Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.08


Ian Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity. (Key Themes in Ancient History, P.A. Cartledge and P.D.A. Garnsey, edd.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 264, 48 figures, 12 tables. ISBN 0-521-37465-0 (hb). ISBN 0-521-37611-4 (pb).


Reviewed by James C. Wright, Bryn Mawr College.

Ian Morris' first book, Burial and Ancient Society, explored in great detail the evolution of Athenian society through a wide array of analytical procedures and theoretical paradigms. It always seemed to me that this approach was much to be lauded for illustrating the power of multiple and alternative approaches to examining the rise of a society and equally for offering different interpretations of evidence traditionally too simplistically understood and certainly too underutilized by historians and archaeologists. Now Morris returns to the podium to demand our attention with a new study of the same subject, only this time not only is his approach different through presentation of a wide-ranging discourse of multiple, often unrelated case studies, bu this perspective has changed, from the evolution of a society to the role of burial custom in illuminating ritual and social structure. And for those who are not keeping up with the changing landscape of cultural scholarship, this new perspective will serve as a primer on the theoretical and methodological issues of social theory. Unlike Burial and Ancient Society, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity only demands a general interest in antiquity, not an esoteric knowledge of Athens, and it explains the themes behind the analysis of mortuary customs with easily comprehensible case studies in statistics and applied social theory.

Although the subject of the book is the evidence of burials, in chapter one, 'The anthropology of a dead world,' Morris quickly identifies the true subject as ritual. The focus is on ritual as it is understood in modern social theory, which has been much concerned with it as a central activity of the constitution of society. For these scholars, as for Morris, rituals 'create' society. In order to establish the rationale for this approach, Morris' first chapter offers a discussion and critique of a variety of issues in social theory as a way of mapping the route he will take as an ancient historian through the evidence of mortuary customs. These issues are 'social structure', 'ritual', 'structure and belief', and 'symbols'. For scholars of antiquity who are familiar with the complex epistemological and phenomenological issues raised by these topics, this first chapter will promise a good read in an area (Greek and Roman antiquity) clearly underutilized in such discussions. For the unfamiliar reader, or those who sense they may develop an allergy to such perspectives, this chapter should lure them on with its straightforward, jargon-free presentation of the history and meaning of 'functionalism', 'structuration', 'symbolic action' and so forth. Of special use for classicists (in the broadest sense) is Morris' distinction of 'intellectualist' approaches to the study of ritual, which he describes as speculative and personalized and criticizes for their radical and false separation of religion from society. This point becomes increasingly clear throughout the rest of the book, but it is immediately brought home in his illustration of intellectualist approaches to the interpretation of symbols, where pat meanings lead to simplistic, universalist and, ultimately, incorrect and static understanding of what are continuing, complex social processes.

Following in the multifaceted approach of the earlier book, Morris orients his investigation to a fivefold axis of considerations, namely 'typology', 'time', 'contexts of deposition', 'space', and 'demography'. Archaeologists will recognize these as the core of a method they claim as their own, but it is to Morris' credit that he asserts his responsibility to utilize these analytical tools as a historian and manages to retains a healthy distance, especially in time and place, from his material.

His discussion of these factors, however, is so brief as to avoid placing them in context. Perhaps this is appropriate for an introductory chapter, but in a book that is heavy on sources, the lack of notes for further reading on these subjects suggests Morris is only taking a commonsense view of them that perhaps could be supplemented by an appreciation of their complexity. Thus some reference would be helpful to the problems of the subjective nature of typology, the importance of process in the dimension of time, the different scales of contexts of deposition (from the smallest deposit of artifacts to the largest definable socio-cultural framework), and the complex issues surrounding the notion of space (not merely physical but also mathematical, social, and cognitive as well as problems associated in their correlation).

Chapter two is a case study in Morris' approach, one that takes advantage of his five axes by examining one major aspect of burial: disposal practices. He chooses to examine the issue of the transformation of Roman burial custom from cremation to inhumation. The chapter is illustrative of the complexity of this subject because the author is careful to respect the traditions of previous scholarship and the many temporal, spatial and contextual issues surrounding practices which changed as the Italic republic with catholic traditions was transformed into a Euro-asian empire with a multi-ethnic population. Central to this chapter is Morris' discussion of the changes in the custom of disposing of the dead in Europe since A.D. 1900, for here he is able to provide a case study that is equally complex as the Roman one when viewed in terms of multi-ethnic restraints, yet which can be argued to have explanatory power when viewed as a ritual in process, especially as a ritual of identification to a nation state or empire.

