Thursday, August 9, 2012


Nicola Laneri, Archeologia della morte. Bussole, 429. Roma: Carocci editore, 2011. Pp. 141. ISBN 9788843061006. €10.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Jane Hjarl Petersen, University of Aarhus (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The present volume is, according to the author, intended as a basic introduction to students and scholars who have an interest in the social and cultural aspects of ancient burial customs. This topic has been a research focus of the author for several years and has resulted in a number of highly readable publications.1 Notably, Laneri's 2007 edited volume Performing Death: Social Analysis of Funerary Traditions in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean is a central contribution to this particular field of social archaeology and his introduction to that volume "An Archaeology of Funerary Rituals", seems to have led the way to the present work.

The volume consists of five main chapters which have been divided into numerous subchapters. Chapter 1, (pp. 11- 31) "Approcci allo studio dei riti funebri", sets out to present a historical overview of the various approaches to the study of burial archaeology in the 20the century. The chapter has a strong focus on the theoretical developments within social anthropology, including the practical impact of these theories on archaeology. Chapter 2, (pp. 32-51) "Il potere del corpo", deals from the perspective of social anthropology with the various treatments of the deceased body. The examples accompanying the subchapters on inhumation, mummification, and cremation span the vast cultural, geographical and chronological areas, from the ancient Near East in the 3rd millennium BC to Egyptian dynastic mummifications, Iron Age northern European bog bodies, 5th- 3rd century BC kurgan burials of the Pazyryk culture, and various examples from Greek, Roman and early Christian cultures. Chapter 3, (pp. 52-88) "La tomba, il corredo e le offerte funebri", touches lightly upon the study of remains of funerary rites outside the tomb itself, layouts of cemeteries and places of collective remembrance before moving on to addressing tomb structures and various funerary architecture, funerary containers, grave goods and finally some concluding remarks on the use of statistics in funerary studies. Chapter 4, (pp. 89-114) "La morte tra i vivi", deals with the social aspects of funerary material and comprises considerations on social status, power and elite burials of various cultures. The chapter finishes with some brief considerations on ancestor cults and the use of human remains in the remembrance of the deceased. Chapter 5, (pp. 115-133) "Eros e Thanatos: la morte come esperienza di rinascita", covers a diverse range of topics. Considerations on death and fertility, funerary stelai, the funerary banquet, sacrifices, funerary iconography, afterlife, immortality and texts are addressed in 18 pages using a mix of examples from modern social anthropology, religious studies and archaeology. It is indeed ambitious, but fewer topics and thus a more in-depth treatment would have benefitted this concluding chapter.

In general, it should be said that the volume—141 pages of small paperback text— is bound to touch quite briefly on its various and very wide-ranging topics, but as is clearly stated in the introduction (p. 9) the book is meant as a basic guide and indeed functions as such. To underline this, text boxes featuring specific topics of focus have been inserted throughout the chapters, and as a further service a recommendation of primary literature for each chapter has been included as a prelude to the actual bibliography (pp. 136-141). The volume features 14 carefully selected but insufficient black-and-white illustrations. Since the book is intended as a student's guide an index would perhaps have proven helpful.

In its general structure and with its wide range of topics the book is part of the approach to funerary archaeology eminently initiated by Parker Pearson with his 1999 publication The Archaeology of Death and Burial. The reader is guided through the various aspects of funerary studies and presented with the essential literature for further studies. With the present volume Laneri adds a valuable Mediterranean and Near Eastern perspective to this line of research.

All in all, the book is an easily accessible, well-written introduction to the various aspects of funerary studies; the size is handy and the price is more than reasonable.


1.   Laneri, N. 2004, I costumi funerari della media vallata dell'Eufrate durante il III millennio a.C. Napoli. Laneri, N. (ed.) 2007, Performing Death: Social Analysis of Funerary Traditions in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean.

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