Blog Post #61: Graduate Student Feature with Camille Acosta

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you research?  

I am a PhD student in archaeology at UCLA and my dissertation focuses on the burial practices of migrants in Classical Athens. Migrants who permanently leave their homes and other mobile individuals—such as merchants or soldiers—facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas around the Mediterranean throughout Greek history, yet we don’t know much about their lives. When archaeologists study burials, graves that contain imported objects or particularly unusual practices (like a cremation in a cemetery full of inhumations) are sometimes interpreted as belonging to a migrant. There is a general assumption that migrants will be buried with objects brought from home, using the same rituals that they knew from home.  

However, I believe that focusing so closely on the provenance of objects and this expectation of “otherness” limits our understanding of these adaptable and creative individuals who navigated new cultures and experiences. Looking closely at their burials gives me an opportunity to study them as real people who made different choices depending on their circumstances: did they live alone or move with their family or community? Why did they leave their homelands? Were they wealthy or poor? What types of labor may they have engaged in? Were they a man, woman, adult, or child? I believe that all of these factors would influence how migrants are buried, and that expecting them to be buried exactly as they would at home ignores the impact that migration had on their life and denies them an opportunity to make their own choices about how to bury members of their community. 

What sources or data do you use? 

In Classical Athens, burials were often marked with inscribed gravestones, some of which list the deceased’s origin as a place outside of Athens. The vast majority of these gravestones were moved from their original location or reused in other buildings. In a few cases, however, a gravestone was found in situ above the burial itself, meaning that we can connect the name and place of origin with an actual burial. These archaeological contexts provide an exciting opportunity to see how these individuals, families, and communities chose to bury their dead while living a new social and cultural context. While there has been a lot of work done on the inscribed gravestones of migrants, much less attention has been paid to the evidence underground, and this archaeological material is my main focus. 

A grave stele features a family from Lesbos. It sits in a graveyard with green grass, wild flowers, and olive trees.
Fig. 2 Grave stele of a family from Lesbos (Eukoline, Protonoe, Nikostrate, and Onesimos, son of Onetor, from Lesbos), Kerameikos 

I have started by identifying any archaeological context where a gravestone of a non-Athenian can be connected with a burial. This includes people from all over the Greek world: from Chios to Messenia, from Lesbos to Corcyra; some gravestones identify the occupant as a soldier or ambassador, while the rest are individuals who only have their names recorded. Next, I look at all the different aspects of the burial: how the body was treated, what type of container was used to hold the ashes or remains, what types of objects were placed inside, and other rituals (such as any burnt deposits or organic materials).  

Next, I compare these burials with others that took place at the same time in Athens to identify to what extent these migrants are enacting similar rituals and using similar materials to the rest of the local population. In addition, I compare them with burials in their place of origin to identify any customs they have maintained from homes or any potentially new customs they learned at their place of death. Finally, I place each of these case studies in their wider context: why might these people have moved? What were relationships between Athens and the place of origin like—would they have faced any negative or positive preconceptions? What historical events may have impacted their lives?

My work is also informed by the insights of anthropologists and sociologists who have studied modern-day migrant funerals and interviewed the participants in order to understand what parts of their rituals have changed and why. Even though these studies are far removed in time and space from Classical Athens, they can give us a new framework for thinking about the ancient material. 

A grave monument is displayed in a building. It is a light brown stone, and features statues of three individuals of varying heights, in different states of undress. The heads of the figures are missing.
Fig. 3 Grave monument of Nikeratos and Polyxenos from Istros (on the Black Sea), from Kallithea 
How does this research shed light on real people in the past? 

Unlike literary evidence, which was largely written by and for Athenian citizens and often displays negative attitudes towards non-citizens, these burials represent the actual material remains that migrants selected to represent their own interests and beliefs. In Classical Athens, anyone who did not have an Athenian mother and father could not become an Athenian citizen. The legal status of metic was used to denote the free non-citizen residents of Athens who could not own land or participate in political life. But not a single migrant chose to commemorate themselves using the term metic: they all list the place of origin instead. By studying the burials of their homelands, I hope to study the migrants in the terms they chose to describe themselves. 

I came to this topic because both sides of my family were migrants to the United States but had vastly different experiences: my paternal great-grandmother fled Mexico as a child during the civil war in 1916, while my maternal grandparents left Japan in 1958 to seek out better economic and educational opportunities. These migration experiences were vastly different, impacted by the reasons they migrated and the historical contexts of the time. When looking at the way archaeologists have discussed migrants as a generic, faceless group of people, it always seemed to be missing the diversity and nuances of the migrant experiences that I heard and saw during my own childhood. We are fortunate to have discovered these migrant burials in Athens but must also keep in mind that we have destroyed these migrant’s final resting places. Therefore, I believe we have the responsibility—and privilege—to try to tell their stories and to remember that these were, at the end of the day, real people. 

Further Reading


Ablon, J. 1970. “The Samoan funeral in urban America.” Ethnology 9.3, 209–27.  

Ansari, H. 2017. “‘Burying the dead’: making Muslim space in Britain.” Historical Research 80.210, 545-566.  

Bäbler, B. 1998. Fleissige Thrakerinnen und wehrhafte Skythen. Nichtgriechen im klassischen Athen und ihre archäologische Hinterlassenschaft. Stuttgart and Leipzeig.  

Baker, B. and Tsuda, T. (eds) Migration and disruptions: toward a unifying theory of ancient and contemporary migrations. Gainesville, FL. 

Kennedy, R. F. 2014. Immigrant women in Athens: gender, ethnicity, and citizenship in the Classical city. New York and London. 

Saramo, S., Koskinen-Koivisto, E., and Snellman, H. (eds) 2019. Transnational Death. Helsinki. [open access book] 

Stager, J. M. 2005. “‘Let no one wonder at this image’: a Phoenician funerary stele in Athens.” Hesperia 74.3, 427–49.  

Online Resources

Mapping Ancient Athens [to view rescue excavation plots in Athens with burials] 

Aspasia of Miletus

“Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The author sits at a desk with a notepad and bits of pottery. She has dark hair in a ponytail, dark eyes, a white collared shirt, and smiles at the camera, turning from her work.
Camille Reiko Acosta

Camille Reiko Acosta is a PhD candidate at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She completed her MSt at the University of Oxford and MA (Hons) at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation research is focused on the burial practices of migrants in Classical Athens, applying anthropological and sociological approaches to the material record of ancient Greece. In addition, she is studying the imported Greek ceramics from the site of Naukratis in Egypt as a member of the British Museum’s Naukratis Project and the Archaic ceramics from Methone as a member of UCLA’s Ancient Methone Archaeological Project. 

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