Monday, July 22, 2013


Angela Bellia, Strumenti musicali e oggetti sonori nell'Italia meridionale e in Sicilia (VI-III sec. a.C.): funzioni rituali e contesti. Aglaia 4. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2012. Pp. xiv, 156. ISBN 9788870966749. €30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Sheramy D. Bundrick, University of South Florida St. Petersburg (

Version at BMCR home site

In the study of ancient music, the evidence provided by surviving musical instruments is critical to our understanding of organology and , by extension, musical theory. Typically, instruments are studied in isolation without regard for archaeological context, although, to be fair, many examples lack context because of early discovery or other reasons. Angela Bellia's book widens the discussion by considering musical instruments and related objects precisely within their archaeological contexts, concentrating on finds from South Italy and Sicily that date from the sixth through third centuries B.C. The majority of her examples come from Greek communities, while others are from indigenous sites; many were found in tombs, others in sanctuaries. Bellia employs find contexts to understand better the symbolism and ritual usage of musical instruments in these times and places. Although a slim volume, the book yields a rich array of evidence and information, with many instruments illustrated or published here for the first time. Readers will doubtless be surprised how many instruments, even fragmentary, survive today, let alone in documented contexts that can be evaluated broadly.

Following a foreword by Paolo Emilio Carapezza and a short introduction by Bellia, the book is divided into three chapters comprising percussion, stringed, and wind instruments. Each chapter is then subdivided into individual types of instruments presented in narrative rather than as a catalogue, but extensive footnotes give the essential information for every example (museum location/inventory number, measurements, previous publications), and many are illustrated. While some of the discussed instruments are displayed in museums, others remain in storerooms. A wide variety of sites is represented, ranging from well-known places like Agrigento or Locri to smaller communities that may be less familiar. A map is provided at the end of the text (p. 117, fig. 116), otherwise easily missed in a section titled "Tabelle" in the contents.

In most books on ancient music, percussion instruments are the last to be discussed, but by making them the subject of the first chapter, Bellia reminds the reader of their importance. Finger cymbals, krotala, rattles, sistra, bells, and tamburines are featured. The terracotta rattles are particularly striking, given the range of shapes they could take: fruit (namely pomegranates), animals, humans. Although Bellia does focus on the sixth–third centuries B.C., she notes that some of these instruments, like finger cymbals, can be found much earlier at indigenous sites in South Italy and Sicily as far back as the ninth and eighth centuries. Not all instruments in the book, therefore, were introduced to the region by Greeks. The percussion instruments discussed were found in a mix of sanctuaries and tombs, with Bellia observing that a high number of them seem to be linked with female deities, namely Demeter, or the female dead. The use of these instruments in various rituals is described in (often later) textual sources, and the archaeological evidence helps confirm this function. In this chapter and throughout the book, Bellia brings in representations of instruments in other media for further comparison, e.g., terracotta figurines or Athenian and South Italian vases. Here too, the archaeological andiconographical evidence mesh well, such as the association of women with percussion instruments on vases.

The chapter on stringed instruments features the longest section in the book, devoted to lyres, which this reviewer found the most interesting and successful. Whole or fragmentary tortoiseshell soundboxes make clear when an instrument belongs to the lyre family; however, without the disentegrated wooden elements, one cannot tell if it was a chelys lyre (the "standard" lyre) or the longer-armed version known as a barbitos in modern scholarship. Because the majority of lyre soundboxes have been discovered in tombs, Bellia undertakes in-depth analyses of funerary assemblages, and in many cases is able to discuss the instruments in light of the deceased's age and gender. Photographs are included of some graves at the time of discovery, so that the reader sees the remains of lyres in situ and the arrangement of other objects around the deceased. As with percussion instruments, Bellia also makes connections with images of lyres, not only on vases and terracottas, but also in the banquet scenes of the Tomb of the Diver at Poseidonia (Paestum). The last example is noteworthy, given that some of the tombs discussed are from that site and are graves of men, many of them young. In tombs from Poseidonia, Locri, Metaponto, and other sites, the male dead can be accompanied by additional musical instruments (e.g., auloi) but also by strigils, together symbolizing the archaia paideia of musical and athletic instruction. Vessels associated with wine and banqueting, also deposited in the burials, further evoke the world of the symposion at which men with stringed instruments so often perform on Athenian vases. Given the export of so many Athenian pots with sympotic imagery to South Italy and Sicily, the apparent existence of strong musical and banqueting customs there helps explain the local popularity of vases with those scenes. Bellia offers an interesting reading, for example, of a red-figured Athenian column krater found in a tomb at Agrigento (p. 83, fig. 84): while a komos scene to Athenian eyes (and to most modern scholars), she suggests that in the context of the Agrigentine tomb the young man with lyre would be the heroized deceased bidding farewell to the land of the living. Musical instruments can refer both to the activities of the deceased in life but also to belief in the afterworld. Bellia is careful not to enter too deeply into issues of hellenization, colonization, or Greek vs. indigenous traditions at the sites discussed, but her work could easily lead to further research along this line.

