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Living Through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Living Through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World

Edited by Maureen Carroll and Jane Rempel. Pp. xii + 209, figs. 79. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2011. $60. ISBN 978-1-84217-376-3 (paper).

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In the classical world, the dead were not easily forgotten; both individually and collectively, the dead could provide a lingering, and at times extremely potent, presence. For scholars, the remains of the dead, and the monuments that recalled them, have long since been a source of fascination and vital information on ancient societies, but little emphasis has fallen on ritual and use (of both monuments and the dead). In its title, this volume addresses these themes, playing on the idea of the mutual relationship between the living and the dead and that, in many ways, the dead were not gone. The title also pinpoints the volume’s prime subject matter as burial and commemoration, and the back cover blurb stresses that these processes were “inherently social and designed for an audience.” Unfortunately, the lack of an introduction to the volume means that these themes, so tantalizingly hinted at, are not further identified or linked. The volume represents a series of individual case studies rather than a volume of clearly related content. Edited volumes are often unwieldy beasts that the best editors struggle to contain, and overarching introductions are not always successful or even necessary; but for this volume, a preface that simply lists chapter content fails adequately to set the scene. The volume would have benefited from an introduction that placed the chapters in the context of recent research on burial, rituals, monuments, and memory in the classical world (and beyond), especially given the range (in terms of space and time) of the material included.

The volume springs from a 2006 University of Sheffield conference on death and commemoration from antiquity to the 18th century. The present volume focuses on the classical world, although two of the nine papers stretch the classical time frame from ancient Egypt to Rome of the 17th century. Along the way, we visit Thermopylae, Sparta, Athens, the Bosporan kingdom, Republican Rome, Pompeii, and Roman Britain. Despite the wide-ranging content and the lack of clear links, all the chapters do fit the general remit of the volume’s title, addressing interactions between the living and the dead, how the dead were remembered (or sometimes deliberately forgotten), monumentalized, and incorporated into the actions, rituals, and backdrops of the living. It is perhaps only in the paper by Bommas, on Egyptian funerary cult, that we gain a real sense of “living through the dead,” but other shared themes and perspectives do emerge.

Several of the papers address the power and also longevity of the presence and reputations of the dead. In Egypt from the third millennium B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., the dead were perceived to live on in the hereafter. Across such a long time span, it is possible to trace continuities and changes in funerary cult and in relationships between the living and the dead, including increased emphasis on mutual support and aid (Bommas). Low considers how “the 300” who fell at Thermopylae (480 B.C.E.) were commemorated and how their memories, and more importantly what they came to exemplify, may have been woven into the townscape of Sparta itself. For Pope Innocent X (1644–1655) and his architects, the imperial and private tombs of ancient Rome gave inspiration; the monuments of the long dead provided a connection to his own building works, projecting him and his family as the true heirs of Rome (Russell).

The importance of commemoration for creating identity (individual and collective) is another theme present in the volume. On the margins of cities, empires, and kingdoms, burial traditions can represent social interaction, cross-fertilization, and integration (or the lack of). In the Bosporan kingdoms of the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., the elite used burial to promote their status, fusing local stone-chambered mounds (kurgans) with rich Greek grave goods, thereby suggesting complex social interactions and identities at the edges of the Greek world (Rempel). In Athens, immigrants from Miletus were well represented in the funerary record, especially through grave markers, for several centuries. The Milesians were a significant presence, but largely disenfranchised, and their monuments indicate how they chose to align themselves with aspects of Athenian culture while retaining a sense of identity and community as outsiders (Gray). Pearce discusses Roman Britain, a province on the edge of the Roman empire, and one often dismissed for the paltry amount and nature of its Roman funerary monuments. Pearce argues that the surviving evidence was more closely related to Roman prototypes than has previously been acknowledged and that these monuments were often closely linked with urban settlements. The burials of the elite were not so much “rural” as “peri-urban.”

In other situations, identities and memories of the dead may have been openly tampered with. Carroll considers Roman funerary monuments where names, and sometimes portraits, were deliberately erased. In most cases, it is impossible to establish why these changes were made, but a few examples, which give voice to reasons, suggest a world of family feuds and broken promises. Something written in stone was not destined to last forever. Memory and its promotion were also at the heart of key rituals associated with the disposal of the dead and the sites of their burial. The obscure Roman rite of os resectum, in which a bone was severed from the corpse for later disposal, may have been related to purifying the family at the end of the formal mourning period and marking the point at which proper remembrance of the dead began (Graham). The close examination of one burial site at Pompeii also indicates the dynamic and changeable nature of the relationships between the living and the dead; the remains suggest feasting, rituals, remembrance, but also reuse and ultimately neglect (Lepetz and van Andringa).

The volume as a whole does hint at how the living often exploited but also genuinely needed or admired the dead; and it does provide glimpses of the importance of memory, identity, and ritual. However, the volume’s strength lies in the individual case studies, rather than in any dominant theme. The most successful chapters are those that bring new perspectives (sometimes speculative) to established material—such as Spartan monuments, the rite of os resectum, and Romano-British funerary monuments (Low, Graham, Pearce)—or take a broad sweep of time, thereby tracing both change and continuity (Bommas, Gray). Individual chapters will be of great value to postgraduates and academics interested in classical burial and commemoration related to different places and times; whether most readers will focus on all the chapters, and thereby gain a broader perspective, without the guidance of an introduction, is another matter.

Valerie Hope
Department of Classical Studies
The Open University
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA
United Kingdom

Book Review of Living Through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World, edited by Maureen Carroll and Jane Rempel

Reviewed by Valerie Hope

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Hope

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