BMCR 1999.06.11

The Chora of Metaponto: The Necropoleis. Vol I and II

, , , The chora of Metaponto. The necropoleis. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. 2 volumes (xiii, 890 pages) : illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780292712119. $125.00.

This volume is a major publication and a significant contribution to the archaeology of Magna Graecia that will quickly take its place as a standard work of reference in any archaeological or classical library. The work of many hands, the completion of this book not only represents a great collaborative effort, but a tribute to the guiding hand of Joseph Coleman Carter as the director of the excavations and editor of the volume under review. A great deal of information is packed into two volumes. The problems of presenting numerous drawings, photographs, maps and analytical tables are well resolved, with the illustrative material all placed in the text. This is a lavishly illustrated volume, and readers have the benefit of text and illustrations conveniently located together; even the footnotes are mercifully placed at the bottom of each page. For all this, the University of Texas Press has to be both thanked and congratulated.

The main subject of the book is the rural cemetery at Pantanello, in the territory of Metaponto, as well as the smaller Saldone and Sant’ Angelo Vecchio necropoleis. As the editor makes clear in his introduction (p. 3), the Pantanello cemetery is the first necropolis of Magna Graecia to have been published in its entirety. This in itself comes as a surprise and something of a shock, especially for an area that has seen such full-scale excavations since the days of the great Paolo Orsi.

The Introduction (pp. 3-22), by Carter, presents a summary of the state of research and an overview dealing with the historical and archaeological context of Metaponto. The latter progresses diachronically from the pre-colonial, through the 6th century, into the 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. and beyond. This is followed by a very useful section on the organization and scope of the study. Chapter 2, entitled “Topography” (pp. 24-55), aims to place the necropoleis in the landscape and to relate them to the development of the chora as a whole. Some of the plans in this richly illustrated section could have appeared at a larger scale, but this would have greatly increased the cost of the volume.

The next four chapters, all by Carter, deal with the tombs themselves. Chapter 3: “Burial Rites and Tomb Types” (pp. 56-113), provides a detailed discussion of the manner of disposal of the deceased against the backdrop of both mainland Greek practices, as well as South Italian customs — indigenous and colonial. There is a diversity of burial customs that will provide much of substance for future studies of the subject in South Italy. This is a detailed and judicious discussion that draws attention to the fact that there is no synthetic treatment of South Italian and Sicilian burial customs which corresponds to published overviews of Greek burial customs.1 Despite so many excavations and new discoveries in South Italy, the lack of a synthetic volume dealing with burial rites and tomb types is surprising. The chapter ends with a brief appendix, by Robert Folk, on the geology of the stones used in the tombs. Chapter 4: “Rites at the Tomb and Grave Markers” (pp. 114-140), is an account of the material in the ground above and around the burials. Collectively, this material provides an evocative glimpse of rituals at the grave: perideipna, libations, animal sacrifice, killed vessels, and so on. Here archaeological material paints a picture more immediate and arguably more telling than that accessible only through the study of literary sources and iconography. In Chapter 5: “Family Groups” (pp. 142-165), Carter strays into uncharted territory. With the female adult burials outnumbering the males by a ratio of 2:1, a hypothetical reconstruction of perceived family groups is attempted in order to explain this extreme imbalance. This is in part “supported” by biological characteristics collected by Maciej and Renata Henneberg (Appendix 5A.3 and Chapter 11). Interestingly, Carter tentatively turns to “oligandria” (an insufficiency of male heads of families) and “politographia” (enrolling new citizens) to help understand the pattern. These are large words that attempt to explain simple concepts; the result is a Metapontian version of “a good man is hard to find.” Although there is much of value in this section, not all students of burial customs will agree on the methodology used, and this reviewer suspects a more complex reality buried in the tomb data. To his credit, Carter proceeds cautiously, by stating (p. 19): “Many other solutions or arrangements are possible. Changing any one of the assumptions or altering the dating even slightly will produce dramatically different results.” Chapter 6: “Historical Development” (pp. 166-236), revisits themes treated in earlier chapers, by viewing them together diachronically and synthetically in their historical sequence. In so doing, significant patterns emerge, from the earliest use of the site, through the period of its greatest prosperity and growth, down to the late 4th and early 3rd centuries B.C.

