[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

How I Resurrect the Dead

Barry Ferst
Carroll College

--Barry Ferst
Barry Ferst

Herein I record how I do research and resurrect the dead. For many wannabe scholars, research is a hell of toil, drudgery, misery, and on occasion, worse. Many fail at this task and remain assistant professors--their research molders in a Homeric shadow land of the boring, and the dead they are trying to resurrect just refuse to get out of their dusty tombs. They and the scholar don't smell the blood.

My research is outsider-research, on the model of outsider art, for I am neither a trained archeologist, trained photographer, nor trained art historian, but I do like to travel and talk with all sorts of people. The photos I take are my Greco-Roman stamp collection; what I write comes from my expertise in Greco-Roman philosophy. Though my work is hard work, it is enormous fun, sometimes dangerous, and it may serve as a prototype for faculty trying to get kicked up the academic ladder while trying to get a kick out of life.

What I do is locate, photograph, and write about Roman era sarcophagi--those decorated stone coffins in vogue in the Roman Empire from about 100 to 500 C.E. These sarcophagi are oblong boxes roughly six feet by three and three feet in height with an interior trough for a body. The academic term for a Greek or Roman stone casket is "lithos sarcophagus" from the Greek lithos 'stone,' phagein 'to eat,' and sarx 'flesh,' hence "flesh-eating stone." Such sarcophagi, therefore, are quite different from the Egyptian sarcophagi made of wood and cartonage that congregate in the aisles and halls of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


Marble was the stone of choice, and it came from the Proconnesus, an island in the Sea of Marmara, or Docinimeum (in west-central Turkey), or north of Athens (Pentalic marble), or from Carrara, Italy. The marble was roughed out as a casket on the spot and then shipped to finishing shops in Rome, Arles, and Alexandria. The cheapest boxes might have a couple of garlands carved across the front panel or maybe just a dedication plaque. More expensive boxes would display a battle or a climactic scene from the tales of Achilles, Meleager, Medea, or Persephone. Sometimes the face of Achilles or Persephone would be left unfinished until the sarcophagus was purchased, and then the deceased's face would be added. Other carvings were advertisements for one's faith: a number of sarcophagi are billboards for the resurrection cults of Bacchus and Jesus.

Not only what was carved, but how it was carved can be valued, for often the work rates as fine sculpture. A motif could employ bas relief, high relief, and semi-detached figures. At some point drilling came into fashion to provide stunning shadow effects. Figures interacted with each other (lost after the Roman Empire's fall and not revived until Giotto), and emotions from calm to frenzy were captured both in facial expression and in the clustering of character and action. Exactly executed portraiture and gesture work as well as any contemporary photograph.

In searching out and writing about these sarcophagi, I have given the Empire's dead a chance to live again, maybe not as they had hoped--a comfy troglodyte afterlife in Tartarus, or running barefoot across Elysian Fields, maybe sheltering under a beach umbrella on the sandy shores of the Isles of the Blest, or accompanied by harp eternally singing the praises of a Triune God--but who really does know what the future will bring? I don't think Gaius Calpenius ever once thought that his face, nicely carved on a stone casket, would be stretched three feet by six across a classroom whiteboard. Hortensia Dartina died at fourteen from a pregnancy that went wrong, but my photo of the sarcophagus carving that presents her as Athena Parthenos has her reveling in the brilliant light of a Hewlett Packard computer screen. Even if they could not conceive of it, and who really can conceive of an afterlife, they got one, fully electronic, uploaded, downloaded, pasted on a web site, and burned to a DVD.

My research and travels have been no fly-by-night affairs; they represent three resurrection trips in the U.S. (East Coast, Midwest, and California), and five trips to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. I have driven over eighty thousand miles across four continents searching out museums, churches, archeological sites, castles, and palaces--any place that might have what I needed. Sometimes, completely by chance, I have come across a sarcophagus in a parking lot or under a clutter of bushes.

