BMCR 2016.03.26

Funerary Reliefs from the West Pontic Area (6th-1st Centuries BC). Colloquia Antiqua 14

, Funerary Reliefs from the West Pontic Area (6th-1st Centuries BC). Colloquia Antiqua 14. Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2015. xxi, 312 pages; 27 p. of plates. ISBN 9789042930889. €95.00.

Books like Aneta Petrova’s on Funerary Reliefs from the West Pontic Area are always welcome and valuable, since they not only offer easy to read insights into foreign (in this case Bulgarian) scientific scholarship, but also useful—often even more important—comprehensive compilations of objects one would have to collect by oneself through painstaking effort. At the beginning of her book Petrova mentions that more than 300 gravestones from the West Pontic area have already been published (the largest part certainly originating from poleis like Apollonia, Mesembria and Histria), but focuses solely on those with relief decorations.

This handsome book consists (apart from an introductory and a concluding section) of six chapters, the first three of which deal with the objects in chronological order (Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic), while the other three treat general issues concerning figural composition, technical production and, finally and definitely most important, local traditions. A subsequent catalogue of some 125 pages includes the 96 stelai of her corpus (illustrated in miniature on the 27 plates), but unfortunately not any others originating from the Western shores of the Black Sea. The catalogue and plates are arranged geographically, which is certainly a good approach but could have been improved by adding a chronological aspect. For example, the Hellenistic reliefs are separated: the stelai with rosettes follow the Hellenistic reliefs (see cat. nos. M34-36 at the end—why should these be Hellenistic?—but on the contrary cat. no. C1—why should this be Classical?—is at the beginning of the compilation) only because they do not feature figural depictions. Two indices for the main text and catalogue, respectively, and a not-too-elaborate bibliography with occasional misspellings of foreign references conclude the book.

The first chapter is devoted to the funerary reliefs of the Archaic period, which, with five pieces, are extremely rare and mainly consist of anthemion stelai; the only figural depiction is that on the famous stele of Deines from Apollonia. The mostly fragmentarily preserved anthemion stelai (can all of them safely be ascribed to grave stelai? At least concerning cat. no. H(istria)2 this reviewer has his doubts) do show remarkable peculiarities that lead to the old question of the geographical origin of volute- palmette finials in general. Petrova underlines the various unique details and rightly emphasizes the strong affinity of the Histria fragment(s) to the famous stelai from Perinthos, Daskyleion and Amorgos, though not all important comparisons are mentioned. 1 She misses the opportunity to broach the problem of their dating, which is a common issue for all of them. The same holds true for the allegedly earliest anthemion from Apollonia, since in the past, pieces with similar motifs, such as some examples from other—Milesian daughter cities,2 have shown that the decoration of the finial alone can be extremely misleading. The way in which the volutes are turned upwards on the stele from Apollonia in fact already strongly resemble (in clear contrast to Archaic examples) the class of outlined anthemia from the later 5 th century BC (a motif especially prominent on stelai related to the Black Sea area!), and even though Petrova seems to be well aware of this fact, by adhering to Buschor’s chronology of Samian gravestones,3 she dates it to the beginning of the last quarter of the 6 th century BC, which is certainly too early. The author’s discussion of the interesting questions about these reliefs—the stunning similarity with examples from a so-called Graeco-Persian background, the complete lack(?) of figural depictions on the anthemion stelai or the conspicuous rarity of archaic gravestones in this geographical area—do not appear until the final chapter.

This chapter concludes with paragraphs on the stele of Deines from Apollonia, though the iconographical information given by this single, probably imported piece is extremely limited. Some important references (two monographs) concerning double-faced stelai are missing from the bibliography, and knowing them would have prevented the author from following the former misjudgment that this phenomenon was typical only for East Greece.4 No decision is made by Petrova concerning the eventual contemporaneity of the two relief depictions, which one would have expected.

