Early Christian Necropolis Project, 2018 and 2019 seasons

Written by Dr. Anna Sitz 

2018 Grave Context 21, carved in the bedrock. A. Sitz

While pagan worship at the sanctuary of Zeus Labraundos most likely ended in the fourth century CE, occupation of the site of Labraunda continued into the Byzantine period and beyond. The architectural remains of two churches and evidence for habitation within some of the ancient structures of the site offer hints about the nature of the early Christian settlement there. The surprise discovery in 2018 of the Tetraconch necropolis (cemetery), which most likely dates to the late antique period offers a glimpse of life and death at early Christian Labraunda.

Tetraconch bath, with hypocaust heating system. J. Blid (Labraunda 4: Remains of Late Antiquity 2016), Fig. 31 and 37 

The landscape around the ancient site is dotted with rock-cut tombs dating from the Classical through the Roman period. Many of these graves were carved directly into the bedrock and covered by very large sarcophagus-style lids, made from a single piece of stone. These tombs were therefore quite visible, and many were robbed long ago. Little evidence of Christian burial at Labraunda has been identified – until now. Excavation next to the Tetraconch bath building (constructed c. 300-350 CE) has revealed fifteen graves belonging to men, women, and children. These graves indicate a change in land usage around the former bath, which ceased to function around 500 CE. The graves are oriented on an east-west axis, with the heads of the deceased at the west and arms crossed over the abdomen, as is common in Christian practice. Most of the graves were marked on the surface by crosses carved onto reused bricks, which were inserted into the ground like a tombstone. The crosses were etched onto the bricks with a sharp implement, indicating the communal Christian identity of the deceased at late antique Labraunda. On the surface, an outline of the burial below was also made out of stones.

Drone photo of the 2019 trench with eight opened graves. O. Henry

This manner of marking the graves was a departure from earlier practice, but the essential characteristics of the early Christian graves at Labraunda draw on cultural traditions stretching back to the Classical period at the site. The Christian graves are also carved into the bedrock; the burial cavity was then covered over with smaller stone slabs and then with dirt. Although the bedrock is fairly soft in the area of the necropolis, the decision to carve into the bedrock for the burials indicates an investment of time and resources into the graves in order to bury people in the local fashion. The 2019 season furthermore revealed that two of the graves were used for more than one burial. After the first individual had been buried for some time, the grave was re-opened, the bones of the first individual were pushed towards the foot of the grave, and a second deceased individual was laid into the grave. The habit of reusing graves was common in earlier periods as well.

2019 Grave Context 9, with brick grave marker. A cross can be seen on the brick. A. Sitz

Both the ancient and early Christian graves lack inscriptions identifying the deceased within. This anonymity is uncommon in Asia Minor, where the name of the deceased and additional identifying information was frequently inscribed on stone. At Labraunda, even wealthy ancient burials and the monumental Built Tomb, probably for a member of the Hekatomnid family in the fourth century BCE, do not have inscribed memorials. The lack of inscriptions for the early Christian burials, therefore, does not necessarily indicate illiteracy or an exceptionally poor population, but may rather be an element of local taste.

One major change in the funerary practice did take place in the early Christian period, however. The habit of burying grave goods (ceramic vessels, jewelry, coins) with the body ceased for the most part, although exceptions occurred. Most of the graves of the Tetraconch necropolis had no grave goods at all, but one, excavated in 2019, included a remarkably well-preserved iron comb, probably used for textile production on a loom, positioned on the individual’s abdomen.

2019 Grave Context 14, with the bones of the first deceased individual at the east. A. Sitz

 2019 Grave Context 13, with the cranium and other bones of the first deceased individual at the east. A.Sitz

Study of the skeletal material and excavation finds is on-going and is expected to provide additional information on the date, health, and nutrition of the dead at Byzantine Labraunda.

2018 Grave Context 24, a child grave, before opening. A. Sitz

Iron comb probably for a loom, from 2019 Grave Context 14. R. Chevallier

Members of the excavation team, 2019

Excavation in progress, 2019. G. de Bats

This work was carried out as a subproject of the Labraunda Excavation, headed by Olivier Henry, with the financial support of Dumbarton Oaks, Akmed, and the SFB 933 of the Universität Heidelberg. Research on the skeletal material is being carried out by Yilmaz Selim Erdal and Demet Delibaş, and the project has been assisted by various specialists, students, and local participants.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016