It is difficult to say when I got interested in Roman sarcophagi. On my first European ventures in the early 1980s, I photographed a few beautifully carved boxes to serve in the collection of pictures used in my philosophy courses. Then in 1990, on a trip which circled through the Mediterranean coast of France, southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, up the Italian boot and back to France, I realized that the carvings on sarcophagi provided an important access into the aesthetic sensibilities and religious beliefs of the peoples of the Roman Empire. I suppose it was a 1995 Christmas trip to Paris, when I spent several afternoons in the Louvre photographing sarcophagi, that I should mark out as the official beginning of my sarcophagus search.

Maybe more needs to be said here. I am one of those academics who is interested in a grand clustering of so many seemingly unrelated things. I like art because a gallery or a concert hall is a haven from the mundane and sexless. I like religion because if anything about fourth century Rome or contemporary American politics is certain, religion is neither mundane nor the opiate of the people. Be it the maenads of Bacchus or Jesus, whether orthopraxy or orthodoxy, religious fervor is erotic. And on many sarcophagi, one's final statement, literally carved in stone, I found a great fusion of art and religion. For a philosopher what better study is there than the fusion of the spiritual and sensual in the human soul--what St. Augustine, the perfect example, failed so completely to understand, but a common laborer did not:

To the eternal memory of Blandinia Martiola, a most faultless girl, who lived eighteen years, nine months, five days, Pompeius Catussa, a plasterer, dedicates to his wife, who was incomparable and very kind to him, this memorial which he had erected during his lifetime for himself and his wife... You who read this, go bathe at the public baths of Apollo for us, as I used to do with my wife. I wish I still could. (CIL 13.1983)

On the model of "outsider art" my research might be called "outsider scholarship." I know that the German scholar G. Rodenwalt had begun cataloguing sarcophagi in the late nineteenth century and that other European researchers such as Franz Cumont, F.W. Diechmann, Andre Graber, and Wilpert had dealt with sarcophagi. Nevertheless, as scholarship goes, there is not the extensive writing on this important subject one might expect, and sadly, there is a paucity of material in English. Excellent work has been done by English and American scholars, but with the exception of Myth, Meaning, and Metaphor on Roman Sarcophagi by Micheal Koortbojian, in the books of Richard Brilliant, Diana Kleiner, Thomas Matthews, Robert Millburn, and Susan Walker, the discussion of sarcophagi is all too often limited to a chapter or two or just a sub-section. I also knew that the Deutsches Archeologisches Institute and Warburg Institute had excellent pictures of sarcophagi in their huge collection of photographs of Roman artifacts.

But I wanted to go and see these boxes; I wanted the experience of trudging into the semi-arid Syrian landscape of Palmyra to see where people found it fit to live and bury their dead. I wanted to find boxes that no one had found, or thought to photograph, or record. And because I have, as they say, "the gift of gab" mixed with the ability to dish the dirt and a great deal of malarkey, I thought I could harvest all sorts of stories from museum staff and site custodians about the sarcophagi they guarded--sort of an oral history to enliven the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. Nor did I ever hesitate to employ a bit of misdemeanor misdirection, if it served to elicit a picture of a sarcophagus or an unpublished fact.

Having begun this project many years ago, I have approximately seven hundred 35mm transparencies (slides), only recently having switched to a digital camera. Digital makes things easier because on the camera's "museum setting" I can shoot in museums that allow photography, but no flash. Moreover, downloading into a computer is much simpler. With slides I have to scan one by one along with making certain size adjustments. With digital, you simply take out the camera's memory card and slip it into the computer SD slot. My photography leaves a great deal to be desired, for I only know how to aim a camera and press the right button. Things get worse when I have to shoot in very low light or when a particular sarcophagus is half-hidden behind a pillar or pile of rubble. But the book I am writing (I am at two thousand photos and four hundred double-spaced pages) is meant to be a catalog, not an art book; it is to be a listing of existing sarcophagi and their location, along with a few remarks about the significance of the decorations on these coffins to the people who originally purchased them. I suppose I am supposed to publish, or at least offer to interested parties, a DVD crammed with thousands of jpegs, but still out there are so many un-recorded sarcophagi, and so many places to visit and re-visit. May the gods give me but a few more years (I go back to Rome over Christmas 2008 and then scour England in 2010) to finish a work that bases its insights into popular culture's two great death wishes--to be remembered and to live on after the autopsy--not on a review of twenty, fifty, or even a hundred sarcophagi, but three thousand visual aids, organized, categorized, and contextualized.

