Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.05


Susan I. Rotroff, The Athenian Agora. Results of Excavations Conducted by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Vol. XXIX. Hellenistic Pottery. Athenian and Imported Wheelmade Table Ware and Related Material. Part 1: Text, Part 2: Illustrations. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1997. Pp. 575, 106 figs, 148 pls. $175.00. ISBN 0-87661-229-X.


Reviewed by Andrea M. Berlin, Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota, aberlin@tc.umn.edu.

In 1934, Homer A. Thompson published a long article detailing the contents of five deposits excavated in the Athenian Agora, to which he assigned provisional dates ranging from the later 4th through the early 1st centuries BC. The article, entitled "Two Centuries of Hellenistic Pottery" (and referred to as TCHP in countless field and final reports ever since), has long since attained iconic status among archaeologists, and has served as the single most comprehensive, reliable, and accessible treatment of the Hellenistic pottery of Athens. Among the glories of TCHP were Thompson's wonderfully clear organization; his presentation of each deposit in its entirety, including such unlovely items as loomweights and cooking pots; his succinct explanations of dating; and the humane tone with which he discussed his material. Thompson accomplished two seemingly disparate goals: presenting a host of datable data, while communicating that these small items reflected the daily choices, tasks, and lives of typical Athenians. Twenty years ago, Thompson and T. Leslie Shear Jr. entrusted Susan Rotroff with the publication of the entirety of the Agora's Hellenistic ceramic corpus, a project whose completion would replace TCHP. The first installment emerged as Agora XXII, Hellenistic Pottery: Athenian and Imported Moldmade Bowls (1982). The volumes on the wheelmade wares comprise the second installment; they include all vessels for table and ritual use, which is to say fine wares such as drinking cups, pitchers, and plates, as well as votive vessels such as thymiateria and miniatures from ritual pyres. Left for the final installment are the plain and cooking wares, a corpus too sizeable to fit within the present work. It must be said at once that these volumes are the worthiest of successors to Thompson's article. R. has organized a vast amount of information impeccably, but more than that, she has fashioned a series of reliably dated ceramic groups that also provide firm evidence for the changing lifestyles of Hellenistic Athenians. R. has accomplished this double objective by arranging her material in functional groups rather than in the traditional strictly formal categories, since, she explains, "the objects under consideration in this volume once functioned together as part of a single cultural system, and this presentation comes closer to revealing that system than any other" (p. 6).

R. begins with a lengthy introductory section consisting of four chapters. In the first, she summarizes the state of study of Athenian Hellenistic pottery. Interspersed with descriptions of fabric, glaze, and terminology, are some fascinating observations on the character of the assemblage. It turns out that, in ceramic terms, the Hellenistic period did not really begin until c. 275 BC, while several Classical shapes continued in production until c. 250 BC. Archaeologists and historians should heed this disjuncture between the standard historical chronology and the ceramic one; it has important implications for the interpretation of remains that are dated only "Hellenistic," such as survey pottery, tomb groups, and many excavated finds. Another extremely interesting observation in this chapter is that the typical symposium assemblage, i.e. krater, pitcher, and drinking cups, underwent a wholesale change in this period. By 175 BC, Athenian potters had stopped manufacturing kraters, and were making only much smaller pitchers, though they continued to make as many -- and as sizeable -- cups. R. suggests that large-scale entertainments where wine and water were mixed for a whole group at once were abandoned, and that smaller pitchers would have allowed "each diner to mix his own" (p. 15). Her comment that "changes in such an important feature of Greek life may signal other(s)" must certainly be correct; it is unfortunate that a lack of space precluded further discussion.

The second chapter deals with chronology and will certainly become the fundamental starting point for all future studies of Hellenistic pottery. Chronology has been the sticking point in this sub-field ever since the publication of the excavations at Koroni. Koroni caused a furor because by dating the material found there to the late 260's B.C., the excavators suggested that the first two groups in TCHP were dated almost forty years too early. The controversy has long since quieted, and the need for wholesale revisions in the chronology has come to be generally acknowledged, but a full explication of the new framework has remained a desideratum. R. presents such a framework here, with wonderfully clear and sensible synopses of every context important for Hellenistic pottery chronology. She begins with Olynthus, and makes a persuasive case for maintaining Robinson's original dating of material to 348 BC, as opposed to 316 BC, which has been argued recently by several scholars. Some of the contexts discussed are important primarily because they contained huge quantities of pottery (e.g. Dipylon Well B1, the Piraieus Cistern); their redating carries no larger historical or socio-economic implications. Others (e.g. the third phase of the Assembly Place on the Pnyx, Chatby) are significant beyond the effect their repositioning has on typological issues. Here again, further discussion would have been welcome but could not be accommodated, and R. has elaborated elsewhere.

