BMCR 2021.01.20

Die frühhellenistische Nekropole von Alexandria-Shatby

, , , Die frühhellenistische Nekropole von Alexandria-Shatby. Studien zur Antiken Stadt, 17. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019. Pp. 148. ISBN 9783954903955 €69,00.

The Shatby necropolis has been central to the study of the early history of Alexandria ever since its excavation in the early 20th century. As the westernmost of the eastern cemeteries, it lay closest to the eastern boundary of the city (wherever exactly that was), and thereby holds the honor of being the earliest of the city’s burial grounds. Graves and grave goods had been reported in the area as early as the 1870s, but it was not until 1904 that regular excavations were undertaken, under the direction of Evaristo Breccia, the newly appointed head of the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria. His work from then until 1910 explored both burials on the surface and two underground burial chambers (hypogea). The graves and their contents were expeditiously published in a handsome volume that was a model for its time (La necropoli di Sciatbi, Cairo 1912). Although lacking the detail and attention to context that we now expect, it has remained foundational for our understanding of the ancient city.

Thereafter, with the exception of occasional, small-scale interventions in the neighborhood, Shatby descended to the status of a rarely visited curiosity in the Alexandrian suburbs, where the dedicated tourist could observe a couple of above-ground monuments and poke a nose into the dark chambers of a hypogeum.

The volume under review reports the results of new excavations, initiated just two years shy of the hundredth anniversary of Breccia’s publication. In a short and highly focused effort (2010-2013), the authors cleaned and reexamined Hypogea A and B (which have suffered considerable damage since Breccia’s day) and excavated a third hypogeum (now labeled C) left largely unexplored by Breccia.

A short introduction (Schmidt) reminds us of the uniqueness of Alexandria—the west’s first megacity (est. pop. 300,000), founded by a king and centered on a royal court, but with the constitution of a Greek polis—and of the significance of cemeteries at a site where so little of the city of the living remains available for exploration. Chapter II (Schmidt) offers a concise account of past investigation on the site, focusing primarily on Breccia’s work, both his excavation of the extensive ground-level cemetery, with its hundreds of single graves and grave monuments, and the subterranean chambers that offered an alternative to the individual shaft graves of the surface. Richly illustrated with early maps and plans, archival photographs, as well as modern views, the chapter provides a valuable orientation to the site and its chronology, including a revealing comparison of the contents of two selected burials, illustrating the changes not only in grave goods but also in attitudes toward the dead that they betray.

Rummel recounts the course of the new excavations in chapter III. In the large and sprawling hypogeum A, which is no longer fully accessible, work was limited to measurement and detailed observation. In the smaller hypogeum B, however, debris that had accumulated since Breccia’s day was removed: no mean feat, as the floor lies well below the modern water table. Standing water in the final excavation photographs illustrates the problem vividly. The  archaeologists used this clearing operation to develop a method that could later be applied to the excavation of hypogeum C, pumping out one small area so that an adjacent one could dry and the deposit could be removed stratigraphically. Breccia had described hypogeum B only summarily, and the only plan was a sketch drawn by Achille Adriani  from that description in the 1960s.. There was therefore much to be learned from this new investigation. The results are a detailed plan and a convincing history of the construction, use, abandonment, and reuse of the monument.

Breccia described the entry stairway and the size of the court of hypogeum C, but apparently did not carry out any significant excavation here. The authors therefore began the project with the hope of finding undisturbed burials. In this they were disappointed, however, for it turns out that this hypogeum was never completed. The entrance stair and court had been dug, and the cutting of doorways for two planned chambers had been started but quickly abandoned. Building debris on the floor of the court showed that the masons had simply downed tools and walked off the job, leaving the hypogeum as an unfinished building site. For a considerable time after that day, it remained abandoned and unvisited, as indicated by half a meter of nearly sterile sand that had accumulated above the building detritus. The stairwell then saw reuse as a shelter, documented by traces of burning, sooted cooking pots, and complete vessels. Thereafter the site functioned as an informal dump; at some subsequent date (Roman or later) it was used again for burials.

