Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.19

David L. Stone, Lea M. Stirling (ed.), Mortuary Landscapes of North Africa.   Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2007.  Pp. xii, 249.  ISBN 978-0-8020-9083-6.  $75.00.  

Contributors: David L. Stone; Lea M. Stirling; Habib Ben Younes; Jennifer P. Moore; David J. Mattingly; Anna Leone; Michael McKinnon

Reviewed by Kathryn J. McDonnell, UCLA (
Word count: 1815 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay.]

Mortuary Landscapes of North Africa stems from a colloquium the two editors, David Stone and Lea Stirling, organized at the 2001 meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. The book has both the advantages and disadvantages of a thematic session, including a close focus on a particular geographic area, North Africa, a region that is well-defined by modern terminology and research focuses, but less defined from an ancient perspective. The volume is a valuable and stimulating examination of multiple aspects of mortuary studies in North Africa, and contains eight essays, each of which is either a contribution by one of the original members of the panel or a solicited contribution.

The eight essays in the volume vary greatly in subject matter, methodology, and approach and provide a survey of trends in mortuary studies. These studies include: (1) in-depth examinations of a single facet of funerary practices, such as Stirling's own discussion of the cupula tomb type; (2) wide-ranging syntheses of evidence from multiple sites, such as Michael McKinnon's masterful analysis of human skeletal evidence; and (3) theoretical approaches, such as Stone and Stirling's co-authored introductory essay. The volume encompasses a wide range of chronological perspectives, from the first millennium BC to the Byzantine era.

In the introduction, "Funerary Monuments and Mortuary Practices in the Landscape of North Africa," the two editors set out current directions in landscape archaeology and contextualize the individual contributions to the volume within a theoretical framework. The directions they discuss include the role of ritual, the categorization of monument types, the interaction of individuals with the landscape, and acculturation exchange between groups. As careful as their discussion of approaches and methodology is, at the same time, in this reviewer's opinion, Stone and Stirling err by assuming an audience already familiar with the "major civilizations in ancient North Africa: Garamantian, Berber, Punic, Roman, and Early Christian" (14). They therefore omit a general overview of these peoples and of ancient North Africa as a topic within the introductory essay. Given the range of the volume, this omission makes it difficult for the reader who does not specialize in North Africa to grasp all the nuances raised by the individual papers and the volume as a whole. This is unfortunate because so many of the theoretical and practical issues raised by the papers in the volume are the same as those confronted by scholars who work in other geographical and historical contexts.

The introduction performs a singular service to the reader by locating the approaches of each essay within a broader theoretical context ("landscapes of change," "landscapes of continuity," "landscapes of identity," "landscapes of community," and "landscapes of the sacred" [pp. 14-25].) Given the overall focus of the volume on funerary monuments as markers in the inhabited landscape, it is not surprising that the majority of papers in the volume focus on questions of monument typology (Stirling), monument placement (Leone), the interaction between viewer or community and monument (Stirling, Mattingly, Leone), cultural interaction and exchange in funerary practices (Ben Younes, Mattingly, Stone) as well as the monument within the landscape. A brief summary of the seven individual contributions, arranged thematically, and their individual strengths and weaknesses follows.

Anna Leone's contribution, "Changing Urban Landscapes: Burials in North African Cities from the Late Antique to Byzantine Periods," looks at the placement of graves within the classical urban core in these periods at four sites: Thysdrus; Hadrumentum; Carthage; and Bulla Regia. Her analysis examines re-use of the classical cityscape by subsequent inhabitants and concludes that the placement of burials was not random, as often assumed, but deliberate and organized. Her discussion and the clarity of her approach will be a useful model for all scholars who consider questions of use and re-use in the post-Roman landscape.

Stirling's study of the cupula tomb type, "The Koine of the Cupula in Roman North Africa and the Transition from Cremation to Inhumation," presents a well-written investigation of an individual phenomenon. Her discussion raises interesting questions about the connection between funerary practice, ritual acts, and the use of a particular tomb type, arguing for a functional understanding of funerary monuments. Here, however, the volume's scope limits the depth of her investigation to the cupula tomb's appearance in North African contexts, with only a brief mention of its appearance elsewhere in the empire, most notably at Isola Sacra.1

Jennifer Moore's contribution, "The 'Mausoleum Culture' of Africa Proconsularis" also investigates a particular monument type, in this instance, mausolea in Africa Pronconsularis. Her thorough study highlights the many challenges in funerary studies, including the modern construction of monument typologies, continuity and change in monument types, interaction between pre-Roman-era and Roman-era populations, and the placement of monuments in the landscape. Her examination of monument placement is particularly strong. The only substantive flaw in her approach is her discussion of epitaphs, which cites only the references to CIL and other corpora and not the texts themselves, not even when her discussion focuses on specific formulae in the inscriptions.

David Stone examines the haouanet, first millennium BC rock-cut tombs, and attempts "to situate (them) in the social and cultural development of North Africa" (40) in his essay, "Monuments on the Margins: Interpreting the First Millenium B.C.E. Rock-cut Tombs (Haouanet) of North Africa." Stone builds on the recent monograph on haouanet by Mansour Ghaki2 and examines three specific questions: the historical framework of the monuments; their relationship to the landscape; and the evidence they provide for cultural exchange. He divides his essay into two sections: an analysis of the historical context for haouanet based on archaeological and textual evidence; and a case study of the two best-published haouanet cemeteries, Jbel el Mangoub and Latrech, both in modern-day Tunisia. In his case study, Stone analyzes the form and frequency of decorative elements and motifs in the tombs, such as columns, niches, human figures and animals, and draws conclusions about their origins, meaning, and interpretation. Stone concludes that the haouanet provide evidence for "a dialogue between old and new ways of thinking" (71) and envisions the builders of these tombs as active participants in their own culture and in cross-cultural exchange. His use of multiple approaches is sophisticated and serves as a model for future studies of haouanet cemeteries.

