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Mortuary Variability and Social Diversity in Ancient Greece: Studies on Ancient Greek Death and Burial

Mortuary Variability and Social Diversity in Ancient Greece: Studies on Ancient Greek Death and Burial

Edited by Nicolas Dimakis and Tamara M. Dijkstra. Oxford: Archaeopress 2020. Pp. 204. £35. ISBN 9781789694420 (paper).

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This collected volume is the result of the international workshop for early-career scholars titled “Mortuary Variability and Social Diversity in Ancient Greece,” held at the Netherlands Institute at Athens, 1–2 December 2016. The contributors’ mutual interest in the burial practices of ancient Greece led to the occasion for a synthetic presentation of old and new archaeological data. These studies encompass a large chronological range from the Early Iron Age to the Roman period, as well as a geographical range that covers southern Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Crete.

The editors have organized the 13 articles of the volume into three sections, beginning with “Death Practices and Social Change,” which includes five articles. In the first of them, one of the most interesting of the volume, Eleni Panagiotopoulou succeeds, through an interdisciplinary approach (contextual analysis of mortuary practices, osteological analysis, and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen as well as strontium), in reconstructing the social structure of the ancient settlement of Pharsala (Thessaly) during the Early Iron Age and detecting both local and nonlocal individuals.

Vicky Vlachou seeks the origins of Marathonian Tetrapolis in Early Iron Age burial practices given the lack of remains of habitation areas. The deposition of old vessels in later burial contexts, the use of enclosures and burial markers to indicate certain groups of tombs, the relation of the burials to the main routes leading to Marathon, as well as the reuse of earlier Bronze Age areas seem to serve the effort of the local oikoi in the plain of Marathon by exhibiting their wealth, property, and lineage.

Alexandra Alexandridou tackles the issue of cremation for specific social groups in Late Geometric Attica. The inclusive representation of all the members of late eighth-century households, even the subadults, children, and neonates in burial sites, seems to be part of an effort to strengthen the identity and cohesion of the Attic kinship groups.

Panagiota Galiatsatou’s analytical presentation of burials from rural southeastern Attica (Koropi and Paiania) reveals a common burial “language” used in demotic and family cemeteries and notes contrasts with the urban cemeteries of Athens due to the different circumstances that prevailed in each region. Indicative of these rural-urban distinctions is the minimal mortuary variation found in rural cemeteries as well as the fact that the wealthy rural areas of Attica seem to have remained unaffected by the decline in funeral memorials detected in the city of Athens from the end of the sixth century BCE onward.

Anna Moles studies the diachronic changes in the urban status of Knossos in Crete. She examines through bioarchaeology the demographic and economic developments of a city mostly known as a Bronze Age palatial center and reveals its complex history from the Hellenistic period until its decline during the Late Antique period.

The second section of the volume, “Social Identity and Treatment in Death,” includes three articles. Georgia Ivou, through a thorough presentation of two tomb assemblages from Late Classical (fourth-century BCE) Argos, highlights two different social groups: that of the prematurely lost άωρος κόρη and that of the revered elder. Corresponding to these two groups, the white-ground lebes gamikos and the terracotta figurines of a seated older man were considered indicative of the social status, gender, and sex of the deceased, although Ivou does not include a bioarchaeological study.

Infant burials and their spatial distribution in the cemeteries of ancient Thera in the eighth–sixth centuries BCE are the main topic of the next, highly structured article written by Olga Kaklamani. The integration of the infant burials, which were interred in a pot (enchytrismos), with the cremated older members of the local society seems to ensure the cohesion of the kinship groups and reflects the will of the members of the newly founded colony of Thera to assert and maintain their position in the new land.

Dimakis approaches child mortality from a different perspective. Through the examination of child burials in Classical and Hellenistic Athens, he tries to reconstruct the funeral rituals and investigate the impact of the loss of a child in Athenian society by tracing the association between emotion and the child’s identity and status in time and space.

The last section of the volume is “Monumental Commemoration and Identity.” Vasiliki Brouma, in the first article, suggests an alternative function for the circular monumental tomb at Agios Milianos Lindos on Rhodes. Although she observes that the tomb has not been excavated carefully, its architectural elaboration combined with the lack of burial furnishings were considered indicative of a linkage with untimely death at sea, particularly given the dominant position of the tomb in the landscape and the maritime status of Lindos in the Hellenistic period. The absence of a photograph of the tomb itself is noticeable.

In his presentation of columbarium monuments in the Peloponnese, Georgios Doulfis shows the density of these monuments in colonies (e.g., Patras, Corinth) and in sites with commercial and imperial interests like Laconia. Remaining in the area of Laconia, Maria Tsouli presents three monumental funerary buildings with exceptional marble sarcophagi of Attic provenance or Attic style at the periphery of Sparta dated to the late second to early third centuries CE. They provide the occasion for negotiating issues related to the social, economic, and political status of their owners.

The last two contributions are dedicated to the island of Kos. Dimakis and Vassiliki Christopoulou focus on a peculiar Roman monument with multiple burials that came to light at Psalidi. Through assiduous examination of the available data (architecture, burial practices, inscriptions, skeletal analysis), they conclude that it was used by a local cultic community (θίασος) of both men and women who shared common values and attitudes toward death. Finally, Chrysanthi Tsouli offers an analytical presentation of a group of Koan grave markers covering a large chronological span (third century BCE–third century CE). Issues related to the contribution of the Koan workshops to funerary art are raised, as well as the transformations in iconography from the Hellenistic to Roman periods.

An overall evaluation of the volume finds the first two sections of the book ill-defined and overlapping; for example, the chapters by Alexandridou and Kaklamani have been placed in different sections but examine the same subject, that of the burial inclusivity of children in order to strengthen the identity of kinship groups of Attica and Thera, respectively. Although the editors in their prologue refer to the geographical breadth of the studies, the places that have been extensively discussed are Attica, Laconia, and Kos. The absence of sites in both central and northern Greece—something also pointed out by the editors (1)—has resulted in a fragmentary picture of the mortuary practices of ancient Greece. A similar fragmentation is observed in the chronological range of the articles, as the Roman period is best represented, followed by the Hellenistic.

However, the authors of the 13 articles have tried to touch on the multidimensional subject of death and burial practices in ancient Greece. In general, one can say that the main goals set by the editors have been achieved. All the contributions, most of them by early-career scholars, succeeded in escaping from preconceived ideas and stereotypes of the past to bring to light social diversity as it is represented through the mortuary record of ancient Greece from the Early Iron Age to the Roman period.

Konstantoula Chavela
Ephorate of Antiquities of Achaea
Archaeological Museum of Patras

Book Review of Mortuary Variability and Social Diversity in Ancient Greece: Studies on Ancient Greek Death and Burial, edited by Nicolas Dimakis and Tamara M. Dijkstra
Reviewed by Konstantoula Chavela
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Chavela

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