Pottery constituted almost the only moveable find from these excavations. There was not much—fragments from an estimated minimum of about 150 vessels—but chapter IV (by Simony, in English) presents a full and authoritative account of it, with a succinct commentary and catalogue of 85 items, illustrated by profiles at a scale of 1:2 and photographs of selected objects. It dates largely in the 3rd century though, not surprisingly, there are later intrusions. A small error (the use of “prior” for “subsequent” on p. 93) mars discussion of the collection’s significance, but the attentive reader will realize that there is virtually no pottery dating after the 1st century BCE. Tables and charts summarize the details. What we find here are primarily the ordinary wares of local production, with a small showing of imports (evenly divided between fine wares and transport amphoras), mostly from Rhodes and Cyprus. One surprise is the high percentage of cooking ware, some of it used by the squatters, but some, Simony suggests, possibly debris from funeral feasts at neighboring graves. The chapter’s most significant contribution, however, is a firm date for the reuse of the hypogeum as a shelter, around the turn from the 3rd to the 2nd century

Schmidt brings it all together in chapter V, a lucid account of the development of all three hypogea. Close analysis of the architecture reveals that hypogeum A—in its final form a complex of several burial chambers and halls—began as a single  space , divided into a back room furnished with klinai (a great rarity in Alexandria) and a front room with open, gabled loculi. The hypogeum was subsequently expanded by the addition of more rooms with loculi, also gabled, but most of which had once been closed with square slabs. The varying forms of these loculi suggest a development: the earliest, open ended  and with gabled tops , intended for the receipt of wooden coffins, gave way to sealed loculi accommodating bodies on simple biers. Other additions to the complex include rooms with no burials, either incomplete or intended for the reception of visitors to the tomb. The much smaller hypogeum B, the alignment of which respects hypogeum A, was cut later and conforms to the Alexandrian norm of burial chamber, court or light shaft, and a reception room furnished with benches. The last hypogeum (C) was never completed.

Smith contends that the abandonment of the cemetery was not gradual, as has generally been assumed, but was the result of a single, unexpected circumstance. Building debris in hypogeum C speaks to the suddenness of the event, and hypogeum B was abandoned even though its capacity had not been exhausted. It has always been recognized that the expansion of the city eastward ultimately put Shatby out of operation, but the authors argue for an earlier date for this event, a revised location for the new city wall, and a different motive for its construction. They build on the observation of Dominique Kassab Tezgör, that terracotta figurines in the eastern part of the Hadra necropolis, to the south, extend beyond the end of the 3rd century, while those in graves to the west do not, providing a possible hint to the date and location of the expansion wall (p. 130). Extending these observations to Shatby, the authors find the same discrepancy. The little pottery that Breccia retrieved from burials in the hypogea dates in the 3rd century, along with most of the finds from the above-ground cemetery and the bulk of the ceramics found in this new project. Evidence for the location of the new wall is minimal; most modern accounts accept a position further east, but a plot of the locations of graves with earlier and later objects (fig. 142) suggests a more westerly position and, based on the pottery from the hypogea, the authors posit an earlier date, sometime around 225. The question remains whether the expansion should be dated to the glory days of Ptolemy III, when the population was growing apace, or in the darker times of Ptolemy IV, when the Seleucid kingdom presented an increasing threat. The authors opt for the latter. The conjectured new location of the wall, along a low ridge known as the lignes françaises, suggests a defensive posture (interestingly, the same position was chosen for its strategic advantage in 1801 by Napoleon’s troops). This explains why the newly enclosed area seems never to have  been heavily built over; its purpose was not to accommodate growing population, but to fortify the city.

Finally, returning to the hypogea themselves, Schmidt draws some conclusions about the development of this form of burial monument. Hypogeum A begins with a family(?) tomb, combining the Macedonian kline chamber with elements drawn from Greek, Egyptian, and Levantine customs (loculi, wooden coffins). We do not know how the inhabitants of the hypogea were related, whether by family ties, common professions, origins, cult, or some other factor. But the authors conjecture that burial in collective monuments was developed to express the need of the inhabitants of the gigantic and diverse city for a sense of belonging, whether to an extended family or to an association of some sort. The deposition of the dead in loculi does not reflect the growth of the much-vaunted individualism of the Hellenistic period. The aim was to present the deceased as an honored member of the collective, not as an independent individual. The grave was not so much a fine and private place as it was a community.

The book ends with a brief, bilingual summary (German and English) that will very quickly give a potential reader an overview of the contents.

The many well-chosen illustrations placed throughout the volume are of a uniformly excellent quality, and include a new, large-scale plan and sections of the monuments.

Clear, concise, well-organized, and convincingly argued, this book is a model of archaeological publication in general, and one that anyone interested in the early history of Alexandria will be anxious to acquire. It documents a modest and well-planned exploration of highly significant monuments, situated at a key point in the city’s history, clarifies their development in an exemplary way, and provides genuinely new insight into the earliest years of that novel experiment that was Alexandria.