BMCR 2006.04.14

The Painted Coffers of the Ostrusha Tomb

Julia Valeva, The painted coffers of the Ostrusha tomb. Sofia, Bulgaria: Bulgarski Khudozhnik Publ, 2005. 200 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 9544061274 €40.00 (pb).

The tomb under the so-called Ostrusha tumulus, discovered in 1993, is a remarkable addition to the growing corpus of Thracian material culture. The paintings preserved on its coffered ceiling, the subject of the present monograph, place it in a very small group of painted tombs of Hellenistic Thrace whose two best-known representatives lie, one near Sveshtari, the other in the valley of Kazanlak (map, fig. 1).1 These tombs, each part of an extensive necropolis, mark the burials of élite members of the Odrysian Kingdom. The Odrysians are best known among the Thracian tribes, thanks to a relative abundance of Greek literary sources that speak to their interaction with the Greeks and in particular with their neighbors, the Macedonians. Thucydides has this to say: “… it became a very powerful kingdom. Indeed, in financial resources and general prosperity [the Odrysian kingdom] was the greatest of all European powers between the Ionian Gulf and the Euxine”. Indeed, it is the hoards of gold and silver vessels and jewelry that currently characterize Thracian society (much of it, strictly speaking, Odrysian) through an ongoing parade of constantly updated exhibitions criss-crossing much of the western world.2 The paintings of the Ostrusha Tomb will never intrigue the public at large in similar fashion; nothing compares to gold. But their publication forms a most welcome addition to the scholarly literature on Thracian material culture, mercifully translated by the author into English, that will interest a wide range of specialists, particularly those interested in “Homeric” themes.

Archaeological excavation in Bulgarian Thrace began in the late nineteenth century. It was followed by a burst of digging activity after World War II and then finally, by today’s phase of investigation that currently forms a booming enterprise shared by energetic archaeologists vying with their grubbing counterparts, the omnipresent looters. It was unfortunately the latter who found the Ostrusha Tomb (beaten to it by the Romans), though excavation was subsequently carried out under the direction of Giorgi Kitov. In view of a potentially narrow distribution of this monograph on its coffers, an introductory description of the tomb and its paintings seems in order.

Valeva (henceforth V.) in her first chapter gives an overview of the unusual architecture of the funerary complex in anticipation of its final publication by the excavator. The complex consists first and foremost of a rectangular monolithic burial chamber (measuring outside ca. 3.53 by 2.47 by 3.37 m. in height) resting on a three-stepped podium with east-west orientation. Above is a monolithic gabled roof, dentilated on three sides, and on its long south side a framed doorway. The chamber was looted in antiquity but V. plausibly dates its occupancy on stylistic grounds to “the years around 330-310” (p. 166). Inside, against the chamber’s north wall, is a stone-built kline with carved legs whose front face is carved and painted with various motifs, now invisible but described by the excavator as a “lion’s paw, bucrania, ivy leaves and floral motifs” (p. 12, n. 7). The burial chamber was subsequently incorporated, perhaps soon after, into a rectangular, multi-room complex (measuring ca. 14.19 by 7.94 m.) that consists of three rectangular chambers (one of which contained a horse burial in addition to iron weapons, silver harness fittings, and silver and bronze vessels, unpublished) plus a circular room, possibly a heroon. A deposit of five terracotta antefixes and a jumble of coarse wares (storage jars, stamped amphorae, and other pots, also unpublished, but see Chapter 1, figs. 8, 10-12) was laid just outside the monument before it was covered over by the tumulus. To round out her first chapter, V. discusses the various affinities the burial chamber shares with building traditions of the Thracians, Achaemenids, and Greeks, noting particularly its marked similarity with the well-known tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. But it is the coffered ceiling, carved and painted on the underside of the roof, that occupies the remainder of the monograph.

The rectangular stone ceiling was carved, then plastered and painted in imitation of wooden joists separated by the painted coffer panels. Damage to the surface of the coffers is extensive. Vandalism in antiquity only began the destruction that has led to severe loss of painted surfaces, entirely on the south and east perimeters, intermittently elsewhere. As to decoration, a sequence along the perimeter consists of twenty-two square coffers (ca. 0.20 m. on a side) including a flower at each corner to separate mythological scenes (preserved only on the north and west sides). This outer sequence surrounds a recessed inner rectangle consisting of a central roundel (fully destroyed) encircled by sirens and Nereids and, at either end, a series of six smaller square coffers (ca. 0.155 m. on a side) arranged each in two rows that depict male and predominantly female busts and flowers. The coffers are decorated in colors that include light and dark blue, red, pink, ochre, white, and brown plus a touch of gilding noted at time of discovery on the necklace of one of the busts. An egg-and-dart band in ochre appears against a red background to frame the coffers’ dark blue backgrounds. At the corners of each frame are white palmettes against blue squares. And finally, a painted guilloche surrounds the larger divisions (the inner and outer rectangles and the central roundel) while painted rinceaux appear on vertical borders separating the groupings of coffers. V. allots a chapter to each of the motifs in the coffering (Chapters 3-16) with two more for the subsidiary designs of rinceaux and guilloche (Chapters 17 and 18, respectively). In each chapter she offers a detailed description that is followed by a virtually exhaustive collection of related material, visual and literary, from throughout the ancient world. Only highlights of V.’s detailed discussion may be touched upon here.

