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Dr Gillian Shepherd – Greek burials in Sicily

Gillian Shepherd

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Matt Smith
Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I am your host Matt Smith and our guest today is Dr Gillian Shepherd, a lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University. Today she’ll be telling us about the establishment of Greek cities in Sicily, and what we can learn about how they bury their dead.
Gillian Shepherd
It’s a bit hard to know exactly why the Greeks went to Sicily. We know they went there, probably around about the middle of the 8th century BC and we think the first site they settled was the site of Pithecusae, which is not in Sicily, it’s actually in the Bay of Naples on the island of Ischia a bit further north. And there’s good evidence to show that they went there for metals, because they had good access to the metal resources of Italy and we know that they were processing metals on the site.  As for Sicily, that’s a bit harder, because Sicily doesn’t have those sorts of resources.  What it does have is very good agricultural resources.  It’s got lots of fertile land and it also occupies a very important strategic position in the Mediterranean – it’s one reason why Sicily’s always been a focus for other countries or nations or forces who’ve wanted to gain control.  So there’s been a number of theories as to why the Greeks would go to Sicily.  A couple of older ones are to do with trade.  One is a very famous, what we call trade before the flag argument, and that is, that they went there to trade with the local Sicilians, perhaps for agricultural produce, we’re not quite sure what, and then, having established good trading links, it became sensible to set up more permanent establishments there.  There are a number of problems with that argument.  One is that we don’t have good evidence of much activity of the Greeks in Sicily before they actually set up these more permanent establishments.  Another older idea is that Greece was overpopulated, and therefore part of the population had to be sheared off in order to allow everybody else to survive in a rather better state.  And that is also a problematic argument because when we look at Greece in the 8th century BC, it’s a bit hard to see it being so overpopulated that all these people couldn’t be fed, and it’s also conspicuous that some parts of Greece don’t send out these settlements, so for example, our historical sources tell us that Corinth sent out several settlements abroad to Sicily and also to Corcyra, modern Corfu, but a place like Athens doesn’t seem to be planting settlements overseas.  So it’s a little bit unclear as to why the population should be a problem in one part of Greece but not in another part, and it’s also a bit difficult perhaps to see any environmental factor like a very long term drought or famine or anything else producing quite this sort of effect.  Another possibility is that what we’ve got is, if you like, a more sort of socially or politically difficult situation whereby control of resources and essentially that means land, is in the hands of a few people who were doing very nicely, but other members of the population are not doing so well at all.  They’re becoming increasingly dissatisfied and it’s these groups who decide that they will set off to places like Sicily and create their own …
Matt Smith
Why did they go and create colonial settlements then?  Why didn’t they go and conquer the existing Sicilian settlements?
Gillian Shepherd
Up to a point they did.  We tend to call them colonies, but they’re not really colonies in our sense of the word.  We’re not looking at the creation of any kind of empire or the acquisition of territories.  These settlements are politically independent from the beginning.  They might have had cultural relationships with their mother cities, but they certainly controlled themselves and ruled themselves from the beginning.  Now, sometimes they were established in brand new territory, empty land in Sicily, but in other cases we do think that they took over an existing site.  So for example, Syracuse in south eastern Sicily, is on the same spot as a pre-existing local Sicilian site.  The ancient historian Thucydides says that when the Corinthians arrived at Syracuse they expelled the local population.  We now think that might not have happened.  There’s some good archaeological evidence to show that there might have been a period of cohabitation between the two, but eventually it becomes to all intents and purposes, a Greek settlement.
Matt Smith
Are they still considered Greek cities then?  Are they considered part of the Greek Empire, or do they consider themselves Sicilian?
Gillian Shepherd
That’s a rather difficult question to answer.  They certainly considered themselves Greek.  There was no sort of empire as such – we’re not talking about any sort of joined-up Greek nation in that sense.  What we’ve got is a set of independent city states that had many things in common, including language and religious beliefs.  The Greeks in Sicily also come out in the 5th century with a term called Siciliote which, we’re not sure exactly what that term means but it certainly means Greeks living in Sicily.  They seem to have defined themselves just a little bit differently but they’re also definitely Greek and these are definitely Greek cities.
Matt Smith
How about as far as their cultures go?  You’ve been researching the burials and the way they set up their cemeteries.  Tell me a bit about that – firstly how did you go about this research?  What did it involve?
Gillian Shepherd
The starting point if suppose for my research was the observation, actually originally made by my supervisor, Anthony Snodgrass, was that the burial customs of Greeks living in Sicily did not actually necessarily duplicate those of their mother cities back home, which is perhaps not what you would expect.  You would expect say, if a bunch of Corinthians go and settle in Syracuse, they might start doing exactly what they were used to, back at home in terms of burying their dead, as well as a bunch of other customs.  But that doesn’t really seem to be the case.  So, the starting point was, why are they doing things in a different way.  Are there any kind of practical reasons or could we be looking at some other social factor that’s influencing the way they bury their dead.  Now in terms of my own research, that means looking at thousands of graves.  One really distinctive feature of these Greek sites in Sicily is that they have enormous cemeteries, which for the period I work on, which is about the 8th to 6th centuries BC, they can produce really colossal samples, easily in excess of a thousand graves, so that’s quite big in comparison to what you normally find in Greece itself.  Most of the cemeteries I work on are not really visible any more, often because when they were dug in the late 19th century, they were on open farmland and that’s now been covered over with the expansion of modern cities, but there are quite good excavation reports, especially of ones done by Paolo Orsi, who’s known as the father of Sicilian archaeology, he did a lot of work in Sicily,  particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he made for their time, quite meticulous records and the material that he excavated is stored in Sicilian museums, especially in the Paolo Orsi museum in Syracuse, modern Syracuse, which is where I go to do a lot of my work.  So it’s essentially looking at the material, the grave goods that Orsi excavated, relating those goods to the type of grave that they were found in, and trying to work out what those graves might tell us about Greek society in Sicily.
