Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.04

Angela Bellia, Antonio De Siena, Giorgio Gruppioni (ed.), Solo tombe di "musicisti" a Metaponto?: studio dei resti ossei e degli strumenti musicali contenuti nei corredi funerari. Telestes, 3.   Pisa; Roma:  Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2017.  Pp. 118.  ISBN 9788881474608.  €32,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Veronica Ikeshoji-Orlati, National Gallery of Art (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In recent years, there has been a steady stream of scholarship focused on music in the ancient Mediterranean.1 Alongside a burgeoning corpus of work on the literary and epigraphic evidence for ancient Greek and Roman music theory and practice, detailed analyses of archaeological and iconographic evidence has led to significant strides in organological studies.2 Solo tombe di 'musicisti' a Metaponto? represents an approach to archaeomusicology which has become more prevalent in the past decade: the examination of material and visual evidence within its original archaeological context with the intention of investigating the cultural significance of music in a geographically—and temporally—circumscribed region of the ancient Mediterranean.

The title of the work obliquely frames the question at the core of the study: does the presence of a musical instrument, specifically the tortoise-shell lyre, in Metapontine funerary assemblages indicate that the deceased was a musician, or does the instrument hold a different symbolic value within South Italian funerary contexts? To answer this question, the authors examine the human remains and funerary assemblages from three Metapontine tombs in which tortoise carapaces were found: Tomb 18 from Torre di Mare; Tomb 336, “the tomb of the musician,” from Pantanello; and Tomb 415 from Pisticci. The book begins with a brief introduction to the project by the volume co-editors. Subsequently, it is broken into two main sections: “Analisi antropologica,” in which the osteological re-examination of the human remains is presented, and “Il contesto archeologico delle tombe di 'musicisti',” in which the material assemblages from the tombs are contextualized and interpreted.

The introduction ("Presentazione. Studio dei resti ossei e degli strumenti musicali contenuti nei corredi funerari") offers background information on the multidisciplinary research project that spawned the publication. Through a collaboration between the Laboratorio di Antropologia Archeologica del Dipartimento di Beni Culturali dell'Università di Bologna, sede di Ravenna, and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Basilicata, the authors were able to pursue a complete, scientific re-analysis of the assemblages from T. 18, T. 336, and T. 415. By combining osteological, archaeological, anthropological, and musicological analyses, the authors suggest that they have come upon a new method for evaluating not only the role of music in ancient contexts, but also the status (emphasis theirs) of those who were associated with music (p. 10).

The first section (“Analisi antropologica”) contains one chapter, “Analisi antropologiche su alcuni inumati provenienti dalle necropoli metapontine: tombe 18, 336 e 415. Il caso del cosiddetto 'musicista acromegalico'” by Antonino Vazzana et al. After a general introduction to the condition of the osteological finds (with a particular focus on the well-preserved remains of the deceased in T. 336), the authors offer a brief section describing their methods for identifying the sex, age, and pathologies of the deceased (pp. 17-18). To emphasize the technological sophistication of their analyses, Vazzana et al. note that they utilized high-accuracy, CT-scan generated 3D models to complement their morphometric analyses of the original remains, and that aDNA analysis of the individual in T. 336 was attempted (p. 21). In addition to confirming Henneberg and Henneberg’s identification of the individuals in T. 18 (male, 17-25 years of age) and T. 415 (male, 20-24 years of age), Vazzana et al. (pp. 18-23) offer some new evidence to support Henneberg and Henneberg’s diagnosis of acromegaly in the 40-45 year old male buried in T. 336.3 The novel part of the authors' analysis, however, is in how they tie the osteological analysis to the volume’s main research question. By demonstrating that none of the bones present evidence of ergonomic or functional stress markers, they suggest that none of the deceased could have been practicing professional musicians (pp. 25-26), thereby clearing a pathway for the reinterpretation of the lyres’ symbolism in the three Metapontine funerary assemblages.

The second section (“Il contesto archeologico delle tombe di 'musicisti'”) contains two essays which focus on the grave goods from the three Metapontine tombs with lyres. The first essay, “Il contesto archeologico: aspetti simbolici e comunicazione per immagini” by Giuseppe Lepore, is brief but wide-ranging. In it, Lepore utilizes a self-described anthropological lens to advocate for interpreting together all of the objects from a single funerary assemblage, as they represent “un 'insieme simbolico' che il defunto può utilizzare durante il viaggio verso l'aldilà oppure nella nuova dimensione in cui verrà a trovarsi” (p. 35). The author then goes on to suggest that the significance of each funerary assemblage is most effectively understood within the performance of the interment of the deceased, though the original meaning of each individual object is a complex overlaying of its iconography, form, and personal history with the deceased (p. 38). Finally, in the specific context of the archaeology of Magna Graecia, Lepore identifies four interrelated types of thematic funerary assemblages for males of various ages (athlete, symposiast, warrior, and musician) which, he posits, were used by the deceased's family to signal living “alla Greca” (p. 38). Though the brevity of the essay leaves the reader wanting further elucidation of big ideas (e.g., Lepore’s Nietzschean interpretation of the lyres in symposiast funerary assemblages as the Apolline counterbalance to the Dionysian sentiments expressed through the ceramics, p. 39), Lepore’s methodological call to interpret funerary assemblages holistically is a welcome addition to contemporary discourses on the interpretation of musical instruments and their symbolism.

