Online Review: Book

Pour une archéologie du rite: Nouvelles perspectives de l'archéologie funéraire

Emily Miller-Bonney

115.1

Edited by John Scheid (CÉFR 407). Pp. 358, figs. 249, tables 4. École Française de Rome, Rome 2008. €88. ISBN 978-2-7283-0816-3 (paper).

The École Française de Rome, the Collège de France, the Archaeological Superintendency of Emilia-Romagna, and Cambridge University collaborated on this volume, which was funded by a grant from the European Commission as part of the Culture 2000 program. The 22 essays in English, French, German, and Italian highlight how collaborations among specialists in many fields can provide more nuanced understandings of the material traces of ritual in imperial Roman cemeteries. The sturdy paperbound text features abundant high-quality photographs and drawings, many in color, as well as informative charts, graphs, and maps. Each chapter contains a bibliography, and a collection of the essay abstracts concludes the volume. Specialists in Roman archaeology will benefit most from this volume, although students of mortuary ritual in general will find interesting essays.

The first four essays address principles of interpretation. Scheid notes that ancient writers described rituals only for prominent persons. Nevertheless, texts can illuminate archaeological discoveries, and the material evidence in turn reveals what those authors omitted. These topics are discussed at greater length by Romana Picuti. Martin-Kilcher highlights how variability in the material evidence for the seven distinct stages of Roman burial ritual reveals local responses to the introduction of Roman practices in cemeteries in northern Italy and Gaul. Pearce cautions against generalizing about Romano-British society through burial evidence because of inherent biases in the apparent distribution. For example, identification of large numbers of burials in southeast England may be simply a by-product of the predominance of archaeological investigation initiated by development in that region.

The next six essays are best characterized as case studies of excavations in which the nature of the context significantly affected the resulting interpretation. According to Bucellato et al., construction of railroad lines in suburban Rome exposed three burial sites with unusual contents (e.g., the inhumation of three adults with extreme spinal deformities) that hinted at eccentric rituals. Leoni et al. explain that the high water table at the cemetery in Classe revealed the ritual importance of organic material, which was preserved there because of the anaerobic environment. At Porta Nocera in Pompeii, it was the volcanic deposit that preserved otherwise fugitive traces of ritual behavior. Lepetz and Van Andringa describe how excavators could use these rich resources to trace the ascent of a freedman into the upper levels of Pompeian society. Ortali, reflecting on the complexity of depositional patterns in a cemetery, urges methodical recording to reconstruct not only ritual behavior but the total original environment, a process he acknowledges is time-consuming and expensive. Gaeng and Metzler demonstrate how careful observation at the time of excavation of a Gallo-Roman burial tumulus disclosed the wooden burial chamber not always noted at other tumuli and preserved here, as at Classe, because of a high moisture level in the soil. Similarly, Witteyer explains how meticulous observation of even the smallest objects discloses the unexpected variability even within types in a cemetery of mixed inhumations and cremations.

On a slightly different line, two essays probe the narrative disclosed by excavation of a single burial. Duday and Demangeot use the meticulous identification and registration of even minute fragments from the first-century C.E. Tomb 77 in the cemetery at Classe in Ravenna to reconstruct the burial and gradual decomposition of a 12- to 15-year-old individual placed in a wooden coffin with a copper coin in his mouth. Duday provides a similar narrative of a 6- to 9-month-old infant burial in a broken amphora within a cemetery otherwise comprised of secondary deposits of cremations.

Five other essays explore how technology can enhance reading of the disposition of mortuary materials. Beraud and Gebara observe that at the Gallo-Roman necropolis at Classe, survivors had removed some of the bone fragments from two pyres, apparently for a secondary burial, leading the authors to suggest that the pyres were intended as a sign of respect. Bel et al. investigate the difficulty of reconstructing the treatment of the body within the context of cremations, as it appears that in some instances the ashes remained at the cremation site while in others the ashes were moved. Additionally, because participants may have moved the body during incineration, someone with expertise in osteology is essential; preservation of anatomical connections proves burning in situ. The ash pits discussed by Abegg-Wigg lack any traces of burned bones and may be the incinerated remains of the funeral meal. Meniel outlines a methodology for excavating the remains of animal sacrifices in the cemeteries and for subsequent study in the laboratory to produce maximum information. Finally, Zech-Matterne, who points out the superior preservation of carbonized botanical remains, uses three case studies to demonstrate that visual inspection permits better contextualization of the vegetal remains, while sieving exposes a far greater variety of material.

The final four papers, by Joly, Montevecchi, Angelini et al., and Minozzi and Zabotti, address issues related to the preservation and recording of archaeological data. While this reviewer would not claim to be an expert in the field of archaeological databases, one suspects that the pace of technological change may have made such contributions unnecessary.

The publication is technically first-rate, with only minor flaws (most notably the reversal of figs. 13 and 14 on p. 241). In the wake of a string of publications over the last decade that address the theoretical issues attendant on archaeological studies of ritual in general and mortuary practice in particular, the emphatically positivist tenor of this book seems slightly antiquarian, and some nod to the theoretical aspects of studying mortuary ritual would have been salutary. Nevertheless, the authors remind us that collaboration with colleagues in other fields can greatly enrich the archaeologist’s work.

Emily Miller Bonney
Liberal Studies Department
California State University, Fullerton
Fullerton, California 92834
ebonney@fullerton.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1151.MillerBonney

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