The indispensable catalogue of classical archaeology, in many ways, the core of the volume, is found in Chapter 7: “Burial Descriptions” (pp. 237-447), prepared by Carter and Jon Hall. Here every burial and associated deposit is described and illustrated in admirable detail. Illustrations of the tombs are placed together with all the finds from each tomb, and the problem of combining so much text with photographs and drawings is resolved by formatting the descriptive text in three vertical columns per page. Volume I ends with two shorter chapters, as well as the customary concordances (pp. 477-481). Although chronology features prominently in earlier chapters, it is in Chapter 8: “Dating of Tombs” (pp. 449-454), by Jon Morter and Jon Hall, that the processes and underlying assumptions of the chronological framework are discussed. As is always the case in chronological discussions in classical lands, pottery takes pride of place, and even the dating of the black-glaze pottery rests on that of the figured vases, despite the various dating methods employed by the excavators (weighted and terminus date ranges, an attempted seriation of tombs, and even radiocarbon dating). It is ironic, therefore, that even in the case of the best excavated sites, the dating of archaeological material in context continues to rely heavily on the information supplied by black- and red-figure vases of dubious or unknown provenance. The ghost of Beazley continues to haunt the field. Chapter 9: “Database Structure and Statistical Analyses” (pp. 455-475), by Jon Morter, presents an overview of the various databases, used both in the excavations and in the computer driven analyses applied throughout the study of the material at hand.

Volume II consists of twelve chapters, largely devoted to the objects, except for Chapters 10 and 11. Chapter 10: “Geomorphic Context” (pp. 483-501), by James T. Abbott, discusses the geologic setting, as well as the regional geomorphic context of the chora as a whole and particularly the Pantanello Necropolis area. One result of this study is the determination of a classical landscape somewhat different from that confronted by the excavators, and this is an important corrective to the general tendency for visitors — professionals and otherwise — to view the setting of any archaeological site in terms of its present condition. This is an important introductory chapter that deserves to have been placed closer to the beginning of the book, rather than its middle. In a similar vein, Chapter 11: “Biological Characteristics of the Population Based on Analysis of Skeletal Remains” (pp. 503-562), by the Hennebergs, deserves to have appeared earlier in the volume, in close proximity to the burial descriptions. This is a thorough analysis of the skeletal remains, with much of the information tabulated or presented in appendices (pp. 538-559), including a short appendix by M. Jeske-Janicka and P.K. Janicki on the detection of antigens for treponema pallidum (syphilis). Tucked away at the end of the chapter, somewhat out of place, is an appendix on faunal remains by the late Sándor Bökönyi. An important aspect of the analysis of the human remains is the reconstruction of the faces of several individuals, including the so-called musician in Tomb 336, on the basis of anatomical knowledge, coupled with a healthy dose of artistic license (see especially pp. 521-525). Such facial reconstructions, made popular recently with the publication of John Prag’s and Richard Neave’s Making Faces,2 help bring to life what is at the core of all archaeological endeavor: people.

In Chapter 12 (pp. 563-590), by Hall, we return to Grave Goods. This is material that could have been incorporated into earlier sections, but it does help bridge the gap between the material, as presented in Volume I, with the individual categories of material that fill the remainder of Volume II. In Chapter 13, we begin with the detailed analyses of individual categories of material. Whereas all the metal objects, including bronze mirrors, strigils, various dress and cosmetic accessories, jewelery, weapons, everyday nails and studs, even coins and cheese graters, like the Homeric examples recently discussed by David Ridgway,3 are neatly contained in a single chapter (Chapter 20, pp. 786-834, by Marianne Prohászka), the pottery covers some five chapters: Chapter 13: “Figured Vases” (pp. 592-640), by Lucilla Burn; Chapter 14: “Black-glazed Pottery” (pp. 642-693), by Maria Elliott; Chapter 15: “Banded-ware and Dipped Pottery” (pp. 694-717), by Carter and Anne Toxey; Chapter 16: “Unglazed Pottery” (pp. 718-730), by Toxey and Carter; and Chapter 17: “Storage Amphorae” (pp. 731-755), by Morter and John Leonard. There is a certain irony in the fact that fragments, for example, of two Apulian red-figure kraters (from CD 8, pp. 626-629) receive over three full pages of detailed discussion, accompanied by no fewer than eight photographs, while a silver coin (e.g. C35, p. 833), probably of greater value in antiquity than either of the kraters, gets fewer than 10 compressed lines. This imbalance is very much the result of a modern value system in which certain attributable styles of pottery are more closely studied than other categories of material. Nevertheless, the fact that we have, in this volume, so many figured vases, including south Italian and imported red-figure, in situ and published in context is a cause of celebration, since the provenance of numerous others remains unknown. Be that as it may, as a student of Greek and Italian ceramics myself, I was left wondering as to how these various classes of pottery related to one another in life, if not in death. Not including the obvious imports, were the black-glaze vases, for example, made by the same potters or workshops that made some of the figured or banded or dipped pottery? Do the “cooking” vessels happily belong with the fineware lekanides or lekythoi by virtue of the fact that they are unglazed? Is an “unglazed table amphora” so radically different from a “black-glaze amphora,” that the two categories are not even cross-referenced? A section that considered all the pottery collectively would have been useful and could have potentially led to conclusions of a more far-reaching nature. Here the description of a vase and its place in a previously determined scheme subsume all else.

