Carved bull heads found in Roman-era tomb in Turkey

Excavations at the ancient site of Tharsa, near Kuyulu village in southeastern Turkey, have unearthed a tomb with two carved bull heads guarding the entrance. The bull heads are decorated with garlands and rosettes between the horns.

The bull head, called bucranium after the Greek for “ox skull,” was a common decorative motif in Classical religious and funerary architecture. They referred to an even more ancient practice of displaying the heads of sacrificed oxen on temple walls. In Imperial Rome, the bull sacrifice was connected to the worship of Cybele introduced from Asia Minor. The sacrificial ritual represented purification and rebirth into eternal life, and the carved bucrania performed the same function at the entrance to the tomb.

Tharsa was located on a major Roman road from Doliche to Samosata. It is marked on the Tabula Peutingeriana (Segmentum XI, 2), the Late Imperial map of the Roman state road network made in the 4th century based on a 1st century map made by Augustus’ right hand man and son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The archaeological site today consists of two settlement mounds — the Big Mound and the Small Mound — and a large necropolis with tombs cut into the living rock. The tombs were in use from the 3rd century into the Byzantine era.

The first excavations of the rock tombs took place in 1999, but did not resume again until 2021 when a revitalization project cleared 10 acres of land. Sixty tombs have been unearthed since then, each individually carved with different designs and decorative motifs.

The new dig season began in April of this year and has uncovered another two tombs, one of which was the bulls’ head tomb. Like the other rock tombs in the necropolis, the bulls head tomb was carved down into the bedrock. A dozen steps were carved out descending into to the burial chamber which has three acrosolia (arched niches where bodies were placed). The carved bull heads are worn

A new drainage system is being built to prevent rainwater runoff from seeping into the graves and damaging them. Excavation and removal of soil and rocks from the graves will continue until September.

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