Fifty years ago, in June 1968, archaeologist Mario Napoli uncovered a beautifully painted tomb in a small necropolis just south of Paestum, the ancient Greek colony Poseidonia in southern Italy. It is known as the Tomb of the Diver thanks to the unique depiction on its plaster and limestone lid of a solitary young man, poised in mid-air as he plunges towards a pool of water. Since its discovery, the serene and contemplative scene has been the subject of much discussion.
With a date of 480/470 BC, the diver and the four panels portraying a symposium that make up the walls of the tomb are the only figurative scenes in burials from the area at this time. The traditional interpretation is that the dive represents the moment of death, the lone passage into the afterlife, and that the symposium may serve as a welcoming surrounding for the man who was laid to rest inside. The banqueters themselves are not beyond debate: one young man has been identified by some as the tomb’s inhabitant, while another holds an oval object, which could be an egg (with its obvious connotations of new life) or a plectrum to play the lyre in his other hand.
This enigmatic set of frescoes is now one of the main attractions at Paestum’s archaeological museum, where it is on display in a dedicated room. CWA took a tour during the Mediterranean Exchange of Archaeological Tourism, held at the site every October. As well as the Tomb of the Diver, the museum houses many other tomb paintings from the area. These are later in date, largely from the 4th century BC, when the Lucanians occupied the site. In the displays that lead on from the Tomb of the Diver’s room, we can observe the trends that were popular in funerary art at the time.
Pomegranates abound here, and all manner of creatures adorn the frescoed panels. There are handsome steeds – some taking part in chariot races, others pulling a winged Nike, and others ridden by soldiers in their prime – as well as bushes full of birds, and griffins battling. Scenes evoking military and sporting prowess seem to be particularly popular for the tombs of men, while for female burials there are depictions of cortèges of mourners attending to the deceased, drawn in a distinctive style with careful touches of pink to enhance features like grief-stricken cheeks and muscular torsos.
Divining the past
It is the three Doric temples (well preserved thanks to the medieval abandonment of the malarial site) outside the museum to which Paestum owes its fame. There is the Temple of Athena (built c.500 BC), but the function of the other two temples has been the subject of some debate: the earliest (c.560 BC) is known as the Basilica, as it was wrongly interpreted by 18th-century scholars as a roofless Roman civic building, but artefacts excavated at the site suggest that it is the Temple of Hera; the largest and most recent (mid-5th century BC) has been called the Temple of Neptune since the 18th century, as it made sense that the grandest temple should honour the deity who lent their name to the city – in this case, Poseidon. In fact, Hera was the principal deity at Paestum, and it is likely that she was worshipped in this temple, but some have proposed that the dedicatee may have been Zeus or Apollo.
Back inside the museum, there are a number of artefacts from the sanctuary sites, including inscriptions attesting to the presence of cults associated with healing, and votive terracotta figurines, some depicting Athena and others a seated goddess, probably Hera. Painted vases, such as a locally produced lekythos showing a scene from the Adonia (a festival commemorating the death of Adonis), have also been found at the temples. Some pottery was at first imported from Attica, but by the 4th century BC Paestum had its own flourishing workshops. There are many fine examples of red-figured Paestan ware (largely from burials) on display in a gallery looking out onto an expanse of farmland that reaches towards the Campanian mountains and is still bordered by ancient defensive walls.
The most striking of the religious artefacts are not from Paestum itself; they instead come from a site about 9km to the north called Foce del Sele (‘the mouth of the river Sele’), where, according to legend, Jason (of Argonauts fame) established a sanctuary to Argive Hera. A set of Archaic limestone metopes from c.570-560 BC was discovered there, depicting a range of scenes from mythology, including the Trojan cycle and the life of Herakles.
Each metope was carved, with its adjacent triglyph, as a single block. The central room of the museum is designed to resemble a small structure in the sanctuary of Argive Hera, initially interpreted as a treasury, with the series of metopes running along the top as archaeologists believed they would have appeared in the 6th century BC. There are, however, problems with this interpretation, which is not something the museum shies away from. Three more metopes (including a powerful portrayal of Ajax falling on his sword) were later discovered, and these are displayed beneath the main suite of carvings. Moreover, excavations in the 1990s have shown that the so-called ‘treasury’ is significantly later than the Archaic metopes. Also later in date is the set of reliefs featuring dancing maidens, which some describe as the frieze of the great temple of Hera built in the Foce del Sele sanctuary at the end of 5th century BC.
There is a huge gulf in quality between some of the sculpted panels. Some seem to have been left unfinished, some render figures simply, and others have been carved with much greater skill and in much greater detail. This disparity adds some uncertainty to the complicated stories of their origins and their intended location, particularly as it seems that the late 6th-century foundation trenches for the temple of Hera were never used. Nonetheless, with explanatory panels exploring each of the theories about the metopes (and their flaws), the museum embraces the complexities of the intriguing and ever-evolving tangle of evidence from the ancient site.
Museo archeologico nazionale di Paestum
Address: Via Magna Graecia 919, 84047 Santa Venere SA, Italy
Open: 8.30am-7.30pm daily.
Exhibitions & events: The Invisible Image, a special exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Tomb of the Diver, will run from 3 June to 6 October.
At 10am, noon, and 2pm on Fridays from March to August, the museum offers guided tours (in Italian and English) of its storeroom, which contains about 400 painted panels from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Tours cost €1 per person (on top of the entry fee). Book by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Admission: €9 (concessions €4.50)
For information on the Mediterranean Exchange of Archaeological Tourism, visit www.borsaturismoarcheologico.it.