So already for thirteen years now I have tried to work out the present location of sarcophagi using scholarly monographs, books on Roman art and archeology, travel guides and brochures, magazine and newspaper articles, internet sites, and museum handouts. I suppose this is the toil and drudgery part: margins filled with scribbled notes; highlighting and underlining; where, when, and how record keeping in computer files; snail mail letters, and email inquiries. With my terrible Spanish, worse French, and non-existent Bulgarian (my wife has some German), I look for anything that resembles the words "sarcophagus," and "Roman."

The internet has been a great help--I type in key words and phrases such as "Roman sarcophagus," "early Christian sarcophagus," "Dionysus" or "Attis" or "Endymion" or "Jesus sarcophagus." For example, "old Roman Sarcophagus" elicited the website http://www.gorustic.com/captain.htm, which revealed, "Poem From an Old Roman Sarcophagus in Olympos, Aegean Coast, Turkey" with the added information:

This sarcophagus sits under a canopy near the spectacular beach cove of Olympos. It eulogizes Captain Eudemos, evidently working at the time when the Roman Empire used this cove as a shipping center (for among other things the export of sarcophagi).

I could visit web sites of European, Middle Eastern, and North African archeological museums, looking for anything about sarcophagi. (One of my great disappointments was the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt. I knew the museum had sarcophagi, but sadly the website did not bother to mention that the museum was closed for restoration. When I arrived in Alexandria, I learned of the closure. "For how long?" "It's Egypt, maybe ten years. Inshalah.")

After the hard copy and cyberspace desk-search, came the Jack Kerouac on the road search. Usually a new Peugeot leased from France Vacanes would be waiting for my wife and me (and later daughter Sophia) when we landed at the Nice Airport. A box behind the driver's seat would get filled with a couple of bottles of Côtes du Rhône, bread, and three or four kinds of fromage and charcuterie. I carried a day-by-day detailed itinerary listing sites (the same had been filed in the dean's office, as a professor's research constitutes a tax write-off), and lots of maps (you really need local Michelin maps). Traveler's checks (later to be replaced by an ATM card), Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and passports with all the right stamps were carefully stashed under the trunk mat.

Years ago I read that in Mazan, a village northeast of Avignon, the graveyard had fifty Roman sarcophagi. On a 1997 Christmas trip I got within seven miles of the town, but had to turn back because of a freak snowstorm. Ten years later, last summer, I finally got to that graveyard and, yes, there were the fifty sarcophagi, but only two had carving on them. The city fathers had used the caskets as a stone border for the modern graveyard.

In Agen, a small town in southeast France, the chapter house of the cathedral supposedly had a paleo-Christian sarcophagus. When I got there not only were the doors bolted, but the locks looked like they had not been opened since the Cathars were burning at the stake. "St. Emilion, jewel of a village just east of Bordeaux, has sarcophagi behind the church in the catacombs." "How do you know?" "Grandmere told me." But there were no sarcophagi, and the "jewel" was a tourist mecca for the wealthy since it was the center of St. Emilion vintages.

How about this for directions for searching out a paleo-Christian sarcophagus: "South of Mirande, isolated in a field between Berdoues and Belloc, is the tiny rustic chapel of St. Clemens--the key is kept at the farmhouse opposite." And upon locating this field with its padlocked chapel, I then go searching for the right farmhouse which is not exactly opposite and after thirty minutes find a very nice lady who has the key "but first you must have a piece blueberry cake," and a phenomenally hostile drove of cats.