While lyres form the bulk of the chapter on stringed instruments , Bellia mentions what seems to be a fragmentary harp from a tomb at Taranto and compares the many scenes of young women playing harps on Apulian vases found in tombs. To her discussion of the unique harp from South Italy, one can add what seems to be a trigonon harp from a late fifth-century tomb at Daphne, Athens, newly published in detail and similarly unique.1 Unfortunately, the pelvis of the skeleton in the Daphne tomb is damaged to the extent that sex cannot be determined, although the discovery of a lyre, aulos, astragaloi, papyrus roll, writing implements, and iron tools might suggest a man. If so, then the Daphne harp contradicts the nearly exclusive association of women with harps on Greek vases. As for the Taranto tomb and its harp, if the gender of the deceased within is known, Bellia does not say.

The chapter on wind instruments includes discussion of auloi, "trombe-conchiglia" (real and bronze seashells used as wind instruments), and a single ocarina from a Hellenistic grave at Gela. Bellia mentions many fragmentary bone auloi from sanctuaries and tombs throughout the region, although those looking for an organological analysis will be disappointed. Her focus remains on the ritual contexts. She notes, for instance, the discovery of auloi in sanctuaries dedicated to goddesses, namely Hera, Persephone, and Artemis, and makes important comparisons with similar specimens in Greece (e.g., from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron). As for tombs, because many auloi were found together with lyres in male graves already covered in the previous chapter, Bellia reiterates her primary points about the symposion and adds that auloi were important in funerary ritual, in the performance of threnoi. Like other instruments, auloi seem to have had a multilayered significance when placed in tombs. Given the frequent discussion of the aulos in modern scholarship, namely its "status" in ancient Greece vis-à-vis the contradictory literary sources and iconographical representations, the potential seems great to expand the discussion further, but Bellia avoids entering into the controversies here. The "trombe-conchiglia," meanwhile, provide a whimsical look at an instrument less known in the sources, not surprisingly associated with sea deities or gods/goddesses with a marine aspect.

At a little more than two pages, the conclusion chapter seems brief, and yet it makes key points about the ubiquity, multivalence, and importance of not only the featured instruments but also the sounds they made. Both an instrument and its music could be considered an offering to the gods, Bellia notes, while the potential for sound held by an instrument placed in a child's grave could serve apotropaic functions. Musical instruments could indicate status, such as a lyre and aulos suggesting elite status in a young man's tomb, while the finds of auloi and percussion instruments at sanctuaries of goddesses raise questions about performance in ritual, perhaps associated with choruses of young girls and rites of passage to womanhood. Bellia observes that the material in her book could and should lead to further research, and this reviewer was similarly left with many questions. What further comparisons can be made between the finds in South Italy and Sicily and instruments discovered elsewhere in Greece and Etruria? How can the evidence of actual instruments be used to supplement or challenge the evidence of textual sources? Of iconographical representations? What can musical instruments tell us about the spread of Greek customs in the West and the role indigenous traditions played?

The book is closed by a map of sites discussed in the text; two tables showing which types of instruments were found where; a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources; and two indexes, a general one and an index of sites that aids cross-referencing among chapters. The bibliography includes very recent publications (through 2011), and while understandably strong in Italian scholarship, it lists other recent work, too. . Illustrations are in black and white, with many seeming to be "after" other publications (no list of illustrations giving sources is included) or taken by the author in museum storerooms, so not always the best and sharpest. One wishes that the photographs of tomb assemblages were larger so that individual objects were easier to see, particularly the figured vases (e.g., figs. 66–67, 77b, 78); they would have allowed Bellia's excellent points about the significance of assemblages to be more evident.

This volume is one of the newest entries in what has become a strong tradition of ancient musicological scholarship in Italy over the last two decades, and the latest in a string of fine work by Angela Bellia herself. It is noteworthy for its attempt to blend archaeological find contexts with iconographical research, although inevitably with this comes a hope that more unpublished excavation material, much from by now old excavations, could be made available to a wider audience. What else waits in the storerooms?


1.   C. Terzes, "The Daphne Harp," Greek and Roman Musical Studies 1 (2013) 123-49, and see also E. Pöhlmann, "Excavation, Dating and Content of Two Tombs in Daphne, Odos Olgas 53, Athens," Greek and Roman Musical Studies 1 (2013) 7-24. The skeletal evidence suggests the deceased to have been in his or her twenties; if the deceased is a young man, the discovery of the lyre and aulos in the Daphne tomb is consistent with some of the tombs in Italy discussed by Bellia.

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