Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Janet Burnett Grossman, Funerary Sculpture. The Athenian Agora, 35. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2013. Pp. xxxii, 246; 128 p. of plates. ISBN 9780876612354. $150.00.

Reviewed by Anja Slawisch, German Archaeological Institute, Istanbul (

Version at BMCR home site


This impressive and ambitious volume examines the complete assemblage of funerary sculpture found between 1931 and 2011 in the Athenian Agora and dating from the Classical to Roman periods. Although none of the pieces considered were found in situ or near a grave context the assignment of each to the category of funerary sculpture is the result of a careful and persuasive comparative approach. The book is divided into three main parts. The first part (chapters 1 to 3) covers the history of research, and provides an overview of funerary sculpture across Athens and Attica before focusing on the Agora. The second consists of a catalogue with 389 entries, the items carefully described and discussed over nearly 150 pages (chapters 4 to 6). The third comprises 128 high quality photographs taken by Angelique Sideris for every item. The extensive bibliography at the beginning, alongside the concordance and a number of well-designed indices at the end enormously facilitate easy navigation of this well-structured and well-edited book.

In her first chapter (1–7), Grossman offers a critical overview of more than a hundred years of study of Attic funerary sculpture. She begins with the corpora of A. Conze and C. Clairmont, who tried to formulate a chronological framework, and then continues by critically examining more specialized approaches. These include studies of individual motifs and gestures; statistical analyses of iconographical features; the typology of grave monuments; the attempt to contextualize monuments against the background of ancient beliefs and rituals; and the incorporation of inscriptions and figured scenes into the interpretations. Grossman expresses strong criticism for a twentieth-century tendency "to view gravestones more as cultural artifacts than as objects of art and ritual" (5), and instead prefers what she calls a "holistic approach", that is, a strong empirical method that attempts to examine the specific category of material as a whole from all possible angles. She argues that with the scope for the application of anthropological theory is limited given her evidence comes from secondary contexts and is mostly fragmentary. Whilst acknowledging the current attention given to historical context, Grossman focuses instead on careful primary observation of the artifacts.

In chapter 2, which deals with funerary sculpture in Athens and Attica as a whole (9–64), Grossman prepares the ground for the following chapters. She provides a chronological summary of the long but fluctuating practice of using grave markers. The tradition started with monumental vessels in the 8th century, followed by the development of free-standing human figures (kouroi and korai), stelai or columns with sirens or warriors, until legislation limited their size and type from ca. 480 to 430 BC. Despite the new rules, grave markers never entirely disappeared in the 5th century: instead white ground lekythoi and simpler stelai seem to have replaced earlier monumental types. A resurgence in the number of stone grave monuments with representations in relief is attested after ca. 430 BC. Another decline in quantity is noticeable from the end of the 4th and throughout the 3rd century BC when the columnar monument becomes the favorite type, until new restrictive legislation by Demetrios of Phaleron mostly puts an end to the production of grave monuments in Athens. In the Roman period a revival of the practice becomes apparent: at this time relief representations of standing men or women outnumber family groups and, unlike in earlier periods, figures face the viewer directly. A more individualized hairstyle may be chosen, indications of occupation are depicted or iconographic elements from Roman or Egyptian divinities are added. Some motifs or the content of inscriptions point directly or indirectly towards ethnic identities.

Grossman argues that despite changing fashions, over the full period, peculiar "Attic quality" of the sculpture does not change (16–17). Most items, of course, were made from Pentelic marble and share a similar carving technique, a mostly symmetrical composition and depth, which resulted very often in a more naturalistic depiction of the deceased than is seen elsewhere. Beyond this definition, however, the reader is left with no clear idea of how to define, differentiate or recognize this "Attic quality". Clearly someone who has worked with the material as long as Grossmann has, will have greater insight than many of the potential readers of this book but for the present the reader must simply believe (which this reviewer does)—or not— the author's assertion of the existence of a distinctive and persistent Athenian style.

