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From the Collection, Understanding Art

Contextualizing a Roman Gravestone in the Menil Collection

Grouping of objects from the Menil’s collection dating to the Imperial Roman period, 1st–4th century CE. Photo: Caroline Philippone

The Menil Collection contains a number of ancient objects that relate to funerary uses or burial contexts. One of those is a modest inscribed gravestone of marble with dark gray veins and rust stains.(1) In a museum context, objects like this gravestone are often displayed alone as objets d’art with little or no provenience (findspot) information. In antiquity, however, they were part of a landscape of objects seen together, including lamps and small vessels placed on the associated tomb. The items found during the excavations of this gravestone are not in the Menil Collection, but the museum does have examples of terracotta lamps and glass vessels dating to the Roman Imperial period (27 BCE–476 CE), during which the gravestone was made. These objects are analogous to those used in a funerary setting, and when seen together, can help visually contextualize the gravestone.

When explored in tandem, objects in the museum’s storerooms with unknown provenience can often substantiate other works with more established histories. Examining the gravestone’s object biography, both singularly and in conversation with the terracotta lamp and glass vessels, provides a deeper understanding of ancient funerary practices. Grouping these pieces together prompts discussions of how they were used in antiquity, found in modern times, and moved across the globe.

Gravestone of a Three Year Old Girl named Pusinnica, 1st–2nd century CE. Imperial Roman; Tunisia, Sousse. Marble, 9 1/8 × 13 × ¾ in. (23.2 × 33 × 1.9 cm). Inscribed: “To the Manes. Here rests Pusinnica. She lived three years, ten months, twenty-one days. Donata, her mother, made [this stone] for her sweetest daughter.” The Menil Collection, 1972-55 DJ. Photo: Caroline Philippone

The gravestone was the horizontal slab that would have covered a small ossuary (bone depository). Unlike other grave markers in the Menil Collection, such as the Tombstone of Megisto and Eratoxenos, (2) there is no figural decoration. The slab’s only embellishment is the six-line Latin inscription that reinforces its funerary function. It reads: “To the Manes. Here rests Pusinnica. She lived three years, ten months, twenty-one days. Donata, her mother, made [this stone] for her sweetest daughter” (in Latin: “DIS MANIBVS · HIC / SITA · EST · PVSINNICA / VIXIT · ANNIS · TRIBVS MENSIBVS · X · D · XXI / DONATA · MATER · FILIAE / DVLCISSIMAE FECIT”). The use of dots between words, a relatively short-lived phenomenon in Latin, dates the gravestone to the 1st–2nd century CE.(3)

The epitaph is addressed to the Manes, benevolent ancestral spirits who function as chthonic, or underworld, deities. The inscription tells us the name and age of the little girl who died—Pusinnica, three, nearly four, years old—but not how she died. (The death of young children was painfully common in the ancient world.(4) ) Pusinnica’s mourning mother, Donata, is also named. Recent scholarship on Roman names identifies Pusinnica as a name primarily known from Africa.(5) Donata may have been relatively popular in the region as well.(6) The original provenance information (ownership history), however, indicated that the gravestone was found in France, not Africa.

The gravestone was acquired by the Menil Foundation in 1972 from Mark Lansburgh (d. 2013), an art historian, university lecturer, and collector based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Lansburgh initially showed the object to Dominique de Menil in 1969, and stated that he bought it from a Dutch dealer who had obtained it near the ruins of Arles, France (the Roman province of Aquitania) around World War I. (7) Additional research into its history and inscription, however, revealed that the gravestone was not originally from France, but rather found several decades earlier in Tunisia. Unknown to Lansburgh, the marble plaque was discovered in 1882 in a cemetery about 600 meters (less than half a mile) outside of Sousse, the ancient Roman city of Hadrumetum. The inscription was first published in an 1884 excavation report.(8) Additional early publications of the gravestone provide significant information about its archaeological context, the social-cultural background for interpreting the text, and a plausible explanation for how the piece moved from Tunisia to France and became disassociated from its earlier history.

