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The Archaeology of Death in Roman Syria: Burial, Commemoration, and Empire

The Archaeology of Death in Roman Syria: Burial, Commemoration, and Empire

By Lidewijde de Jong. Pp. xvi + 365. Cambridge University Press, New York 2017. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-13141-5 (cloth).

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This book is a testament to perseverance in the face of adversity. The current situation in Syria aside, researching, collating, and understanding the tombs and cemeteries of the Roman period would never be easy. In the introduction, de Jong identifies some of the challenges: the poor state of the remains; the dismal or inadequate publication records; deliberate looting and destruction; scholarly divides and disinterest; the changing provincial borders of Roman Syria; and the diverse sociopolitical and cultural landscapes that the province incorporated. Nevertheless, the intention of the project was to treat Roman Syria as a whole and access all material remains from mortuary practices (architecture, grave goods, and human remains) as well as the epigraphy; this would be a tall order for any area of the Roman empire, given the traditional divisions between archaeologists on the one hand and epigraphers on the other. To achieve full coverage for the whole of Syria did indeed prove impossible, so the solution presented here was a focus on assemblages from 13 sites and two rural regions. This selection was based on the availability of a reasonable level of contextual information for these cemeteries and includes 517 well-recorded tombs (from cist and pit graves to tower tombs) and data from a further 1,797 less well preserved or less well recorded examples.

The amount of data presented is impressive. The main printed appendix provides overviews for the 13 sites and two regions, including information on cemetery location, dating, main finds, monument types, and, where appropriate, epigraphy and grave goods. It is complemented by an online appendix that itemizes the tombs by site, giving extensive details on tomb type and associated finds, decorations, and inscriptions. Making all this information accessible and understandable, in many cases for the first time in English, is no small feat, and it creates a treasure trove for anyone interested in mortuary archaeology, architecture, and ritual.

The book’s main chapters are less focused on these details, however, and the data are used to illuminate and explore bigger questions. There is thus little close analysis of architecture, iconography, sculpture, or epigraphy. Instead, two objectives are identified in the introduction: to reconstruct the mortuary customs of people in the Roman province of Syria, and to situate these mortuary customs in the wider political-cultural context of the time, including chronological development and patterns of continuity and change (2). The chapters concentrate on cemetery location and organization, tomb design, grave goods, the identities of the dead, funerary belief and customs, and finally what all these suggest about globalization in the Roman period. The author provides some valuable insights into Roman Syrian funerary traditions, such as variety in internal cemetery plans despite general homogeneity in terms of location and road frontage; the presence of differences in regional tomb types; attention in the cemeteries to tomb visibility (through, e.g., location, elevation, and decoration); long-standing traditions in the nature and quantities of grave goods; a predominance of inhumation, as opposed to cremation, burial; the role of funerary ritual and architecture in defining communities; and a certain convergence, and then a later divergence, between sites in some aspects of burial and commemoration.

The book maintains a clear focus on reading the evidence from Syria for itself and not through the lens of funerary traditions of the Roman West and the associated scholarship. The advantage of this approach is that the data remain clearly rooted in their original context, and continuity and change can be explored. The disadvantage is that, at times, the analysis and description seem separated from recent work on the tombs, cemeteries, rituals, and epigraphy of Rome and the provinces; for example, studies on urban peripheries, pollution, demography, epigraphic customs (e.g., in commemorating family), identity, and funeral rites are often not referenced even though they could have further informed, and not distorted, the reading of the Syrian evidence. The final chapter does seek to contextualize Syrian funerary practices in a wider perspective and includes some useful discussion of globalization. The author argues that the three ways in which Syrian mortuary practices followed empire-wide trends were the simultaneous redevelopment of urban and funerary space, an increase in the popularity of individual display (e.g., through epitaphs and sculpture), and the insertion of new styles into local practices (sometimes creating a pastiche). However, more nuanced discussion of the evidence presented in the preceding chapters might have been achieved by incorporating this globalization model and comparisons with other areas of the empire earlier in the book.

There is much to be admired in this volume, above all the determination to approach, survey, and organize such a disparate body of evidence. One of the aims was to develop a framework to deal with complex and often decontextualized funerary assemblages (3), and in this it makes a substantial contribution. What is more debatable—given the gaps that inevitably remain and the presented snapshots of select settlements, often skewed toward those such as Palmyra that provide the richest data—is the extent to which bigger provincial issues and questions can be properly investigated. The author does acknowledge this problem, stating that the book is a “starting point” for discussions about the rich funerary materials of Roman Syria (19). The volume’s legacy is an important one in terms of highlighting this richness, cataloguing it, preserving it, and showcasing its potential to enhance our understanding of Syrian communities and their place in the larger structures of the Roman empire. The volume’s postscript notes the importance, especially in the wake of the Syrian civil war, of digital preservation of cultural heritage (217), and the online database that supports the book will be an important aspect of this. Some of the cemeteries and tombs, the stars of this volume, have now been destroyed, shelled, or looted, and the human cost of warfare, including for heritage workers, has been immense. The book is dedicated to the people of Syria.

Valerie Hope
Department of Classical Studies
Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Book Review of The Archaeology of Death in Roman Syria: Burial, Commemoration, and Empire, by Lidewijde de Jong

Reviewed by Valerie Hope

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.hope

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