BMCR 2020.07.09

Funerary archaeology and changing identities: community practices in Roman-period Sardinia

, Funerary archaeology and changing identities: community practices in Roman-period Sardinia. Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 55. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019. vi, 180 p.. ISBN 9781789690002. £40.00 (pb).

This book is the publication of the author’s PhD thesis. Its aim is a reinterpretation of the funerary evidence from Roman Sardinian necropoleis at three settlements in southern Sardinia, using a theoretical approach giving voice to ‘subaltern’ identities. The first chapter sets up the debate with discussions of identity theory, semiotics, archaeological rhizomes and Romanisation. The second chapter discusses methodology and introduces the case studies. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 focus on the funerary practices of the communities in question (Sulci, Masullas, and Karales) whilst chapter 6 introduces some lesser known funerary examples. Chapter 7 widens the debate to the Mediterranean at large and ‘provides a semiotically informed appreciation of group identities’ (p. 1).

The book exhaustively critiques identity as a concept and usefully takes us through some of the recent theoretical positions (ethnic identity, social identity, practice theory, diversity), and it is a pity that there is no space for genetics, which is of growing interest for archaeologists involved in identities, and which has recently involved ancient Sardinian peoples  (Chiang et alii 2018; Olivieri et alii 2017). Instead the book takes as its starting point the linguistic theory of semiotics—here focusing on its use for archaeological study. Much of the first chapter is taken up with critiques of semiotic approaches to archaeology using examples from de Sausseure, Peirce and Marx. Peirce’s idea of the interpretant especially is used to deconstruct meaning in material culture. Whilst these notions of semiotics are interesting, the fact that material culture is a sign that represents or stands for much more (practice, community, society) has not been a particularly new concept in archaeological theory ever since Appadurai’s book The Social Life of Things (1996). In this first chapter the author demonstrates his knowledge of current archaeological theories concerning ‘Romanisation’ and funerary archaeology both in Sardinia and the wider academic world. However, whilst the theoretical background helps give a solid basis to the rest of the book, the discussion of so many different possible approaches and the exposition of complex theory is both confusing and leaves the reader with the doubt that the evidence under discussion will be able to support such in-depth and multifaceted theoretical background.

Chapter 2 discusses methodology and data collection, blending a personal view of historiography with details on how the material used in the book was obtained and studied. It is clear from the text that there were many difficulties in getting access and having enough material to use as a basis for a reasoned interpretation. A weakness here is the way the author discusses Sardinian historiography only through the lens of Roman literary sources. It may be true that from this point of view, as the author states, we know little about Sardinian social practices in the late 1st millennium BC, but using the recent work done on Phoenician and Punic Sardinia from sites such as Pani Loriga, Monte Sirai, Villamar (cf. Piga et alii 2010) would help round out the picture and demonstrate a continuity in ancient Sardinian life that this book, despite its protestations against periodization, does not actually promote.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are the most useful and important chapters as they bring together and analyse a large amount of information, much of which is published in difficult to find sources. Chapter 3 provides an exhaustive discussion of the contents and contexts of the necropolis at Necropolina (Sulcis); its conclusions highlight the diverse choices made by the community to mark their dead, using both Punic and Roman rituals. Chapter 4 discusses the cemetery of Sa Mitza Salida at Masullas. The in-depth analysis of the context of material remains in the published graves leads to the conclusion that the community here had a strong and long-lasting cultural identity. The author correctly makes the point that the community was actively engaged with foreign material culture, but some discussion of the heterogeneity of the foreign material would have been welcome, especially an acknowledgement of the role object biography has had in understanding the way the material finishes up in the graves themselves. Chapter 5 presents the largest dataset and looks at the different cemeteries in Karales. Again the data is interesting and well presented, showing the ‘entanglement’ between Roman and the earlier Punic practices and how the communities there were interacting and connecting with the wider Roman world. However, I would add that there is nothing particularly new in the conclusions that people were moving from the Italian peninsula to live (and die) in the city.

Chapter 6, ‘Connecting the dots’, introduces new material from some of the smaller cemeteries in south and southwest Sardinia. The data highlights the differences and similarities in grave goods even between the smaller cemeteries on the island and details the changes in the 2nd century AD in the grave contents of the different cemeteries of Mitza se Siddi (Ortacesus), Bidd’e Cresia (Sanluri) and a few others. The dearth of data means it is difficult to draw any big conclusions, but as before, the strength of the book is the detail it provides about individual cemeteries.

The chapter ends by comparing the evidence here with the wider Mediterranean world. The idea is good, to seek similarities and differences in funerary practices in a large multi-ethnic world, yet a book this size doesn’t allow for detailed analyses, and the three areas chosen (Lombardy, North Africa and Iberia) are treated quite superficially.

The final chapter 7 attempts to bring us back to the theoretic framework set out at the start, providing a conclusion of the study as well as offering proposals for future research. There are many ways in which the concepts of ‘practice, agency… and social structure’ (p. 123), i.e. identity, can be approached, none of which are right or wrong (Joffe 2003), and this book uses a particularly complex set of theories to analyse funerary rites in Roman Sardinia and how they can help us understand local identities.

There are a couple of points about the book that should be underlined. Firstly, the author should be commended for opening up the study of the dead to identity theory. Often funerary archaeology studies see the dead as being more static, and it is very positive to see archaeologists portraying burials as a result of heterogeneous groups of actual people and rituals. On the other hand, the author says that his discussions of semiotics and archaeological rhizomes helped him formulate a definition of identity that show it to be ‘relational, mutable and materially detectable’ (p. 129). This, however, is not surprising as the mutability and multiplicity of identities has been one of the key aspects of identity theory for a while now (cf. Pierce et al: 9-10 for a review). All in all, although the author is to be applauded for extending a theoretical framework to Roman Sardinian archaeology, he has not convinced that the theoretical approaches chosen here were the best way to shed new light on local Roman identities.

The book is well equipped with drawings and charts which can only help in understanding the actual material; the photos are good and in colour. It contains a few factual errors, e.g., that, like Sicily, Sardinia has always been seen as a Mediterranean crossroads, when in fact the opposite is true (as stated in the source he quotes, pp. 120-1). The language is fine, but the book could have benefitted from a mother-tongue proofreader to smooth out the errors, for example, the repeated substitution of ‘despite’ for ‘although’.

The book’s strength lies in its focused discussion of the different Roman cemeteries in southern Sardinia in the Republican and Imperial Roman periods. It brings together a wealth of material from different sources which will surely be useful to students of Roman Sardinia and funerary practices in general. It offers insights into how this material was manipulated and what this meant for the local communities. It is weaker on its use of theory, which is carefully displayed in the first chapter, but not fully used in the following ones.


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