Chapter 18 (pp. 757-769) by Carter and Toxey presents the stone alabastra; in this case, the catalogue is prefaced by a useful overview of alabastra and burial. The terracotta figurines are dealt with by Mary Malone in Chapter 19 (pp. 771-785), while bringing up the rear are the “Special Objects: Glass, Bone Artifacts, Terracotta Jewelry” (Chapter 21, pp. 835-840), by Brice Erickson. All categories of objects are well illustrated and described. Volume II ends with lists of illustrations, tables and graphs (pp. 841-850), a full bibliography (pp. 851-879), which is useful in itself, and an index (pp. 881-890). As editor of the volume, Carter has done an impeccable job, not least for the fact that all of the material from the cemetery, studied by so many collaborators, has been presented together. This reverses a recent and alarming trend in classical archaeology to publish in separate volumes material that deserves and demands to be published together.4 There are numerous recent volumes from sites in the Mediterranean — both classical and prehistoric — where the criteria for what material is selected in any given volume is unclear. In some cases, the process seems almost a random publication of material that happened to be ready, or else individual authors insisting on a separate volume for their own material — whether for tenure or promotion — even in cases where the material does not warrant a monograph. In presenting all the material collectively, Carter and his collaborators deserve praise and thanks.

As Carter states in the introduction (p. 3): “To study the Greeks in Magna Graecia is to study dynamic, changing relationships on a moving frontier. There is first the relation between mother city ( metropolis) and colony ( apoikia), then between colonists and indigenous Italic peoples from the time of the earliest contacts which in many cases preceded formal colonization. It is this aspect which most clearly sets off the study of Magna Graecia from that of Greeks in their native surroundings, and it is this which in part infuses the subject and the research with its particular interest and excitement.” The only thing missing is a concluding section, even a coda, where these important issues are set out against the backdrop of the archaeological material. As Carter goes on to state in his introduction: “After the first generation, as research is confirming, the colonial population was a mix of Greek and indigenous genes” (p. 3).

This volume, with its meticulous presentation of the archaeological record, provides us with a unique glimpse into this cultural “mix.” As Peter van Dommelen and others stress, the process of blending subordinate and dominant cultures in a colonial context is characterized by a thorough reworking of various elements, rather than merely combining two or more complete cultures.5 The resulting deviations and subversions of the dominant culture, as well as the colonial reproductions of indigenous features, have been captured by the terms “hybridization” and “creolization.” Indeed, Homi Bhabha’s notion of hybridization captures these processes well because it emphasizes that this is primarily a local process.6 From such a perspective, even the Apulian red-figure krater fragments mentioned above are truly “entangled objects,”7 neither Greek nor indigenous, but — like Metaponto and the rural cemetery at Pantanello — distinctively South Italian.


1. Carter specifically singles out D.C. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek Burial Customs (1971).

2. J. Prag and R. Neave, Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence (1997).

3. D. Ridgway, “Nestor’s cup and the Etruscans,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16 (1997) 325-344.

4. The two unnecessarily slim, and expensive, volumes of Lefkandi II, which deal with the so-called Toumba building, as well as the several volumes and long published papers on The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth, which deal only with the pottery, are just a few examples of this recent trend.

5. P. van Dommelen, “Colonial constructs: Colonialism and archaeology in the Mediterranean,” World Archaeology 28 (1997) 305-323; J.K. Papadopoulos, “Phantom Euboians,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 10 (1997) 191-219.

6. H. Bhabha, “Of mimicry and men: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” [1984] in H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994) 85-92; id., “The other question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” [1992] in H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994) 66-84.

7. N. Thomas, Entangled objects: Exchange, Colonialism and Material Culture in the Pacific (1991); cf. id., Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (1994).