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Visualizing the Afterlife in the Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Visualizing the Afterlife in the Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt

By Marjorie Susan Venit. Pp. xvii + 268, figs. 170, color pls. 34, map 1. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-04804-0 (cloth).

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This richly illustrated volume follows Venit’s even more substantial study, Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria: The Theatre of the Dead, which appeared from the same publisher in 2002. There, Venit delved into a complex array of Alexandrian funerary architecture, which she argued helped the city’s diverse population create and replicate the social connections that were so vital to individuals and families in the cultural panoply of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. In particular, she argued that some families from the Alexandrian elite, which was culturally Greek, intentionally revived or repurposed traditional Egyptian decorative forms in order to articulate an eschatology of death and afterlife distinctive to the city’s Egyptian context. The vast Kom el-Shugafa catacomb is the most elaborate example of this practice, and while it may visually resemble art produced elsewhere in Roman Egypt, resemblance alone is not the key to signification. Rather, context is crucial to understanding what art meant and what role it played in specific localities.

With the book under review, Venit has expanded her scope to take in tombs from the Nile Valley and two oases, Dakhla and Siwa, in the Libyan desert. Similar overviews of decorated tombs have been attempted before, as Venit admits, and some studies have brought tomb decoration of the period into conversation with other forms of funerary art, such as painted shrouds, coffins, masks, portraits, and sculpture. What she seeks to do here, by looking at tomb decoration across the Egyptian chora and over a five-century span, is to assess how the “changing cultural and social climate” (3) of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt affected the expression of eschatological ideas or aims and how these might be traced through visual representations in tombs. She argues that although there were differences between Egyptian and Greek or Roman ideas about an existence after death—notably the role of the preserved, ideally mummified, body in Egyptian beliefs—there were areas of fruitful overlap as well, for instance between the Egyptian ba (life force, “soul”) and the Greek psyche. Venit characterizes the artistic interchange between Egyptian and Greek art and ideas as one of bilingualism or bricolage, with the important caveat that such interchanges were “highly reflective and purposeful” rather than mere chance or an undifferentiated fusion (3).

The book opens with an extensive discussion of a fascinating monument that bridges the fourth-century B.C.E. transition between pharaonic Egypt and Macedonian Greek rule. The tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel in Middle Egypt was erected for a high-ranking priest and his family, probably just after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C.E. The structure became a focal point of the large cemetery that grew up around it, whose Roman-era tombs Venit examines later in the book. Venit’s close, careful reading of its painted relief sculpture is the best-informed discussion of this tomb, which is often glossed over in surveys of Egyptian art as an indistinct artistic mix, with a pronaos or porch replete with “foreign” Greek imagery. As Venit demonstrates, however, there is much more to the tomb’s decorative program, from the starkly traditional Egyptian decoration of the inner chapel to the distancing, perhaps “othering,” elements of the Greek-inspired bull sacrifice scene in the pronaos. Other potentially Greek influences, like the representation of bodies turning through space or of volume expressed through drapery, are similarly restricted to the pronaos, the liminal (and hence less, or differently, sacred) part of the structure. These stylistic elements to me do not necessarily speak of eschatological aims but may speak to an elite interest in harnessing novel modes of artistic display for its own use. Whatever the exact motivations, as a marker of Petosiris’ status, the tomb certainly worked: it was a site of pilgrimage throughout the Ptolemaic era, with further burials made in and around it well into Roman times.

Venit revisits her work on the tombs of Alexandria to develop further her argument of visual bilingualism and the role that Egyptian funerary art and religion could play as a metaphor (as she puts it) for an otherwise predominantly Hellenic society. Returning to Tuna el-Gebel to examine some of the tombs that grew up around that of Petosiris, she develops the complementary notion of Greek art, architecture, and literature offering a metaphor in the social—and literal—landscape of the Egyptian countryside. It was in this chora that metropolitan elites, away from Alexandria and the other poleis of Roman Egypt, negotiated status in part through commemorative display. Here, as elsewhere, Venit has been able to make such a close study in person and through photographs that she can offer more detailed interpretations of many tombs than other scholars have been able to glean from published sources. These close visual analyses, supported by extensive illustrative material, are one of the great strengths of this carefully composed and cogently argued volume.

From a survey of decorated tombs from different locations, local contexts, and time periods, it would be difficult to generalize or draw broad conclusions, and Venit wisely limits herself to a few closing observations about the role of tombs as markers of social status, the portrait-like representation of the patron in many tombs (which has several crossovers with other portrait forms of the period), and the use of apotropaic motifs on the facades of tomb structures or individual burial niches. There is a risk that in studying the longue durée of a culture—and Egypt had a very long duration indeed—we attribute too much continuity or consistency to features such as visual form or religious beliefs. What may look similar to us, or seem to be an enduring trait, may have meant something quite different to those who created and used an ancient monument. Moreover, what (if anything) counted as “foreign” needs more careful scrutiny to separate our own perceptions from those of the ancient actor. Such issues are some of the difficulties presented by art like that produced in certain spheres of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and they also provide some of its fascinations, for which Venit’s book is a welcome additional guide.

Christina Riggs
University of East Anglia

Book Review of Visualizing the Afterlife in the Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt, by Marjorie Susan Venit

Reviewed by Christina Riggs

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.riggs

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