Because of the thematic organization of this book, the next chapter examines palaeodemography, but given the problem with this kind of evidence (see below) this ordering breaks the cultural and historical thread of questions Morris raises, and teachers and students alike may agree that chapters two and six taken together make a stronger case for the value of Morris' approach to writing history. Chapter six picks up the theme of cultural transformations of the Roman Empire and extends it from Imperial through Early Christian Rome through a wide-ranging, illuminating discussion of inscribed tombstones. It is a good, critical introduction to the history of scholarship of this subject and attempts not only to integrate it into a larger picture, but to push beyond it by showing how this form of funerary monument reflects changing political and ideological allegiance, affects notions of the geography of prestige and, ultimately, provides insight into the urban geography of medieval Europe. These two chapters then provide case studies of how burial practices and the act of burial as ritual inform cultural transformations from Hellenistic and Republican to Early Christian times as the rituals of inheritance and ideology are reoriented.

From such general observations about the utility of considering burial form and funerary inscriptions the book moves in chapters four and five to two primary aspects of the archaeology of mortuary studies: the burial goods and the burial monument. The case here is Archaic and Classical Athens. Under consideration is the interpretative dialogue between the ephemeral process of ritual activity for those present at the time of death and the enduring statements about death made by public monuments to anyone passing by. These are fascinating issues in the archaeology of ritual studies because they reflect changing social custom as appropriate behavior towards the dead (note Morris' consideration of the term, megaloprepes) and as statements about lineages, power and position. This kind of information is most problematic to interpret and has been the focus of most studies of mortuary behavior.

The author begins by examining the thorny issue of grave goods as reflections of wealth and burial ritual. His approach is that of the case study and one of extreme interest for scholars of classical Athens: the problems of the revisionist attacks of Michael Vickers and David Gill on the chronology and interpretation of Athenian figured vase painting. Not content merely to take sides in this polarized debate, Morris sees the value of their argument for a context-dependent study of this problem, but quickly moves on to test Vicker's hypotheses against the actual data in the ground. Morris selects contemporaneous inhumation and cremation burials in the Kerameikos and Syntagma cemeteries to explore the problem of whether or not white-ground lekythoi are imitations of more costly ivory ones. He introduces the problem with simple bar graphs (that unfortunately leave the visually inept reader to have to infer that the solid bars are cremations and the outline ones are inhumations) and from that proceeds to test the data using standard tests of significance and association. For the mathematically shy this is about as simple and eloquent a demonstration of the proper use of statistics they will encounter. That the results demonstrate the falsity of Vicker's arguments and confirm notions of the frugality of Athenians in the fifth and fourth centuries should create at least a few converts to data analysis! In conclusion this chapter hints at a more complex reconstruction of ritual behavior by contrasting ritual expressions of wealth at cemeteries in the practice of burial with those at sanctuaries in the practice of sacrifice. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions only for a few moments for Morris' next chapter extends the question through its analysis of the changing custom of marking graves with monuments.

This fascinating chapter starts off with the traditional intellectualist interpretation of monumental burials, which he rejects in favor of seeing them as ritual expressions of lineage on one hand and of community identity on the other. Either interpretation leads to a consideration of social structure and its relation to ideology, and in Athens there was clearly a dynamic tension between the old families and the state that is manifested in complex interplay of the appropriation of funerary symbolism: whereas the burial mound is an old aristocratic tradition, the state burial ground appropriates the symbol of such monuments for state purposes until at the end of the fifth century individual families reassert their individual identity by using symbols of community service on their grave stelai. Behind all this lies the Homeric enchiridion of social values. In tracing this interplay at Athens, Morris presents multiple lines of evidence that demonstrate the dramatic changes in mortuary practice at the end of the fifth century. Rather than explaining these changes merely in terms of the regulation of sumptuary behavior, Morris pursues the topic in terms of other poleis and calls up Cannon's theory of 'expressive redundancy', which explains the cyclical nature of mortuary expression in terms of maintaining visible differentiation between the various levels of a social hierarchy. Although a valuable insight in itself, Cannon's theory is so generalizing as to lack explanatory force for any individual problem. Aware of this (and generally wary of anything approaching a "lawlike principle"), Morris continues his discussion of this problem by returning to consider two points: the need to examine the individual historical context of each case and the importance of looking at the long term issue of group versus individual identity. This latter problem is central to understanding the evolution of the polis, the retention of the ethnos in classical times, and the transformation of Greek society at the end of the fifth century. Of special value to historians of culture is Morris' focus on this transformation and the emergence of a panhellenic world and worldview. If this is aptly described by the quote: "a loosening of the bonds of the polis", for our purposes it is also a loosening of the confines of traditional scholarship.

