Monday, June 20, 2011


Richard Posamentir (ed.), The Polychrome Grave Stelai from the Early Hellenistic Necropolis. Chersonesan Studies, 1. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 489. ISBN 9780292723122. $75.00.

Reviewed by Linda Maria Gigante, University of Louisville (

Version at BMCR home site

Ancient Chersonesos Taurike is located on the western Crimean Peninsula along the northern Black Sea coast (present-day Ukraine). It was founded in the later 5th century BC by Greek settlers, probably from Herakleia Pontica and Boeotian Delion. Chersonesos' growth and prosperity were primarily due to wine-production and its political structure was democratic. Probably because of a Scythian attack in the early 3rd century BC, new fortifications were built (mid 3rd - 2nd BC), enlarging the city. To build the walls, particularly the inner wall of Tower #17 (Tower of Zeno), more than 800 painted grave stelai and other monuments were removed from a nearby necropolis and, in many cases, carefully broken, laid in layers, and placed in conformity with their original location. Because of the painting's excellent state of preservation, the stelai, which constitute "the most extensive examples of color use in ancient Greek art" (ix), were probably inserted into the Tower and wall no more than one generation after they were set up, suggesting a date of production in the late 4th – early 3rd century BC.

Soviet archaeologists began excavating the site in the 1960s, dismantling the walls (and Tower), removing the stelai, recording their find-spots, and conserving many of them in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. While several stelai remained at the Hermitage, most were returned to Chersonesos and stored for many years in a converted 19th century monastery. Study of the stelai began in 1994, involving specialists from the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas-Austin, Ukrainian and western European colleagues, and the Packard Humanities Institute. Beginning in 2000 the stele fragments were rejoined, catalogued and conserved and, in 2001-2, moved to the new Chersonesos Museum. In 2006 the Packard Laboratory was completed, including a display area for the stelai, and an exhibition was held. This monograph is the first volume in a new series, Chersonesan Studies. The second volume will focus on other painted funerary monuments, including sarcophagi and panels.

Following a forward by J.C. Carter and an introduction (1-11) by R. Posamentir, the text is divided into 8 sections and concludes with two specialist studies. The first section, "Catalog of Grave Stelai" (I.2, 12-128), includes 75 stelai from inside Tower 17 and 56 found outside the Tower, with color photographs of each. Most stelai are narrow, vertical slabs of local limestone (maximum height 1.73m, maximum width 35cm) tapering at the top, with a painted Lesbian kyma at the bottom and with either a painted Ionic kyma, gable or anthemion attachment at the top. Carved inscriptions filled with black or red paint identify a single individual, males with their fathers' names and married females with their husbands'. The decoration consists of plastic and painted elements: rosette disks on the front and sides of the shaft, with petals painted yellow, red, blue, and green; and either a vertical knotted brown walking-staff; a red taenia with a white alabastron suspended from its ribbons that extend to the sides of the shaft; a yellow sword, brown scabbard, and sword belt painted in various colors; or a strigil and aryballos suspended from a painted nail. Out of the ordinary are two "medical" stelai of a father and son (Nos. 52 and 53), the former with painted forceps, cupping vessel and tweezers or tongs; and the latter with medical instruments painted yellow/orange and, uniquely, two nude male figures facing one another.

In the next two sections, ("Shape and Object Analysis", I.3, 129-154 and "Painting", I.4, 153-167), the results of examining the stelai in raking light are discussed. While the tall, narrow proportions of the stelai resemble those of Classical Attic monuments, there are important differences with respect to decoration, for the Attic examples usually have figural decoration while the Chersonesan monuments have isolated, Greek-inspired objects. The raking light revealed horizontal and vertical incisions intended to divide the surface area for centering the decoration, and the palette is limited to white, yellow, green, blue, purple, red, brown and black. In most cases, the pigments were applied flat, with only minimal evidence of shading on the ribbons of the taeniae and other objects like the cupping vessels. Relating the shape of the stelai to the inscriptions suggests that the crowning elements and decoration were both age and gender specific. That is, those monuments topped with horizontal painted moldings were nearly all for adult males; those with gables were for women; and the few stelai with anthemia were for either young men or unmarried women. Additionally, the taeniae with suspended alabastra decorate married women's stelai; the military equipment those of adult males; the athletic equipment on those belonging to young men; and the walking-sticks probably identified older men. The picture that emerges is that the homogeneity of the stelai's forms and decoration served to identify the social position of the deceased. This feature is unique to the Chersonesan stelai, for in Classical Athens taenia stelai were erected for both genders.

The following two sections ("Stelai from Inside the Tower of Zeno", I.5, 168-201 and "Stelai from Outside the Tower of Zeno", I.6, 203-214) assign the monuments to workshops and their circles, the criteria being the similarities in size and decoration and their proximity to one another within the Tower; the names of the workshops are derived from the family-heads. The stelai found inside the Tower (Nos. 1-49) are divided into two workshops: the Damatrios Workshop, which used soft, sandy stone and omitted rosettes; and the Sannion Workshop which made 30-50% of the monuments from inside the Tower and produced stelai that are similar in surface treatment, dimensions, and decoration. Twenty-four stelai from inside the Tower (Nos. 50-75) are generally of poor quality and unattributed to any workshop. Later stelai from outside the Tower (Nos. C1-56) are modestly decorated and poorly executed, and others are unpainted and have a hollow space for the insertion of an inscribed marble tablet (Nos. C28-40).