In 1881, the French military invaded Tunisia, and the region officially became a protectorate of France with a strong military presence. It was during the occupation that French soldiers camping at Sousse(9) discovered a small Roman villa with elaborate mosaic floors and an ancient Roman cemetery where the Menil Collection gravestone was found.(10) Along with the gravestone, small grave goods were uncovered in and around the tombs. These funerary offerings and many of the more portable objects, like the gravestone, were taken home by French individuals and today are dispersed across different museums.(11) The Tunisian origins of the gravestone also explain why names popular in Africa appear an object that found its way to France.

Small remote Roman villas would have had their own familial gravesites like the one where Pusinnica’s tombstone was discovered. Along with the remains, objects were left as offerings at the tombs. According to the 19th-century excavation reports, at least one terracotta lamp was found in the soil near Pusinnica’s grave.(12) The reports included a drawing of the lamp, shown here, presenting a figure riding in a four-horse chariot raising a wreath in one hand and holding a palm branch in the other.(13) It is unclear where the lamp is today. Other reports of the area indicate there were urns with bones, lamps, small vases, glass vessels, and terracotta tiles.(14)

Lamp Depicting Victory Holding a Shield, 1st century CE. Imperial Roman; possible Italy. Terracotta, 1 × 4 7/8 × 3 ¾ in. (2.5 × 12.4 × 9.5 cm). The Menil Collection, 1972-09 DJ. Photo: Caroline Philippone
A terracotta lamp in the Menil Collection is similar in size and function to the one described from Hadrumetum, although it most likely comes from Southern Italy.(15) This lamp features a winged female figure wearing a long, belted chiton and holding a shield, thus representing the Roman depiction of victory (Victoria, similar to the Greek goddess Nike). The figure on the lost lamp from the cemetery, carrying a palm branch and wreath, may be another representation of triumph and a successful journey to the afterlife.(16) A band of repeating arches or petals, sometimes called ovules, borders the central discus with the winged victory figure. The imagery is common on lamps around the Imperial Roman world, which stretched from Britain to the Levant and North Africa at its greatest extent.(17) Artisans in workshops made standardized types of lamps using molds, which allowed for faster production of set sizes and functions. Additional decoration could be added using stamps and modeled elements. Such lamps may have been lit as a memorial (similar to modern practices of lighting a candle in memory of someone) or used during funerary rites but were also commonly used in daily life. The lamps had a relatively low fill capacity and would only burn for a set amount of time before needing more oil.
In addition to the terracotta lamp, glass vessels were listed among the finds near Pusinnica’s grave. Roman glass vases are a common item found in necropolises throughout the Roman world; they were frequently left at the grave during funerary rites.(18) The Menil Collection has only a few examples of Roman glass, two of which are small vessels that would be appropriate for a funerary context.(19) Made of blown glass, they functioned as small flasks containing liquids (oils or wine), or powders (incense or medicine). Sometimes the vessels are called unguentaria (singular unguentarium) for holding ointments, balsamaria (singular balsamarium) for perfume, or simply flasks. Like small multipurpose glass jars used today for a variety of functions, the vessels were probably intended to be versatile. Glass bottles are known from other Roman burials in Tunisia, possibly related to funerary feasting or visits to honor the dead.(20)
Photo: Caroline Philippone
Together, the gravestone, lamp, and glass vessels give a more complete picture of the original way the young girl Pusinnica’s gravesite would have been. Whereas the archaeological provenience of these objects is lost, the function of the gravestone is etched in its surface, and the rediscovery of its archaeological context in 19th-century publications provided details for greater understanding. Not only is the gravestone an eternal tribute of a distraught mother to her beloved daughter, it was once surrounded with small objects used during performative funerary rites meant to comfort both the living and the dead and to illuminate the darkness.