R. devotes the remaining two chapters of the introduction to more traditional pottery concerns of decoration and workshops, including a helpful overview of the origins, development, motifs, and chronology of the West Slope style. Athenian potters produced some of the best of the many West Slope-style vessels found throughout the eastern Mediterranean, yet even their products remained for the most part artistically uninspired (one lovely figured example with a subject and pose similar to images from early Hellenistic Macedonian painted tombs notwithstanding). The Athenians' heyday was the third century BC; of the 16 most common motifs found, only four continued to be used after c. 200 BC. By then, their market seems to have been only local, as very little Athenian pottery of the second century has been found outside Attica.

The main text consists of detailed, closely argued, unavoidably technical shape studies and attendant catalogue entries, as befits a final pottery report. R. presents every typological variation for which evidence exists, along with scrupulous deposit data and hair-line dating whenever possible. Her authoritative presentation rests on a complete re-examination of all the inventoried pottery and context pottery of the largest deposits, in conjunction with the latest dating evidence, itself largely based on outside studies of the coins and stamped amphoras. R. provides summaries of all deposits in her final chapter. One can go easily from illustration to catalogue entry to deposit summary, and so see R.'s date for both the piece and its context, or conversely, go from discussion to illustrations, and so see a shape's development. A small cavil: reference in the catalogue entries to the text page(s) where the shape is discussed would have been helpful as well, especially on account of the slightly unorthodox order of presentation. The headers give some direction but do not repeat specific types (e.g., "vessels for pouring and dipping" instead of "biconical jug" or "olpe").

R. marries technical acumen and common sense. While she has analyzed and presented the material according to shape development, she has not pressed the principle more rigidly than the evidence can bear. Some categories, such as drinking cups for example, had a high fashion quotient, and producers clearly responded quickly to changing tastes: R. has deduced that the ratio of body diameter to height of a classical kantharos with plain rim changed from 0.87-0.93 at the beginning of the 3rd century to 0.69-0.78 about a decade or so later. She notes that other shapes were either less changeable or more casually made, and with these she sidesteps the pitfalls of a precise continuum. She is so careful and observant, however, that she finds chronological value in the smallest details. Thus, for example, she notes that while the plate with rolled rim -- the most common Hellenistic plate type -- is difficult to date according to measurement ratios, because its spreading shape made it likely to sag while drying, the groove below the rim on the outside wall did shift downwards during the second quarter of the third century. The shape studies are filled with countless such details, and their value for the field as a whole is extraordinarily high. Throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, there are many, many sites where the internal chronology depends on a few fragments of Attic tableware that an ancient resident somehow managed to acquire. In the context of the Agora, that shifting groove on the outside of the plate with rolled rim is but one of myriad helpful observations. Several thousand miles away, however, at the site of Tell Said (Ikaros) on the island of Falaika in the Persian Gulf, the position of that groove on two tiny rim fragments from such plates takes on fundamental chronological -- and historical -- importance. The reach of Attic ceramics, even in Hellenistic times, will ensure that these Agora volumes become indispensable references for field archaeologists throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin and beyond.

Agora XXIX is a wonderful work, whose useful lifespan will surely exceed even that of TCHP. Now that we have it, it is worthwhile considering how best to use it: as a model, or as a tool? With its focus on typology and chronology, Agora XXIX is of a piece with other fundamental Agora final reports, including Agora XII (the Classical pottery) and R.'s own Agora XXII. No one would argue for different priorities for the organization of these volumes; the Agora may be the only site in the Mediterranean where such a quantity and variety of datable material has been excavated from so influential a production center. The Agora focus does, however, come at a cost: less research time and publication space for the investigation of those socio-economic patterns and changes that pottery can illuminate. As noted above, R. considers some of these in her introduction, and her bold decision to organize her corpus by function underscores her desire to have it serve as more than a chronological typology. The potential of R.'s work will truly be realized if it inspires scholars to build on it, for this pottery constitutes first-rate evidence for the choices, tasks, and lives of the Athenians who made and used it.