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A Columbarios Roman burial ground funerary inhumation exhibition pictured in Merida, Extremadura, Spain. GEOGPHOTOS / ALAMYW

Ancient Roman libation tubes that connected the living to the dead

The practice of “pouring one out” on a grave goes way back. Some Roman graves had a libation tube to deliver wine & food to the deceased according to Associate Professor and Associate Dean Academic, Faculty of Social Sciences, Dr. Tracy Prowse

Nov 05, 2018

Families poured offerings through vessels directly installed into graves.

 The living have long offered libations to the dead, at once to appease people they thought might haunt them in the afterlife, honor those they loved, and provide sustenance for them beyond the grave. The act of pouring liquid (most likely water or beer) on graves was prevalent in the ancient world: It spread from Egypt to other parts of Africa and eventually Greece, where mourners typically doused a small amount of wine on the ground before sharing the rest among themselves.

The ancient Romans took the practice of pouring out libations to a new level, though. (In fact, the very word libation comes from the Latin word libare, which means “to taste, sip, pour out, or make libation.”) They believed that through their bones or ashes, the dead “consumed” whatever food or drink the living offered. So they built “libation tubes” into graves that directly connected living relatives to their ancestors below. The idea was that the liquid didn’t have to seep through the ground to get to their remains, and could instead flow directly to them.

Typically, the Romans crafted terracotta, lead, wood, or imbrices (curved tiles used on the roofs of houses) into tubes of varying diameters. During their burial, the deceased would be placed in a pit lined with tile. More tile would cover the body in a tent-like fashion, with the libation tube held in place by soil. These tube vessels then easily allowed the living to offer up wine and foods to the deceased on holidays throughout the year. 

Historians believe that the Egyptians were the first to offer libations to their dead. Yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the practice began, since liquids poured directly on the ground would have disappeared thousands of years ago. The first evidence of libations dates back to when the pyramids were built. Back then, Egyptians poured a little beer on their loved one’s grave, drank the rest, and broke the pots they brought it in, leaving the shards behind. Other Mediterranean cultures soon adopted the practice of pouring liquid on the graves of deceased family members. The 3,000-year-old tomb of Phoenician King Ahiram bears a curse referencing libation tubes, and Greek graves have been discovered with them. Emulating the Greeks, Romans incorporated libation tubes into their funerary rituals.

Not every Roman grave had a libation tube, according to Dr. Tracy Prowse, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University who heads the excavation of the Roman cemetery at Vagnari, Italy. Many graves did, though, and the practice transcended social status and age: It didn’t matter whether the deceased was rich or poor, and some children even had libation tubes installed in their graves.

A gravesite, complete with a libation tube, found in Vagnari, Italy. A gravesite, complete with a libation tube, found in Vagnari, Italy. COURTESY OF DR. TRACY PROWSE

Read the full article on Atlas Obscura