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Tombs, Burials, and Commemoration in Corinth’s Northern Cemetery

Tombs, Burials, and Commemoration in Corinth’s Northern Cemetery

By Kathleen Warner Slane. Pp. xxx + 386. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2017. $150. ISBN 9780876610220 (cloth).

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This volume presents the results of rescue excavations begun in 1961 and 1962, begun by the Greek Archaeological Service and subsequently overseen by Henry S. Robinson, then director of the Corinth excavations. The 77 recovered burial contexts, including hypogea, built chamber tombs, and graves positioned along the edge of a natural terrace slightly north of the urban center of ancient Corinth, date from the fifth century B.C.E. to the sixth century C.E. They provide a rare opportunity for diachronic study of burial practice at a major Mediterranean site; while the bulk of the material relates to the Roman period, about 15% of the total single graves can be dated to the Classical or Early Hellenistic period. The volume includes Slane’s discussions of depositional processes, grave goods, grave types, painting, and tomb architecture, along with two specialist reports on human skeletal and faunal material. Slane concludes the volume with summary arguments that “elucidate some intangibles from the materials preserved” (221). Among these intangibles are the cultural beliefs and preferences underlying physical expressions of social rank and family groups (as opposed to other constructs such as gender or intersectionality of social personae).

Chapter 1 provides several points of entry. An overview of other published graves and tombs in Corinth and the immediate vicinity orients readers unfamiliar with the Corinthian landscape and the long history of excavation in Corinth and its environs. The difficulties inherent in working with legacy data, especially from rescue excavations such as those reported in this volume, are comprehensively discussed in a methodological subsection. Indeed, Slane’s mastery of the challenges of working with legacy data is among the many strengths of this volume.

In subsequent chapters, Slane provides systematic treatments of single graves and deposits unassociated with chamber tombs (ch. 2); a multiphase rock-cut chamber tomb known as the Painted Tomb (ch. 3); a group of three multiphase built tombs (ch. 4); and three tombs positioned in a separate group to the east (ch. 5). Thumbnail photographs of catalogued objects are embedded in plans of the tombs in each of their phases of use, enabling rapid understanding of the location of the objects recovered in each phase. These chapters also include brief summaries of architectural remains, grave assemblages, and the human skeletal and faunal evidence, making it easy for readers to develop a general picture of the data for each burial context. Detailed treatments of the architecture, tomb painting, and grave goods appear in later chapters, efficiently enabling specialists to access material of particular interest.

Chapters 6 and 7 (“The Human Skeletal Remains” and “The Animal Remains”) are specialist reports by Barnes and Reese. Barnes provides useful caveats about the ways the storage and recording practices of the original rescue excavations affected the study of the human skeletal material. Due in no small part to those practices, the remains of a minimum of 236 individuals were available for Barnes’ study. Notably, the percentage of newborns (28 of 55 infants) “is substantially higher” than that identified in other burial areas at Corinth (166).

Barnes reports extensively on evidence for functional stress and disease (e.g., anemia, malaria, and a rare example of leprosy). She also argues that “most of the individuals . . . came from the same general population” based on “genetic trait patterns and cranial shapes” (166). This latter point is an important aspect of the report in that Slane engages this interpretation of nonmetric traits elsewhere in the volume. In discussing multigenerational reuse of the Roman chamber tombs, for example, Slane refers to “shared family genetic traits” (236). Isotopic analysis might be a valuable next step, providing points of comparison with a recent study by Kennedy that employed that technique (The Busy Cemeteries of Late Antique Corinth, Ph.D. diss., Texas A&M University [2016]).

Reese reports on 155 animal bone fragments from the Painted Tomb and smaller samples (16 and 27 fragments) from two other tombs. Significant here are several fragments of debris from the working of horse bone. Their presence, noted by Reese as unusual at Corinth, contributes to several discussions of depositional processes associated with Corinthian funerary practice (in this case, the use of loose sediment near burials to fill grave contexts after placement of the deceased).

