significant information about the objects and their production as well as the sculptors or stoneworkers who made them. Combined with the epigraphic information from inscriptions on these urns, it is possible to examine and reconstruct the production of marble cineraria in a broad sense and establish relationships among different urns with similar marble sculpture, particularly funerary altars, reliefs, and small sarcophagi. This ScholarBlog presents ongoing research on the production of marble cinerary urns from metropolitan Rome and detailed analyses of their relief decoration.