Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.28

Ian Morris, Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. 244. $59.95. ISBN 0-521-39279-9.

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (

Greek archaeology is a discipline in crisis. In a world where the primacy of the Greeks is no longer taken for granted, many of us wonder what it is, precisely, that we are doing. Our discipline was molded to explicate the major artistic achievements and to amplify the historical account of a people who were axiomatically excellent. How to deal with those same people when they are viewed as only one of many curious societies of the past is a question that all thoughtful archaeologists must have asked themselves. The volume under review offers some ingenious and stimulating answers, in the form of a history of the discipline, seven paradigmatic archaeological studies, and two responses.

As any good physician knows, family history is an important aid to diagnosis. In pursuit of this, Morris offers an intellectual history of Greek archaeology over the past two centuries or so (pp. 8-47). Drawing on Foucault's concept of the episteme as a world-view or intellectual substrate of clearly defined segments of history, Morris situates Greek archaeology in the broader landscape of the history of the humanities. It would be absurd to imagine that what we do as archaeologists has been unaffected by intellectual developments and historical events in the wider world, and Morris does Greek archaeology a service in presenting an account of how these may have influenced the evolution of the discipline.

Morris characterizes his approach as "externalist and noncognitive," that is, it privileges external pressures over internal factors, and "political, ideological, psychological and other forces" over a narrative of the substance and rational development of research within the discipline (p. 9). He examines the emergence of Greek archaeology as a discrete discipline in the latter part of the 19th century in the context of the already well-established traditions of Hellenism and classical philology, and argues that, as archaeology cast its lot with the classicists rather than with world archaeology, it committed itself to a supporting role in Hellenism's project of expropriating Greece as a tool for maintaining the superiority of the West. In his view, archaeology's access to the mundane details of Greek everyday life constituted a threat to that project, for which the Greeks were an ideal people unlike any other, and Greek archaeology therefore "banish[ed] people from its discourse" (p. 27). In the 1880's, the scientific site-report and catalogue replaced narrative, the preferred mode of the earliest practitioners, and archaeologists thereby forfeited their ability to "make the kind of moral/political judgements of the past which are implicit in the narrative form" (p. 28).

This is a provocative scenario, which Morris advances "to provoke others to prove it wrong" (p. 46). An internalist account could reply, with some justification, that narrative had to be abandoned until reporting and analysis had produced sufficient substance to inform it, a point that Michael Jameson makes in his response (p. 194). Jameson also questions the notion that archaeology constituted a threat to the established order, a case I would agree that Morris overstates. Certainly it is true that many "incurious experts" (to use Jameson's patronizing phrase) have labored over typologies and chronologies without giving much thought to the human beings lurking behind the artifacts, but there have been some important exceptions, which Morris does not mention. David Robinson's work at Olynthos in the 20's and 30's doggedly insisted on an emphasis on "social studies" rather than art history, and the Agora Picture Book series, inaugurated in 1958, aimed to put Athenian daily life before a wide public. Morris may not like the vase-painters created by Beazley (and I wholeheartedly sympathize), but they are people (or as much so as the people of any archaeological narrative "are"). Although many archaeologists have continued down the narrow and well-worn byways of attribution, classification, and reconstruction, the good news is that this approach is increasingly regarded as inadequate by the profession as a whole (at least in the United States). To take one of the most conservative of specialties as an example, over a decade ago a series of conferences devoted to the "post-Beazleyan" study of Greek ceramics was inaugurated, encouraging research along the new avenues opened up by a classification project that is now substantially completed, and in the intervening years a raft of studies employing structuralism, feminism, narratology, and a host of other theoretical tools have appeared alongside more traditional approaches. In this context, Morris's call to action may seem belated, but Greek archaeology is a rude and sluggish beast -- the more gadflies the better.

One factor that Morris, surprisingly, does not mention in his attempt to explain the present embattled position of the discipline is the changing demography of the United States. As a larger and more empowered sector of American society traces its roots not to Europe but to Africa and to Asia, it is only natural that the early civilizations of those continents should compete for attention with the earliest civilizations of Europe. The American population, and hence American culture, is extraordinarily fluid; as our present changes, so do our requirements of the past. But then, this volume is primarily British in its orientation; although some of the authors teach in the United States, all but one are British or were educated in Britain, and the particular situation of classical archaeology in America is perhaps of only tangential concern to them.

