BMCR 2011.11.66

Living through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World. Studies in funerary archaeology, 5

, , Living through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World. Studies in funerary archaeology, 5. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011. xii, 209. ISBN 9781842173763. $60.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This volume is the result of a conference on death and commemoration held in 2006 at the University of Sheffield. The nine papers range in period from Old Kingdom Egypt to 17 th century Italy and geographically from the circum-Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Foregrounded in every contribution is the relationship between the living and the dead; this volume represents an attempt to highlight the similarities in burial practice among the diverse peoples of the classical world.

Most authors take one of three approaches in exploring the concept of commemoration in the past. Four papers delve into epigraphical and historical evidence: Polly Low on Sparta (Ch 1), Celina Gray on the Milesians at Athens (Ch 3), Maureen Carroll on Roman damnatio memoriae (Ch 4), and Martin Bommas on Egypt (Ch 8). Three papers deal with burial form and topography: Jane Rempel on the Bosporan kingdom (Ch 2), John Pearce on the Roman provinces (Ch 7), and Susan Russell on the Pamphilj forum (Ch 9). Two papers integrate skeletal remains with other archaeological evidence: Emma-Jayne Graham on the practice of os resectum (Ch 5), and Sébastien Lepetz and William Van Andringa (with contributions from a number of other scholars) on ritual at the Porta Nocera necropolis in Pompeii (Ch 6).

Using the more traditional evidence of tombstones, inscriptions, and historical records, Low, Gray, Carroll, and Bommas address the ways in which the living express their affiliation (or lack thereof) with the dead. Low juxtaposes the commemoration of the 300 dead from Thermopylae as a collective and as individuals named on the monument with the burials of Leonidas and Pausanias, who were repatriated to Sparta decades after the Persian Wars. Arguing that monuments to the Persian War dead at Sparta constitute a focus on memory rather than mourning, Low suggests that these structures would have communicated the glory of the individuals and the honor the men brought to the city as a whole, underscoring Sparta’s reputation as an important military power.

Gray concentrates on the tombstones of Milesians in the Athenian Kerameikos and questions why this specific group of people is so visible in the epigraphic record. Through an integration of historical and legal texts with iconography and inscriptions from the Kerameikos, Gray argues that two major changes in social policy in the 3 rd – 2 nd centuries BC may have contributed to the disproportionate visibility of Milesians: the possibility that Milesians and Athenians could intermarry, and the inclusion of young Milesian men in the ephebate. Funerary stelai in the Kerameikos reflect these shifts in social policy, depicting spouses of mixed ethnic background and Milesian youths in the pose of ephebes.

In the Roman world, Carroll looks at lesser-known examples of damnatio memoriae and finds instances where a person’s name or likeness was removed from a funerary monument. Rather than being political acts, these instances of destruction reflect social events like divorce, legal conflicts, and disinheritance. Carroll concludes that these instances of damnatio memoriae wiped out the memory and erased the identity of the person who was formerly destined for the tomb. Since burial monuments could not be defaced after death, however, the person who was removed from a tombstone could have been commemorated elsewhere by other family or friends; it is not necessary to conclude, as Carroll does, that a person’s desire to be remembered was irrevocably dashed when he was removed from a tombstone.

In a synthetic approach to Egyptian funerary practice, Bommas details the changes that occurred in each major period but also highlights the thread of commonality: a desire to have a relationship with the dead, first through private sacrifice, then through increasingly public, ostentatious performances. Running through Egyptian burial practice is the idea of Ma’at, which Bommas uses to refer to the reciprocal relationship between Egyptians and their ancestors. Ritual actions of giving and sacrifice let the living interact with the dead, who in return served as their protectors.

These four contributions effectively marshal the epigraphical and historical data about commemoration in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, but two stand out for drawing the reader into the daily lives of past people. In discussing Milesians in Athens, Gray navigates the dialectic between ethnic representation on tombstones and legal acceptance of foreign ethnicity. Gray ends by questioning whether we should see the Milesians as individuals or as a part of a larger community (p. 62). Further exploration along these lines would be quite welcome, as the dead have their own identities but are always buried by their community.1 By focusing on examples of damnatio memoriae among the non-elite of the Roman world, Carroll shows that many people were concerned with their memory living on after death. The concept of memory in the Roman world is an important one to explore, and its study can contribute to and be informed by the large body of anthropological work on memory and identity in death.2 More interesting, though, would be a discussion of the practice of damnatio memoriae as the material manifestation of social exclusion, a topic covered within burial in Greece but not in the Roman world.3

An analysis of burial form and the placement of burials within the landscape forms the evidence for commemoration in the papers by Rempel, Pearce, and Russell. Rempel writes about the Bosporan kingdom, which had quite a heterogeneous population that contributed to differences in burial style: a man buried with a local-style marker that included Scythian iconography and Greek text is an example of choice in burial style rather than ethnic imperative. In spite of the hybrid nature of burials in the Bosporan kingdom, Rempel points out that they nevertheless communicate with one another and that a dialogue of status and wealth can be seen as lower-status individuals attempt to imitate the burial styles of higher-status people. Within the Roman provinces, Pearce purports to investigate spatial relationships in burials in Britain. The area immediately outside the walls of an urban center is generally assumed to be a privileged space of burial display, but Pearce argues that minor city centers and civitas peripheries in Britain may also have held burials that conveyed social or political power. While this conclusion is interesting, the lack of viewshed analysis or other GIS- based study of burial relationships and the lack of spatial illustrations make Pearce’s topographical argument difficult to follow.

