Death and Identity in Ostia
A study of funerary material and cultural diversity in the port city of Rome
Jane Hjarl Petersen

The cemetery areas outside the city gates of Rome's port city Ostia/Portus provide an excellent opportunity for the study of spatial relations and interdependence between the city of the dead and the city of the living. The abundant funerary material of the cemeteries allows for analyses of social identities constructed in a city where cultural diversity, complexity and co-existence of people from various parts of the Roman world were part of everyday life.
Burial are exceptional stages for constructing, negotiating and displaying identities – not only for the deceased, but just as much for the burying family and other socially related individuals.
The project will focus on the dialectic relationship between burial customs, acts of remembrance and identity manifestations inhered in the complex communications provided by funerary evidence. The chronological framework of the project covers the period c. 200 BC–400 AD.
The central themes of the project are:
  • What were the primary means for constructing manifestations of identities in the burial sphere of Ostia/Portus?
  • What characterized the culture of memory management and remembrance in the burials and how did this fluctuate over time?
  • Did the diverse cultural reality of everyday life in Ostia/Portus have an impact on identity formation processes and did this manifest itself in the burials and the funerary epigraphy?
Theoretically the project takes its point of departure in the linguistic model of ‘code-switching' working from the off-set that individuals will not only utilize ‘switches' between languages but also aspects of material culture in expressions of diverse coexisting cultural identities. These characteristics of a complex cultural background can be negotiated and communicated in accordance with the specific social context and the specific social goals of the individual.
The plentiful and very varied burial record of Ostia/Portus serves as a formidable empirical source for the study of the role of burial customs and acts of remembrance in the formation and manifestations of complex cultural and social identities.