You are here

The Art of Death in Graeco-Roman Egypt

The Art of Death in Graeco-Roman Egypt

By Judith A. Corbelli. Pp. 80, b&w figs. 23, color figs. 52. Shire Publications, Princes Risborough 2006. £6.99. IBSN 0-7478-0647-0 (paper).

Reviewed by

The phrase “Graeco-Roman funerary art” usually brings to mind Fayum portraits. Various exhibitions (most notably Ancient Faces in London, Rome, and New York) presented over the past 10 years may be responsible for a skewed interest in the painted portraits, although the compelling nature of these images with their apparent naturalism has an intrinsic power. This concise and handy booklet by Corbelli helps to redress the imbalance in that all forms of art connected with burial during this period are included: architecture, sculpture, and painting.

Corbelli begins her account with a brief historical overview that starts with the founding of Alexandria in 331 B.C.E. An ethnically diverse population emerged, and funerary practices reflected this diversity; as more necropoleis are investigated, the range of burial procedures becomes better known.

The longest chapter in the booklet is devoted to rock-cut tombs, which range in form from pit graves to chamber tombs and hypogea. Their decoration consists of rock-cut features based on the Greek orders with walls painted in architectonic schemes. Landscape and figural scenes are incorporated in the more impressive tombs with illusionistic devices and surprise elements a feature in some. At the end of the Ptolemaic period burial chambers took the form of a dining room or triclinium with three sarcophagi positioned at right angles; this then became the standard arrangement in tombs of the Roman Imperial period. The first century C.E. was a particularly eclectic time, with Greek, Roman, and Egyptian elements mixed all together in the iconography.

Chapter 3 presents loculus slabs and stelai. Loculi are burial chambers cut into the rock in a grid formation. Many of the openings were closed with limestone slabs stuccoed in polychrome to represent double doors complete with architectural frames, grilles, and trellises. The motif of dexiosis so prevalent in Greek funerary imagery is painted on some of the door panels as well as inscriptions naming the deceased followed by a valediction and a salutation. A series of painted figural limestone grave markers survives from Alexandria and cemeteries of the north coast. Both single figures and multifigured groups modeled after classical Greek and Hellenistic tombstones are seen.

The tradition continues into the Roman period, where figures become frontal following the style in other centers of the Romanized Greek world in the first and second centuries C.E. Alongside these Hellenized stelai are more traditional types in Egyptian form, with their surfaces covered with carved hieroglyphs and Egyptian deities and symbols placed in the lunettes at the top. A series of round-topped limestone stelai of the late third to early fourth centuries C.E. from various Delta sites combine features of all three cultures. Figures wearing Greek dress recline on couches with ritual items and receptacles depicted frontally in the Egyptian manner on the facade of the couch. Thus, the stelai are testament to the lingering influence of Egyptian culture after more than 500 years of either Greek or Roman rule.

Sarcophagi, coffins, and body cases are treated in chapter 4. Integral features of the Alexandrian hypogea are rock-cut kline sarcophagi (sculpted to look like couches). Freestanding limestone sarcophagi as well as expensive marble and granite bath-sarcophagi are used as well. Large-scale anthropoid stone sarcophagi retain a more Egyptian character, with the chest often engraved with a pectoral decorated with scenes of the deceased on their bier guarded by Isis and Nephthys. In Alexandria dowelled wooden coffins predominated, deposited directly into niches or stone sarcophagi. They are usually painted or stuccoed with scenes of Egyptian funerary iconography but with classical motifs incorporated. Anthropoid coffins were used throughout the period, often with nests of two or three inside massive outer coffins. Emphasis focuses on the body rather than the tomb in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which results in elaborately decorated cartonnage body cases. Layers of linen or papyrus were fused together with glue and gesso to form separate appliqués, masks, body plaques, foot cases, and complete anthropoid mummy cases painted with scenes taken from Egyptian funerary iconography. Gradually, however, the influence of the ruling culture becomes apparent with a naturalistic rendering of the faces of the deceased. Some of these hybrid creations are quite remarkable examples of polychromed sculpture, with the body cases following the shape of the body and wearing contemporary dress and accessories.

The various types of cartonnage masks and portraits, linen, stucco, gilding, plaster, and paint are discussed in a fifth chapter. A short sixth chapter is devoted to cinerary urns, which were used for a short time when cremation was practiced in Alexandria from the beginning of the Ptolemaic period up to ca. 200 B.C.E. Their decorative motifs follow those on other Hellenistic pottery wares seen throughout the Mediterranean but with some unique adaptations. There is a black-ground class with applied designs and remains of stucco that might indicate gilding, and a white-ground class, which was painted. A third series is the clay-ground class, decorated predominantly in black or brown with some added color.

Corbelli’s booklet is well illustrated with examples shown of all the types of funerary art discussed. A map of Egypt indicating the main sites of the Graeco-Roman period, as well a chronological chart of Egyptian periods from Predynastic through Roman, are valuable additions. Included also is a glossary, a select bibliography (suggested additions include J. Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt [Ithaca 2005] and R. Bagnall, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt [Aldershot 2006]), and a list of museums in Europe, Egypt, and the United States with significant collections of Egyptian material from the Graeco-Roman period. Books twice the size of this one often lack such amenities.

This booklet is valuable in presenting a synthesis of the variety of forms and styles of funerary art created and used in one of the most exciting examples of intercultural influence when Egyptians, Greeks, and Roman traditions mingled to produce truly unique and astounding works of art. It is a handy reference for scholars in these three disciplines as well as a practical primer for the uninitiated but curious amateur.

Janet Burnett Grossman
Department of Antiquities
The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1000
Los Angeles, California 90049-1687

Book Review of The Art of Death in Graeco-Roman Egypt, by Judith A. Corbelli

Reviewed by Janet Burnett Grossman

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 1 (January 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1121.Grossman

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.