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Funerary Archaeology and Changing Identities: Community Practices in Roman-Period Sardinia

Funerary Archaeology and Changing Identities: Community Practices in Roman-Period Sardinia

By Mauro Puddu (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 55). Oxford: Archaeopress 2018. Pp. vi + 180. £40. ISBN 978-1-78969-000-2 (paper).

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Puddu’s book, the publication of a doctoral thesis completed at the University of Cambridge, explores community identity in Roman-period Sardinia through an analysis of funerary material. By incorporating a robust theoretical framework, the author joins others (e.g., P. van Dommelen, On Colonial Grounds: A Comparative Study of Colonialism and Rural Settlement in First Millennium BC West Central Sardinia, University of Leiden 1998) in rejecting the now-outdated conception of “Romanized” cities along Sardinia's coast versus a “native” rural hinterland. He likewise adds to the growing body of literature that moves Roman funerary studies away from their traditional focus on monuments and inscriptions and toward more complete perspectives that consider both funerary assemblages and human remains. His engagement with legacy data is commendable; working with excavation journals and undertaking his own analysis of finds, he includes material from nine necropoleis associated with six settlements of central and southern Sardinia, many of which were previously unpublished or incompletely published. Nevertheless, the author is at his strongest when dealing with theory, to the point of leaving a distinct imbalance between the care with which he lays out his approaches and a sometimes superficial treatment of the archaeological remains themselves. 

Puddu’s pursuit of identity directly contends with those who have questioned the usefulness of such attempts (e.g., M. Pitts, “The Emperor’s New Clothes?: The Utility of Identity in Roman Archaeology,” AJA 111.4, 2007, 693–713). Following Puddu, both the problem and its solution are to be found in semiotics. He argues that the most common method—deriving from Saussure and taking a sign as a direct representation of an idea—has been too inflexible and positivistic, with the result that identity studies end up replicating atheoretical culture-history approaches to archaeology (ch. 1). In this mode, work on identity too often becomes a process of documenting differences in material culture (sign), then assigning some type of meaning to those differences (idea). Puddu, on the other hand, begins from the model developed by C.S. Pierce, who connected signs and ideas via complex and dynamic chains of associations. Rather than simply describing diversity, Puddu seeks to follow the links in such chains through detailed contextual analyses, using each piece of available data to bridge the interpretive gap between the material remains and the identities they might communicate. In this way, he aims to overcome binary and overly broad identity categories like “Roman” and “native,” arriving at a postcolonial understanding of Sardinia’s communities.

Puddu’s goal is admirable, and certainly he is correct that the categorical divide of Roman from native can tell us little of life in any Roman province. The outcome, however, comes up short in several respects. First, the author often falls into the interpretive traps that he criticizes in the work of others. For example, he relates the presence of third- and early second-century BCE bustum tombs—cremations made in pits and buried in place—to the arrival of Romans on Sardinia (96). Recalling that the Romans took control of the island around the time when the bustum tombs appeared, Puddu concludes that the newcomers imported this interment style, while locals continued to inhume their dead in simple trenches (109–12, 121). Even looking beyond his reliance on the dichotomy between Romans and natives and his conception of tomb type as an unambiguous marker of ethnic identity, bustum tombs are rare in peninsular Italy, and most examples date to the Imperial period. Puddu provides no comparative evidence to support the purported connection with Roman settlers; perhaps because nearly all third- and second-century interments known from mainland Italy, including from Rome itself, were inhumations. Likewise, his interpretations often treat diversity of any kind as meaningful. Puddu notes, for instance, that the fill deposits above graves at Masullas and Gesico contained broken tiles mixed with soil, while those at Sanluri also incorporated broken ceramics (125). He concludes that the community of Sanluri placed greater emphasis on eating and drinking at funerals, after which they broke their dishes and mixed them into the fill that closed the tomb. Nevertheless, any relationship between such finds and the rites of the funeral requires justification to demonstrate that the fill had ritual meaning and was not—as is far more likely in most cases—simply hardcore leveling material derived from an unrelated source (e.g., a nearby refuse mound). 

This point leads to an overarching concern: that the author’s complex theoretical approach rarely takes him in new directions. Many of Puddu’s conclusions appear indistinguishable from the straightforward readings that define archaeology in the culture-history mode. For example, in comparing tombs of infants buried with knucklebones at urban Karales with the graves of two women buried with whetstones at rural Ortacesus (125–26), he contends that the rural community valued labor (represented by the whetstones), while the urban community had time for games and leisure (indicated by the knucklebones). If there is an interpretive chain here, it seems to consist of only two links: the finds and the location of each necropolis. Those who lived in cities also used tools that required sharpening, and surely the rural population occasionally found time to relax. Puddu’s interpretation, based on age-old stereotypes of urban and rural life, seems likely to hide what might be far more interesting stories, particularly given the patterns of age, sex, and unusual (for Puddu’s sample, at least) grave gifts. The early bustum tombs represent another potentially fascinating avenue left largely unexplored, as do cremations of the third and even fourth centuries CE that Puddu mentions in passing at Sulci (64, 66–67); these indicate the continuation of a rite that had long since fallen out of favor in mainland Italy, inviting questions as to why the same process did not occur on Sardinia.

Undoubtedly, Puddu is correct to see an inclusive approach as essential to the future of Roman funerary archaeology. Some of his most interesting conclusions concern differential modes by which communities interacted with earlier tombs (123–25), a subject that warrants further consideration and that would have been served by a wider definition of context to include stratigraphic data, as well as by an appendix listing finds by grave. As a whole, however, the book leaves the impression that Puddu’s data set is not fully capable of answering the identity-driven questions he puts to it. Human remains and funerary assemblages might not provide the answers we wish they could, or feel they should, no matter how much theory we develop around them. From my perspective, the promise of exploring such evidence stems from the novel questions it allows us to pursue. Seeking those questions, rather than recycling older ones, will offer better opportunities to shed new light on ancient lives.

Allison L.C. Emmerson
Tulane University 

Book Review of Funerary Archaeology and Changing Identities: Community Practices in Roman-Period Sardinia, by Mauro Puddu 
Reviewed by Allison L.C. Emmerson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Emmerson

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