A Sex Change and a Missing Person: A Funeral on the Cheap in Ancient Greece

Sex Change Sarcophagus

“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll be happy.
If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.“ –Socrates

I love intellectuals with a sense of humor, and when the curators of the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens included this sarcophagus in their collection, they scored a goal with me. Funerals were serious business in ancient Greece, but I can’t imagine looking closely at this coffin without grinning.

The sarcophagus started life as a beautifully carved vault for the remains of a couple. The next person on stage was a starving artist with an overactive chisel. And before we know it, the guy  gets cut out all together and reduced to a group of papyrus scrolls. After a bit of rock-hammer nip and tuck, the lovely lady is reduced to pure Athenian androgyny, then her head was lopped off and replaced with the cue ball cranium of the benefactor.

Man becomes papyrus scrolls

The fact that this sarcophagus wasn’t broken into roadway gravel is amazing enough, but to somehow end up in a world-class archaeology museum makes the tale even funnier. I can hear the artist now: “Don’t worry, it looks just like you. I’m sure no one will notice.”

It’s weird to be sure, and the audacity of it all makes it wonderful as well: a Greek sculptor’s answer to photoshopping. Who knew?

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

James as an Athenian

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

42 thoughts

    1. It’s pretty obvious huh? How many opportunities come along to mix classic antiquities and humor? All the info on this post, except the Socrates quote, came from the museum placard. And actually, I’d love to know more about the history, like why the sarcophagus was available to be be recycled. ~James

  1. And, is the bottom photo, of that handsome dude, taken at Ostia Antica? Or, on second look, maybe not. I mean the location, not the description of the bloke. 🙂

    1. Ding, ding, ding! You got it in one Yvonne. Very observant of you. Have you been to Ostia recently? If I remember correctly, this bench was just outside the small museum/cafe building. ~James

    1. You’re so right Amit. Given their massive contributions to Western Civilization, I always think of the Greeks as a race of intellectuals. But this sarcophagus demonstrates that there were a few practical folks around. ~James

    1. It’s impossible to know the whole story on this sarcophagus Laura, but it’s darned funny anyway. The sculptor wasn’t particularly kind to the guy, and with his chipped nose and chewed-up ears, it looks like he’s been through the mill. ~James

  2. There is quite a lot of dodgy looking stuff in museums in my opinion. Apparently some people don’t even rate the Venus de Milo but I don’t think I have ever seen that!

    1. I agree Andrew, but what normally happens is that as one goes down the museum food chain, the exhibits get to be lesser quality. So the confusing thing in this case is that as an archaeology museum, the one in Athens has to be very near the top. But a bit of comic relief never hurts. ~James

    1. Thanks Anita. I had to scratch my head to come up with the title, and I’m glad you liked it. I think that titles are important and sometimes for me, they’re the hardest part of writing a post. All the best to you and Richard for the New Year. ~James

    1. You can’t really tell from the photo, but the mounting of the head was pretty slipshod, which makes it even funnier. And remember, that this piece sits in one of the premier archaeology museums in the world. Pretty weird, but it makes a funny story. ~James

  3. Lol! Perfect photoshop indeed by the ancient Greeks! Yes someone probably lost their job over this one! Thanks for sharing and for making us smile: )

  4. It is interesting to me that the sarcophagus was allowed to be “enhanced”. I love the stories you bring to life with your posts. Looking forward to your 2015 adventures.

    1. Thanks LuAnn. With all the wacky stuff that went on with this sarcophagus, it made this story particularly fun for me. tI gave me a whole new level of respect for Greek sculptors. ~James

    1. I hadn’t thought of that Veronica, but this could be the first sculpture of a transvestite. Hard to say though. They had lots of kookie ideas back “in the Olden days” (as my nieces say). All the best in Sicily for 2015. ~James

  5. If your photo depicts the Greek version of Photoshopping, would the modern version of sarcophagus sculpture be a post-mortem facelift? Both ideas seem kind of goofy, I think, but I just can hear the sarcophagus-side viewers mumbling, ‘He looks good, don’t you think?’ 🙂 – Mike

    1. I love a good pun Mike – I really do. This sarcophagus was funny for so many reasons, and I must admit that it was a breath of fresh air in a serious, world-class museum. ~James

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