Morris outlines three possible responses to the dilemma in which classical archaeologists find themselves. One is no response at all: Let's keep our heads down and our noses to the grindstone, and this fad will pass. Although practitioners of this solution are not difficult to find, such a response, Morris rightly predicts, will result in a Greek archaeology that is increasingly sterile and irrelevant. The second is a neo-conservative reassertion of the primacy of the Classics which, demography being what it is, is ultimately doomed to failure. Morris is less clear about the third solution, except that it should be informed by an understanding that times have indeed changed, and that "for the first time since the beginning of the century, we need to think hard about why we should study the material culture of ancient Greece, and what benefits a fuller understanding of it will bring to anyone" (p. 44). Surely few will argue with that conclusion. Morris's prescription is a breaking down of the barriers between classical and anthropological archaeology, between classical and prehistoric archaeology, and, most importantly, between archaeology and history. The chapters that follow are offered as broadly various examples of how the last of these three desiderata can be fruitful. They fall into three parts: artifacts and art objects; artifacts as traded objects; and artifacts in the landscape.

Under the first rubric, James Whitley undertakes an analysis of Protoattic pottery from what he calls a "contextual approach," which pays particular attention to the use a society made of an object, as reflected in the ultimate depositional context of that object. With a statistical analysis of Attic deposits as his base, he posits a new explanation of the parallel existence of the Protoattic and Subgeometric styles, of the rarity of the former, and of Attica's oft noted reluctance to adopt oriental motifs. Using the model of "social rationing," whereby certain objects and activities serve to support the identity of an elite, he suggests that the rarity of Protoattic, as well as the decreased number of recorded burials in the 7th century, result from reserving elaborate burial and exotic vases for members of such an elite. While this hypothesis offers a valuable alternate view of observed phenomena, it does not adequately explain the depositional contexts of Protoattic, which is as common in domestic deposits (wells in the Athenian Agora) as it is at grave sites, and equally distributed among those domestic deposits. Of more serious concern, however, is Whitley's use of statistics, at least for the Agora deposits (Table 3.3). His numbers are based on published deposits, some published as early as the 1930's, others in the early 60's. In those days it was unusual for every excavated object to be saved (although at the Agora this was sometimes the case, at least for "early" material), and even rarer for every object to be counted, much less published. A check of the Agora records shows that in every case the published material upon which Whitley relies represents a selection; sometimes as many as eleven tins of fragments remain uninventoried and unpublished, hence absent from his statistics. In a statistical study, a tiny fragment is as important as a complete pot. Possibly a complete count of all deposits would lead to the same conclusions as those suggested by the published material; unfortunately, though, the only way to find out is to count the sherds, a most unpalatable, tedious, and time-consuming task. Writing of Whitley's contribution in his general introduction, Morris says "The key to this kind of archaeological structuralism is totality: all material must be shown to be explained" (p. 4, emphasis original). Indeed! To compound the problem, when I compared Whitley's table with the publications, I was rarely able to come up with the same tallies, and I fear there may have been some errors in tabulation. While Whitley's application of a new model to this material is of interest, the numbers in which he places so much faith are skewed and must cast doubt on his conclusions. This questionable use of statistics is hardly a direction archaeology should be encouraged to follow.

Herbert Hoffman's analysis of the iconography of a Sotadean rhyton revolves around the symbolism of sphinx, initiation, and autochthony. Although it focuses on a single pot, this is a wide-ranging study, utilizing ancient imagery and texts as well as modern theory. Hoffman relies heavily on Levi-Strauss's famous analysis of the Oedipus myth, using it to tie together the apparently divergent themes of the rhyton. His argument is learned, meticulously constructed, and appealing, though there are premises and equations that not everyone will feel compelled to accept. Muffled hands, for instance, are said to signify initiation (p. 78); covered heads signal mourning (pp. 75, 77) or initiation (p. 78). One wonders why, and what criteria one uses, other than convenience to one's argument, in deciding which message is intended. And must every sphinx be the Theban sphinx? To Hoffman the answer is an obvious "yes," but I'm not so sure. Nonetheless, Hoffman's contribution is interesting both for its method and its conclusions. His view of Greek pottery as a whole is idiosyncratic, maintaining that figured vases were made exclusively to serve as grave or votive offerings, their functions in the world of the living having been performed by metalware -- a radical twist on the "primacy of metal" hypothesis. One might question (as Snodgrass does in his response) whether such deep and subtle messages are to be found in such homely objects, but Hoffman is more concerned with "opening up Greek vase imagery to further and deeper exploration" than he is in being right in every detail (p. 80), and it this he certainly succeeds.

