Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.17

John Pearce, Martin Millett, Manuella Struck, Burial, Society and Context in the Roman World.   Oxford:  Oxbow Books, 2000.  Pp. 272 + xxiv.  ISBN 1842170341.  $60.00.  

Contributors: A. Abegg-Wigg, J. Bourgeois, C. Davison, P. Del Moro, P. De Santis, D. Dexheimer, S. Esmonde Cleary, P. Fasold, A. Fitzpatrick, A. Jovanovic, A. Kreuz, S. Martin-Kilcher, R. Martorelli, J. McKinley, R. Meneghini, M. Millett, P. Murail, R. Niblett, D. Nuzzo, J. Pearce, M. Polfer, L. Quensel-von-Kalben, R. Reece, M. Riedel, R. Santangeli Valenzani, C. Schucany, M. Spanu, M. Struck, J. Topál, L. Tranoy, M. Tuffreau-Libre, F. Vermeulen

Reviewed by Ann Marie Yasin, Northwestern University (
Word count: 2047 words

The last decade has witnessed a spate of colloquia on the subject of death and burial in the Roman world, including gatherings in Mainz in 1991, Orléans in 1992, Xanten in 1995 and -- the impetus for the current volume -- Durham in 1997. In their published form, the proceedings of these meetings now constitute a very considerable body of literature.1 Each of these volumes in some way attempts to come to terms with the increasing amount of available skeletal, botanical, architectural and other material data from excavated cemeteries across the Roman world. As a result, a fuller picture is beginning to emerge of the wealth and diversity not only of grave types and furnishings across the provinces, but also of the cultural processes which may inform local manifestations of burial ritual, memorial construction and cemetery organization.

The present volume explicitly positions itself as a continuation of this current dialogue. An additional aim of the Durham symposium had been to pay particular attention to the relatively understudied funerary evidence from Roman Britain (vii-viii). However, given this original vision, the twenty-eight essays collected here share less in common in terms of either geographical focus or methodological approach than we might expect.

Most of the contributions do consider funerary material from the northern reaches of the empire: Britain is particularly well represented, while there are also studies of mortuary evidence from France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the Balkans. One essay stretches to Cilicia and Cappadocia, but otherwise the eastern and African provinces are omitted. This wide geographical scope of the papers has great potential for expanding our collective "knowledge base" of less frequently studied areas of the empire. Indeed one of the volume's strengths is the way the contributions marshal little-known material, previously published exclusively in local archaeological journals with limited circulation, to provide more comprehensive sets of data from individual regions or provinces. That said, the geographical diffusion also places a greater burden on the reader to identify trends, make comparisons or assemble a broader picture based on so many mismatched pieces.

A more significant inconsistency, however, results from the clashing goals and methodologies of the various contributions. The organizers themselves recognize that, as Martin Millett writes in the preface, "in the way of things, a number of the papers addressed questions different to those raised in the introductory paper," and thus "arguably produced a more diverse volume than might have been desired" (viii). To consider just one pertinent example, in his introductory essay, "Burial, society and context in the provincial Roman world," John Pearce provides a concise and informative critique of the concept of 'Romanisation' and the use of the term (1-2). Yet the other contributors rarely engage in the issues raised in Pearce's synthesis and the up-to-date theoretical literature he cites. Instead, as Richard Reece, who did not attend the original conference, astutely notes in the Afterword, "the volume demonstrates the diversity of modern archaeological approaches with some contributors being happy with terms such as native and Roman, ethnic and racial while others veer away from what they see as the extreme complexities of such descriptions" (270).

The result is a volume which still retains much of its conference character despite its formal presentation as an edited volume. One cannot help but think that a more judicious selection of contributions could have carried a more sustained dialogue and in-depth probing of the critical issues raised at the start. For example, a number of the essays offer new information on recently excavated sites, such as Pascal Murail's study of the rural cemetery of Chantambre (Essonne, France) and Maria Paola Del Moro's presentation of funerary equipment from the newly discovered circiforme basilica on the Via Ardeatina in Rome. These contributions provide clear and informative summaries of new data which will prove extremely useful to researchers looking either for comparative material for their own sites, or for evidence which addresses larger patterns of burial practice. However, these chapters are essentially preliminary excavation reports which perhaps would have been better suited to separate publication in an archaeological journal where scholars seeking comparanda and the latest news from the field would be accustomed to look first.

