The sarcophagi were created in order to be able to hide the bodies in stone coffins that could stand on the surface of the earth. In this way, it was possible to save space on valuable land in rocky surroundings – there was no need to “waste” them on cemeteries because stone sarcophagi could be placed on unprofitable, from the agricultural point of view, rocks.
The word “sarcophagus” in Greek literally means “body eater”; and it follows that the Greek historian Herodotus mistakenly believed that the quality of “eating meat” depends, inter alia, on the type of stone the sarcophagus is made of – some types of limestone are said to have had such an effect.
The Latinized name – sarcophagus – was popularized by Pliny the Elder and derives from the method of burial of the dead that is still used today in some parts of Greece and Asia Minor. It consists in temporarily placing the bodies in a stone coffin (sarcophagus) for about seven years. After this time, when the corpse is usually completely cleaned of soft tissues, it is customary to remove the remaining bones from the sarcophagus, which are ceremonially buried again, e.g. embedded in the wall in an urn. The sarcophagus itself can be used by the next deceased.
Sarcophagi were commonly used in ancient Rome from the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE. From the 2nd century CE (more precisely, the reign of Trajan), coffins made of marble decorated on the sides with mythological reliefs became popular. In the 3rd century CE historical themes dominated, and the centuries were decorated with a gable roof or a portrait of the deceased. Most Roman stone coffins were designed to stand against the wall – i.e. only three sides of the sarcophagus were decorated.
In the 3rd-4th centuries CE, the practice of erecting sarcophagi was taken over by early Christians.