The second chapter, devoted to reliefs from the Classical period, is as short as the first, as the vast majority of the almost 150 known gravestones (two thirds coming from Apollonia) again do not yield figural, plastically rendered depictions. Petrova’s iconographical analysis must do with three examples, all from Mesembria (in two cases only very fragmentarily preserved; the third, the well-known gravestone of Kallikrita from Ravda, is the most interesting one, but is hardly discussed; furthermore cat. no. M3 hardly comes from the 4 th century BC). Three more stelai in Petrova´s catalogue yield at least plastically rendered anthemia (more could be added) and show how fruitful it would have been to take all known gravestones into account. It might be interesting to try to find patterns of meaning behind the use of different shapes (stelai with pediment, cornice or anthemion), since such a phenomenon is attested in other cities on the Black Sea shores.5 Again the question of the origin of the various gravestones—imported or locally made—is hardly addressed here, and one could have asked for the reasons for the obviously very different traditions in cities like Apollonia and Callatis. The stele cat no. O1 from Odessos might in fact be the earliest one (it hardly comes from the beginning of the 4 th century BC), but the problem of the longevity of such simple decoration systems (horizontal double volutes and a palmette on top) also poses a problem for the anthemia from Athens. Occasionally the text is confusing here, as on one page Petrova attributes monuments cat. nos. C1 and M5 to the Hellenistic, and on another to the Classical period.

The third chapter, dealing with the Hellenistic grave reliefs, is unquestionably the most substantial one, and Petrova shows her comprehensive knowledge of this material. Again, the various gravestones are first classified according to their shape before being studied for their iconography: like in the corpora of Conze or Möbius, she describes the different possible combinations of figures, whereas her criteria for chronological classification (admittedly difficult) frequently remain blurry. Still, there are a lot of valuable observations—especially concerning iconographic parallels to the reliefs from East Greece—hidden in these paragraphs and representing the indispensable groundwork for the concluding chapters. It is a pity that Petrova was not able to take more into account related studies which focus on the North littoral of the Black Sea.6

Chapter four delves deeper into iconographic questions, investigating figural motifs, poses, and objects almost regardless of date and origin: naturally it has to be seen as the continuation of the chapter on Hellenistic gravestones which occasionally makes the various observations repetitive. Nevertheless, it provides the reader with a good overview of the details and their origins or forerunners by comparing them to other areas. Of special interest is unquestionably the peculiar habit in Apollonia and Mesembria of decorating some stelai with round altars garlanded by wreaths or the frequent limitation to images of kantharoi in Mesembria, both indicating a heroic or even cultic sphere. Immediately there follows a section (chapter 5) devoted to the production of gravestones, which awkwardly interrupts the logical progression towards the discussion of local traditions (chapter 6). This issue is doubtlessly interesting, especially Petrova’s remarks on the quite extensive use of marble, but would have fit better somewhere else. By proposing the importation of semi-finished marble stelai and a local completion of plastically rendered features and inscriptions, Petrova succeeds with explaining the various peculiarities, while sizes and shapes remain almost everywhere the same. Naturally, such an assumption is hard to prove (for sure, the potential crudity of cat. no. M2 is no proof), but there can be no doubt that local workshops must be held responsible for the making of (almost identical) gravestones in limestone.

The last chapter is devoted to the observation of local characteristics and tendencies: Petrova discusses common elements city by city, but again of special interest in this respect is of course the Hellenistic period, as earlier ones have not provided us with sufficient material. Still, it becomes perfectly clear that there must have been substantial differences between Apollonia and Mesembria, for example, two of the richest sites for funerary monuments. The extremely rare presentation of the image of the deceased in Apollonia (in contrast to the more individually shaped ones from Mesembria or Callatis) makes Petrova even think of some sort of prohibition; a (not drawn) comparison with Chersonesos Taurike7 suggests itself. Whether Attic influence was stronger in Mesembria than in Apollonia would have become obvious by a look at the shapes of the undecorated stelai: again, a comprehensive treatment of all funerary markers of the region would have proven to be most. Nevertheless, the respective preferences and characteristic features in the Hellenistic period are presented here as well: this chapter and the following conclusion are the reader’s reward for fighting through long and tiring descriptions of various issues before.