Matt Smith
What sort of graves were you looking at?  How were they different from say the graves back in Corinth?
Gillian Shepherd
Well, if you’re looking at the graves in Syracuse, there are a number of areas where the burial customs diverge if you like.  The Corinthians tended to use what we call monolithic sarcophagae, in other words a coffin made of a single block of stone.  That was a type of burial that was becoming very common in the late 8th century when Syracuse was founded.  They had also previously used what we called a trench grave, dig a hole.  That type of grave seems to have been phasing out at the time the settlements were founded.  They also tended to have quite restricted grave goods.  One of our problems in dating Corinthian graves is that they don’t have much in them, and what is in them isn’t very exciting.  And they usually, as far as we can tell, and this is slightly trickier, they usually buried children in much the same way as adults.  Now, when you get to Syracuse, you see a number of differences.  You see the sarcophagus being used, but over time that changes and the sarcophagus seems to become a rather more elite form of burial, because it’s relatively expensive, and most Syracusans get buried in what in Sicily is known as a fossa grave, which is essentially a big hole cut in bedrock.  Sometimes it’s a sort of double hole – it has a big upper chamber and then a smaller lower chamber where the deceased is placed, and that’s got big stone slabs covering it over.  But the big difference is that in Syracuse, the corpse will be laid out in an extended position, the sort of position we’re used to with our dead.  Corinthian corpses are laid in what’s called a contracted position, in other words in a foetal position, with knees drawn up.  So that’s quite an important, probably rather ritual difference in the way you simply lay out a body.  And some of the other differences include the grave goods.  The Syracusans are much more generous in terms of what they put in the graves, so you often get a lot of pottery and often some jewellery as well, and it’s also clearer what they’re doing with their children, because child mortality is very high in antiquity.  A lot of the graves in Syracuse are those of very young children who were buried in a method we know as enchey trismos, which is basically putting a tiny little body into a big storage vessel, something like an amphora that’s been used to transport perhaps wine or oil, and we find lots and lots of these sorts of burials in Syracuse as well.  So overall the pattern in Syracuse still looks Greek, this is still recognisably an ancient Greek cemetery, but it’s not absolutely duplicating what goes on in Corinth.  The Syracusans have got a slightly different set of customs in the same way any other independent Greek city state would have its own particular cultural profile when it came to burying their dead.
Matt Smith
Is that just a case of divergence?  After a while they just developed their own customs, their own way of doing things?
Gillian Shepherd
It looks like they start doing something different from the beginning, and indeed the very earliest burials at Syracuse are also quite varied.  They include some cremations, which might be good evidence for suggesting that we really do have quite a mixed settlement at the beginning, and that these are not all Corinthians.  We’ve got people coming  in from various places who are together forging what is going to be the Syracusan set of burial customs.
Matt Smith
How about religion or ritual then?  Because a big part of America being founded was that the Puritans wanted to get away from England.  Could it be the same sort of thing – that these people wanted to get away from Corinth and maybe have a slightly different religion, ritual involved there?
Gillian Shepherd
It’s hard to see how great a role religion and ritual plays in great burial practices in Sicily and to be fair, in Greek burial practices generally.  It would be nice if we could see some kind of pattern, perhaps in the grave goods, that might suggest some interest in something like the afterlife or perhaps some focus on a particular god, but in fact that’s extremely hard to detect, and we don’t have much in the way of written sources that tells us much about the practices that went along with burying the dead, or what sort of beliefs the ancient Greeks, especially as early as the 8th century BC might have actually held.  Greek religion was polytheistic, it was fairly tolerant, there was no text like the Bible or anything like that, it was perhaps fairly fluid, fairly flexible, and it’s hard to see there being such a degree of religious intolerance that that would lead to something like that kind of migration.
Matt Smith
Did they adopt any of the local burial customs at all?
Gillian Shepherd
Not very obviously, no.  It seems to have been if anything more the other way around.  And this is a really fraught question at the moment, in that if you look at a cemetery of a Greek site in Sicily, like Syracuse, it all looks pretty Greek.  If on the other hand, you go to a Sicilian site, and these sites tend to be more inland in Sicily, there you see a quite different type of burial custom – the local Sicilians generally buried their dead in chamber tombs cut into cliff faces and these chamber tombs would contain several burials, which we assume belonged to a family, although we’re not absolutely sure about that, and they’d often have quite a lot of metal work with them, perhaps pottery as well, and once the Greeks had settled in Sicily, you then start to see Greek pottery or other Greek objects appearing in these Sicilian burials and perhaps some other features like a sarcophagus for example, might also appear in the chamber tombs.  So it’s easy at these Sicilian sites to see a real mixture of customs and objects, but interestingly it’s very difficult to see that sort of mixture at the main Greek settlements, which I think raises some really interesting questions about the interaction between the Greeks and the local population.
Matt Smith
That was Dr Gillian Shepherd, lecturer in Mediterranean Studies and the Deputy Director of the A D Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University.That’s all the time we have for the La Trobe University podcast today.  If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.