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Object in focus: the ash chest (cinerarium) of Aelia Postumia and her husband

GR.56.1850

GR.56.1850,
the ash chest (cinerarium)
of Aelia Postumia and her
husband

This intricately decorated Luna marble ash chest (cinerarium), dating to the first century AD, served as the final resting place for Aelia Postumia and her husband. These chests were among the most popular burial vessels of the first and second centuries AD, a time when cremation was the most common funerary custom. The remains of the deceased would have been placed inside the chest, sometimes with personal effects such as jewellery. The chests are usually found in columbaria; this word originally meant ‘dovecot’, a reference to the appearance of the niches in the walls which housed the chests. This cinerarium originally comes from Italy; they were popular collectors' items during the Grand Tour and a great many of those brought to England at this time survive in both museum and private collections.

What is it?

The chest originally held the cremated remains of Aelia Postumia and her husband. The inscription is placed in between and around the decoration on the front face of the chest and reads ‘Aelia Postumia, born a slave, made (it) for herself and her very dear husband with whose kind self she lived twenty-three years’. The name of the husband does not appear on the body of the chest but may have been inscribed on the lid, perhaps with a dedication to the Shades. Ash chests provided a way for former slaves to demonstrate their new status and wealth and were therefore understandably very popular amongst freed members of society. Aelia Postumia’s reference to her past on this beautiful and expensive marble monument perhaps shows her pride in her success.

What is depicted?

This cinerarium rests on four low feet. At each corner a break can be seen where the iron dowels, which once held on the missing lid, have been broken away. At these corners are ox-skulls, or boukrania, with their horns bound with fillets. Boukrania refer to the ritual of sacrificing oxen; they are a recurrent Roman motif and are often found on these vessels as well as on altars. Between the boukrania on all four sides hang heavy garlands of fruit, flowers, leaves and grains. Garlands are a common decoration for ash chests and may act as a symbol of fertility and renewal. Above the garlands, on the front and back of the chest, a bird tries to catch the fluttering ends of the fillets. On the other sides, the birds are replaced by Gorgon’s heads which were a popular motif used to ward off evil. Below the garlands on all sides are pairs of birds; the scene on the front depicts a pair fighting over a lizard whilst on the back the birds drink from small pot. The scene on the right side shows one bird teasing its partner with a worm and on the left side one bird holds a moth in its beak and the other a seedpod. This natural decoration evokes a sense of peacefulness in death, appropriate for an eternal resting place.

Object number: GR.56.1850