BMCR 2006.02.39

Die Nekropole von Tarent im 2. und 1. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Studien zur materiellen Kultur. With an Italian translation of the main text

, Die Nekropole von Tarent im 2. und 1. Jahrhundert v. Chr. : Studien zur materiellen Kultur = La necropoli di Taranto nel II e I sec. a.C., studi sulla cultura materiale. Taranto: Scorpione, 2001. 314 pages : illustrations ; 30 cm. ISBN 8880991019. €77.47 (pb).

1 Responses

For quite some time, the “Romanization” of Italy after the Punic Wars has been considered by many scholars, following in the footsteps of A. J. Toynbee’s work, a period of deep economic slump, comprising a significant decrease in urbanization and an impoverishment in the quality of material culture.1 Nevertheless, during the last few decades, there has been an intense and active debate questioning this established theory, and several contributions have opened the way to a better understanding of the dynamics and real impact that the Roman occupation had on the different societies and cultures of ancient Italy.2

Hempel’s publication, an amended version of his Ph.D. dissertation, attempts to redefine part of this unclear period of Italic history after the Roman conquest.3 For the first time, the book offers a comprehensive edition of the materials contained in ca. 200 burials of the Tarentine necropolis dated between the 2nd and 1st century B.C. While the title might foreshadow an analysis of the osteological and grave typology data, Hempel’s work provides little detail on these topics, and focuses essentially on the study of grave contents, with an emphasis on pottery.

As the author points out in the introduction, this book is not an isolated publication but part of a wider and more articulate study, named Tarent-Projekt or Progetto-Taranto, planned by Italian and German archaeologists at the beginning of the 1980’s.4 For this reason, any evaluation of Hempel’s work must be placed in the context of the Tarentum research framework. The book consists of an introduction and four chapters, followed by a ceramic typology, a catalog of the finds, illustrations of the contents of fifty tombs, schematic maps of the topographical distribution of the tombs and charts of the vase shapes illustrated according to typology and chronology. It also contains a series of tables with additional data and details on the artifacts reviewed.

The first chapter examines the research history of Tarentum with a specific focus on the issues related to the Roman expansion in Southern Italy. Hempel, embracing the historical revisionist methodology, rejects the conventional view of the “Romanization” as an abrupt transformation of the institutional and cultural entities of Southern Italy. He draws the attention to the fact that Toynbee and his followers misread and overstated the ancient texts. Without verifying and integrating the literary sources with the archaeological and epigraphic discoveries, they considered the changes in the political and socioeconomic structure of Tarentum totally related to its military defeat. Hempel rightly believes that the scanty information the ancient authors offer on the events between 272 and 209 B.C. must be reexamined in light of the new archaeological evidences, particularly the studies conducted on the Daunian region. It is unquestionable that the false assumption of a knee-jerk reaction between economic and political crises and degradation in the craftsmanship standard has strongly conditioned the assessment of most of the post-Hannibalic materials.5 These materials have been dated no later than the conquest of Tarentum (272 B.C.) without any actual archaeological evidence, and have been considered the last expression of the Hellenistic documentation of Southern Italy. Particularly among Hellenistic pottery, some classes (e.g. balsamaria) have only been examined preliminarily and need to be compared to the most recent acquisitions. Others, even if studied for quite a long time (e.g. Gnathian ceramic), still base their chronology primarily on decoration criteria, or (e.g. black glaze ware) on unsuitable comparisons with patterns from different sites.

The author opens the second chapter illustrating the Tarent-Projekt framework, of which his study is part, to better explain the criteria and the methodology used to collect the information and to determine the chronology of the tombs. The Tarent-Projekt is an extensive, still pending study, whose aim is to provide a comprehensive and detailed account of the Tarentine cemetery structure and its chronological development.6 The analysis of the necropolis, with more than 11,000 graves, is crucial to delineate the socioeconomic and cultural context of ancient Tarentum.7 In fact, the relentless, uncontrolled modern urbanization and continuity of life during the centuries has made it very difficult to decipher the features of the ancient city and its cultural correlations with the rest of Southern Italy, especially the regions of Apulia and Lucania.

One of the most important goals of the Tarent-Projekt was to establish a reliable typological and chronological grid for materials with major dating issues. Since stylistic studies have substantial limitations when the artifacts present a large degree of standardization over a long period of time, it is difficult to identify the time markers and to place each item chronologically. Taking this into consideration, archaeologists of the Tarent-Projekt have decided to use statistical combinatorial methods, such as correspondence analysis and cluster analysis, which reduce drastically the risk that a priori hypotheses could invalidate outcomes.8 The vast archive documentation, also graphic and photographic, has been stored in a database created by R. Biering, called “Taraplan,” and has been analyzed with the aid of computer-based tools, needed to manage a large amount of data, like The Bonn Archaeological Software Package (BASP).9 To obtain reliable statistical results the archaeologists had to preliminarily define a predetermined shape typology of the artifacts choosing selected characteristics to classify the materials. At the same time they divided the life of the cemetery in seven main phases, each in chronological order, and corresponding with each with a specific letter (A through G).

