Visiting St Paul’s Catacombs in Malta – Part 3: The Rituals

I visited St Paul’s catacombs in the first week of this year. It turned out to be a much more exciting experience than I had expected, so I decided to write a short series of articles about it. This is the third and final part where I explore the burial rites linked to the people’s changing perceptions of a proper burial. Such changing attitudes towards death shed some light on the shifting identification preferences during life. If you missed the first and second parts of the series, you can read them here: “Part 1: History” and “Part 2: The Name”. Let’s dive into the world of ancient funeral rituals!

Replicas in a tomb displaying one way of burial (St Paul’s Catacombs Museum, my photo)

Who Are You?

There were several ways one could be buried. While cremations were simple, a full body inhumation, like the one reproduced in the picture above, was usually accompanied by a vast array of mostly household objects. However, one of the most important questions remained – who was the person buried here? This is where shifting preferences in funeral types and rituals can tell us something about the way people perceived identity. What were the so-called identity markers found at burial sites, such as the St Paul’s catacombs?

“Containing hundreds of tombs, burial in catacombs changed the way people perceived burial. The need to be seen and commemorated as an individual seems to have abated. Instead, we see the striving of group identity and the desire to be seen as part of a group.”

Heritage Malta at the St Paul’s Catacombs Museum

This suggests that to answer the question ‘who you are’ when looking at someone’s last resting place, you first had to determine where that person ‘belonged’ – what was their religion, trade, social standing, and so on. It wasn’t so important to commemorate individual achievements of the buried person. Instead, it was more meaningful to demonstrate and perhaps even celebrate social and cultural associations of that person.  

“The Valeria Inscription” from the 4th-8th centuries AD (St Paul’s Catacombs Museum, my photo)

This commemorative inscription is one of the few examples in Malta where the name of the buried person is made known. The text itself, however, is more of a dedication to the named benefactors who erected the tomb for the deceased. It reads: “Fufica Galena and Curtius Diadoumenos, husband and wife erected [this tomb] for the well deserving Valeria” (Heritage Malta). Can you make out the image of what looks like a dove with a branch in its beak, just at the bottom of the inscription?

Why did group identities become more important? It is hard to tell. But being part of a group during life meant being taken care of in death, too. By far not everyone could afford sumptuous individual tombs. Perhaps changes in identification preferences followed the changes in social structure and hierarchies. Maybe being remembered and celebrated as an individual became increasingly expensive and itself a sign of belonging to a privileged elite. It is always difficult (if not impossible) to determine which change in society is a cause and which an effect, but when new needs emerge, relevant offers to meet those needs follow.

For example, if you were a surgeon, you could become a member of a medical profession’s guild and count on being buried in a dedicated spot in a catacomb (or its section) reserved just for your group. An illustration of such group identity marker in the St Paul’s catacombs is this stone slab showing surgeon’s instruments, making clear who ‘belongs’ in the tombs here.

At the St Paul’s catacombs in Malta (my photo)

Alternatively, if you did not manage to enter any of such groups and still wanted to be sure about your final resting place, your need was met by a special service called collegium funeraticium. For a relatively small annual fee, you could ensure yourself a decent burial with proper commemoration and a tomb with upkeep. Maybe that is what Valeria did. 

keep exploring!  

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