  1. Gravestone of a Three Year Old Girl named Pusinnica, 1st–2nd century CE. Inscribed: “To the Gods Manes. Here rests Pusinnica. She lived three years, ten months, twenty-one days. Donata, her mother, made [this stone] for her sweetest daughter.” Imperial Roman; Tunisia, Sousse. Marble, 9 1/8 × 13 × ¾ in. (23.2 × 33 × 1.9 cm), 1972-55 DJ. It remains unclear if the stains are ancient or modern.
  2. Funerary Stela Depicting Megisto Holding a Rabbit and Eratoxenos, 420–390 BCE. Inscribed: “Megisto, Eratox[e]nos.” Classical Period; Greece, Attica region. Marble, 46 3/8 × 20 7/8 × 3 1/8 in. (117.8 × 53 × 7.9 cm). 1970-032 DJ. Acquired by the Menil Foundation from Nicolas Koutoulakis (1910–1996) in early 1970. It was first published that same year by Jiri Frel and Bonnie M. Kingsley in “Three Attic Sculpture Workshops of the Early Fourth Century B.C.,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 11, no. 3 (1970): 197–218, no. 24. Since that time, the gravestone has appeared in numerous other publications and exhibitions. Two important traveling exhibitions, which were accompanied by catalogues, were Ten Centuries that Shaped the West: Greek and Roman Art in Texas Collections, Rice Institute for the Arts, Houston, TX, October 15, 1970–January 3, 1971; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, February 3–April 11, 1971; Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio, TX, May 16–July 11, 1971; and Pandora’s Box: Women in Classical Greece, The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD, November 5, 1995–January 7, 1996; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, February 4–March 31, 1996; Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Basel, April 28–June 23, 1996.
  3. R.D. Anderson, P.J. Parsons, and R.G.M. Nisbet, “Elegiacs by Gallus from Qaṣr Ibrîm,” The Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979): 125–55. https://doi.org/10.2307/299064. For interpuncts (the dots), see p. 31.
  4. Nathan Pilkington, “Growing Up Roman: Infant Mortality and Reproductive Development,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44, no. 1 (2013): 1–35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43829415. In particular, there was a high mortality rate for infants and young children. A similar pattern would be present in the Roman province Africa Proconsularis, adjacent to Roman Egypt.
  5. Tuomo Nuorluoto, “Roman Female Cognomina. Studies in the Nomenclature of Roman Women” (PhD diss., Uppsala University, 2021), 109.
  6. Nuorluoto, “Roman Female Cognomina,” Appendix 1.
  7. Menil Collection Curatorial Object File. “Arles” is written on the reverse of the gravestone in black ink, possibly by Lansburgh or the dealer from whom he acquired it.
  8. V. Reboud, Bulletin Trimestrial des Antiquités Africaines 2, no. 492 (1884): 215; A. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique romaine de Sousse,” Revue Archéologique (1884): 16–29. Later publications of the inscription include: Theodorus Mommsen, ed., Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) 8, pt. 1 (1891), no. 11145; Ioh. Schmidt, “Additamenta ad corporis Vol. VIII,” Ephemeris Epigraphica (EphEp) 7, no. 31 (1892); as well as the recent US Epigraphy Project entry: TX.Hous.Men.L.7255-DJ.
  9. A. Daux, Recherches sur l’origine et l’emplacement des emporia phéniciens dans le Zeugis et le Byzacium. (Paris: l'Imprimerie imperiale, 1869). Sousse was identified archaeologically as the ancient city of Hadrumetum in 1863, which was a city at the mouth of a river on the Gulf of Hammamet. Hadrumetum maintained a vital position for channeling agricultural products to the port, particularly grain. The city had supported the Romans during the 3rd Punic War between Rome and nearby Carthage (149–146 BCE). The citizens of Hadrumetum gained preferential status on account of this support when the area later became part of Africa Proconsularis, as reported in the ancient source, The Punic Wars (19. 94) written by the Roman historian Appian, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and wrote in Greek. With regards to the finds at the villa, the status of Hadrumetum is discussed in Antoine Héron de Villefosse, “Mosaïques récemment découvertes en Afrique,” Revue de l'Afrique Française et des antiquités africaines 5.2. (1887), 384. With its role as an agricultural hub, small villas would have been along the main roads into the port city, such as the one discovered by the 27th Battalion.