While to my mind, the contributions did not coalesce into sustained debates on the central topics outlined in Pearce's introduction (burial and cultural identity, relation of burial to social status and the context of burial in the urban landscape), there are nevertheless several key issues to which groups of essays respond in interesting and thought-provoking ways. In the remainder of this review, I will limit my remarks to those essays which significantly advance the discussion of specific issues regarding the methodologies and interpretations of archaeological burial evidence.

One area of especially stimulating inter-essay dialogue concerns the interpretation of cremation evidence. Three essays in particular stress the need for a sharper methodology to distinguish between the site of cremation and the grave. Michel Polfer's study of ustrina and pyre debris demonstrates the limited nature of an impression of burial habits gleaned only from grave evidence. By raising the very important distinction between 'consumed' objects and those deposited in the tomb, Polfer observed in his case-study site of the Septfontaines-Dêckt cemetery (Luxembourg) that the proportion of eating, drinking and cooking or storage vessels varied dramatically from the ustrinum site (where forms used for eating predominate) to graves (where drinking vessels make up the vast proportion of unburnt goods). Similarly, Marie Tuffreau-Libre's examination of Gallo-Roman pottery highlights differences between habitation and funerary assemblages according to several criteria: vessel type (vessels for liquids more common in graves), size (pots from burials consistently smaller), ware type (with certain wares more common in graves than from settlement sites), and date (since grave materials could be deposited after they were no longer in household use). If grave assemblages do not appear representative either of the full range of funerary vessels (Polfer), or of those in daily use from habitation sites (Tuffreau-Libre), the distinctions beg the question as to why certain vessels were deemed more or less appropriate for the grave. Taken together with Rosalind Niblett's contribution on the early Roman funerary rites in Verulanum which discovers greater ritual attention to cremation than burial of cremated remains, these findings urge us to nuance our reading of mortuary data and become increasingly sensitive to funerary ritual as a multi-stage process.

Several other essays address related problems surrounding the interpretation of tomb disposition and grave goods. Manuela Struck uses evidence from early Roman Britain to investigate the demonstration of status at the grave site. After outlining several possible criteria for identifying a high-status burial, including monumentality, use of permanent building material, prominent location and inclusion of weapons or valuable banqueting vessels, Struck concludes that high-status graves comprise almost three percent of the total known graves dating from the first to third century in Britain. In addition, the author stresses that the expressions of status vary in terms of their degree of Romanization (as assessed by likeness to Roman forms) in geographically identifiable patterns: in the Northwest status was mainly expressed in a Romanized or non-native way, while in the Southeast status tended to be demonstrated though more traditional means such as barrows or large pottery assemblages. In his essay, Lucas Quensel-von-Kalben pursues a broader investigation of grave features through detailed statistical analysis (cluster analysis and comparison tables) of later Roman burials in Britain. In comparing the factors of age, sex, status and religion with their possible modes of expression (number and type of grave goods, location, and body treatment), Quensel-von-Kalben determines that there is great heterogeneity in the burial practices of late Roman Britain "despite the once accepted view of a culturally homogenous population" (224). While leaving full interpretation of his data open to future study, the author suggests that "the differentiation between rural and urban communities on the one hand and Christian and pagan groups on the other are probably the most promising explanation for the structuring of Late Roman cemeteries in Britain" (228). In a more narrowly defined investigation, Paola De Santis turns to examination of glass objects set into the mortar of loculi in the Christian catacombs of Rome. After an identification of the vessels' typology, De Santis makes the suggestion that they related to refrigerium ceremonies held at the grave but stops short of addressing other implications of this conclusion, such as why such objects would, after their presumed festal use, then have been embedded into the tomb walls, and how other classes of objects (e.g. dolls, coins or amulets) fit into the refrigerium scenario.2

Though few essays take above ground monuments as their principal object of study, several interesting threads regarding the interpretation of funerary monuments run through the volume. Marcello Spanu's study of imperial period burial in Asia Minor considers the effects of Roman influence on an area where monumental and richly decorated tombs had long been common. While the tradition of monumental tombs continues in the Roman period, the author sees the increasing frequency of multiple burials as evidence for a conceptual shift in funerary monuments marking increased emphasis on the identity of the family or group over the individual. Manuela Struck (see above) reminds us that questions of monumentality and visibility are particularly acute to scholars of Roman Britain where only approximately two percent of known burials are connected with funerary monuments (86). In his investigation of burial location in Roman Britain, Simon Esmonde Cleary further reflects on the implications presented by the overwhelming majority of anonymous tombs. He considers the relative lack of differentiation in the visual parts of burials surrounding major towns as an indication of a degree of "assimilation into the generality of the town's past inhabitants," in direct contrast with the tombs of small towns and rural sites which seem to retain much more of their individual and family identity (137).