Robin Osborne delves into the viewer's response to Greek sculpture. He takes his cue from one of the rare ancient texts that actually describes such responses: the oft quoted Pseudo-Lucian passage about the Knidian Aphrodite. That text and others devoted to the statue suggest a strong sexual element in the relationship between the work of art and the viewer. Osborne attempts to divine what that response might be, both to this statue and to two others, the Sandal Binder of the Nike parapet and the Athena Parthenos. The effort is plagued by a lack of any solid evidence, and one may well feel uncomfortable with Osborne's application of a 20th-century assessment of a 19th-century painting (Ingres' Grande Odalisque: "a radically dehiscent image whose construction further disintegrates the longer one examines it" [p. 86]) to the Sandal Binder, a work of art over 2000 years older. Such an approach seems to assume that a man's reaction to a representation of a nude or nearly nude female body is some sort of universal, unaffected by cultural conditioning, an assumption that Osborne himself implicitly rejects in seeking out texts that record the responses of "viewers ... whose reactions to female sexuality were unaffected by the Christian tradition" (p. 81). I have further difficulties with Osborne's analysis of the Sandal Binder as "a female body which cannot be construed" (p. 86). Experimenting with my own body, I find the position in which she stands not markedly distorted and, while the pattern of the drapery may, as Osborne contends, lead the eye to the "junction of belly and thighs," I wonder how striking this would have been from the great distance from which the relief must have been viewed in its original position. Osborne concludes that the Knidia and the Sandal Binder "say nothing to women" (p. 86), but women saw them (a fact he puzzlingly dismisses as irrelevant [p. 95]) and not all of those women can have been mindless dolts; common sense suggests that some of them thought and felt something about these works. The statues were mostly commissioned and made by men for men, who may have given no thought to any messages they might send to women, but the statues conveyed those messages nonetheless. More compelling is Osborne's analysis of some of the differences between archaic and classical sculpture of women, where he finds evidence for the contention that, while the establishment of democracy benefited the man in the street, it created a more repressive environment for his sisters and his cousins and his aunts. Thus an Archaic kore, unlike her shy and enclosed descendants of the classical era, extends her offering and looks the beholder in the eye unashamed, a symbol of wealth and its exchange and, as such, a figure of power.

In the section on artifacts as traded objects, Karim Arafat and Catherine Morgan focus on the presence of Attic pottery in two very different non-Greek venues: Etruria and Hallstatt Europe. Instead of following the usual route of trying to reconstruct Athenian trading practices, they set out to investigate the reasons why two such disparate cultures should have accepted artifacts made to the specifications of an alien society. Attic pottery, with its emphasis on an aristocratic and exclusive mythology, may have served to reinforce the position of the Etruscan elite, and increased imports may be related to moments when that position was most seriously challenged. The investigation of Greek imports in Hallstatt Europe revolves rather around the nature of trade between the eastern Mediterranean and Europe and the role of Massalia in that trade. The discussion sheds light on the receptor cultures, pointing out, for instance, that prestige drinking existed there independently of any Greek influence, and insists that developments within those societies be explained on the basis of internal factors rather than as reactions to pressures from outside. Within this context the authors also criticize the core-periphery model as applied to the Mediterranean and prehistoric Europe.

The other chapter in this section, by David Gill, is a disappointment, offering little more than a breathless summary of work he has published over the past six years: his doubts that Sostratos of the anchor dedication from Gravisca is the same as Herodotos' Sostratos and SO of Greek trademarks; pots as space-fillers; estimated import and export statistics; the value of pots; a lowered chronology. Much is lost in this precis. For example, Gill compares annual export of iron, as estimated from existing slag-heaps at Populonia, with annual import of Athenian pottery, as estimated from Attic pottery found in Etruria, concluding that this suggests a very low level of imports, say 25 pots per year for two centuries (p. 102). The statement as it stands is absurd, since it is obvious that the known Attic pots represent only a tiny (and unknowable) fraction of the pots that were in fact imported -- a caveat that Gill omits to mention, although he did dedicate a footnote to it in his earlier published work on the same subject (Gill 1991). (Arafat and Morgan, by contrast, keep this fact clearly in mind, pp. 115-116, 123.) Gill invokes in passing the lowered chronology proposed by Michael Vickers and David Francis; this has recently been seriously challenged by T. Leslie Shear, Jr., (1993) but persuasively supported by the work of Victor Parker (1994).1

