Online Review: Book

The Polychrome Grave Stelai from the Early Hellenistic Necropolis

Richard Posamentir


Reviewed by Renée M. Calkins

Chersonesan Studies 1. Pp. 416, figs. 575. University of Texas Press, Austin 2011. $75. ISBN 978-0-292-72312-2 (cloth).

The years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union have improved access and heightened interest in the Black Sea region for western scholars, but an unfortunate number of western projects have been unsuccessful (Bilde et al., AR 54 [2007–2008] 115). This inaugural volume of Chersonesan Studies is thus the welcome firstfruits of a long-running collaborative project in Tauric Chersonesos of the Institute of Classical Archaeology (University of Texas at Austin) and the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos. Its focus is the large number of painted grave stelae discovered in the so-called Tower of Zeno (Tower 17) constructed during the third century B.C.E. The series foreword by Coleman Carter outlines the history of the joint project, while the preface by Posamentir describes the project to create storage and research facilities for these gravestones, which are an impressive collection of stelae with rarely preserved painted decoration. Posamentir's review of previous publications on the stelae, many of which are difficult to find in western libraries, will be very useful for English-speaking scholars who are not specialists in the Black Sea region (ch. 1).

Posamentir gives his reconstruction and analysis of the stelae in part 1. Part 2 is devoted to specialist studies on the inscriptional evidence and analysis of the preserved paint. The three catalogues in the volume ("Catalog of Grave Stelai" [ch. 2]; "Catalog of Associated Elements" [ch. 8a]; "Catalog of Inscriptions" [ch. 12a]) include full descriptions supplemented with photographs and make the book a valuable reference for art historians and epigraphers, as well as for classicists and historians interested in Greek colonization in the Black Sea region. A full overview of the necropolis is promised in a future volume devoted to the fragments of architectural sculpture and other objects thought to have originated there (xv, 349).

The preservation of grave monuments through fortification projects is familiar from the so-called Themistoklean walls in Athens and the walls rebuilt in Thessalian Demetrias in the first century B.C.E., but Posamentir's study of the stelae from the Tower of Zeno at Chersonesos brings to light some local phenomena unique to this collection. His description and analysis begins in the third chapter with the discussion of photographic techniques that revealed tool marks, surface treatments, and paint traces, which allowed a significant number of stelae fragments to be rejoined (137). An additional benefit of this surface analysis is that Posamentir has been able to assign many stelae to a limited number of workshops based on the techniques of manufacture. Full discussion of workshop attribution is given in chapters 5 and 6, which divide the stelae into groups discovered inside and outside the Tower of Zeno.

The stelae display strikingly restricted iconography and the complete absence of human figures, with only a single exception (143). As for the crowning member and objects painted and/or sculpted in relief on the stelae, Posamentir asserts gendered patterns that are supported by the large number of preserved names. He concludes that gravestones commemorating men typically had horizontal tops and were decorated with staffs, swords, and/or athletic equipment, while stelae for women had pediments and were decorated with taenia and alabastra (ch. 3). Posamentir also asserts a connection between the objects represented on the stelae and the age of the deceased, but comparison with burial evidence from the Athenian Kerameikos suggests that more caution may be warranted in associating athletic equipment in particular with a single age group. Though more common in the graves of youths, strigils sometimes were deposited in the graves of fully mature males during the fourth century and so are not exclusively associated with young men (W.K. Kovacsovics, Die Eckterrasse an der Gräberstrasse des Kerameikos. Kerameikos 14 [Berlin 1990]). An overview of contemporary burial evidence from the excavated necropoleis of Chersonesos would be a useful supplement to the discussion of patterns in the gravestones, particularly if age-based associations with specific objects could be confirmed.

Another local phenomenon brought to light is the evidence that "anthropomorphic objects" (flat stones carved into the rough outline of a human bust) were sometimes fixed in front of the stelae on their bases. Posamentir rejects earlier hypotheses that the stones represent a chthonic female deity or had origins in Greece or Asia Minor (236–42) and surveys similar objects in funerary contexts from several other Mediterranean cultures (ch. 8). Ultimately, he suggests that the objects may reflect indigenous customs and have precursors in the Taurian practice of detaching the head of the deceased for burial elsewhere or above the grave during the Bronze and Early Iron Ages (244).

Posamentir's comparison of the Chersonesan stelae with sculpted and painted gravestones from Attica, Thessaly, Macedon, and other cities from the Black Sea region throughout his discussion highlights the distinctive nature of the collection, and contextualization of the Chersonesan stelae within the broader Greek world is considered in depth in chapters 10 and 11. He points out that other cities in the Black Sea region seem to have preferred importing Attic products or producing "Atticizing" works (370–71). In the case of Chersonesos, he connects the uniformity of the gravestones to the pledge of democracy in the roughly contemporary "Oath of Chersonesos" and observes that the limited range of objects depicted on the stelae seem to be "abbreviations of the Attic models, reduced to the object that holds decisive meaning" (376).

In her study of the inscriptions in part 2, Perlman provides a thorough discussion of potential ethnic origins of the preserved names and points out the popularity of theophoric names (ch. 12). She concludes from her analysis that "the names from the Tower of Zeno strongly support the tradition that people from Herakleia Pontica settled in Chersonesos and provide some support for identifying the Delians as Boiotians from Delion in Tanagra rather than as Delians from the island of Delos" (395). Based on her identification of family relationships and evidence from amphora stamps and coins, Perlman also suggests that the burial community represented by the stelae were families whose members traditionally held public offices. Her discussion is complemented by a variety of tables in addition to the catalogue of inscriptions. There are some minor inconsistencies in spelling conventions and format between her chapters and those of Posamentir, but overall her contribution provides a nice elaboration of the community outlined by Posamentir in chapter 11.

The second specialist study by Twilley is a reprint ("Pigment Analysis for the Grave Stele and Architectural Fragments from Chersonesos," in M.A. Tiverios and D.S. Tsiafakis, eds., Color in Ancient Greece: The Role of Color in Ancient Greek Art and Architecture (700–31 BC) [Thessaloniki 2002] 171–78), which focuses on the methodology applied to analysis of the pigment remains on the stelae. While discussion of the techniques is very thorough, the conclusions are limited to confirmation of the restricted use of color. The chapter thus contributes little to the preceding description of what appears to be a specific segment of the population at Tauric Chersonesos in the Early Hellenistic period.

The unique phenomena of representation in these gravestones highlight the importance of considering commemorative practices within their local context, and the thorough documentation of the stelae and inscriptions will make the volume a useful reference for a variety of scholars interested in the early history of the Black Sea region. This beautifully illustrated book will be a welcome addition to any library supporting ancient Mediterranean studies, and the reasonable price should encourage many to invest in a personal copy as well.

Renée M. Calkins
Department of Foreign Languages and Literature
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.