Online Review: Book

Musarna. Vol. 3, La nécropole impériale

Maureen Carroll

114.4

By Éric Rebillard (Collection de l'École Française de Rome 415). Pp. 321, b&w figs. 97, color figs. 48, pls. 86. École Française de Rome, Rome 2009. €115. ISBN 978-2-7283-0819-4 (paper).

This volume, the third in a series dealing with archaeological excavation, survey, and study at the site of Musarna by the École Française de Rome and the Soprintendenza Archeologica per l'Etruria, is a welcome addition to publications on cemeteries of Roman imperial date in Italy. Despite the increase in the number and scope of cemetery sites being excavated in the last 10 years, particularly in the suburbium of Rome, much of the data generated in those campaigns remain inaccessible or have appeared only in preliminary overviews. Hopefully, this situation will be rectified soon, but in the meantime, we are presented here with a necropolis in use primarily from the middle of the second century C.E. to the first quarter of the third century, which has been excavated in its entirety, providing important and varied information on the death, burial, and commemoration of 167 individuals in 209 tombs. This cemetery on the east side of the walled city was systematically explored from 1997 to 2003. The objectives were to gain information on the population of a region that is not well known, to gather evidence of various kinds that cannot be found in contexts within the settlement, and to explore funerary practices for this region and period that can be compared with customs documented for Rome. One of the major strengths of this volume is the frequent comparison of the Musarna data with that generated from excavations of Rome's suburbium, shedding light indirectly on the results of recent, largely unpublished fieldwork around the capital.

After a chapter on Musarna and the Ager Tarquiniensis in the Imperial period that includes survey data and maps documenting the density of sites, villas, and farms and discusses the economic context of Musarna in its territory between the traffic arteries of the Via Clodia and the Via Cassia, chapter 2 explores the organization and use of funerary space. The graves of the eastern cemetery at Musarna were cut into the tuff, largely orientated north–south with either terracotta roof tiles or stone slabs covering the grave cuts and protecting the burials. Cremation and inhumation are present at the same time in the early phase of the cemetery, but cremation burials make up only 4.5% of the total, and the rite appears to have been given up by the end of the second century. This is comparable to the situation in the suburbium of Rome, where cremation was not practiced beyond the second century. The cremations at Musarna are of the bustum type, in which the dead were burned in an excavated rectangular cut that served both as funeral pyre and grave pit. Although this particular rite is well known in northern Italy and the western provinces, as well as in Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain, there is increasing evidence now from Musarna and also from Rome that bustum burials were a regular way of disposing of the dead in central Italy. And like in the suburbium of Rome, we see the emergence here in the second and third centuries of cemeteries consisting of dense scatters of graves in particular and finite areas, rather than the earlier placement of tombs facing and lining up along the road for maximum visibility. The location of an individual grave at Musarna was rarely signaled by an aboveground marker in permanent material, and when such a marker was present, it consisted of an upright, uninscribed slab of the local volcanic stone (nenfro). Few graves show signs of intercutting, however, suggesting perhaps that markers of perishable materials indicated to grave diggers what spots to avoid.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the skeletal data, with an in-depth treatise on the methodology of excavating and analyzing human remains, a particular strength of French archaeology following advances in the field by Henri Duday. Especially interesting is the discussion of the evidence for wooden coffins or textile shrouds containing the bodies and contributing to the position of the bones as the bodies decomposed. Bone is preserved poorly at Musarna, often making it difficult to determine age or sex of individuals. Nevertheless, some interesting mortuary data emerge. Infants under the age of one year are clearly underrepresented, if not totally absent, with fewer children surviving to the age of six at Musarna than in the settlements of Vallerano or Osteria del Curato in the suburbium of Rome. The chances of anyone living beyond the age of 40 were lower at Musarna than at Rome, and only 5.9% of the population would have lived beyond 50. The mortality rate for women was also higher than for men. The results of these scientific studies reflect poor living conditions at the site and a diet lacking in protein and carbohydrates, as indicated especially by a study of the teeth of juveniles and adults. An appendix follows with a table presenting anthropological data on sex, age, and pathologies.

Chapters 5–8 present the complete assemblage of pottery, glass, coins, jewelry, and metal objects. All finds are reproduced in black-and-white drawings, and many are also shown in color photographs. It appears that a typical funerary assemblage consisted of two ceramic vessels (mostly beakers, pitchers, or jugs) placed near the lower extremities of the body. Few tombs show any signs of wealth, but those that do belong to young women, and they contain items such as gold earrings or finger rings and other accessories. Jet beads and an amber spindle represent some of the more unusual finds. There is an interesting study of iron nails, especially shoe nails, in chapter 8, with an excellent treatise on the role, function, and meaning of shoes in graves.

The volume finishes with catalogues of all the graves and their "inhabitants," and of all pottery, glass, metal, and finds of other materials. Excellent drawings of the graves and the position of the skeleton and objects within are reproduced in the plates. The bibliography is extensive and extremely useful. The book is an exemplary treatment of an entire Roman necropolis, and we can only wish that more such studies on Italian sites will follow.

Maureen Carroll
Department of Archaeology
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S1 4ET
United Kingdom
p.m.carroll@sheffield.ac.uk

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1144.Carroll

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.