At Narbonne I met good people and bad. The lapidary museum at Notre Dame de Moutguie was closed for restoration. Scaffolding, brick, tools, and machinery lay about, and everywhere men in hard hats were yelling, "no entrance." And yet after ten minutes of begging, the foreman stopped all work and said go ahead, and so, hard hat attached, I shot my photos amid the dust and dangling electrical wires. But when I went to the Archeological Museum, a quite beautifully displayed affair, no photos. No photos was so strictly enforced that not only did each room have its guard, but visitors were followed by doddering old men who scolded if you tried to go back to a room previously visited. This was the only one-way museum I have ever visited in the hundreds I have toured. No explanation or pleading could convince anyone to allow a couple of photographs.

On one trip, my wife and three-year-old daughter tracked with me a path through Turkey that began at the border with Greece, swung south through Cannakale, to Ephesus, Pergamon, Aphrodisias, Heliopolis, then along the Mediterranean coast through Assos (where Aristotle had set up his first school) to Antakya, and then to Antioch (where the word "Christian" was first used). Being innocents abroad, we taxied into Syria across the Turkish border, and in a rented 1980 Volkswagen Fox that I kept alive with a vice grips securing a loose carburetor screw, drove out to Palmyra and finally down to Damascus. Along the way, at a picnic grounds somewhere in Turkey, a hostile fellow with a gun wanted to go through our backpacks, but the people we had been gabbing with stopped him and we hopped into our car and took off to some small archeological site just past miles of tomato farms. On the roadway from the Turkish border with Syria to Aleppo, small clusters of soldiers, signaling with their machine guns that we ought to give them a few dinar, provided my family with enough sense of a great adventure to fill several travel journals or empty a vial or two of Valium.

Sometimes it was a matter of driving one-lane roads or less because someone said there was something of interest a few miles down. Was it exciting trying to get to Constantine, Algeria, when a randomly paved road suddenly disappeared from the landscape but not from the map? A man with camels in the road's end village seemed to say in an argot maybe resembling French to go this way on this two-track. So I turned the car toward distant Bedouin tents only to be rescued a few minutes later by a young fellow in a fender-less Toyota, saying if I keep going in this direction I may end up dead by Bedouin hands in a Bedouin tent with a TV antenna poking through its camel hair fabric that indicated civilization if not civility. (At that point the Latin tomb inscription--sit tibi terra levis 'may the earth lie lightly upon you'--took on whole new meaning.) That same savior then led my wife and me back to the right road where the map kicked back into reality, and then he offered up a dinner invitation at his home.

There are a few museums that are repositories for a great number of sarcophagi, and here I might spend several hours to several days recording what was on display. These museums are the Vatican Museum with approximately 150 sarcophagi on display, the Capitoline and Terme, the Louvre, the Antique Arles Archeological Museum, Istanbul Archeological Museum, and the Aphrodisias Museum (Aphrodisias archeological site, Turkey). A few museums or sites had a not-to-be-missed sarcophagus, and I think here of the Rijksmuseum (Leiden) or the civic museum in Velletri.

Many photos were easy to get: I walked into the Louvre and started shooting. At the Istanbul Archeological museum or at Palmyra photos were possible only under the auspices of the all-powerful Asiatic god, Baksheesh. Twice before I had been at the Istanbul museum, and the room that held a great cache of sarcophagi was closed and here it was the third time I stood at a barred door. But a guard seeing my frustration said the doors could be opened for a mere $10. Okay, and to my amazement he began ushering museum visitors out of the hall in which we were standing and when that was done, he opened the "forbidden" door to the hall of sarcophagi. I had ten minutes and I shot without focusing, and then a second guard came in demanding another $10.

