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Funerary Sculpture

Funerary Sculpture

By Janet Burnett Grossman (Agora 35). Pp. xxxii + 239, figs. 22, b&w pls. 128, tables 12, plans 2. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2013. $150. ISBN 978-0-87661-235-4 (cloth).

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This is the latest volume in the excellent series of publications of the finds from the Athenian Agora. It catalogues figured tombstones from the Classical to the Roman periods. Archaic finds are in Agora 11 (E.B. Harrison, Archaic and Archaistic Sculpture [Princeton 1965]), and some tombstones have been published elsewhere. The introductory section gives a history of the scholarship on grave monuments (ch. 1); a reasonably comprehensive survey of funerary sculpture in Athens (ch. 2), covering, inter alia, types, chronology, and iconography; and an overview of the Agora monuments and how they fit into these schemata (ch. 3). There is quite a lot of overlap between chapters 2 and 3, and it is not always clear where general comments give way to specifics; the iconography of the Agora sculptures in particular is discussed in detail in chapter 2 (the tables of attributes, poses, and so forth in the iconography section will be useful for anyone conducting research in this area).

The catalogue is ordered by period (Classical, Hellenistic, Roman), and within that by type, and then by gender and pose, rather than by strict chronology. This is sensible, since so many of the pieces elude precise dating, as Grossman points out (71). It does, however, have the disadvantage of compelling Grossman to allocate fragments to a particular group (e.g., seated male, standing female) even when it is not clear whether a fragment is from a male or female figure, seated or standing.

Each entry lists details of discovery (all findspots relate to secondary use), dimensions, technique, type of stone, iconography, comparanda, and date. Grossman’s careful, detailed descriptions often supplement the images where features are worn or invisible (e.g., the lekythos cat. no. 163: the photograph is taken at such an angle that the standing girl at right cannot be seen). Photographs are generally of high quality, although there are no photographs of catalogue number 117b nor catalogue number 130; and I would have liked a photograph of the painted “ghosts,” still visible under raking light, of catalogue number 150.

Grossman states at the outset that her particular interest lies in the monuments as works of sculpture rather than cultural artifacts, and the catalogue’s strength accordingly lies in description rather than in analysis. Although the primary function of this series must be one of publication and description, and this volume fulfills that function admirably, it still occasionally feels like an opportunity missed, and the catalogue entries are sometimes frustratingly succinct. Catalogue number 376, for a woman, has a warship in the pediment: why? The intriguing triangular stele catalogue number 271 depicts two women, one perhaps with a bird and torch, and a farmer: Grossman cites Gray’s doctoral thesis on farmer iconography ("Self-Representation of the Milesioi on the Sculpted Gravestones of Roman Attica," Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley [2002]), but a brief summary of Gray’s conclusions would not go amiss—nor would some further detail on these rare stelae. The off-center placement of the rosette and inscription in the pediment of catalogue number 371 indicates, as Bradeen notes (Inscriptions: the Funerary Monuments. Agora 17 [Princeton 1974] cat. no. 153), that there must have been another inscription to the left of the one that survives (or else the fragments we have were part of a much longer inscription; this is unlikely in view of the placement of line 4). This is all clear from the image, but not from the commentary. Some 20 of the stones are described as “deliberately defaced,” ranging from random gouges to erasure of faces or genitalia, but no discussion is offered as to why (the exception is cat. no. 210, which was reused in building). When Grossman does pause to consider in detail, her discussion is salient and perceptive: catalogue number 78 offers a tidy solution to the problematic Stele of Athenokles, and on catalogue number 69 she argues persuasively, even though she leans on Reilly’s erroneous theory that most mistress-and-maid scenes on lekythoi depict brides (“Many Brides: ‘Mistress and Maid’ on Athenian Lekythoi,” Hesperia 58 [1989] 410–44), that the kneeling figure is connected to the sandal-binding motif found in bridal iconography.

On a broader level, and perhaps inevitably for a publication of this kind, Grossman compartmentalizes the material into tidy divisions. While distinctions in clothing, stature, pose, and so forth did enable viewers in antiquity to distinguish among the various roles of the figures depicted, we should be wary of imposing a straightjacket on a system that contained a degree of inherent flexibility—necessarily so, since many gravestones were probably chosen from stock rather than commissioned specifically. Grossman herself notes the difficulty of identifying “attendants” who may be slaves or family (71 n. 34).

Although much of the Agora material is iconographically familiar, or of interest only to the specialist, this catalogue includes some notable pieces, including several stelae of foreign origin, and three of Hermes Psychopompos. Perhaps most interesting is the monument depicting a woman holding a figurine in her hand, interpreted by Grossman as that of a priestess of Athena (cat. no. 51). The round shield held by the figurine could perhaps be a tympanum (it looks as if there may be fingers curved around the base of it next to the body, though the stone is very worn), in which case the goddess would be Cybele. Either way, the monument is striking not only as an Attic depiction of a priestess holding a statuette of her goddess but also for the dress and pose: the priestess wears a peplos (as opposed to the chiton and himation usual for Attic priestesses), and she is leaning casually against the pilaster at the side of her naiskos, rather than standing upright in its center as her compatriots generally do. Grossman rightly describes her identification as “tentative,” but if the woman is not a priestess, it is hard to see what else she could be.

Diana Burton
School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies
Victoria University of Wellington

Book Review of Funerary Sculpture, by Janet Burnett Grossman

Reviewed by Diana Burton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Burton

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