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Original scientific paper

Diocletian’s Porphyry Sarcophagus (?)

Zrinka Buljević ; Arheološki muzej u Splitu

Full text: croatian pdf 604 Kb

page 429-441

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Full text: english pdf 604 Kb

page 429-441

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Diocletian was divinised after his death, which took place between 313 and 316, and was buried in the mausoleum of his Split residence. From the credible Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Res gestae XVI, 8, 3-7), from his description of a plot that included fornication, false accusations of theft of the purple curtain from Diocletian’s grave and an execution, we learn that his tomb was still not desecrated in the mausoleum in 356, at the time of Emperor Constantius II. In 356 Constantius II promulgated two laws against paganism in which the making of sacrifices and using the temples for cult purposes were banned under pain of death. In the same year, however, he also issued a law strictly forbidding the desecration of graves. Nenad Cambi, following Kähler, hypothesises that his tomb was a porphyry sarcophagus, with a lid in the form of a roof with two pitches, located in the eastern rectangular niche of the cella, removed, and smashed to pieces in the 5th or 6th century after the mausoleum was converted to Christian use.
According to I. Basić the mausoleum in which the emperor’s grave was housed in a cell or in a crypt, survived until the 6th century, without any important modifications, at which time it was converted into a church. He thinks that the emperor’s mortal remains were removed only when the Christians took over the mausoleum, probably in the mid-6th century, at the time of the Emperor Justinian, when it was consecrated as a Christian cult structure meant for the celebration of SS. Cosmas and Damian. E. Marin believes that the sarcophagus was destroyed during the destruction of the Split Palace by Totila the Ostrogoth in 549, after which the mausoleum was closed until it was repurposed as church, or cathedral, in the 1st half of the 7th century. F. Bulić hypothesised that Diocletian was buried in a porphyry sarcophagus located in the centre of the cella of the mausoleum, while the eastern semicircular niches had probably been intended for the sarcophagi of his wife and daughter.
In the porphyry fragments found around the mausoleum were parts of the architecture of the palace, not bits of a sarcophagus. H. Kähler held that the emperor was buried in a non-figural porphyry sarcophagus smashed when the mausoleum was being converted to a church, the remains of it being kept among other porphyry fragments in the yard of the Archaeological Museum in Split. He supposed that it was of the same shape as sarcophagi from Constantinople. E. Marin last published descriptions of porphyry fragments that might have been parts of a sarcophagus transported from the burned-down Old Bishop’s Place, in the opinion that these were the same parts that Bulić had found. Three fragments might have been at the top of the lid, one of which is a possible acroterium, with smoothed surfaces at a right angle; one is a fragment of the top of a roof with smoothed surfaces at an obtuse angle; and two are moulded fragments of the possible lower part of the chest. The key fragment is that the surfaces of which intersect at an obtuse angle. Marin too accepts Kähler’s interpretation of the shape of the sarcophagus with a lid shaped like a dual pitched roof, of the kind that were common in the Constantine period and are kept in Constantinople; M. Klein holds that this is the fragment of the lid of probably Diocletian’s sarcophagus, while G. Koch says it is to do with a smooth chest of a sarcophagus with a lid in the shape of a roof imported from Alexandria. If these are indeed fragments of a sarcophagus, Marin sees in the three fragments the smoothed surfaces of which meet at a right angle parts of a different, similar sarcophagus; in the two fragments with mouldings, he sees the foot of one of two sarcophagi – Diocletian’s or, perhaps, Prisca’s. He is willing to accept both hypotheses concerning the location of Diocletian’s sarcophagus, that of Bulić, in the centre of the cella, and Kähler’s, in the eastern niche, with Prisca’s in the right lateral niche.
These porphyry fragments, from among some sixty, are kept in the Archaeological Museum in Split, where they were systematically processed in 2011 to determine what they belonged to. All the fragments were photographed and 3D-scanned with a high precision scanner (0.2 mm), a Konica Minolta VI-910, in order for us to be able to put the volumes together to show the unit that they might have belonged to. But by manipulation of the fragments, no fit was obtained. The character of the fractures indicates deliberate smashing. According to the colour and texture of the fragments, three types of porphyry can be distinguished. Here the fragments with worked or smoothly polished surfaces of light porphyry with small white grains in the structure of the material, type 1 porphyry, the surfaces of which intersect at right or obtuse angles are distinguished from the profiled fragments. Fragment inv. no. AMS-38373/2, the surfaces of which intersect at an obtuse angle, might be a part of the lid of a sarcophagus. Fragments inv. no. AMS-38373/42, AMS-38373/43, AMS-38373/44 the surfaces of which intersect at a right angle might be fragments of a sarcophagus. If they were parts of a sarcophagus, then two profiled fragments, inv. no. AMS 38373/1 and AMS-38373/32 and might be fitted into its base. But we would remark that these fragments are not well polished, unlike those mentioned above. The surfaces of the key fragment, that which Kähler hypothesised to have been a fragment of Diocletian’s sarcophagus, which later researchers have followed, which we have exhibited in the lapidarium (inv. no. AMS-38373/2) intersect at an obtuse angle of 110° to 106° 53’. This imaging revealed nothing essentially new, the fragments of the possible sarcophagus do not join on any single surface, the only thing is that they have been documented. It is to be expected that Diocletian was after all buried in a porphyry sarcophagus. Only the fragment the surfaces of which cut at an obtuse angle suggests the possibility, for it is impossible to imagine any other architectural form the surfaces of which cut at this angle. Considering all that is said, we cannot, alas, confirm the hypothesis that the other porphyry fragments in the Archaeological Museum in Split are parts of a sarcophagus, and cannot conclude even which other architectural form these fragments might belong to.


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