BMCR 2024.02.46

Roman funerary rituals in Mutina (Modena, Italy): a multidisciplinary approach

, Roman funerary rituals in Mutina (Modena, Italy): a multidisciplinary approach. Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 98. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 112. ISBN 9781803274799.



Archaeobotanical studies of ancient northern Italy have been flourishing over the past two decades, in large part due to the work of Giovanna Bosi at the Università degli studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia. Out of this work has emerged, for example, clearer pictures of the relationship between land-use and the collapse of the Terramare culture at the end of the Bronze Age, the spread of the peach across Roman Italy, and Late Roman responses to floods.[1] It is no surprise then that ancient Modena is the subject of a new archaeobotanical study. This new book examines archaeological and archaeobotanical material from the 1st-4th century AD necropoleis of Roman Mutina (Modena), in northern Italy.

An introduction outlines the scope of the project, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to analyze material found in funerary contexts at Mutina with an aim of exploring the meanings and symbols of Roman post-death rituals. The introduction briefly surveys key aspects of Roman attitudes towards death and funerary rituals as well as the types of material and texts that can be used to study those attitudes. In particular, the author highlights the information that archaeobotanical material can provide, not only through traditional sieving and flotation methods but also through newer methods including CT scans—used to create 3D reconstructions of archaeobotanical materials—and small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS)—used to determine the temperatures reached during cremations.

The first chapter describes the different actions associated with the Roman funerary ritual. The evidence presented here is mostly literary or epigraphic and is drawn from the empire at large, although four inscriptions from the Aemilia are included—three from Ravenna and one from Sarsina. In keeping with the archaeobotanical focus of the project, the author pays special attention to those inscriptions mentioning food, flowers, and drink.  The inscriptions and quotations of Latin literature are untranslated, a surprising choice since the rest of the volume shows great effort at making the material accessible to a non-specialist audience.

The second chapter surveys seven necropoleis around Mutina. The chapter concisely describes the layout, chronology, excavation histories, general characteristics, and major finds from each necropolis. Significant differences between the necropoleis are highlighted. For example, at one burial site, the tombs on the northern side of the via Aemilia—the major Roman road running through Mutina—are richer than those on the southern side of the road. There is some limited discussion of Mutina beyond its burial areas, but for a general history of the town and its people the reader would have to consult elsewhere.

The third chapter delves into the data and methods used by the project. Here the book lays out the three key categories of material studied: (1) artifacts given to the deceased on the pyre or after cremation, (2) plant and animal offerings given to the departed, and (3) charcoal remains. Here a lengthy table lists each grave examined, along with information about the sex of the deceased, grave type, volume of sieved material, and dating.

The fourth and most extensive chapter details the project’s results. The chapter provides lengthy and detailed tables summarizing the archaeobotanical and anthracological data, plant offering symbology, and key differences between plants used at Mutina and those used in Mutina’s suburbs. Included in this chapter are two QR codes linking to archaeobotanical data used in the project, although at the time of review neither QR code linked to a working website. In addition to the raw data, this chapter also discusses the religious and cultural symbolism of the plants found in Mutina’s necropoleis.

The fifth chapter explains more fully the results of the CT-scan, SAXS (small angle x-ray scattering), Infrared and Raman spectrometry, and SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) analyses of the archaeobotanical remains. Some of the more notable findings are that the burned plant material reached a temperature of 700-900°C and that figs and dates that were used during the funerary rituals were dried (as they could be used year-round).

In the sixth chapter, Riso chooses 18 individual graves to discuss more fully, in particular to show the reader how the grave goods, plant materials, and charcoals found in each can provide evidence for a particular part of the funerary ritual. The graves chosen are those that yielded more abundant than usual amounts of archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence. For example, one first century AD burial contained game counters, astragals, a hairpin, stone egg, balsamari, burnt fruits, barley, the bones of a small mammal, a grape flower, miniature ceramic and glass objects, and probably the skeletal remains of a young girl. The grave goods included both typically juvenile—game counters, miniatures, and astragals—and typically feminine (balsamari and hairpin) objects, which lend support to the interpretation of the skeletal remains as a young girl. The small stone egg might symbolize both rebirth and the unlived life of a child. Of the plant remains, the burnt fruit offerings offer evidence of the funerary banquet, while the barley seeds are the most abundant cereal in offerings in Mutina’s burial areas. Barley, as Riso notes, has a long history of association with offerings to the dead in the Mediterranean but in the Roman era was more frequently used for ritual purposes in continental Europe than in Mediterranean contexts. Riso brings out the rich symbolism of the young girl’s grave and demonstrates how the surviving evidence can reconstruct the funerary rituals. Here, as throughout the book, Riso offers concise and prudent interpretations of the evidence that are accessible to those without expertise in archaeology or archaeobotany.

Finally, a short conclusion sums up the major findings and provides the reader with a framework for understanding the material presented across pages of tables and graphs in the previous chapters. Many of the conclusions are localized to Mutina, such as the differences between various necropoleis and the local preference for the ash tree as the main fuel for cremation, while others suggest wider standardization, such as the funerary symbolism associated with plants chosen as offerings. As throughout, Riso is cautious not to push the conclusions beyond what the evidence will bear and notes the difficulties of interpretation produced by preservation issues, the use of liquid offerings, and certain sampling methods.

Overall, the book presents its data, methodologies, and results in a succinct and transparent fashion. Tables and graphs are for the most part clear, again even for the non-specialist. One exception would be the graphs showing the SAXS patterns (figures 6-13), which are printed with blurry text with confusing legends and which could be accompanied by clearer explanations of how to interpret the graphs. As mentioned above, the QR codes included in the book did not have working links, so the reviewer cannot comment on the two tables of archaeobotanical data that those links promised.

The book aims to provide a multidisciplinary study of Mutina, and certainly in both the general synthesis of archaeological and archaeobotanical material and in its study of individual burials it achieves that goal most admirably, as in the case of the young girl’s grave described above. Nevertheless, certain categories of evidence from Mutina are perhaps unfairly minimized, most notably Mutina’s epigraphic corpus. The book’s conclusion justifies the sidelining of this evidence with the claim that “Monuments, inscriptions, and sculptures, put as markers in front of graves, provide attractive documentation, but they do not mirror the entire community” (94). While the approach is not as multidisciplinary as it could be, this is easily remedied by supplementing the book with other works on Mutina’s inscriptions, history, or general archaeology.

In sum, this slim and efficient volume—103 pages including bibliography—will be of great interest to anyone interested in Roman funerary archaeology, the cultural importance of plants in the Roman world, or more generally how the Romans confronted and understood the loss of loved ones. The inclusion of such detailed tables of evidence also makes the volume valuable for researchers for comparison with other sites, both in northern Italy and across the Roman empire.



[1] See, for example, Bosi, G., D. Labate, R. Rinaldi, M.C. Montecchi, M. Mazzanti, P. Torri, F. M. Riso and A. M. Mercuri 2019. A survey on the Late Roman/Late Antiquity period (3rd-6th century AD): NPPs, pollen and seeds/fruits for reconstructing environmental and cultural changes after the floods in northern Italy. Quaternary International 499: 3-23.