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Funerary ideology in the phoenician-punic world

The ancient Phoenicians believed in life after death and, therefore, in the afterlife: despite this, they mummified their dead as the Egyptians did, but they cremated or buried them in subterranean chambers (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 - View from above of part of the necropolis of Is Pirixeddus (from


The afterlife of the Phoenicians was imagined as a kind of city of the dead, which could be reached only after a long and difficult journey, partly carried out accompanied by some deity, to whom it was necessary to give a donation as a reward, the reason why the deceased was buried with a coin, usually located inside the mouth. The journey to the city of the dead, however, did not start immediately after death, the deceased remained for a while in the grave, almost as if suspended between this world and the hereafter, before leaving for his permanent abode. Perhaps it is for this reason that the tomb contained everything that the deceased had used during his life: the everyday household furnishings, the objects for body care, toys (if the dead person was a child), in some cases, weapons, food and drink (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Grave goods from tomb 9 AR in Sulky (V-IV century B.C.). Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by M. Murgia).

Objects of magical-religious nature were placed instead next to the deceased in order to face the long journey: firstly amulets, which had the task of defending the dead against evil spirits (fig. 3); apotropaic masks, which had the power to drive out evil spirits (fig. 4); the gold or silver foil with the depiction of the judgment of the dead, probably inspired by Egyptian texts, inserted into an amulet holder made of gold or silver in the shape of an Egyptian god or of a small pillar (fig. 5); scarabs, part amulets, part seals, used during life and placed with him in the grave (fig. 6).

Fig. 3 - Variously shaped amulets, from Sulky. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by M. Murgia).
Fig. 4 - Funerary mask of Silenus from Sulky. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (from
Fig. 5 - Punic gold amulet-holder, found in Sulky. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by Unicity S.p.A.) and drawings of foil plates (from
Fig. 6 - Carnelian scarab from Sulky. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

The deceased lay therefore amongst these objects, buried or cremated, in underground chamber tombs, often adorned with various jewellery and ornaments (fig. 7) and, according to the traditional custom, the buried person was covered with perfumed oils and resins, with the intention of fighting off the smell of decomposition and perhaps of trying to delay it.

Fig. 7 - Gold ring depicting Horus as a falcon with the insignia of Egyptian power. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

The Phoenicians called their dead Rephaim, which can be interpreted as a sort of ghost. These were generally important people such as kings or warriors deified after death who had a protective purpose towards the living. It is possible, therefore, to read the figure of the Egyptian-style character carved on the pillar of the underground chamber tomb no. 7 of Sulky, as that of a patron deity, or as a deified ancestor, probably the one who was supposed to accompany the deceased on his journey towards the afterlife (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 - Egyptian-style character painted and carved on the pillar inside burial chamber no. 7 in Sulky (from BERNARDINI 2010, table I, 2).


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