BMCR 2000.04.09

The Chora of Metaponto: The Necropoleis (2 volumes)

, , , The chora of Metaponto. The necropoleis. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998. 2 volumes (xiii, 890 pages) : illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 0292712111. $125.00.

My aim in offering a second review of Carter, Chora is not to take issue with the first,1 but rather, as one who in his time has been charged with the publication of excavation reports on native and Greek cemeteries in Italy,2 to comment on the presentation of the first necropolis in Magna Graecia to have been excavated and published in its entirety.

The main subject of these two substantial volumes3 is the rural cemetery of Pantanello, situated in the territory of the Achaean colony established at Metaponto in South Italy during the later 7th century BC (in complex circumstances: Strabo 6.1.15). “Pantanello was a remarkably pristine necropolis” (p. 27). No less remarkably, its entire surface area was excavated by J.C. Carter and his team from Texas between 1982 and 1986, yielding 324 burials in 315 graves or containers and 45 ceramic deposits and other features, mainly in the chronological range c.580 BC to sometime after 280 BC. All are presented here. The plural noun in the title is justified by the presentation of around 40 similar graves excavated in 1976 and 1979 (p. 430: mostly “under salvage conditions of the most extreme sort”) in two separate burying grounds in the Metapontine chora, Saldone and Sant’Angelo Vecchio.

There is every reason to believe that the sample presented for Pantanello itself is virtually complete and that statistical studies of the results are accordingly more than usually valuable. Fortunately for us all, the excavator’s principal responsibility to his data could be accepted without question. The raw material on which statistical (and other) studies are based is thus available for external and independent checking now, and for future re-processing in the light not only of new discoveries at Metaponto and elsewhere, but also of the development of methodologies and priorities as unimaginable today as, say, the techniques of desktop publishing (here brilliantly exploited: p. 475) were only a few years ago.

The key to this work is the long chapter 7 of “Burial descriptions”. This title means exactly what it says. Each grave is described, illustrated in an adjacent plan, and provided with brief comments. Typical of the latter are: “Only one other plain fossa inhumation in the necropolis contained a strigil…”; “The amphora may represent a former grave marker cleared from its original placement in a reorganization of the burying area”. The meticulous attention to detail that has gone into the preparation of this chapter is beyond praise. No interested party, however inexperienced, will find this massive block of factual information to be less than instantly accessible, and usable. The description of each grave naturally includes a summary list of the items found in it, and of their precise locations: “R-f lekythos (ft)”, “Bronze mirror (pe)” and the like, where “(ft)” means “at foot” and “(pe)” means “at pelvis”; and the ceramic elements of each grave-group are illustrated in small (1:4) black-and-white photographs that appear as unnumbered figures on the same pages. This way of presenting funerary evidence is sensible rather than innovative; it is also exceptionally pleasing to the eye, inspires confidence, and is more practical and user-friendly than any other way that I have encountered. Similar comments also apply to chapters 13-21, in which the various categories of finds (over 1,200 items in all) are properly described, expertly assessed and usefully discussed. Suffice it to say that the specialist authors of these well-illustrated catalogues and commentaries have worked well, and that their contributions combine with the excavation data to produce a thoroughly reliable basis for observations on such necessary topics as ritual procedures (chapters 3, 4), history and chronology (chapters 6, 8), and more besides.

In sum, here is a definitive excavation report of the very highest professional standard. I see with pleasure4 that I am not alone in the conviction that it constitutes the yardstick by which future reports, on cemeteries in particular, will be judged for years to come in Magna Graecia and far beyond. It is a matter for rejoicing that a Classical project emerges as a shining example of what archaeology (at its best) is, and of what archaeologists actually (ought to) do; for once, Classical archaeologists have a piece of work on their desks that they can confidently, and proudly, commend to their peers in other fields.