By focusing on stelai with relief decorations only, Petrova naturally missed the opportunity to present a more complete corpus of funerary markers from this geographical region, for which the reader would have been admittedly grateful. Trying to concentrate on iconographical issues was certainly an option, but one questions whether Petrova’s distinction is consequent: some 22 of her 96 pieces feature only plastically rendered anthemia, pediments, rosettes or minor objects, while other stelai with similar non-figural relief features or traces of painted decoration (e.g., pieces from the museums of Histria, Apollonia, Odessos and Kallatis) have been more or less excluded.

At least some of the excluded stelai are mentioned in the text, a handful by image, drawing or depiction of a painted detail. But are examples such as the stele of Hediste from Histria, the richly decorated stele without inscription on p. 24 fig. 6 ( IGBulg V, 5148) or Boardman’s example from Apollonia8 less valuable for a book on grave monuments from a certain region? Petrova’s choice seems somewhat arbitrary and neglects the fact that plain stelai with former (and no longer visible) painted depictions should be considered part of the family of funerary reliefs.9 Furthermore, shape and overall appearance of gravestones are without a doubt decisive if one tries to compare with or look for connections to other areas. Petrova’s limitation comes as even more a surprise as she starts her introduction by underlining the importance of tomb monuments of all kinds and their various features; this should have led to a broader view on the subject, especially since the first two chapters (necessarily) rely heavily on gravestones without figural decoration. Still, the author of this review is well aware of the possibility that ‘political’ or other reasons might have been responsible for this way of proceeding.

Petrova’s study on the funerary reliefs from the West Pontic Area—aside from certain problems mentioned—is doubtlessly of substantial importance, especially for the research on Hellenistic grave art and its iconography. Arranging the gravestones in the first three chapters according to a chronological pattern, followed by a chapter at the end of the book where the stelai are discussed from a geographical point of view was basically a good concept —but these two parts suffer a bit from their separation. Similarly, the fourth and fifth chapters treat the material as a group, as if all Pontic cities along the West coast formed a singular entity which they certainly never did. Finally, the arrangement of the book does not make it easy for the reader to follow. Nevertheless, this is doubtlessly—especially for the Hellenistic period—a very useful book and should be present in all libraries focused on Classical archaeology. ​


1. G. Polat, “Daskyleion’dan Yeni bir Anadolu-Pers Steli”, in: I. Delemen (ed.), The Achaemenid Impact on local Populations and Cultures in Anatolia (Sixth-Fourth Centuries B.C.). Papers presented at the International Workshop Istanbul 20-21 May 2005 (Istanbul 2007), 215-224.

2. See S. Durugönül, “Grabstele der Nana aus Sinope”, in: Studien zum antiken Kleinasien 2, Asia Minor Studien Bd. 8 (Bonn 1992) 97-107.

3. E. Buschor, “Altsamische Grabstelen”, AM 58, 1933, 22-46.

4. G. Bakalakis, Ελληνικά αμφίγλυφα (Thessaloniki 1946); J.-Chr. Wulfmeier, Griechische Doppelreliefs (Münster 2005).

5. see R. Posamentir, “The Polychrome Grave Stelai from the Early Hellenistic Necropolis”, Chersonesan Studies 1 (Austin 2011), 139-144.

6. P.-A. Kreuz, Die Grabreliefs aus dem Bosporanischen Reich, Colloquia Antica 6 (Leuven; Paris; Walpole 2012).

7. See note 5.

8. D. C. Kurtz, J. Boardman, Greek Burial Customs (London 1971), 318 fig. 86.

9. For example, see the stele of Aba at the Mangalia (ancient Kallatis) museum: A. Avram, Inscriptiones Grecques et Latines de Scythie Mineure (ISM) III, Callatis et son territoire (Bucharest, Paris 1999), 485f. Nr. 153. The painted depiction (see Iulian Bîrzescu – Richard Posamentir, “Grabstelen mit Bemalung aus Histria und Kallatis”, Caiete ARA 7, 2016, in press) is hardly visible and has been overlooked up to now, but this example shows what must also be expected on stelai Nos. 155, 157, 160 and 166. ​