Lepore’s essay sets the stage for the most substantial chapter of the volume, Angela Bellia’s “Tombe di ‘musicisti’ in Magna Grecia: il caso di Metaponto.” Bellia, a leading expert in the archaeology of music in South Italy and Sicily, reframes the question posed in the introduction, setting out to consider whether the presence of a musical instrument in South Italian funerary assemblages refers to the deceased's musical prowess or whether its presence serves a symbolic function related to religious beliefs in the afterlife and beyond (p. 46). To address this question, Bellia surveys the deposition of lyres in other South Italian contexts dating from the 6th through 3rd centuries BCE, including tombs at Poseidonia, Crotone, Locri, Taranto, and Roca (a Messapian site near Melendugno, province of Lecce). In the funerary assemblages examined, Bellia identifies the lyres as markers of male education and erudition, a grave good that designates the deceased as a mousikos anēr but not necessarily a professional musician (p. 46).4 In her discussion of the tombs at Poseidonia and Locri in particular, Bellia pushes the interpretation of the lyre even further, identifying allusions to Pythagorean beliefs in the curative powers of music for the soul in the deposition and representation of stringed instruments within the tombs (pp. 50-52). By briefly discussing the assemblages of two burials at Messapian Roca, Bellia also suggests that the lyre in non-Hellenic funerary contexts is deposited as part of a Greek sympotic set, reinforcing the idea that the instrument held symbolic, and not necessarily performative, meaning for both Greek and indigenous Italiote populations (p. 56). The conclusions drawn from the five brief case-studies of lyres in other South Italian funerary contexts are tied together in Bellia’s discussion of the three tombs at Metaponto, where she reads the lyres not only as markers of the social status of the deceased, but also as manifestations of “Orphic-Pythagorean” belief in the physically and spiritually redemptive qualities of music (p. 56).

The volume presents plentiful black-and-white images of the contents of the three Metapontine tombs in the figures for each essay and in a set of plates at the back. Scholars may find useful the twelve tables at the end of Bellia's chapter detailing the finds from each funerary assemblage containing a lyre from the sites she discusses (pp. 78-93). The citations of each essay are up-to-date, too, including 2017 and forthcoming publications. In addition to the occasional copyediting foible (e.g., “growth hormone” repeatedly written as “grown hormon”), however, there are a handful of editorial decisions that detract from the volume’s overall merit. The first is the general lack of congruence within and between each essay. Introductory information about the three Metapontine funerary assemblages is repeated frequently and there are very few cross-references between the essays. The unnecessary repetition of general information is particularly noticeable in the chapter on skeletal analysis (perhaps due to the authors’ collaborative writing process), but is also evidenced in the repetition of images between individual essay's figures and the volume's plates (e.g., Lepore figure 3 is the same as the volume’s plate 1, and his figure 4 is the same as the volume’s plate 13). In addition, some of the figures are not as informative as they could be either due to the inconsistent use of a scale bar in photographs and maps (e.g., the introduction figure 1, a map of Italy) or because of the size at which they were printed (e.g., Vazzana et al. table 1, which reproduces the osteological analysis forms for all three Metapontine burials on a single page, thereby rendering the form keys illegible).

Despite these editorial blemishes, the volume provides stimulating discussion fodder for those studying music, religion, and funerary practices in the ancient Mediterranean. Methodologically, the integration of osteological, anthropological, and archaeological approaches in one volume demonstrates that careful, collaborative re-study of previously-excavated materials can provide an entrée into richer interpretations of archaeological assemblages. Furthermore, the links drawn between the deposition of lyres in South Italian graves and religious beliefs about music and the afterlife pave the way for further engagement between archaeologists studying funerary assemblages and contemporary discourses on the evolution of mystery cult practices in Magna Graecia during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. In sum, Solo tombe di 'musicisti' a Metaponto? is a truly thought-provoking illustration of how we can (re)contextualize our material evidence for music, musicians, and musical performance in antiquity.

Table of Contents

Bellia, Angela, Antonio de Siena, and Giorgio Gruppioni. “Presentazione. Studio dei resti ossei e degli strumenti musicali contenuti nei corredi funerari.” 9-12.
Vazzana, Antonino, Giuditta Franceschini, Maria Cristina Serrangeli, Mirko Traversari, Elisabeta Cilli, Gabriele Monetti, Stefano Benazzi, Giorgio Gruppioni. “Analisi antropologiche su alcuni inumati provenienti dalle necropoli metapontine: tombe 18,336 e 415. Il caso del cosiddetto 'musicista acromegalico.'” 15-32.
Lepore, Giuseppe. “Il contesto archeologico: aspetti simbolici e comunicazione per immagini.” 35-43.
Bellia, Angela. “Tombe di 'musicisti' in Magna Grecia: il caso di Metaponto.” 45-98.
Tavole fotografiche. 99-113.
Elenco dei reperti. 115.
Indice dei nomi e delle cose notevoli. 117-118.


1.   For a sense of the breadth of scholarship on ancient music, as of September 1, 2018, the MOISA de Musicis online bibliography of scholarship on Greek and Roman music, dating back to the 1990s, includes 2,887 references to monographs, catalogues, journal articles, book chapters, and other peer-reviewed publications.
2.   See, for example, Stefan Hagel, Ancient Greek Music: A New Technical History. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
3.   Maciej Henneberg and Renata J. Henneberg, “Biological Characteristics of the Population Based on Analysis of Skeletal Remains,” in Joseph Coleman Carter (ed.), The Chora of Metaponto: The Necropoleis. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, 524-525 (BMCR 1999.06.11).
4.   Bellia seems to follow the definition of the mousikos anēr, and the idea of musical instruments and iconography relating to this identity, explored in Sheramy Bundrick, Music and Image in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 (BMCR 2006.07.46).

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