Habib Ben Younes' contribution, "Interculturality and the Punic Funerary World," focuses on the effects of intercultural exchange on "the pre-Roman funerary world", in terms of both practices and monuments, found in modern Tunisia (p. 32). He argues for a conservative model of monument design and selection, in which innovation and change occurs slowly, if at all. Working from this assumption, he then defines three 'families' of tombs: megalithic tombs; rock-cut tombs (haouanets); and shaft tombs and traces influence, often reciprocal, between these types and between the Phoenician and Punic populations that created and used them. Ben Younes reads the plurality of monument types as evidence for interculturality in the Punic funerary world in particular. Ashe himself points out, however, our lack of knowledge about pre-Phoenician contact cultures in North Africa makes it difficult to attribute non-Phoenican practices to any particular source.

Ben Younes' noteworthy caution about assigning particular meaning or attributing specific origins to funerary practices in North Africa contrasts with David J. Mattingly's contribution to the volume, "The African Way of Death: Burial Rituals Beyond the Roman Empire." Mattingly attempts "to identify specifically African characteristics in mortuary tradition" by focusing on the practices of the Garamantes (138). Mattingly assumes that their mortuary traditions, even if subject to diverse influences, offer insight into typically African traits (140, 161). This assertion and his methodology highlight the current gap in theory and methodology between many classical archaeologists and non-classical archaeologists. Archaeologists in other specialties, most notably historical archaeologists who work on colonial and ante-bellum United States, have recently been examining the assumption that ethnic identity is reflected in the archaeological record, problematizing the idea that cultures or peoples, such as enslaved Africans in the colonial US, can be identified in the record through artifact typologies.3 It would have been useful for Mattingly to have alluded to this extensive discussion in either his study or his bibliography. Given the state of the question, Mattingly's contribution would have benefited from a more nuanced approach to questions of identity and ethnicity in the archaeological record. It is unfortunate that our division into specific sub-fields within archaeology and departments within academia often precludes intellectual cross-fertilization, but recent edited volumes have begun to break down this divide.4

Perhaps the most valuable contribution to the volume is also the final paper, Michael McKinnon's overview of human osteological evidence from North African sites, "Peopling the Mortuary Landscape of North Africa: An Overview of the Human Osteological Evidence." Not only does McKinnon summarize the state of the field and interpret the available evidence for human populations, he also points out future directions, including the possibilities offered by digital media. This reviewer would urge that we go one step beyond McKinnon's suggestion of digital publication of data and consider the creation of web-accessible databases through which various categories of data could be made broadly available. Such databases for scientific fields such as bioinformatics ( have become a standard means of data exchange among researchers. Projects in American historical archaeology, such as the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), point the way to new standards of data publication and exchange for all archaeologists.

Returning to the volume as a whole and its critical apparatus, this reviewer found that, despite its great range, the volume has some flaws in overall execution and in individual contributions, as discussed above. The primary flaw in execution by the authors lies in the lack of geographic and chronological context in the introduction to the volume by Stone and Stirling. Neither their introductory text nor the supporting maps and illustrations address the concept of "North Africa" in either modern or ancient sense. Instead, North Africa as a geographic construct goes largely unexamined and undefined. This flaw is compounded by the publisher's choice to include simple outline maps (figs. 1.1 and 1.2) with labeled sites and no topographical information rather than a detailed topographical map. Given the volume's focus on the placement of funerary monuments in the landscape and connection between mortuary practices and local topography, this oversight detracts substantially from the overall impact of the volume. Given the availability of the maps from resources such as the Barrington Atlas and the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the decision to use simple outline maps seems inexplicable on scholarly grounds. The particular focus on North Africa, as noted earlier, is both the strength and the weakness of the collection. Despite these criticisms, Mortuary Landscapes of North Africa is a remarkable collection of essays and one that should be of great value to scholars of funerary practices and cultural exchange in the ancient Mediterranean.


1.   See her note 49.
2.   Mansour Ghaki, Les haouanet de Sidi Mhamed Latrech, (Tunis : Institut national du patrimoine, 1999).
3.   The bibliography on ethnicity and on colonialism in the archaeological record is extensive. To begin, see: Randall McGuire, "The Study of Ethnicity in Historical Archaeology," Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 1(1982), 159-278; Robert Paynter, "W. E. B. DuBois and the Material World of African Americans in Great Barrington, Massachusetts," Critique of Anthropology 12 (1992), 277-291; Patricia Samford, "The Archaeology of African-American Slavery and Material Culture," William and Mary Quarterly 53 (1996), 87-114; Sian Jones, The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present (London, New York: Routledge, 1997); all of the work of Teresa A. Singleton, most recently Teresa A. Singleton & Mark Bograd, "Breaking Typological Barriers: Looking for the Colono in Colonoware," in James A. Delle, Stephen A. Mrozowski, and Robert Paynter (eds.) , Lines that Divide: Historical Archaeologies of Race, Class, and Gender (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), pages 3-21; Sam Lucy, "Ethnic and Cultural Identities," in The Archaeology of Identity: Approaches to Gender, Age, Statues, Ethnicity and Religion (New York, London: Routledge, 2005); and in classical and comparative contexts, see Claire L. Lyons and John K. Papadopoulos (eds.), The Archaeology of Colonialism (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002). (BMCR 2003.09.43), and Gil Stein (ed.), The Archaeology of Colonial Encounters: Comparative Perspectives (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press; Oxford : James Currey, 2005).
4.   For the full references to these collections, notably Stein 2005 and Lyons and Papadopoulos 2002, see above, note 2.

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