The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity and Funerary Religion

By Corbelli, Judith | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity and Funerary Religion


Corbelli, Judith, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity and Funerary Religion. By CHRISTINA RIGGS. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford: OXFORD: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. xxiii + 334. illus. $150.

The funerary material from Roman Egypt (30 B.C. to A.D. 450) encompasses a wide variety of forms and decoration ranging from purely Egyptian or purely Greek composition to material presenting an amalgam of these features. This volume, which is based on Riggs' doctoral thesis, concentrates on those categories incorporating elements of Greek and Roman portraiture into Egyptian burial assemblages. The author deliberately excludes the most well known of these forms, the painted mummy portraits, as these have been the focus of the majority of studies to date, as well as the Egyptianized Graeco-Roman material from Alexandria and the Greek settlements. Riggs' study is the first work to correlate and comprehensively discuss the funerary material from Middle and Upper Egypt, bringing together categories of often poorly recorded material, analyzing stylistic development and workmanship, reassessing dating criteria, and offering insightful new methods of interpretation.

Chapter one investigates how and why people chose to decorate their dead in this manner and discusses the evidence within the overarching themes of art, identity, and funerary religion. In Roman Egypt, emphasis was placed on the embellishment of the body, rather than its place of interment, and this developed into forms of decoration combining traditional Egyptian iconography with the naturalistic characteristics of the incoming culture. Although it was categorized in earlier studies as of "mixed" style, Riggs suggests that a better understanding of the material may be gleaned by examining how the artistic traditions came to interact with each other. She proposes that the naturalistic portrayal of individuals wearing contemporary clothing and hairstyles indicates a desire to perpetuate the image of the deceased as they had been in life, and that the emphasis on the embellishment of the body, rather than the tomb, developed into the need to represent all the bodily functions, leading to gender-based images.

Chapter two examines references to gender in funerary art and texts. In the Rhind Papyri from Thebes, the deceased are associated, in both words and vignettes, with the funerary deities Osiris and Hathor. Riggs relates this textual evidence to groups of coffins from Kharga Oasis and Akhmim in the Nile Valley, which portray the image of the deceased either idealized, according to Egyptian conventions, or naturalistically, in Hellenistic form, wearing contemporary clothing. The Akhmim coffins take this concept further, the whole body-case being fashioned either in traditional Egyptian Osiride, or naturalistic Greek form, this latter used particularly for the coffins of females who are depicted wearing what Riggs refers to as the "knotted ensemble," which she interprets as "tying" the deceased to Hathor. For both groups, "Osiris" or "Hathor" prefixes the Egyptian names of the deceased, reinforcing her theory. Riggs then addresses the question of why, if they are Egyptian, do they not portray similar funerary iconography. She suggests that the dual styles indicate that patrons had a choice as to how they wished to be depicted, the purpose of the image being to perpetuate social status as well as to maintain their gender in death by association with Osiris or Hathor.

Chapter three investigates how the concern to maintain cultural status may have contributed to the use of more everyday details. The concept can be observed in a series of masks from Meir with distinctive rear projections for fitting over the head-ends of thickly padded mummies (and also in a series of plaster heads from Middle Egypt which Riggs only mentions in her note 30, p. 123). Her analysis of the accompanying hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek inscriptions reveals a predominance of Greek versions of Egyptian names, implying a bilingual society, and this duality extends to the manner in which the dead are represented.

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