But, aside from its outstanding virtues of initial retrieval and final publication, how important is this particular assemblage? “The special value of the Pantanello Necropolis excavation is that it gives a true cross section of the rural population of the colony” (p. 27). Equally “special” is the position of this excavation and its results within a much wider long-term program of surface survey and selective excavation of a well-defined and specifically functional territorial unit. Questions and their answers are thus not governed by analogies and precedents derived solely from the funerary sphere; this is an important consideration in Italy, where for historical reasons the patently limited perspectives of cemetery archaeology5 and ideologia funeraria6 continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on both the theory and practice of interpretation and explanation. In the present case, however, the Pantanello burial rites and the corredi they generated can be seen as an integral part of life in the scattered farming communities that devised them. In these circumstances, the procedures followed at Pantanello break new ground and set inspiring new standards in their deployment of the information extracted from the skeletal remains: literally and directly from the rural population itself.

As a result, grave goods can be not only classified but also correlated with the biological characteristics of their owners (in death) as revealed in chapter 11: sex, age, blood groups, family groups (and even tentative family trees: pp. 156-160), facial reconstructions (selection on pp. 522-523, fig. 11.6), and of course pathologies. I suspect that specialists no less than non-specialists will be moved by some of the revelations in this chapter, which I found the most thought-provoking in the whole book. Almost everyone buried in the chora of Metaponto suffered from treponematosis (p. 532: non-venereal syphilis). Indeed, ” … their premature mortality was high, they were riddled by numerous diseases … pain must have been a commonplace experience for most individuals”. I confess that over the past year I have found it peculiarly satisfying to relay the principal conclusion reached here to students and colleagues with primary interests in the art-historical, historical, literary and philological aspects of Classical antiquity: “despite all these problems (conditions which many modern people would consider sufficient excuse to stay away from work or social interaction), Metapontine society was productive both economically and intellectually and flourished for centuries” (p. 537).

Carter and his colleagues deserve our warmest congratulations and thanks for providing a convincing and timely reminder that, despite persistent rumours to the contrary, the Classical world was after all inhabited “by human beings — stinking likeable witless intelligent incalculable real awful people” as distinct from “the pale phantoms of modern theory, who do not live, but just cower in ecological niches, get caught in catchment areas, and are entangled in redistributive systems”.7 In this sense, too, we shall in future be satisfied with nothing less elsewhere.


1. By J.K. Papadopoulos, BMCR 99.06.11. I am most grateful to Rick Hamilton for accepting the following piece, and to John Humphrey for his good offices.

2. With A.P. Vianello, NSc 1963, 123-167 (the Villanovan cemetery of Quattro Fontanili, Veii); with G. Buchner, Pithekoussai I. La necropoli: tombe 1-723 scavate dal 1952 al 1961 = MonAnt, serie monografica IV (1993). See too my comments on other people’s cemeteries in three recent review-articles in JRA 7 (1994) 303-316 (Bologna and Pontecagnano); 8 (1995) 320-329 (Osteria dell’Osa); 12 (1999) 436-440 (early Rome) and 445-448 (Veii).

3. Vol. I: Acknowledgments; 1. Introduction; 2. Topography; 3. Burial rites and tomb types; 4. Rites at the tomb and grave markers; 5. Family groups; 6. Historical development; 7. Burial descriptions; 8. Dating of tombs; 9. Database structure and statistical analyses; Concordances. Vol. II: 10. Geomorphic context; 11. Biological characteristics of the population based on analysis of skeletal remains; 12. Grave goods; 13. Figured vases; 14. Black-glazed pottery; 15. Banded-ware and dipped pottery; 16. Unglazed pottery; 17. Storage amphorae; 18. Alabastra; 19. Terracotta figurines; 20. Metal objects and coins; 21. Special objects: glass, bone artifacts, terracotta jewelry; Illustration lists; References; Index. The title pages carry 22 names in addition to Carter’s.

4. See the review of this book by A. M. Snodgrass, Antiquity 73 (1999) 233-235.

5. Elsewhere in Italy, it was authoritatively remarked many years ago that “no necropolis, however rich, can ever replace the living tradition of a nation”: A.D. Momigliano, JRS 53 (1963) 98, discussing early Rome.

6. E.g. G. Gnoli and J.-P. Vernant (edd.), La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes (Cambridge 1982).

7. S. Piggott, Antiquity 59 (1985) 146, discussing the state of affairs seen by some in prehistoric Europe.