At Thessalonica I worked from guard, to custodian, to junior curator, to senior researcher, and finally to the "Superintendent of Roman Antiquities" until I finally got permission to photograph the sarcophagi out back but not on display. In Hama, Syria, a young archaeologist showed me a wooden sarcophagus no one was supposed to know about. (I correspond with a German archeologist, who wondered how I got the photograph. "My team has been trying for years! How in hell did you...." I got it by spending an hour with the fellow, talking about Levi blue jeans and Ford Mustangs. He in turn made sure that the museum director was safely put away in his office drinking his afternoon tea.) In Constantine/Cirta in Algeria, the third floor of the museum, the floor I needed, was closed. "We're sorry, but it is closed to the public." "But I am not the public; I am a professor at a prestigious American college." And the next morning I was met by a small contingent of men in not completely shabby suits and formally escorted through the halls of the third floor while receiving copious explanations in Maghrib Arabic (of which I know maybe ten words) and broken French. But I got my pictures.

I knew that Farfa Abbey just east of Rome had a sarcophagus or two. I had known that for several years, but had always passed it by on a rush to Calabria or Sicily. So at one p.m. on July 3, 2007, I walked into the Abbey church looking about for the sarcophagus, and was informed that I could come back at four to photograph but I could not photograph now because afternoon prayers were just about to begin. But coming back at four meant hanging about for three hours, and therefore losing three hours. So I had to lie, but I needed a lie that would get me to that sarcophagus. So I asked for the Superior and explained that I needed to photograph now ("But that is impossible"), because I had an important engagement at the Vatican at two. I got my pictures.

Sometimes I shot in no-photo museums. There are various ways to do this. Before I leave for a trip, I produce all sorts of fake documents--for instance letters of introduction that say nothing, decorated with curious stamps and signatures that never fail to impress. I also create fascinating Press IDs. If computers and flatbed scanners fail, in my workshop I can employ an Exacto-knife and rubber cement. (Recently, I crafted an "Educator's Pass" for my wife in our room at the Nile Hilton.) Wearing a good suit, preferably in no-nonsense black, is an impressive admissions ticket. With a digital camera set at "no flash, low light," I can take a photo without a burst of lightning on security's television screens alerting guards. Sometimes my wife or daughter simply ran interference for me, keeping curator, guard, or some other less-than-official official busy.

At the Uffizi in Florence, there is a strict policy against any sort of photography, and so a letter was faxed to the director of antiquities, regarding who I was and what I wanted, and by return fax I was told to come the next Monday when the Museum was closed and with an escort I would be allowed to photograph the six sarcophagi on display. I spent two hours and had just finished when two gentle old gentlemen scurried out from somewhere with an even older key and opened a perennially closed room in which were four more sarcophagi. And once in a while, no matter what I did, beg, plead, or ruse, I simply failed. I did what I had to do, even if a bit of larceny was involved, because I firmly believe this material should not be hidden, and that interested parties of all sorts should have access to these items and not be in debt to the tremendous time and cost to visit these museums, churches, and archeological sites. And along with the photos came my attempt to understand what the stories and symbols carved on the sarcophagi meant to the people who eighteen hundred years ago purchased these stone coffins. Why would anyone want a depiction, no matter how beautifully sculpted, of Persephone's rape or Meleager's murder? Why would someone want to resurrect the fact that she belonged to the cult of a god who was beaten, rejected, and crucified? Why would someone believe that a stone picture (the original litho-graph) of an open door or a parted curtain, or a procession of fantastic sea creatures would signal to a passerby that the deceased had gone on to paradise?

Of course, why would anyone believe that after he dies, he is still alive? Or that death was simply a long, deep sleep until she would be awakened as a glorified spirit or a perfected body? My interest is in what the art on sarcophagi can tell me about the philosophical and religious beliefs of the interred--and maybe about ours, too. And as I did this research, I began to feel as if I were bringing the Roman dead alive again. Okay, that's eerie, or maybe a bit too mystical, poetic, or romantic, but I have lived with these dead so long, they have become alive for me. I read Gaius' epitaph, and Gaius is speaking to me. Here is another sarcophagus, a child's, decorated with a cortege of sea creatures, and in it once lay Hortensia, dead at fourteen, lovely and so dear to her parents. As they come alive again, alive even to a stranger, they have gained in some small measure the immortality for which so many of them had wished. I suppose this is what humanists do when they do research--they resurrect others.

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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