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Macedonia–Alexandria: Monumental Funerary Complexes of the Late Classical and Hellenistic Age

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Macedonia–Alexandria: Monumental Funerary Complexes of the Late Classical and Hellenistic Age

By Dorota Gorzelany. Oxford: Archaeopress 2019. Pp. iv + 236. £32. ISBN 978-1-78969-136-8 (paper).

Reviewed by

Gorzelany’s 2019 volume (see contents here) offers an English-language audience access to her groundbreaking Polish monograph Macedonia–Aleksandria: Analiza monumentalnych założeń grobowych z okresu późnoklasycznego i hellenistycznego (Muzeum Narodowe 2014), itself the revised publication of her 2005 Jagiellonian University doctoral thesis. Gorzelany reexamines two tomb types of the late fourth through second centuries BCE: Macedonian monumental tombs (a specific type of built tomb set into a pit and covered over by a tumulus, along with a derived rock-cut form, which arose in the ancient kingdom of Macedon) and subterranean rock-cut hypogea built by Greek settlers in Alexandria, Egypt (including Macedonians, Athenians, and other immigrants from the Greek-speaking world). She compares the layout of the tombs, as well as their decorative elements and accompanying grave goods, and considers their implications for religious conceptions and practices in the period in question. The bulk of the work was completed by 2004, but some bibliographic updating was done for the Polish publication (none beyond that for the English edition). The volume nevertheless presents an extensive bibliography documenting nearly 150 years of publication and analysis of the two corpora of tombs in English, Polish, Greek, Italian, French, and German. 

I approach this review as a specialist in Levantine Phoenician mortuary practices and beliefs in the first millennium BCE. Phoenician burial practices and material culture have the reputation of being eclectic in style, long characterized as “borrowing” from Greek, Persian, and Egyptian artistic repertoires. However, a new generation of scholarly works, among them S. Rebecca Martin’s The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art (University of Pennsylvania Press 2017) is working to complicate and overcome that characterization. I was therefore interested in Gorzelany’s project in terms of both the features of the Macedonian and Alexandrian tombs themselves, and Gorzelany’s analysis of the cultural exchange and innovation that this specific example of elite migration and Mediterranean connectivity produced in the sphere of burial ritual and afterlife conceptions.

In terms of providing a clear and digestible overview of the tomb types, variation, and contents in each region, this work does not disappoint. Chapters 2 and 3 (“Types of Funerary Complexes” in Macedonia and Alexandria, respectively) provide a typology and synthesis of the excavated burial landscapes, illustrating the ways in which the latter corpus adapted elements of the former. Rich illustrations—more than half in color—accompany the text, though there is some unevenness in the presentation (more plans are available for the tomb complexes in Alexandria than for those in Macedon; the reverse is true for photographs of grave goods). An appendix with a table offering an at-a-glance reference for the many tombs would have been a helpful addition; instead, each chapter opens with a map showing the main sites, to orient the reader. Photographs of tomb contents are mostly from museum displays, and descriptions can feel like inventories at times, although the reader can easily consult referenced publications for more detail on their relative positions in the tombs. Overall, the tombs are well described and clearly categorized.

However, as with many dissertation-based books, I sometimes strained to hear Gorzelany’s own voice in her discussion of the symbolism of the tombs she evaluates (chs. 4, 5). Declarative sentences characterize her discussion, producing an easy-to-follow, textbook-like narrative about where an architectural feature or symbol first appeared, how it changed over time, and what it means. While this can be refreshingly clear when it comes to pointing out the limits of what we can know given the state of the field, this matter-of-fact style also makes it difficult to ascertain where debate might remain or how consistent and numerous the data to support specific assertions might be. Gorzelany’s own intriguing suggestions are sometimes relegated to a parenthetical note in concluding or summary remarks, rather than explored in the body of the text. The final chapter, only four pages long, distills her argument that eschatological beliefs reflected in the Macedonian tombs were centered on “the quest for deification,” while the Greeks in Egypt had become focused on the goal of “redemption” (195; referring to mystery cults focused on judgement and afterlife access). Here she reiterates that Alexandrian hypogea innovatively combined elements from (1) Greek domestic architecture (derived from descriptions and exemplars from Attica and other regions; 127–30, 172, 175); (2) Macedonian tomb layout and decorative features, also reflecting native domestic architecture (134; including specific forms of what she calls “illusionism”); and (3) Egyptian tomb features and adornment. Gorzelany shows that these dynamic adaptations reflect evolving religious ideas as well as responses to economic and environmental limitations (e.g., lack of access to stone and overall burial space; 198).

This volume sits squarely within classical and Egyptological scholarship, without engaging anthropological or related academic theory on mortuary practice, ritual studies, or diaspora communities and cultural adaptation. Perhaps unintentionally, it also reproduces somewhat stagnant conceptualizations of “Hellenization” and “syncretism,” synthesizing so many sites, sources, and arguments that discussion can at times feel reductive (188 and elsewhere). Gorzelany often categorically presents an ancient belief, documenting her characterization with a footnote containing a reference to a single scholarly work from the 1960s to 1990s (e.g., 142 n. 164 and many of the notes on the meaning of a specific symbol; 143–51). Some of this is to be expected given the scope of the volume, but more could have been done to point readers to areas of ongoing debate. Future analysis of these tombs could pick up where Gorzelany has left off, reexamining excavators’ assumptions about sex and gender among the dead or thinking through the complex range of meanings that old symbols might have in new contexts. Engagement with sociohistorical literature or studies on similar communities in the third-century BCE Levant or Anatolia would also deepen our understanding of this rich material. 

Gorzelany has made a significant contribution to the field by bringing these seemingly disparate tomb types together in one volume and making a convincing case for their genealogical relationship. Her training positioned her well to undertake this work, and her succinct presentation of the data and careful attention to the interplay of structural, decorative, and symbolic elements of the various burial structures is commendable. This book will serve as a useful reference work for anyone interested in mortuary practice as a marker of evolving belief and identity in the late first-millennium BCE Mediterranean, and in the evolving beliefs of Late Period Alexandrian communities in particular. My hope for Gorzelany’s next monograph is that she engages others working on comparable diasporic communities and mortuary data, bringing her unique training and deep museological and art historical expertise to larger conversations surrounding identity construction and religious change in the ancient world.

Helen Dixon
Department of History
East Carolina University

Book Review of Macedonia–Alexandria: Monumental Funerary Complexes of the Late Classical and Hellenistic Age, by Dorota Gorzelany
Reviewed by Helen Dixon
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Dixon

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