Hempel’s work is focused on the phases D, E and F of this chronology. He started methodically examining the archive documentation of the Soprintendenza Archeologica della Puglia and systematically surveying the inventory of the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto, also with the help of the Taraplan database. In this way, Hempel was able to locate more than 700 burials assignable to a general chronological range between the 2nd and the 1st century B.C through the presence of black gloss pottery, thin walled pottery, lagynoi (narrow necked jugs with a low wide body), unguentaria and balsamaria, typical chronological markers for the Hellenistic period. From this preliminary group, after autoptically examining the materials, he excluded all grave furniture untraceable to the museum collection, museum pieces with no excavation records, looted tombs, and multiple burials. Moreover, he also rejected the tombs of the Augustan period, leaving 200 examinable burials. Applying the selected statistical methods he was able to sort the materials in their frequency seriation, making it possible to delineate a chronological development of the grave furniture assemblages. In this way he found that during the phases D-F the usual table setting of a wine jug ( oinochoe) and cup with two handles, typical of the 4th and 3rd centuries, progressively disappeared, while new types of vessels (see, e.g., beakers) and new ceramic classes (see, e.g., thin-walled ware) appeared with increasingly frequency. Hempel’s work also confirmed and refined the relative chronology already set at the beginning of the Tarentum project, distinguishing three sub-phases for the E period: E1, E2, E3. Through the presence of dating materials in the tombs such as coins he was also able to tie the contextual seriation of the grave furniture to the absolute chronology of the necropolis.

In the third chapter Hempel analyzes the artifacts: perfume bottles ( alabastra, ceramic or glass unguentaria and balsamaria), lagynoi; black glaze or gloss ware including “beige paste” ware, Apulian Gnathia ware, grey glaze or grey gloss, and hard fired red pottery (HFR); thin-walled ware, Tarentine polychrome pottery with embossed or molded applied decorations, Megarian bowls, internal red slip ware (also called Pompeian red ware), lamps, coarse and cooking ware; other materials such as strigiles, bronze and gold crowns, lead rings, bronze mirrors, bronze pyxides, bone or silver appliqués and elements, coins, garment accessories and weapons. For some of the materials, especially the lagynoi, unguentaria and black glaze ware, Hempel outlines a very useful account of the studies and proposes new dating according to his results. For example, Hempel convincingly demonstrates that Apulian Gnathia ware continued to be produced in Tarentum after 272 B.C. and that some of the unguentaria, at the light of the “revised chronology” of the excavations in Athens, especially those in the Athenian Agora, must now be assigned at a later period. With regard to other artifacts, he refers to previous detailed works of the Tarentum project (see, e.g., the alabastra and lamps), or he gives little information not studying them (see, e.g., the cooking ware, the coarse ware and garment accessories). For the lagynoi he proposes a more accurate typology individuating thirty differed shapes. Among the black glaze he distinguishes a “beige paste” ware, while for the grey gloss and HRF he confirms the innovative dating of D. Yntema, who has thoroughly studied these two ceramic classes.

The last chapter is dedicated to the development of the necropolis in general, finishing with the author’s overall conclusions. Hempel delineates the chronological and cultural development results from the study. Summarizing the archaeological and historical issues and his methodologies, he points out how the chronology of some materials, such as lagynoi, unguentaria and black glaze ware, has been corrected, and how the study of the artifacts provides very important information about the culture of Tarentum. He underscores that while the material culture of Tarentum was based almost entirely on local productions until the 3rd century, during the 2nd century B.C. the external influences became more and more prevalent, those from Greek Asia Minor and Central Italy in particular with the latter becoming predominant during the second half of the 1st century B.C. The most significant result of Hempel’s work is the better understanding it provides of the chronological development of the phases D-F of the necropolis: the majority of the changes happened during the first half of the 2nd century and the middle of the 1st century B.C. That is immediately after the foundation of the Colonia Neptunia at Tarentum (123 B.C.) and the transformation of the colony in a municipium (89 B.C.), which proves that Tarentum was still quite a lively city after its conquest in the 272 B.C.

The book also offers an Italian version of the four chapters and part of the introduction. The typology section and the catalogue of the graves have not been translated. The Italian text, by and large accurate, contains occasional errors in terminology, such as the use of “Imperial” instead of “Imperialistic” to denote the Republican period (p. 87). Moreover, it contains a large number of typographical errors and grammatical mistakes that sometimes make the content not immediately understandable.