In the lone early-modern paper in this volume, Russell lays out the case for the Pamphilj ‘forum’, suggesting that Pope Innocent X began a building programme that underscored his role in the Papacy and evoked his claimed descent from Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius. By associating a series of buildings, including the Palazzo Pamphilj, the church of Sant’ Agnese, and a funerary monument, with themes of the Papacy and of the Regal Period of Roman history, Innocent X created for his family and his legacy effective propaganda similar to that broadcast by the Imperial Fora.

The papers by Rempel and Russell are well argued and offer interesting conclusions about places and times that are not within the traditional purview of classics scholars. In particular, Rempel’s discussion of “local Bosporan vocabularies” (p. 42) of display is intriguing in light of the clearly heterogeneous population. This area of the world is not as well known in classical times as the circum-Mediterranean, and recent anthropological attention in the region4 may be useful in further investigations of ethnicity and status in the Bosporan kingdom.

The two final papers both incorporate the physical remains of the deceased into arguments about ritual and commemoration. In the Porta Nocera necropolis at Pompeii, a huge variety of evidence reveals burial and funerary rites: tombstones, inscriptions, artifacts, human skeletal remains, animal bones, and carbonized plant remains. Lepetz and Van Andringa, with contributions by H. Duday, D. Joly, C. Malagoli, V. Matterne, and M. Tuffreau-Libre, synthesize their findings at the funerary monument of Publius Vesonius Phileros. The wealth of information allows them to reconstruct in great detail the sequence of events and activities at the burial site.5 Although the funerary precinct was modest, the authors found that it saw intensive activity and was reorganized and modified through time.

A different approach to Roman funeral ritual comes from Graham, who writes about os resectum, a lesser- known rite of retaining a piece of bone from the deceased in order to purify the household and ensure proper burial. Information about the rite comes from primary historical evidence and secondary archaeological evidence, in the form of small pots from San Cesareo, whose contents of slivers of burned bone have unfortunately been lost. Most interestingly, Graham and her colleagues have identified an example of os resectum from Britain; unfortunately, however, the full publication of those skeletal remains is still in preparation. Nevertheless, this is an important paper that reconsiders the manipulation of the body of the deceased within the context of Roman rites of passage; the death of a person results in separation from the community, while the practice of os resectum eases the transition to death and incorporates the dead into the community of ancestors. Bioarchaeologists who work with Roman cremations would do well to look for further evidence of this rite in the form of differently burned remains.

These latter two papers stand out in the volume as innovative contributions to the topic of burial and commemoration in the classical world. Graham, Lepetz, Van Andringa, and their collaborators synthesize new lines of evidence that both support and go beyond the historical record. The interdisciplinary and synthetic nature of the excavation of the grave enclosure of Publius Vesonius Phileros and the identification of bioarchaeological correlates of os resectum have the potential to contribute new and important information to our understanding of classical funeral ritual.

Taken as a whole, the volume feels uneven, held together only by the theme of burial. The order of the chapters lacks clear organization, and the editors missed the opportunity to include an introductory or concluding chapter synthesizing the commonalities and differences seen over time and through geographic space. As individual contributions, however, most of the papers in this volume are intriguing new takes on the representation of the dead and the role of the living in the long process of burial and commemoration.


1. M. Parker Pearson’s The Archaeology of Death and Burial (1999), Texas A and M University Press, is a seminal work in discussions of identity, burial, and commemoration in the past, but surprisingly few contributions to the present volume cite his work or similar treatments.

2. This body of work is exemplified by edited volumes such as M.S. Chesson, ed. (2001). Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, No. 10.

3. Drawing on a large body of anthropological literature, I. Morris discusses who is buried where in “Exclusion and Retrieval,” chapter 6 of Burial and Ancient Society (1987), Cambridge University Press.

4. See the recent studies of diet and migration at Apollonia Pontica by A. Keenleyside, H.P. Schwarcz, and K. Panayotova using stable isotope analysis of human skeletal remains ( J Archaeol Sci 38(10): 2658-2666, 2011 and J Archaeol Sci 33(9): 1205-1215, 2006).

5. This kind of in-depth reconstruction of Roman burial processes is further explicated by H. Duday (2009) in The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology (Oxbow Books), which has started changing archaeologists’ approach to excavating and analyzing Imperial cemeteries.