Hagia Triada Sarcophagus that was discovered in 1903 and dates back to circa 1370-1360 BC is a precious limestone larnax that is nowadays displayed in Heraklion Archaeological Museum (Burke 404). Its value as a cultural and historical artifact is partially explained by the fact that it is the only limestone sarcophagus rediscovered from that era. Moreover, the element that makes it even more important for scholars studying the Late Minoan period is the frescoes that cover the object. The sarcophagus with its frescoes offers a multidimensional and thought-provoking narrative about the cultural traditions of that epoch.
The detailed and thorough analysis of the images displayed on the sarcophagus gives much information about the lifestyle and rituals of the people who lived in Crete during the Minoan period. Four sides of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus offer a total of nine separate little scenes representing a harmonious narrative. The north panel (or more often called the front side) is widely known to the public. This site contents three fresco pieces. The most interesting among them is a shrouded male figure wrapped in a cloak that is believed to be a representation of the actual deceased person who was buried in the sarcophagus (Martino). This figure is located near a temple or a tomb-like structure decorated with an S-spiral pattern of an immature tree and a set of steps that could be interpreted as a symbolic transition from one state to another (Burke 406). In addition, three male figures are carrying a boat, as a means for the travel to the afterlife, and two-spotted goats, serving as food that should be taken to this journey, that walk in direction of the figure. Another three figures looking in the opposite direction are a male lyre player and two female figures, one carrying baskets and the other one pouring libation onto the altar framed with two double axes. The birds located on top of them and ready to fly away, serve as a method of directing the narration to the eastern side.
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This side represents two females in a chariot pulled by two griffins. The scene directs the viewer’s gaze further to the south or backside of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus. The long-legged bird with bright plumage, dissimilar in appearance and size to the birds on the north side, flies over griffins in the opposite direction. The use of griffin could suggest a divine nature of the female figures in the chariot (Martino).
The south side is also divided into three logical parts. The viewer’s gaze is supposed to traverse from left to right starting with a procession of five female figures, with only one surviving as a part of plaster is absent. The central part is occupied by the image of a big spotted bull resting on the sacrificial table with two small goats underneath (McInerney). Behind the bull, there is a male musician with a double flute. He probably walks around the table and performs music during the sacrifice. The right part of this side shows a female figure in front of a small altar making an offering from the fruits. Her position, which is directly opposite to the woman at the altar on the north side, along with the similarities in costume and hairstyle proves that the offerings are made to the deities to ensure the safe journey of the deceased to the afterlife. The rightmost part of this site is occupied by a bigger structure, perhaps a shrine, decorated with an S-spiral pattern, similar to the one on the small altar, with two pairs of horns of consecration on top of it and a fully grown seven-leafed tree in the middle of them. The small altar and the shrine are separated by a pole upon which the double ax rests. A blackbird sits on top of it ready to fly away, similar to the other two on the north side. Its functions are considered to be the same as those of the birds on other panels.
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The last side of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus is vertically divided into two registers. The top scene is significantly damaged, though the remaining part suggests that it depicts a procession of approximately five male figures, most likely similar to the image of five females on the south side. The lower part shows another pair of female figures riding a chariot, but it is pulled by an agrimi, not griffons. With the help of comparing and contrasting images on these sides, the artist could appeal to earthly (agrimi) and heavenly (griffon) deities (Lahanas).
The following two elements, though they are mostly seen as purely decorative, support and harmonize the whole narrative. The first one is the rosettes chain that frames all sides horizontally and serves as a separation on the west side between two registers. Rosettes drawn blue with ten petals each, form long chains presented on each side. It suggests that the repetitive and cyclic nature of the pattern could represent some important Minoan beliefs. Another noticeable element is an S-spiral pattern that not only frames the narrative vertically but also can be seen on the structures and clothes of female figures standing near the altars. One of the possible ways to read the narrative of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus frescoes is to start from the processions of males and females following them to the bull sacrifice scene and later to the offerings on the altar on the south side (Lahanas). Then, it is necessary to turn to the north side and continue from libation to procession with gifts and then to the figure of the deceased person and the tomb behind him or her. In such a way, the viewer can see the whole funeral practice in all its stages.
To conclude, the sarcophagus with its frescoes is an important historical artifact that gives much valuable information about the culture of the Minoan period. The frescoes of the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus reveal a complex narrative about a funeral combined with different aspects of the religious cults. The detailed analysis of the images proves that all the elements of this narrative are closely interconnected and highlight important symbolic and mystic concepts that were characteristic of the Minoan culture.