The architectural elements of the chamber tombs and the movable objects recovered from them are presented in chapters 8 and 9. Especially interesting in this section are: the striking degree of standardization in both the plans of the tombs and the sizes of cists and niches (at least in the initial phase of tomb construction); the positioning of sarcophagi or cists opposite the doorway in alignment with the primary visual axis; and the chronologically overlapping practices of inhumation and cremation in the tombs. Regarding this last point, Slane argues that inhumation was used to signify higher status, with “others of lesser status” cremated (179), rejecting the idea that mixed inhumation and cremation occurred during a transition in practice. Slane also explores here the challenge of extrapolating population based on the sizes of chamber tombs or the number of burial spaces within, noting a particular need for caution in assuming that tombs constructed for family groups were intended for multigenerational use. Extensive remodeling aside, the initial phase of the tombs seems to have been designed to accommodate perhaps three generations at most.

Slane’s meticulously documented discussion of grave goods (ch. 9) provides evidence for burial ritual across both the initial phases of use and subsequent phases of remodeling. Objects are organized first by function and then by type within functional groups (e.g., a section on funerary objects includes cremation urns and unguentaria organized by stylistic groups). This structure facilitates consideration by specialist readers interested in specific object types, while also providing general readers access to the raw evidence on which the interpretive arguments in other chapters are based. In this chapter, Slane’s deep expertise in object analysis is readily apparent, especially in her discussions of lamps, cremation urns, unguentaria, and the various ceramic vessels associated with libations and ritual dining.

Given that the tombs were regularly cleared during episodes of remodeling and that most of the movable objects recovered in the tombs date to the later periods of burial, it is difficult, as Slane notes, to identify the specifics of practice in the first phase of tomb use. This challenge notwithstanding, in the final chapter of the volume Slane effectively knits together the available evidence in service of a synthetic historical reconstruction of funerary rites, commemorative activity, and constructions of rank among “ordinary Corinthians” (i.e., those with some degree of wealth, but not necessarily, in the Roman period, a provincial elite). The bulk of the discussion concerns Roman practice, while coverage of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (treated as one unit here) is less extensive, in accord with the smaller sample size. The chapter concludes by addressing the possibility of identification of an emergent Christian community in the fourth century C.E. Potential indicators discussed are (1) the presence of Christian iconography; (2) orientation of burial (i.e., with head oriented to the west); (3) the presence of multiple burials; and (4) preferential burial of infants and children. While none of these proves entirely conclusive, the positioning of a few late burials and the unusually high proportion of burials of infants and children in contexts with multiple burials (e.g., CTS-B) are suggestive (240–41).

Throughout the book, considerable attention has been paid to the needs of the reader. Chronologically organized summary tables in chapter 2, for example, are a helpful supplement to the spatially organized discussion in the text. Special praise is owed to Herbst for the remarkably high quality of the maps, plans, sections, and axonometric reconstructions. The work is especially impressive given the need to knit together old photographs and sketches to produce the new visual documentation.

This volume will be particularly valuable for scholars interested in an important body of new evidence for burial ritual in a prominent Roman colony. The book is a needed contribution to ongoing scholarly re-evaluation of Roman and Late Roman burial practice at several cemeteries across the northeastern Peloponnese (e.g., at Isthmia and Kenchreai, as well as in other cemeteries at Corinth itself). It will also serve as an essential reference for those working on Roman provincial mortuary behaviors generally, due especially to the thoughtful documentation of architectural comparanda. Understanding of the state of scholarly debate on some issues is assumed, and so the volume may not be suitable as a first introduction to the subject for students. On the other hand, the way the evidence is presented here facilitates construction of quantitative datasets that could be used to good effect in training students in the use of statistical methods. Students and established scholars alike will benefit from the opportunity to work through an exemplary treatment of the explanatory potentialities of legacy data.

Melissa G. Morison
Department of Classics
Grand Valley State University

Book Review of Tombs, Burials, and Commemoration in Corinth’s Northern Cemetery, by Kathleen Warner Slane

Reviewed by Melissa G. Morison

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.morison

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