Saturday, December 17, 2016


Stephan Steingräber, Antike Felsgräber. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie. Darmstadt: Philipp von Zaberns Verlag, 2015. Pp. 144. ISBN 9783805349239. €29.95.

Reviewed by Paavo Roos, University of Lund (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Rock-cut tombs are among the most spectacular remains from many ancient cultures in the Mediterranean. The title Antike Felsgräber seems indeed to indicate the overwhelming project of surveying all rock-cut tombs in the barely 150 pages of the book. But as the subtitle Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der etruskischen Felsgräbernekropolen shows it is hardly to be expected that the ancient world is to be treated equally. In fact the book has two quite different parts, the tombs of south Etruria, which comprise more than half of the book, and a shorter part dedicated to elsewhere in Italy, the eastern Mediterranean, and parts of the Near East and Asia.

The first part consists of a dozen chapters on various themes with illustrations from several Etruscan sites with necropoleis (a short but comprehensive catalogue of south Etruscan tombs, follows in an 'Anhang' on p. 131-137). The chapter on the history of research and discovery starts with George Dennis and Samuel I. Ainsley in the 1840s. Scientific excavations did not start until the 20th century and there is still much work to be done, although current research now does not only concern tombs but also the sites of the living; however, the grave-streets that are found in some necropoleis have still few points of comparison in the cities of the living. The amount of titles in the bibliography and the frequency of symposia show how much energy has been devoted to rock-tombs in Etruria, not least by the author.

The chapter on geology stresses the role of geology and terrain. Southern Etruria is rich in rock necropoleis compared with northern Etruria, given the difference in terrain. The custom of cutting in the tufa rocks that reaches into modern times can make it difficult to date the rock-cut monuments (even though the technique and instruments may differ, as is shown in another chapter). A chapter on historical and other background gives information on the density of Etruscan and pre- Etruscan sites, the lack of monumental temples, and the importance of industry in southern Etruria. A longer chapter on typology and chronology divides the tombs in tombe a dado with sub-groups, tombe a casa, tombe a portico, tombe doriche, and finally also the simpler forms like loculus, niche and fossa tombs. Fitting the existing tombs into these categories is not always easy, especially in the case of many of the finest and most famous tombs. The oldest are from the 6th century although most are considerably later. Some types are restricted to single sites whereas others are more frequent. A short but very comprehensive chapter on decoration starts with the porta dorica framing real or false doors and continues with tomb sculptures, reliefs in the form of friezes and acroteria. Little is said about painting, and rather surprisingly Tarquinia is not mentioned in this connection. The author sees the dado, tombe a dado, a casa and a portico as native with an archaic background, whereas the temple and aedicula tombs of the Hellenistic period display Greek influence. How this influence spread is a complex problem. Understanding the handling of grave-gifts would necessarily seem to be incomplete since most tombs were robbed, but unrifled tombs together with residual objects left by the looters have provided ample material for a concise chapter. Inscriptions in tombs often give a pattern of families and thus provide material for knowledge of Etruscan society. An important chapter on burial and cult of the deceased is mainly dedicated to establishments in connection with the tombs such as rock altars and thrones, cippi and obelisks. Finally, a chapter is dedicated to the Roman, Early Christian, medieval and later rock monuments in the form of tombs and churches, many of them reused earlier monuments, and finally conservation and preservation of rock architecture.

The second part of the book comprises the rock-cut tombs and rock architecture in Italy, the Balkans, Anatolia, the Near East and parts of the Middle and Far East, Persia and also somewhat unexpectedly Afghanistan, India and China, which are represented not by tombs but by monasteries and temples or in Afghanistan by the Bamiyan Buddhas. The book aims at visible façades, and hidden underground chambers like Greek Bronze Age chamber tombs are seldom mentioned.

This part of the book covers far less than the first part; no research history, nothing about tomb gifts or burial customs and nothing about inscriptions. We have just a survey of various districts mostly consisting of illustrations – Petra, a site that the author has a special interest in, comprises almost 10 pages, but only 1½ pages of text. The survey is followed by a short but well well-composed general conclusion.

Since the book forms part of the series Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie it is to be expected that the 162 illustrations form a large part of the book. The photos, some of which form a whole page or even more, are of excellent quality. About half were taken by the author, in Italy, Rhodes and Petra. Likewise in character with the series, the book lacks footnotes, although author-date references without page numbers may be found in the text.1

Misprints and mistakes are rare. Alinda is in fact in central Caria and not in Lycia (p. 99). The interesting tomb of St. Charalambos near Magnesia at Sipylos is mentioned on p. 104 where it really belongs, not under Caria on the previous page where we also find it. The mention of the tombs of the Achaemenid kings in Naqsh-i-Rustam (p. 121) gives the impression that all the kings to the end of the dynasty were buried there, whereas the tombs of the last kings are in fact in Persepolis.

The two parts are difficult to consider together. The first part is very solid and thorough; the second has a different aim but provides good reading and will no doubt enhance the interest in rock-cut necropoleis.


1.   Some authors mentioned in the text like A. Sasso (p. 29), R. Bianchi Bandinelli (p. 36), F. Messerschmidt (p. 46), S. Raffanelli (p. 47), A. Cherici (p. 54), I. Baldassarre (p. 58), M.D. Gentili (p. 61), R. Herbig (p. 61), M. Nielssen (p. 63, possibly a misprint) or D. Maras (p. 64) are not found in the bibliography, like many of the names in the chapter of research history. As for the bibliography I must admit that what astonishes me most is my own entry on p. 140 including some titleless articles which more or less were superseded by later books. Bd. 1 of my Rock-cut chamber-tombs in Caria from 1985 is included and has led to the mention of a lot of sites (many of them insignificant) on p. 103, whereas Bd. 2 from 2006 and the sites in that book are missing. Likewise, I also missed O. Henry's Tombes de Carie (2009).

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