Turning towards the organization of burials within Attic cemeteries, Grossman notes that the practice of grouping graves seems to have started during the Classical period, probably coincidental with the reappearance of monumental graves after 430 BC. Grossmann briefly discusses the different types of funerary monuments (19–27). She defines several different groups cross-referencing with specific examples of each from her subsequent catalogue: stelai" and naiskoi (divided into 9 sub-groups), lekythoi, loutrophoroi, animals, and columnar monuments. In a short paragraph she also discusses the evidence for coloring and patterning, listing corresponding examples from her catalogue. The space given to inscriptions and epitaphs is extremely short but Grossman discusses them in more detail in the catalogue section. Less than a third of the corpus, 111 of 389 monuments, bear any inscriptions or traces of writing.

The longest section is dedicated to iconography (29–52). Here eleven tables help the reader to navigate the motifs, variations and interconnections through time by assembling the relevant catalogue numbers into the different categories. Grossman observes the uniqueness of each monument within a set of general norms: even if motifs are repeated there appear to be no mass-produced models. She also offers some valuable wider interpretations. For example, she argues that the depiction of women on these monuments offers a more positive view of a woman's status than previously assumed by evaluating the written sources alone (29). Scholars will find here a very rich and well-structured source of information with further readings and comparisons.

In the final section of this chapter, Grossman provides a discussion of the chronology of funerary sculpture from Athens (52–64). The dating of funerary monuments has been and always will be somewhat vague since fixed dates are extremely rare. Those hoping for a five-year or even a quarter-century chronological attribution for every piece will be disappointed because Grossman, quite rightly, rejects such misleading overprecision. Instead she provides detailed facts, clues, comparisons and observations to narrow the field down to the most likely time spans for production and deposition. In so doing she has created an extremely useful companion to the chronology of funerary sculpture.

In her third chapter, Grossman focuses on the 389 examples from the Athenian Agora (65–74) giving an overview of the corpus subsequently assembled in the catalogue. Here the reader finds an introduction to the organization of the catalogue and an explanation of the methods used to identify reliefs as funerary. Important factors in this definition are the scale and style of the figures, the thickness of the stelai, and the carving technique employed. The subsequent sections on iconography and dating are short but best understood in the context of the previous chapter on Athenian funerary sculpture in general: the author very sensibly has tried to avoid unnecessary repetition of earlier observations. In a paragraph on the status of certain Agora sculptures as evidence for foreign residents, Grossman points to a group of gravestones apparently imported from Eastern Mediterranean centers during the Hellenistic period. If, as she suggests, "some metics in Athens chose to import their grave markers from their cities of origin" (72), it is worth noting the fact (apparently not mentioned by Grossman) that monuments in Attic style of possible Athenian origin have been found as grave markers of Athenians abroad on the islands of Thasos, Imbros and elsewhere. 1

The catalogue is organized chronologically, starting with the funerary sculpture of the Classical period (chapter 4, nos. 1–218), followed by the examples of the Hellenistic (chapter 5, nos. 219–239) and Roman periods (chapter 6, nos. 240–389). Within these chapters the pieces are arranged in a logical manner: divided into iconographic categories and within each category ordered by date. No information seems to be missing from Grossman's well-structured and thoroughly researched material: a truly impressive amount of information has been gleaned from these mostly fragmentary pieces.

Overall, this book is a real treasure trove for students and researchers working in the field of funerary sculpture. With her careful separation of facts from interpretation, her concisely expressed critical evaluations and comments, Grossman provides an excellent foundation for future research. There are no fancy or fashionable theories or wild speculations to be found here: instead, profiting from 20 years of work on this material, she has presented a timeless scholarly book which will no doubt be consulted for many years to come.


1.   Cf. G. Daux, "Chronique des fouilles 1964: Thasos," BCH 89, 1965, 976 no. 6 fig. 4 and P. Bernard – F. Salviat, "Inscriptions funéraires," BCH 91, 1967, 609–610 no. 66 fig. 39; A. Slawisch, Die Grabsteine der Römischen Provinz Thracia, (Langenweißbach 2007), 155–161.

1 comment:

  1. Would be great to see tables and other data made available on a site like figshare or github.


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