For both practical and intellectual reasons, survey archaeology has experienced an explosive development over the last generation. Two chapters in the section entitled "Artefacts in the landscape" demonstrate -- to anyone in this day and age who still might harbor doubts -- the enormous contribution of this investigative technique to our understanding of the ancient world. Susan Alcock, John Cherry, and Jack Davis present a critique of the "manuring hypothesis," which maintains that the "halo" of artifacts frequently observed around "sites" is to be explained as cultural material deposited in the course of spreading manure and household debris on gardens and fields. On the one hand, they offer exhaustive and convincing textual evidence for manure as a vehicle for artifacts, and they do not deny that manuring was responsible for some artifact movement. On the other hand, their extensive review of ancient texts and of agricultural statistics (how many animals of what kinds can be supported by and can manure how much land) leads them to conclude that manure was in short supply on the Greek farm, and they contend that manuring is insufficient as a unitary explanation of the halo phenomenon. They also broaden the argument beyond agricultural practices, maintaining that different manuring procedures suggest different forms of social organization. This is a fine piece of work, combining analysis of written sources, analogy, firm data, and statistics (properly used) to open up new vistas. It directly challenges the work of Snodgrass, who gives a spirited defense of his position in his response, to which Alcock, Cherry, and Davis in turn reply. No one "wins" the debate, but the exchange is stimulating and one looks forward to further investigation of this unsavory topic.

The second contribution in this section, Susan Alcock's "Breaking up the Hellenistic world," uses information from fifty surveys conducted throughout the Hellenistic world to illustrate the tremendous diversity in Greece, Macedon, and the lands conquered by Alexander. Her work is, of necessity, preliminary, dependent as it is on existing surveys that are not strictly comparable. In some areas, like Egypt, Syria, and Bactria, little or no relevant survey work has been done, while in others, such as Greece and Jordan, survey archaeology is well established. A note frequently sounded is the inadequacy of existing pottery typologies and chronologies, which preclude any but the crudest chronological distinctions ("pottery chronologies utilised by that project are still very coarse" [p. 179]; "The ceramics of these periods cannot yet be properly differentiated" [p. 180]; "a paucity of clear ceramic indicators..." [p. 184]; "Ceramic chronologies ... are not sufficiently detailed to allow any further refinement" [p. 185]). These comments suggest that further productive survey work will require the development of improved ceramic typologies and chronologies. One very difficult problem, upon which Alcock does not touch but which presents a formidable obstacle to diachronic studies in the Hellenistic east, is the extent of continuity of local ceramic traditions. It is very likely that some pottery that is not "Hellenistic" in form is, in fact, "Hellenistic" in date, since, depending on a host of factors, local potters may have continued to produce traditional ceramics long after the 4th century BCE. This sort of pottery is almost never studied, since it falls in a no-man's-land, between ceramics of known Hellenistic forms, generally the province of classical archaeologists, and the later phases of the local ceramic tradition, which rarely excite the interest of specialists in the indigenous ceramics. If surveyers identify a site as Hellenistic only when it has Greek-like pottery, they will probably be missing a lot of material that actually dates within the last three centuries BCE. This, of course, is a problem beyond Alcock's control, and it is to be hoped that her repeated caveats will spur new ceramic studies. In her capable hands the existing survey data, for all their flaws, sketch out a picture of the Hellenistic world that goes far beyond what texts and excavations have been able to tell us and provide a potent corrective to any notion of a unified Hellenistic world. Each region follows its own destiny, although there is evidence for some general trends, with increased urbanization, a growing population, and intensified agriculture in many areas. Alcock's work makes clear, too, the great amount of important work, in refined chronologies, in survey, and in synthesis, there is to be done in this area.

Classical Greece is unusual in including within its covers what amount to two reviews of itself, in the form of brief responses by Michael Jameson and Anthony Snodgrass (the latter lionized in Morris's historical account as a sort of patron saint of the current enterprise, one whose "research represents an unparalleled departure from traditional practices" [p. 39]). The respondents distribute about equal praise and blame for individual contributions and also help the reader in digesting the extremely varied materials of this project. Certainly the book presents no single, unified viewpoint, and it is not, fortunately, a manifesto of how one should study antiquity; the authors disagree, their approaches are sometimes mutually exclusive, and the claims they make for these approaches are sometimes almost hesitant. The book, finally, situates itself firmly within the Postmodern episteme by its lack of consensus, reminding us that we can only construct and support hypotheses about the past, never prove them, never know the "truth." Readers will find this saddening or refreshing, depending upon their own characters and points of view, and they will certainly have extremely varied responses to the efforts of the different contributors. If I have been critical, it is because each and every contribution seriously engages the intellect and demands thoughtful response -- not such a common thing in archaeological scholarship. For its head-on approach to the problems archaeology faces today, for its array of theory and method ingeniously applied, as well as for some stimulating and valuable scholarship, I recommend this book to all serious students of ancient Greece. It deserves a wide and receptive audience.


  • [1] D.W.J. Gill, "Pots and Trade: spacefillers or objets d'art?" JHS 111 (1991), 29-47; V. Parker, "Zur absoluten Datierung des Leagros Kalos und der Leagros-gruppe," AA (1994), 365-373; T. L. Shear, Jr., "The Persian Destruction of Athens: Evidence from Agora Deposits," Hesperia 62 (1993), 383-482.