While the book is moderately expensive, the copy-editing is poor. The illustrations distributed throughout the German text and the pictures in the plates at the back of the book look qualitatively like photocopies and some of them are not in focus. Furthermore, the book contains one almost entirely blank page (p. 160), resulting in a lack of data with respect to six tombs.10

Recognizing Hempel’s significant contributions through this work, it is also important to note several of its drawbacks. The publication fails now and then in consistency and clarity. To mention a few examples, not all the vase shapes are contained in the typological charts (see, e.g., the lamps and urns), and he does not always supply a complete description in the catalog, including measurements, for each artifact. This lack of information is also detectable in his analysis of coins, which are very important for the chronology. Here he only provides their denomination or material. Examination of some materials, such as the terracotta figurines and the coins themselves, receive almost no attention in the third chapter or in the catalog. Another shortcoming in the book is a lack of methodological detail in certain parts of Hempel’s research and conclusions. Even if Hempel purposely avoided weighing down the main text with excessive technical clarification, the work would have been much improved had it included more thorough detail on the methodologies used throughout the body text rather than forcing the reader to rely on bibliographical reference at the end. Having a clear understanding of the research methodologies employed is integral to supporting the work’s conclusions. The most relevant flaw in Hempel’s analysis is the limited information he provides about the topography and typology of the tombs, which are crucially important to understanding the context of the finds. Thus, the reader is compelled to hunt for further information throughout the book, making it difficult to develop a clear comprehensive composition of the tombs and their development, and to distinguish between hard data and personal interpretation.

Despite its limitations, Hempel’s publication is undoubtedly a significant addition to the archaeological research on Southern Italy, particularly on the post-Hannibalic period. It stands as one of the few extensive publications of scientific excavations in this territory. Hempel’s quite successful treatment of the data with statistical methodology and computer-aided tools should encourage classical archaeologists to make more extensive use, even with the due precautions, of these invaluable research instruments.

[For a response to this review by Karl Gerhard Hempel, please see BMCR 2006.04.02.]


1. A. J. Toynbee, Hannibal’s Legacy: The Hannibalic War’s Effects on Roman Life (London 1965).

2. See, e.g., the works of M. W. Frederiksen and W. Johannowsky on Campania, A. La Regina on the Samnitic areas, G. Andreassi, E. M. De Juliis and F. G. Lo Porto on the Apulia region. The debate on Romanization has recently increased in intensity and scope, showing new approaches and ideas. The reassessment of established models in the studies and in the recent literature has also included a strong criticism of the very use of the term. For an overview of the current state of the debate see: S. Keay and N. Terrenato, eds., Italy and the West. Comparative issues in Romanization (Oxford 2001).

3. Hempel defended the Ph.D. dissertation in the summer session of 1995 at the Philosophische Fakultät at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich; the bibliography is current to 1997.

4. The two institutions that started and still direct the project are the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Taranto and the Kommission zur Erforschung des Antike Städtwessens bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften of München.

5. See, for example, the flowering and enrichment of the coroplastic art after the pillage and the conquest of Tarentum.

6. The first stage of this project was shown in an exhibition and its catalogue: E. M. De Juliis, ed., Gli ori di Taranto in età ellenistica Milano dicembre 1984-marzo 1985 (Milano 1985); later revised and enriched: G. Andreassi, ed., Gli ori di Taranto in et ellenistica. Materiali e suggerimenti per l’interpretazione di una ricerca archeologica (Taranto 1993). Particular artifacts, chronological phases and specific aspects of the funerary material culture of the Tarentine necropolis have been analyzed by: D. Graepel (terracotta figurines), F. Colivicchi (alabastra), C. W. Neeft (archaic period), C. A. Patera (5th century); G. A. Maruggi (graves typology), A. D’Amicis (funerary ritual). For an overview of the project see E. Lippolis, ed., Taranto. La necropolis: aspetti e problemi della documentazione archeologica tra VII e I sec. a.C., Catalogo del Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Taranto III,1 (Taranto 1994).

7. The vast majority of the tombs were unearthed during official excavations. Despite certain oscillation in the quality of the information, the standardized method with which tombs were documented made it possible to reconstruct the original grave furniture of each tomb and trace them back to the actual items, located in the collections of the National Archaeological Museum of Taranto. The topographical arrangement, for example, of the tombs of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. has provided evidence of the presence of the Roman settlement inside the Greek city walls of Tarentum, an issue that was previously disputed.

8. Cluster analysis aims to arrange data into discrete groups in a way that the degree of association between two objects is maximal if they belong to the same group and minimal otherwise. This type of analysis has the disadvantage that it sometimes forces arbitrary divisions. Correspondence analysis is an ordination technique that identifies the major trends in the variation of the data representing continuous variations accurately. Correspondence analysis is particularly appropriate in achieving quantification of qualitative data and has the advantage of not making any assumptions about the underlying distribution of the data. Statistical methods are usually employed in prehistoric archaeology, but less frequently in classical archaeology.

9. Further information about the BASP can be found at The Bonn Archaeological Software Package.

10. From grave D38 to grave D43. Only D43 is completely unpublished.