de Jong, Lidewijde. The Archaeology of Death in Roman Syria: Burial, Commemoration, and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
In The Archaeology of Death in Roman Syria, Lidewijde de Jong examines mortuary customs in the Roman province of Syria between 64/63 BCE and 330 CE. She clarifies what constituted a proper burial, situates burial practices in the wider political-cultural context, and traces their continuity and change over time. Whereas most archaeologists of Roman Syria focus on discrete regions, de Jong is the first to undertake a systematic study of burials from across the province.
Scholars have documented thousands of tombs from over two hundred sites in Syria, but evidence from Syria’s tombs and graveyards is often fragmented, inadequately recorded and published, and inaccessible. De Jong’s book is a model for how to work with evidence that is abundant but decontextualized. De Jong limits her study to sites with adequate contextual information concerning the town or city associated with the necropolis. She focuses on assemblages from thirteen sites (Apamea, Baalbek, Beirut, Bosra, Deb’aal, Dura Europos, Hama, Homs, Jebleh, Palmyra, Selenkahiye, Tell Kazel, and Tyre) and two rural regions (twelve sites from the Hauran and thirty sites from the Limestone Plateau). Thus, de Jong’s corpus is not comprehensive, but it is impressive, if not astonishing. De Jong’s fifty-five sites yielded a total of 2,314 tombs and over 19,000 burial spots. Given the imperfect state of publication combined with the glaring lack of burials from certain areas of Syria, de Jong’s choice of sites is well-balanced. De Jong catalogues these 2,314 tombs in 29 online appendices (www.cambridge.org/dejonglidewijde). Each tomb receives an individual entry with details on its date, location, description, inscription(s), physical remains, finds (in situ and other), and bibliography. Within the book, an appendix provides descriptions, maps, and charts for the fifty-five burial sites under consideration. A second appendix examines tomb types in Syria. For specialists and non-specialists alike, these appendices are a treasure-trove of archaeological evidence waiting to receive close examination.
Because no scholar has undertaken a systematic study of burial practices across Roman Syria, chapters one to four are primarily descriptive, with the aim of establishing province-wide patterns as well as regional and local distinctions. To accomplish this goal, de Jong organizes her study by type of evidence (spatial setting, funerary architecture, grave goods, and the deceased) rather than region. Chapter one explores the placement of cemeteries in the “built, natural, and past landscapes” as well as the placement of tombs within cemeteries (21). Landscapes of burial were both delineated and blurred. The people of Roman Syria separated city and cemetery, but the placement of cemeteries along roads created a spatial link between the living community and the deceased. They also integrated landscapes of production, leisure, worship, and burial. Urban cemeteries often incorporated aqueducts, shrines, gardens, and circuses, whereas rural cemeteries included agricultural and hydraulic installations. However, while the placement of cemeteries is consistent across Syria, their internal organization is not. Pre-Roman cemeteries remained in use throughout the Roman period. As the need for more burial space arose, some sprawled across the landscape, aligning with roads or geographic features. Others became denser, with new tombs constructed between older tombs.
In chapter two, de Jong shifts focus from the collective to the individual. She introduces different types of built tombs (pit-grave, cist-grave, hypogeum, mausoleum, funerary enclosure, tower-tomb, jar-burial, sarcophagi in the open air, and tumulus) and funerary material that survives in fragmentary form (stelae, coffins, and rock-reliefs). Diversity characterized Syrian cemeteries. In comparison with pre-Roman burial patterns, built tombs demonstrate both continuity and change. The inhabitants of Roman Syria maintained a preference for hypogea and pit-graves and continued to employ both communal and single burials, but tombs from the Roman period exhibit increased monumentality, visibility, diversity of tomb types, and resources expended on tombs.
Chapter three examines the objects inside graves. She identifies five categories of grave goods (items of personal adornment, vessels, lamps, coins, and other finds). Although people were not buried with similar sets of grave goods, a set of principles nevertheless guided the selection of grave goods. For example, communal tombs yielded a higher number of communal objects than single tombs, and accordingly single tombs yielded a higher number of personal objects. De Jong draws a fruitful division between objects associated with bodies, which were linked with ownership, identity, and individual funerary ritual, and objects in communal areas, which could be used repeatedly in internment, post-burial commemoration, and other ritual celebrations. The types of objects and their placement within tombs generally displayed continuity with Hellenistic and Parthian practices.
Chapter four moves from objects to humans, both those buried in and those who commissioned tombs. She describes the treatment of the body (inhumation, cremation, and mummification) and the practice of co-burial. She also addresses the identities of those interred, focusing on gender and age, with a discrete section on soldiers and veterans. De Jong bases her categories on how dedicators and occupants identified themselves in inscriptions and art, noting that, in Syria, burial did not occur according to religious group, funerary association, or professional identity (except for soldiers and veterans). Men enjoyed diverse roles in epigraphic commemoration and art. Inscriptions and reliefs marked the exterior of the tomb as male space, whereas they often presented a mixed family group inside the tomb. Women also dedicated tombs, but inscriptions consistently place them within the context of kinship relationships. Children were buried individually and alongside family members, but they were less likely to receive epigraphic or visual commemoration. The tombs of soldiers positioned these men in an empire-wide community with distinct commemorative and burial practices, such as Latin inscriptions, identification of professional identity, burial in individual tombs, and cremation.