A convincing case is made for postulating a Homeric theme for the six figured coffers on the north perimeter once Thetis at the forge of Hephaistos is recognized in a vignette showing a seated woman facing a shield propped on a stool (Chapter 6). Other identifications are by themselves less readily apparent and V. judiciously acknowledges as much in her careful argumentation. This reviewer, however, can readily accept her hypothesis of a mourning Achilles and the Embassy to Achilles in the adjoining two spaces (Chapters 7 and 8, respectively) and finds the same milieu perfectly appropriate for the next three showing, respectively, a monomachia, a standing male with armor (Ajax?), followed by a seated male with armor where Achilles is again suggested (Chapters 9-11, respectively). Each segment, in other words, must be understood as an abridged variant of standard scenes known primarily from Attic vases and Pompeian wall paintings. Particularly striking is the supposed embassy where a crowned and bearded standing male (Phoenix?) approaches a semi-reclining young male with averted head (Chapter 8 and cover photo). To all appearances, the three figured coffers on the west side lack the inherent thematic unity suggested by the sequence on the north. One is surely a Dionysiac figure and very possibly Silenus as postulated by V. (Chapter 13). The adjoining scene is clearly Bellerophon and V.’s case for recognizing Cybele next in the long-skirted rider on a feline is compelling, although she admits Dionysos as a strong alternative (Chapters 14 and 15, respectively).

Less can be said about the dozen smaller coffers representing prosopa and flowers (Chapter 5), apart from highlighting the single well preserved female bust with once-gilded necklace whose image has been widely disseminated (p. 54 and pl. 5-9). V. wisely leaves open to discussion whether the busts represent chthonic divinities, initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, or characters derived from the Dionysian thiasos. Each would be appropriate in funerary context as are the sirens and Nereids in the fields at the ceiling’s center, a subject V. explores at length (Chapters 3 and 4, respectively). The Nereids, in addition, tie in nicely with the theme of Achilles in the preserved series on the north perimeter, that hero being here for the first time represented in the Thracian iconographic repertoire.

In sum, the subject matter of the ceiling is closely allied with the world of Dionysos and Achilles. And collectively, the visual program clearly derives from Greek metaphors appropriate to the ancient funerary vocabulary. V. cautiously avoids speculating on the nature of missing parts of the program. Fair enough, but it could be worth at least contemplating possibilities. One might, for instance, be tempted to posit an Ilioupersis on the south to balance the preserved figures apparently from the Iliad on the north by analogy to the sculptural program of the Temple of Apollo Smintheus at Hellenistic Chryse.3

Stylistically, V. relates the paintings to a purely Greek milieu. Though carefully sidestepping the trap of proposing a so-called great master, V. does see the hand of “a good and possibly also a renowned author” deriving from some unknown Greek workshop (p. 162). It is by no means unusual for a scholar to grow enamored of the subject matter at hand. In this case, however, a slightly more objective outsider might quibble at referring to the “perfect” drawing and “exquisite style” of the paintings (pp. 162-163). To this reviewer, at least, they have a distinctly provincial look. Further study of stylistic affinities with certain of the Macedonian and Thessalian painted monuments could be profitable in this regard.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography, index, and a most welcome set of color plates. It is further illustrated in each chapter by numerous figures of black and white photographs and drawings, mostly by the author. A few points remain for consideration. The schematic layout of numbered coffers (p. 32, fig. 1) might handily have included a key to decoration as a guide in the iconographical tour. By the same token, V. could have avoided potential confusion by using a consistent name for the tomb which appears indiscriminately with three different names: Ostrusha, Shipka, or Shipka-Ostrusha. And a brief historiographic chapter would have been a welcome addition for those not deeply initiated into Thracian history and scholarship. Finally and on a quite different level, we may hope for technical studies at some auspicious time in the future that should include examination of application and treatment of plaster as well as pigment analysis to add to the growing database in the ancient world.4

V. has profited from extended leaves of absence to permit research in Europe and the U.S. where her access to substantial libraries and collegial advice is graciously acknowledged at the outset. Partly in consequence, V. is able to steer clear of modern Bulgarian ideology that has informed so much scholarship on Thracian cultural history. The overall production of her book is remarkably good despite a sprinkling of typos, misspellings, and linguistic slips. V. and her publisher are to be congratulated. The careful publication of this important sequence of paintings is an enormous boon to western scholars who might otherwise be hard-pressed to visit the monument. In sum, The Painted Coffers adds significantly to our understanding of cultural history on the fringes of what we today call core cultures of antiquity.


1. A. Fol, M. Chichikova, T. Ivanov, and T. Teofilov, The Thracian Tomb near the Village of Sveshtari. Translated by N. Chakalova. Sofia, Bulgaria: Syvat Publishers, 1986; L. Zhivkova, Das Grabmal von Kasanlak. Recklinghausen: A. Bongers, 1973.

2. See, for instance, the catalogue for an exhibition that traveled widely in 1998 and 1999: I. Marazov, ed., Ancient Gold: the Wealth of the Thracians. Treasures from the Republic of Bulgaria. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Fundamental on the Odrysians is now Z. H. Archibald, The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace. Orpheus Unmasked. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

3. C. A. Özgünel, “Das Heiligtum des Apollon Smintheion und die Ilias,” Studia Troica 13 (2003), pp. 261-91.

4. For convenience, one may refer to recent studies of painted surfaces and sources of pigment, some of which have been presented in M. A. Tiverios and D. S. Tsifakis, eds., Color in Ancient Greece. The Role of Color in Ancient Greek Art and Architecture (700-31 B.C.). Thessaloniki: Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, 2002, pp. 111-115, 117-127, 147-154, 155-159, 179-189, 201-209, and 245-257.