A Columbarios Roman burial ground funerary inhumation exhibition pictured in Merida, Extremadura, Spain.
A Columbarios Roman burial ground funerary inhumation exhibition pictured in Merida, Extremadura, Spain. geogphotos / Alamyw

The living have long offered libations to the dead, at once to appease people they thought might haunt them in the afterlife, honor those they loved, and provide sustenance for them beyond the grave. The act of pouring liquid (most likely water or beer) on graves was prevalent in the ancient world: It spread from Egypt to other parts of Africa and eventually Greece, where mourners typically doused a small amount of wine on the ground before sharing the rest among themselves.

The ancient Romans took the practice of pouring out libations to a new level, though. (In fact, the very word libation comes from the Latin word libare, which means “to taste, sip, pour out, or make libation.”) They believed that through their bones or ashes, the dead “consumed” whatever food or drink the living offered. So they built “libation tubes” into graves that directly connected living relatives to their ancestors below. The idea was that the liquid didn’t have to seep through the ground to get to their remains, and could instead flow directly to them.

Typically, the Romans crafted terracotta, lead, wood, or imbrices (curved tiles used on the roofs of houses) into tubes of varying diameters. During their burial, the deceased would be placed in a pit lined with tile. More tile would cover the body in a tent-like fashion, with the libation tube held in place by soil. These tube vessels then easily allowed the living to offer up wine and foods to the deceased on holidays throughout the year.

Historians believe that the Egyptians were the first to offer libations to their dead. Yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the practice began, since liquids poured directly on the ground would have disappeared thousands of years ago. The first evidence of libations dates back to when the pyramids were built. Back then, Egyptians poured a little beer on their loved one’s grave, drank the rest, and broke the pots they brought it in, leaving the shards behind. Other Mediterranean cultures soon adopted the practice of pouring liquid on the graves of deceased family members. The 3,000-year-old tomb of Phoenician King Ahiram bears a curse referencing libation tubes, and Greek graves have been discovered with them. Emulating the Greeks, Romans incorporated libation tubes into their funerary rituals.

Not every Roman grave had a libation tube, according to Dr. Tracy Prowse, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University who heads the excavation of the Roman cemetery at Vagnari, Italy. Many graves did, though, and the practice transcended social status and age: It didn’t matter whether the deceased was rich or poor, and some children even had libation tubes installed in their graves.

A gravesite, complete with a libation tube, found in Vagnari, Italy.
A gravesite, complete with a libation tube, found in Vagnari, Italy. Courtesy of Dr. Tracy Prowse

Prowse, who also wrote the encyclopedia entry* Burial Practices and Tombs in the Roman World, says that the libation tubes are covered by 2,000 years of soil, so it’s not easy to find them. During excavations, though, they’re often the first indicator of a grave nearby. When she or the students she works with encounters a libation tube, they excavate carefully around the tube to expose the entire tomb, remove it to access the burial, and then analyze the soil’s content.

Despite finding seeds, bones, grain, and other offerings inside the tubes, archaeologists aren’t entirely sure what libations were made of (as it’s hard to determine what was buried with the deceased versus dropped through the libation tube later). Both archaeological and textual evidence indicates grain, wine, oil, incense, and flowers were offered to the dead. But as Robin M. Jensen, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University, points out, “very little data exists to indicate the actual kind of food consumed at the grave” after the initial burial.

It’s known, though, that families offered the first libation at the cena novemdialis, a feast marking the end of the nine-day mourning period following the loved one’s death. They would gather at the grave, prepare a meal onsite, and share that meal with the deceased through the libation tube. If they could afford a mausoleum, family members would gather inside to share a meal, which might have included pork, chicken, and bread, while others would eat near the grave. In either case, part of the meal would be given to the dead through the libation tube.

Then, beginning on February 13, families returned to the cemetery for Parentalia, a nine-day festival where people honored their ancestors. During this time, relatives shared wine and bread at graves, offered libations to the deceased, and left flowers on their tombstones. The privately-celebrated Parentalia concluded on February 21 with Feralia, a public commemoration of the dead. The following day, Romans celebrated family with gift exchanges and even more feasting at Caristia, a celebration of family past and present. At that time, the living might return to a loved one’s graves to offer libations again.

Pouring libations, such as the depicted here by the emperor Trajan, had an integral part in Roman life and death.
Pouring libations, such as the depicted here by the emperor Trajan, had an integral part in Roman life and death. Public Domain

Romans also offered libations during the festival of Lemuralia, a time when they appeased malevolent spirits (known as lemurs) with beans, a food associated with death. Romans who didn’t want to take the chance that their ancestors might become hungry and pester them for food took the opportunity to offer libations then as well. The living also put libation tubes to use at Rosalia, the annual festival of roses, and on the deceased’s birthday. Whatever the day or reason, libation tubes helped bridge the gap between life and death in more than just a literal sense.

“The main point was to maintain an ongoing relationship with the dead, so the family would sit and have a meal at the grave site and share that meal with the deceased,” Prowse explains. “Romans believed that they had to keep the spirits of their ancestors content, otherwise they might become vengeful. Offering proper rituals and libations was a way to keep them happy.”

Christians eventually put an end to libations—they considered the practice pagan—but not immediately. In “Drinking with the Dead? Glasses from Roman and Christian Burial Areas at Leptiminus (Lamta, Tunisia),” a 2017 article for the Journal of Glass Studies, archaeologist and associate professor Dr. Allison E. Sterrett-Krause noted that glassware associated with ritual libations was found in the Roman cemetery’s Christian section. This discovery suggests that drinking and feasting with the dead still happened there as late as the fifth and sixth centuries. During a 1990s excavation on the grounds of Lichfield Cathedral in England, archaeologists found a libation tube that led to the buried remains of an 11th-century priest, as well.

Today’s graves may not have libation tubes, but that hasn’t stopped people from honoring their loved ones with drinks. In parts of Russia and neighboring countries, mourners still pour vodka on graves. Throughout Africa, libations not only commemorate deceased ancestors but also invite them to participate in public gatherings, including festivals and weddings. In Japan, offerings of sake libations at Shinto shrines aren’t unheard of, and some Chinese communities pour rice wine or tea in front of tombstones. References to “pouring one out” on a grave or “tipping to” deceased friends often appear in contemporary American culture, too. What’s remained universal, though, is to lift a glass and toast to the memories of those who have gone before us.

*Update 11/05: This article has been amended to reflect Prowse’s work on an encyclopedia entry.

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