In the next two sections, ("Dating of the Grave Stelai", I.7, 215-226 and "Associated Elements: Crownings, Bases, Naiskoi, and Anthropomorphic Stones", I.8, 227-248; I. 8a. "Catalog of Associated Elements", 249-342), the dating of the stelai and additional materials found outside the Tower is discussed. Since they constitute a unique group among Greek funerary monuments and have not been previously considered by western scholars, establishing a chronology for the Chersonesan stelai is problematic. Nevertheless, since their decorative imagery is ultimately taken from the Greek visual vocabulary (the swords resembling the finds from Tomb 2 at Vergina), the stelai were probably produced in the late 4th/early 3rd centuries BC. In spite of their Greek proportions and decorative motifs, however, the Chersonesan examples are distinctive. The presence of up to 3 mortises on a stele's base suggests that a small limestone naiskos and anthropomorphic object in the form of a human head may have accompanied the tombstone. Objects similar to the Chersonesan anthropomorphic forms have been found in the region and may have signified the spirit of the deceased. The grave-markers from Chersonesos, then, were a unique amalgam of traditional Greek-style monuments and indigenous elements.

The last three sections, ("The Location and Appearance of the Necropolis in the Hellenistic Period", I.9, 344-355; "Stelai Comparison", I.10, 356-372; "Conclusion – the Necropolis, Its Destruction, and the Tower of Zeno)", I.11, 373-380), reconstruct the original context for the stelai and summarize historical information about Chersonesos and its population. In the late 5th century BC the city was largely confined to the peninsula, with its first walls probably built in the 4th century. In the course of the later 4th/early 3rd centuries, the stelai were set up in a necropolis southeast of the city which was marked by crowded family burial-precincts. The stelai exhibited a "distinct conformity" (376), with gender and age specific forms and decoration underscoring the deceased's social standing. The presence of anthropomorphic objects and naiskoi reflected a "mixing of ethnicities" (378) in the community. Not long after the last stelai were erected in the necropolis (mid 3rd century), the monuments were dismantled, broken into similarly shaped ashlar blocks, and "ritually buried" (379) within new fortifications and the Tower of Zeno; the dead were most likely reburied in a new cemetery. The proximity of similar stelai inside the Tower enabled later researchers to reconstruct family-groups and workshops, with the likelihood that certain families employed specific workshops.

"Specialist Studies" (II.12, 383-454 and II.13, 455-461) consists of two essays, "The People of the Citadel Necropolis" by P. Perlman and "Pigment Analyses for the Grave Stelai and Architectural Fragments from Chersonesos" by J. Twilley. In the first, the focus is on the stelai's inscriptions and the identification of the names. The ratio of men to women (60% to 40%) is noted as similar to that of Attic tombstones, and because the stelai of relatives were placed near each other within the Tower, 6 families could be identified. Most names inscribed on the stelai are popular Greek names, a few are unique to Chersonesos and to the region, and some are non-Greek names indicating a diffusion of foreign cults in the area (the female name Mendiko, for example, derives from the Thracian goddess Bendis). A comparison between names on the stelai and those stamped on local amphora handles and on Chersonesan coins indicates that some of the deceased were civic regulators of the wine-trade (astunomoi) and minting officials. The study of the pigments, while preliminary, revealed a simple palette and explained the preservation of the paints as due, not to the survival of the original binding medium (possibly beeswax), but to the formation of authogenic particles that naturally consolidated the pigments. Further study is to be made on the limestone, plaster, and painting fragments.

This publication is a thorough study of a group of unique stelai whose painted decoration is remarkably well preserved. Their dating to the early Hellenistic period fills an important gap in our understanding of painted funerary monuments, between Classical Attic stelai and those from 3rd/2nd century BC Alexandria, Macedonia, and Thessaly. The age and gender specific nature of the decoration indicates that the role of the deceased, whether civic official or family-member, was important. The uniformity of the motifs may reflect the egalitarian nature of the community and the epitaphs suggest that the people being commemorated were prosperous citizens.

The most interesting aspect of this study is the identity of the painted stelai as products of a "mixture of identities." While Chersonesos was founded by Greeks, the city's population came to include settlers from the Black Sea region and indigenous peoples. The stelai they chose to commemorate their loved ones, in their form and decoration, proclaimed these cross-cultural connections. The 2011 publication by the Getty Research Center, Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (edited by E.S. Gruen), underscores the growing importance of this type of research, for no longer can we study peoples of the Mediterranean in isolation. The painted stelai from Chersonesos demonstrate that by the Early Hellenistic period the descendants of the original Greek settlers had absorbed aspects of native Black Sea culture.

This monograph is beautifully produced, with numerous tables and catalogues, all with high quality images. Aside from a few minor typographical errors, the text is well-written and the material carefully organized. It is a publication intended for the specialized reader, one with a firm foundation in Greek funerary art and painting. It could not have been produced without the collaboration of American, western European and Ukrainian experts, as well as the resources of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas-Austin and the Packard Humanities Institute. Scholars in the field of ancient painting anxiously await the second volume of Chersonesan Studies on the painted panels and sarcophagi. This reviewer will find it especially interesting to see how these monuments compare with the painted funerary objects from Hellenistic Greece and the degree to which three-dimensionality is suggested.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.