December 03, 2021

Treasured Toys or Substitutes for the Dead? Dolls in Roman Tombs, by Professor Zahra Newby

The death of a child is always tragic, and there is a strong need for bereaved family members to continue to express their love through acts of comfort. In today’s society such acts might include placing teddy bears into the coffin to accompany the deceased, or placing toys at gravesites. We can see a similar phenomenon when we look at ancient Roman graves of children, especially those of girls between the ages of around 7-19. In a number of these, beautifully carved ivory dolls have been found, adorned with the latest hairstyles and with articulated limbs which allowed the arms and legs to be moved. Naked except for shoes, in antiquity they may have been dressed up with miniature clothing. Are these the ancient equivalent of a Barbie™ doll, a treasured toy which the girl had played with during her lifetime, placed in the grave to offer comfort in the afterlife? Or do they represent something else, the desire of the bereaved to offer their dead child a form of continued existence even after death, through the form of an imperishable doll?

Two particular dolls help us to explore this question. One was found in a tomb discovered in Rome in 1889, identified by the inscription on a sarcophagus lid as that of Crepereia Tryphaena. The sarcophagus was opened to reveal the skeleton of a girl aged around 17-19 years, adorned with a wreath and jewellery, as well as a finely carved ivory doll, which had been placed on her left shoulder.

Crepereia doll

Photograph of the doll and other objects found in the tomb of Crepereia Tryphaena. From Lanciani 1889: plate 8.

The doll had her own accoutrements, equivalent to those of the dead girl. She wore a tiny gold ring on her finger, attached to a key; another miniature ring linked with two larger rings, perhaps fitting the girl’s finger, and linking together the girl and the doll. An ivory coffer with two combs and silver mirrors completes the doll’s trousseau. Perhaps this is a doll which the girl had played with during her lifetime, buried with her to provide comfort in the grave. Studies of these dolls have suggested that they provided elite girls with a chance to model their own adulthood; equipped with fashionable hairstyles similar to those worn by the imperial family (Crepereia’s doll has a hairstyle modelled on that of the empress Faustina the Elder) they suggest models of femininity girls were inspired to meet. It is possible that girls dedicated their dolls to the gods on the occasion of their weddings (the literary evidence is fragmentary, but seems to suggest this: scholia to Persius, Satires 2.69-70 and Horace Sermones 1.5.69), so the fact that Crepereia was buried with her doll might also be a sign that she died before she could be married. Indeed, other studies of female burials with lavish jewellery suggest that these were particularly appropriate for girls who died before marriage, equipping them in death with the dowry they had not been able to use in life.

Our second example shares a number of features with Crepereia’s burial, and also suggests an even closer connection between a doll and the girl she was buried with. The so-called ‘Grottarossa mummy’ was discovered in 1964 during building works in the north of Rome. A sarcophagus was found buried below ground in a trench; its location may originally have been marked with some form of memorial, though none had survived. The sarcophagus itself is decorated with a lavishly carved scene showing the fateful hunting episode told in the Aeneid, book 4, during which Dido and Aeneas fall in love (Virgil, Aeneid 4.130-156).

SarcophagusSarcophagus showing hunting Trip of Dido and Aeneas. Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168186. Photo: By Sailko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Inside was found the mummy of a girl, aged around 8 years, who seems to have died from a lung infection. Her body was embalmed and dressed in silk, wrapped around with linen cloths, with a number of amber amulets tucked inside the wrappings. She wore gold earrings, a gold and sapphire necklace and a gold ring, and was accompanied by an ivory doll, as well as cosmetics vessels made from amber.

Ivory doll found with the Grottarossa mummy, Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168181. Photo: Jastrow,


It may be significant that both of these dolls were made out of ivory, though simpler dolls could also be made from bone or wood. Ivory was a prestigious luxury material, but in literature it also appears as a substitute for human flesh. In the myth of Pelops, his missing shoulder (eaten by the gods when tricked by Tantalus) was replaced by one of ivory (Pindar, Olympian Ode 1, 26-27). The close connection in both these burials between the girl and her doll suggests that the ivory doll acts as a replacement for the dead girl, offering her an enduring body which will survive even after death. The decision to bury these girls with lavish jewellery and cosmetic items may have been prompted by a desire to equip them in death as they would have been in life, with all the bridal array they would have taken to marriage. The inclusion of the dolls may be a sign that they had not yet proceeded out of girlhood and had thus been robbed of the opportunity to dedicate their dolls on the occasion of marriage. Yet they also suggest a desire to give the girls an imperishable body which can continue after their own deaths – here the doll in her ivory form offers a form of parallel continued existence for the girl she accompanies into the tomb. Clearly this was an expensive grave, testifying to the grief felt by the girl’s family, and the care taken to give her a worthy burial. Here the doll also wears a period-style hairstyle, similar to that of Faustina the Younger (c. 150-160 CE). The same hairstyle is worn by the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus and, significantly, both the doll and the figure of Dido wear a diadem. They also share similar facial features, a straight nose, full but firmly closed mouth, and a curved chin, with a slight dimple. This similarity suggests that both may have been designed to evoke the portrait of a particular individual – the girl buried within. Indeed, early photographs of the face of the mummy seem to show similar features (though caution is needed, as it appears that the photographs were touched up to enhance the beauty of the embalmed girl). Here, then, the girl seems to have been buried with a doll whose features may have echoed those of the girl herself, and certainly were echoed on the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus. However, the doll’s body with its swelling hips and small breasts is not that of an eight-year old girl – rather than being a portrait of the girl as she was at the time of her death, it seems to project an image of what she might have become, if she had not been cut down by death.

In answer to the question we started with, then, we can see that dolls may have fulfilled both of these functions. Ancient families, like modern ones, experienced grief; the fact that mortality rates were higher in antiquity than in the present day does not necessarily mean that deaths were not mourned just as intensely. Yet the fact that it is particularly the graves of unmarried girls which seem to feature the addition of dolls, alongside jewellery and cosmetic items, suggests that these objects might also have fulfilled a particular need, allowing the dead a sort of parallel existence in the form of an imperishable doll, who can achieve the life stages which death had cruelly take away.


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Newby, Z. (2019) ‘The Grottarossa doll and her mistress: hope and consolation in Roman tomb’, in The Materiality of Mourning: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, eds. Z. Newby and R. E. Toulson. London and New York: 77-102.

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Zahra pic smaller This post was written by Zahra Newby, Professor of Classics and Ancient History in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Zahra’s research focusses on Roman art. This paper arises from her interest in exploring ancient and modern responses to grief, and draws on material presented in her book (co-edited with Ruth E. Toulson), The Materiality of Mourning, Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Routledge, London and New York, 2019).

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