  10. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique,” 26. The excavated cemetery included a series of small tombs and some sarcophagi, thus showing a variety of funerary practices over multiple generations.
  11. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique,” 26-27; M. Palat, “Mémoire sur les antiquités de Sousse et de Bir-Oum-Ali (Tunisie),” Bulletin archéologique du Comité des travaus historiques et scientifiques, 1 (1885): 149–51. Today the mosaics from the villa are dispersed between the Louvre (Abu Dhabi), Bardo National Museum (Tunisia) and Sousse Archaeological Museum (Tunisia).
  12. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique,” 28.
  13. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique,” pl. II, fig. 8.
  14. Palat, “Mémoire sur les antiquités de Sousse,” 149-151.
  15. Lamp Depicting Victory Holding a Shield, 1st century CE. Imperial Roman; possible Italy. Terracotta, 1 × 4 7/8 × 3 ¾ in. (2.5 × 12.4 × 9.5 cm), 1972-09 DJ. According to the curatorial object file, the lamp was sold by Alex G. Malloy (1938–2019), a collector and dealer in New York City at the time. Previously unpublished other than a small gallery guide from the exhibition Little Things: Artifacts from the Menil Collection, The Little Archaeology Gallery, University of St. Thomas, Houston, February 13–March 13, 1998. The bill of sale indicates that Malloy sold the object to the Menil Foundation in December 1971, but the lamp and three other works purchased at the same time did not arrive in Houston to be accessioned until January 1972. It is possible these items appear in the 1971 gallery catalogue, but thus far we have been unable to confirm that.
  16. Vercoutre, “Sur la céramique,” 27. The lamp is inscribed “SICTOPPIA CAPRIA,” although that does not translate to anything. With only the drawing, we must trust the original report, which states the inscription was barely legible and the first word may possibly be VICTORIA. Capria, possibly, could be a surname or a place name.
  17. S. Loeschcke, Lampen aus Vindonissa: Ein Betrag zur Geschichte von Vindonissa und des antiken Beleuchtungswesens (Zurich: 1919), 225. Comparanda in the British Museum includes one lamp (1814,0704.80) that may be based on a very similar mold to the one used to produce the lamp in the Menil Collection. While highly similar, there are differences in the details of the wings that distinguish them.
  18. At sites such as Roman Samothrace, the small bottles and flasks contained perfumed oils and unguents. Elsbeth B. Dusenbery, “Ancient Glass from the Cemeteries of Samothrace,” Journal of Glass Studies, 9 (1967): 34–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24182745.
  19. Vase with Floating Rim, 4th century CE. Roman. Glass, 2 5/8 × 2 7/8 × 2 7/8 in. (6.7 × 7.3 × 7.3 cm), 1964-195 McA; and Vase with Tapering Neck and Flat Rim, 4th century CE. Roman. Glass, 3 3/8 × 2 7/8 × 2 7/8 in. (8.6 × 7.3 × 7.3 cm), 1964-196 McA. The two bottles were part of the collection of Jermayne MacAgy (1914–1964), which was acquired by the University of St. Thomas in 1964 as part of her bequest and later transferred to the Menil Foundation in 1969. Both vessels were included in the exhibition Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition, held between November 1968 and January 1969, and listed (but not illustrated) in the accompanying catalogue Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968). They also both were included in the exhibition Classical Roman Glass, Little Archaeology Gallery, The University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX, April 20–May 18, 1990.
  20. Allison E. Sterrett-Krause, “Drinking with the Dead? Glass from Roman and Christian Burial Areas at Leptiminus (Lamta, Tunisia),” Journal of Glass Studies 59 (2017): 47–82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/90013818.