Just as Esmonde Cleary's work demonstrates the variety among cemeteries of a single region, several other essays indicate local situations broadly divergent from the "street of tombs" model predominant in Italy and elsewhere. Laurence Tranoy's study of the funerary landscape around Lyons, for example, indicates that roadside monumental tomb groups (as evidenced by the Trion mausolea outside the city's west exit) represent only one type of cemetery in the urban periphery. He argues that over the course of time the suburban landscape became increasingly dominated by "clusters of anonymous and modest burials ... developing in a seemingly disorganised and poorly managed way" (168). The evolution of Rome's own funerary map is redrawn by Roberto Meneghini and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani's study of intra-mural burial in the fifth to seventh centuries. While the exceptional circumstance of burial within the city walls in the fifth century (only four datable examples) becomes much more widespread in the sixth and seventh, the authors stress that the preference for public spaces and buildings clearly "contrasts with the image of the emergence of intramural [burial] as a spontaneous and chaotic phenomenon, linked to a moment of disintegration in the urban fabric and a lack of centres of authority" (264).

All the essays appear in English, and the tri-lingual abstracts (English, German and French) which appear at the beginning of the volume make for quick and convenient overview of the contents. Despite this gesture toward greater accessibility and the broadly interdisciplinary title, this volume is as resolutely archaeological as the other recently published sets of conference proceedings mentioned at the beginning of this review.3 Of course, the archaeological focus of the book is not in itself problematic, but readers expecting sustained examination of social context (from the pivotal position of "Society" between " Burial" and "Context" in the title) may be disappointed in contributors' more restricted concentration on the archaeological contexts of burial. Since archaeological evidence has such great potential to contribute to current debates on cultural, social and historical issues surrounding death and burial in the Roman world, it is all the more unfortunate that the scope and presentation of the papers narrowly limit their audience to those active in the specialized field of burial archaeology. Whereas the archaeological data, the methodological problems of their analysis, and the implications of their interpretations presented here will prove useful to archaeological researchers, this material is likely to remain inaccessible to the wider community of classicists, ancient historians and art historians.


1.   In chronological order of the original meetings: Manuela Struck, ed. Römerzeitliche Gräber als Quellen zu Religion, Bevölkerungsstruktur und Sozialgeschichte. Internationale Fachkonferenz vom 18.-20. Februar 1991 im Institut für Vor- und Frühgeschichte der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. Mainz: Institut für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Universität Mainz, 1993. Alain Ferdière, ed. Monde des morts, monde des vivants en Gaule rurale: Actes du Colloque ARCHÉA / AGER (Orléans, Conseil Régional, 7-9 février 1992). Tours: FÉRACF / La SIMARRE, 1993. Peter Fasold, et al., eds. Bestattungssitte und kulturelle Identität. Grabanlagen und Grabbeigaben der frühen römischen Kaiserzeit in Italien und den Nordwest-Provinzen. (Xantener Berichte, 7) Köln: Rheinland-Verlag, 1998. In addition, the proceedings of the conference held in Rome in 1998 are now available: Michael Heinzelmann, et al., eds. Römischer Bestattungsbrauch und Beigabensitten in Rom, Norditalien und den Nordwestprovinzen von der späten Republik bis in die Kaiserzeit. Culto dei morti e costumi funerari romani. Roma, Italia settentrionale e province nord-occidentali dalla tarda Repubblica all'età imperiale. (Palilia, 8) Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2001.
2.   Another essay in the volume, for example, posits an apotropaic function for magical symbols, amulets and bells which decorated the outside of Christian tombs in Rome (Donatella Nuzzo, "Amulet and grave in late antiquity: some examples from Roman cemeteries," (249-255)).
3.   A notable exception is the volume that grew out of the exploration of early medieval burial at the 1993 Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress (Catherine E. Karkov, Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley and Bailey K. Young, eds. Spaces of the Living and the Dead: An Archaeological Dialogue. (American Early Medieval Studies, 3). Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999; cf. the review by Fred Paxton, TMR 00.11.09).

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