BMCR 2013.04.21

Isthmia IX: the Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains

, Isthmia IX: the Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011. xlviii, 511. ISBN 9780876619391. $150.00.

[The table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

First undertaken by Oscar Broneer in 1952 and still continuing, the excavation of Isthmia is one of the longer American archaeological projects in Greece (the others being Corinth and the Agora). The project has greatly expanded its original research goal – to investigate the temple dedicated to Poseidon and surrounding district – and has come to encompass various distinct areas of the countryside of ancient Isthmia, and a wide chronological reach from the Archaic through Byzantine periods.

In its scope and coverage, Rife’s contribution to the ongoing publication of this long-running excavation is significant, covering the tombs, burials, and remains excavated between 1954 and 1976, a few from the Early and Middle Roman period (mid-first to late fourth centuries AD), but the majority predominantly dating from the end of the fourth through the eighth century AD. This work, which details both the archaeological context and osteological analysis, matches the high quality of the other reports and their excellent production values in the Isthmia series, although it differs considerably in focus from previous volumes of the excavation.1

Considered on its own, Isthmia IX presents a new standard in the publication and presentation of burials and funerary material from the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. What makes the volume so exceptional is the depth of material (both archaeological and bioarchaeological) covered by a single author.2 Although it covers more than a single location and has a rural context, the volume compares favorably in terms of the presentation and depth of analysis to well published Late Roman and Early Byzantine cemeteries, such as those found at Carthage.3

The work is divided along disciplinary lines, with the archaeological details of the burials and short essays on their cultural and historical relevance followed by the presentation of the human remains and comments on their demographic conditions. Aspects revealed in the analysis include diet and injuries due to diseases, underscoring features of daily life from the Corinthian countryside. The presentation of the archaeological aspects are exemplary: after a short overview of the site and the periodization of the material, details on each location in which graves were found are presented along with line drawings and photographs (some of which are less clear than others), followed by a catalog of the burial finds. This material forms the basis for larger synthetic discussions of the phases of the various burials around the Isthmus of Corinth and of the evidence of funerary ritual and mortuary forms. The second half of the volume presents a mirror of the first but details the status of the human remains, both osteological and dental, with discussions of the historical implications revealed by the evidence of diet and disease. Within both halves of the work, the material reveals exciting finds and new avenues for research, often connected or contrasted by Rife with other Late Roman and Early Byzantine sites in Greece (and especially neighboring Corinth).

One of the more notable insights Rife presents is the seemingly slow adoption of burial objects with Christian iconography or funerary architecture with Christian inscriptions or epitaphs, compared to contemporary burials from Corinth. Here, the rural and homogenous nature of the population in the of Isthmian countryside is key to this difference, although on the whole the mortuary practices of Corinth and the surrounding Isthmus shared a great deal in common. Some of the more important archaeological implications raised includes the integration of sub-adult burials among adult burials and a uniformity in the deposition, which, although not uncommon, nevertheless warrants further explanation given the frequency of isolated infant and child burials in both urban and rural contexts from this period.

The discussion relating to the dental and skeletal remains are no less relevant to the larger questions of rural life in Late Antiquity, although as in the evidence from the burials, these are generalized observations and Rife is clear to note that they are by no means universal. In his discussion of the dental remains, Rife points to major differences in dental defects between urban populations like those from Corinth and the predominantly rural Isthmia; while not surprising, the differences provide evidence of the impact of urban diets (with a higher proportion of cereals and meat) and diseases compared with the relatively diverse rural table. In a similar vein, the variety of traumas and joint diseases found in the skeletal remains mirrors the wide range of activities involved in rural economies, and, when read against the burials in general, “support a picture of…heavy, hazardous physical exertion among men and women” (p. 440), although all within the standards of pre-modern rural societies. Overall, the differences between rural and urban life are clear, as many diseases common in urban remains, such as gouty arthritis, are virtually absent in Isthmia.

Isthmia IX ’s main defect (if that is the right term), which Rife has freely noted, is that the bibliography is frustratingly limited to material published before 2005 (except for a few publications of his own directly relevant to the material in the volume). Rife rightly observes that in the intervening period much work on burials in Late Antiquity has been done (and in addition, about rural life in the same period), however, on the whole the content and analysis presented in this volume suffers little from the absence of more recent publications.

Ultimately, Rife’s study reminds us that the lives and practices of those living in the countryside were different from those of their urban counterparts, a difference visible both in the burials and those buried. Combined with the evidence from nearby Corinth, no other area of the Late Roman world is now so well-recorded, especially for its burial practices and human remains. With this material now published, new questions about urban and rural life, demography, disease, and burial practices in Late Antique Corinthia and beyond can be posed and new answers sought.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations. xv
List of Tables. xxi
Bibliography and Abbreviations. xxiii
1. Themes, Procedures, and Materials. 1
Part 1: The Archaeological, Historical and Social Contexts of the Graves
2. The Graves and Associated Remains. 21
3. Burial Chronology, Topography, and History of Settlement. 113
4. Funerary Ritual, Mortuary Variability, and Society. 153
Part II: The Osteological and Bioarchological Context of the Human Remains
5. The Condition and Composition of the Human Remains. 235
6. Teeth and Oral Health. 293
7. Paleopathology and Paleoepidemiology. 367
8. Life and Death at the Isthmus between Rome and Byzantium. 457
Appendix: Metric and Nonmetric traits in the Skeletal Sample. 469
Indexes. 481


1. Of the most recent two volumes, for example, the first (Raubitschek, Isabelle K. Isthmia VII: the Metal Objects (1952-1989). Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1998) contains a full catalog of the metal objects from the first years of the project through 1989, while the second (Morgan, Catherine. Isthmia VIII: the Late Bronze Age Settlement and Early Iron Age Sanctuary. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1999) includes the excavation report and a number of focused studies and catalogs of the Mycenaean and archaic remains.

2. One short section on the modern town of Kyras Vrysi and its main church and cemetery in this volume was co- authored by Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory.

3. Humphrey, J. H. (ed.). The Circus and a Byzantine Cemetery at Carthage, vol. 1. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1988.