In chapter five, de Jong turns to a broader discussion of belief and ritual, integrating her analysis of the four categories of evidence presented in the preceding chapters and guided by anthropological principles. Belief, in de Jong’s argument, refers to “deep structures” that appear across the entire burying community. For example, the people of Roman Syria displayed a concern for pollution, particularly in the period immediately after death. They distinguished living space and burial space and certain objects used in relation to funerary ritual or the corpse may also carry pollution. They provided protection for the body after death by keeping the body whole and beautifying it with special clothing, jewelry, oils, and perfumes. Finally, they regularly made offerings at tombs, although offerings could vary in terms of recipient (human or God) and ritual significance.
In addition, de Jong establishes a set of parameters relating to ritual practices. Select objects (lamps, incense burners, pitchers) left in common spaces of tombs supported rituals at the time of death as well as continued engagement with the deceased. This continued engagement could take the form of individual engagement, rituals commemorating particular deceased individuals, or rituals concerned with the deceased as collectives. Thus, de Jong treats objects as ritualized in certain contexts but also possessing the potential the potential to shift categories and uses. She is careful to note that tombs give insight to one moment in funerary ritual, but that funerary rituals, such as feasting and processions, could extend beyond the tomb. In fact, commemorative practices did not need to focus on the place of burial at all. Stelae and inscriptions could function as cenotaphs (monuments commemorating someone buried elsewhere). In her treatment of funerary art she is admirably cautious. She observes that funerary art often depicts religious ceremonies, but whether the scene pictured is actually the setting of the funeral itself remains speculative. Rather, “the deceased were placed in a venerable setting of religious ceremony” (162).
By establishing such parameters for belief and ritual, de Jong provides a foundation from which more focused studies can illuminate the process of differentiation. She employs this approach herself, showing how select individuals and groups used funerary ritual to mark out or ignore certain groups in society. For example, children are under-represented in de Jong’s corpus, but, where children do appear, their burials display higher numbers of grave goods, their burial places were often not reused, and they at times received long inscriptions which expressed special qualities of the child and sorrow of the parents. These exceptional burials say something special about the status of the child or the way they died.
In chapters five and six, de Jong also addresses the question of change across time. Chapter five focuses on change in funerary ritual. Although treatment of the body demonstrates continuity with the pre-Roman period, Roman tombs display a higher degree of monumentality and, accordingly, took longer to construct. Their construction and external appearance were highly visible, particularly since cemeteries were located close to roads and incorporated agricultural, religious, and civic installations. “Manipulating time, or the burial pathway, arose as a prominent way of distinguishing between people in Roman Syria” (171). Similarly, increased visibility and monumentality of tombs, particularly family tombs, allowed for reference to and exploitation of family identity for generations.
Chapter six explores the relationship between Syrian burials and those of the larger Roman world, employing the framework of globalization. The provincial system, security provided by a professional army, and improved infrastructure created the conditions for increased connectivity and the creation of a global culture. Those who invested in monumental burials had increased access to varied ideas, building materials, architects, and artisans. Both leading males and their families as well as non-elite community members made use of new styles to vie for positions within the community. At the same time, Syrians rarely adopted an entirely foreign design. They selectively incorporated aspects of global style into local traditions. Some rejected this global style altogether, opting for references to Hellenistic and Achaemenid motifs. This approach fruitfully moves the analysis away from the thorny process of parsing Roman and local influences to exploring how global forms are customized through interpretation to fit local settings. It also creates space to study the substantial diversity of funerary architecture within individual cemeteries and the increase of regionalization in the second and third centuries. De Jong argues that globalization may have precipitated regionalisms; the increased connectivity of the Roman world made it necessary to define local and regional identities.
Finally, de Jong clarifies the timing of the incorporation of global styles. Changing attitudes towards burial only became visible in the first century CE, almost a century after the conquest and creation of the province of Syria (64 BCE). Why did Syrians adopt empire-wide goods in the first century CE, and not earlier? De Jong gives several answers to this question, of which I will review two. First, in 64 BCE, only part of the province fell directly under Roman rule. The rest was controlled by old political families and client kings in close relationship with Rome. In the first century CE, Syria came under the control of a single governor and cities attained new administrative and cultural importance. Accordingly, notions of civic identity changed. Elite sought new arenas for promotion of their position, including memorialization in burial. Second, the first century CE witnessed demographic changes. The Hauran and the Limestone Plateau were repopulated. In these areas, tombs helped to define kin groups and communities. In summary, status uncertainty due to changing political structures, the high degree of social mobility, prosperity, population growth, and migration precipitated the desire to define one’s place in the community through burial.
Possessing value for specialists and non-specialists alike, De Jong’s monograph is a welcome addition to archaeological research in Syria. She sheds light on the ways that people in Roman Syria tended to departed family members and friends, crafted narratives of lineage and identity, and distinguished the deceased in communal memory. She paints a picture simultaneously broad and detailed, and one amenable to various methodological approaches, including anthropological, historical, and spatial analysis. Her work lays the foundation for future scholars to explore processes of differentiation within burial communities and re-evaluate regional practices. Finally, the monograph is a beautiful tribute to the rich cultural heritage of Syria and Lebanon, particularly in light of the current destruction of antiquities due to the Syrian Civil War.
Dina Boero is Assistant Professor of History at The College of New Jersey. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org