The final chapter of substance (chapter seven) is an example of the analysis of the cemetery of a single site. Morris has chose the site of Vroulia, which despite its having been well excavated and recorded by F. K. Kinch in the first decade of the century, has received virtually no notice. Morris' approach is excellent and displays his methodology at its best. The chapter organizes the study of the cemetery according to the five axes of interpretation. First is the typology of grave types, which is followed by a mapping of their spatial distribution. Then, without the benefit of the results of skeletal analysis, a convincing interpretation of the demography is argued. Analysis of the grave goods shows that age and descent are the foci of mortuary ritual, and this information is used to reinforce the results of the analysis of grave size, which suggests that group IV is divergent in practice from the rest. So far the argument is compelling, but only if one accepts the first premise: that Kinch's identification of the grave groups is correct. The data may not be adequate, but it would be useful to know if a multivariate test of the many varieties of information would produce clusters like Kinch's groups.

The next part of the chapter is a particularly instructive case study of a settlement, one that will remind Aegean prehistorians of Todd Whitelaw's insightful revisionist interpretation of the Early Minoan site of Myrtos (in O. Krzyskowska and L. Nixon , edd., Minoan Society, Bristol, 1983), for it focuses on the dynamics of settlement formation. The reader is left with new understanding of the poorly known world of a small subsistence settlement that balanced the individualistic needs of lineages against the societal ones of community. The cemetery becomes a symbol of one ideology in tension with the settlement as the symbol of another. This is as close as archaeologists and ancient historians can probably come to what Geertz describes as 'local knowledge' -- knowledge here gained through thoughtful consideration of ritual action and social structure in process. The value of this approach is potent, for it reiterates the themes of this book at the lowest societal denominator: how the fundamental structures of societies are an enduring part of the archaeological record.

Although the third chapter in order, the case of the use of skeletal remains for interpreting burial custom and social structure I leave for last. Not because it is not important (some would argue it is paramount), but because it is so hard to fit it into the record of Greek and Roman society because it has been so systematically ignored by archaeologists and historians alike. When one considers the enormous quantity of excavated and published information about burials at Greek and Roman cemeteries and then compares it to the information on the skeletons from them, one can only conclude that classical archaeologists have not been much interested in the people of the past. In part this illustrates Morris' contention about the nature of intellectualist scholarship: it's not worth doing if it continues to ask the wrong questions, and it's especially not worth doing if it disregards the most fundamental evidence about ancient societies: the people themselves. But Morris himself is soft-spoken, taking what he can find to make the better argument and thereby set a good example without condemning those in positions to provide better information for not doing so. How far Morris will go to get information is demonstrated as he considers recent scientific developments in the analysis of skeletal remains, where he has to summarize research developments largely outside the realm of classical antiquity. This chapter should be required reading for all students of antiquity. In the future, scholars writing comprehensive studies of society on the basis of a study of burial customs ought to be able to use palaeopathological information as the foundation on which the study rests rather than as the lost bayou in a sea of otherwise rich data.

Perhaps this message, that we cannot afford to ignore any category of evidence, is Morris' strongest, for it opens his concluding chapter. In this vein he asserts his other message -- that we cannot afford to ignore the many methodological approaches available to us. On the score of the role of burial as ritual, Morris has less to say, or at least, less to say out of the context of the cases at hand. He closes by reasserting that rituals, like burial, 'create' social structure, though some, after reading this book, may think that he has actually demonstrated that the study of burials as ritual allows us to recreate social structure. More extended consideration of the theoretical issues in the study of ritual would be warranted here. Certainly ritual is not all there is to human action and societal formation, but how is ritual managed by individuals and by societies? How does it represent their values, mythology and cosmogony and how does its practice condition ideology? Or how is ritual itself conditioned by other factors of social organization? These and other questions like them are raised in the examples presented in this book but not followed up in conclusion. Of course, as Morris admits, it's heady stuff and there is a limit to what can be framed within the borders of this study, but since this theme is embedded in the title and is central to so much social theory today, more consideration is warranted. I suggest readers interested in pursuing these issues consult Catherine Bell's comprehensive study, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: OUP 1992).

At the end is a useful bibliographical essay covering the main sources for the study of death, burial, ritual, quantification, ethnographic and historical comparisons, and the archaeology of death. Those who use this book in courses or as a springboard for research will find it invaluable.

This book faces the problem of how to mediate between high level theory and the unsorted sea of factual observations we claim to study. It is a middle range approach, but within that there is variation, from the rigidly methodological to the particularist example. This book lies somewhere on the upper end of the scale and in my opinion could have been organized more thematically without compromising its methodological clarity. Sometimes it is better to embed the method more deeply in the cases under consideration, and, as I have indicated, because two chapters each deal with Greece and Rome, they provide a powerful organizing principle for this book that is disrupted by its more rigid methodological format. But this is hardly a severe criticism for the book is readable, the topic is fascinating and the study does achieve a sustained crescendo from chapter four onwards. As the second in the Cambridge series of 'Key Themes in Ancient History', Death Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity succeeds admirably and augurs well for the importance of the series as a whole. I cannot imagine an archaeologist or historian of antiquity who is truly serious about studying ancient society ignoring this work and its lessons or not using it as a fundamental source for instruction.