Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.1.24


Mary B. Moore, The Athenian Agora: Results of Excavations Conducted by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Volume XXX, Attic Red-figured and White-ground Pottery. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1997. Pp. xviii, 419; figs. 61, pls. 157. $160.00. ISBN 0-87661-230-3.


Reviewed by Ann Steiner, Classics, Franklin and Marshall College, a_steiner@acad.fandm.edu.

This volume is the full publication of all the red-figure and white-ground pottery excavated from the Athenian Agora from 1931-1967, that is, from the beginning of the American excavation of the ancient civic center until the end of its second directorship under T. Leslie Shear in 1967. It does not include pottery of these two techniques excavated after that date, thus explaining, for example, the appearance of Hesperia Supplement XXV in 1992, which covers an Agora deposit also containing red-figured pottery but excavated in 1972.

Some of the pottery in Agora XXX has appeared already, in preliminary excavation reports, in the attribution lists of J.D. Beazley, or in various articles and special studies by other scholars: for example, of the 219 oinochoai represented, slightly more than one-half have been referred to in earlier publications, and slightly less than one-fourth appear in Beazley's lists; of the 40 calyx-kraters, about one-half appear in previous publications, and half again appear in Beazley. This publication history demonstrates the generosity of the Agora directors and the author in making important material available long before the appearance of the present volume.

Agora XXX includes treatment of 1,684 vases of more than thirty different shapes, most of which are represented by fragments, with not a single one intact. This is to be expected in a body of pottery excavated mainly from debris deposits, including wells. Such fragments are the real broom-sweepings from antiquity, not assemblages set out by families to honor custom and the dead at burial or to honor a divinity and family reputation in a sanctuary. As such they are at once provocative, tantalizing, and even potentially misleading as parts of archaeological units, because of the very offhandedness of their deposition.

This is a professional, learned, and traditional excavation report, carried out by a scholar who follows the highest and most exacting standards of the discipline. It pays strict attention to archaeological context in its careful identification of the Agora assemblage or deposit to which each vessel belongs, although discussion rarely, if ever, involves context.

Does this study locate itself in the ongoing scholarly discourse for which this material is evidence? Yes and no. Traditional shape studies and connoisseurship are alive and well, and this volume complements them. M. supports the view that the most profitable way to look at painted pottery is through the history of its shapes and through the painters who painted it. "Shape Studies" (72 pages) forms the principal commentary on the material as a whole. Although the shapes included here are limited to those for which there are fragments in the Agora material, M. offers a general discussion that includes a definition of each shape, description of its function, identification of when it entered the repertory of Attic potters, and its development over time. Into this selective handbook, M. integrates the Agora material. This section has a firm rationale, since the material is fragmentary and needs to be understood in terms of what it once was, but the reader gets much more than is strictly necessary for such an understanding. The value of this approach is that it makes clear how much our relative chronology owes to shape in addition to style. The disadvantage is that it may do so at the expense of investigating questions of broader interest.

The other principal discussion is a 53-page history of Attic red-figure and white-painters, as identified by J.D. Beazley (M. is careful to distinguish attributions from Attributions: those made by scholars other than Beazley are clearly identified.). Where there is relevant Agora material, it is inserted into this discussion. The result is sometimes confusing: why is there a long discussion on the reasons for the introduction of the red-figure technique when the Agora material preserves no evidence to advance this discussion? Likewise, why a characterization of the Andokides Painter (pp. 81-83) when only a single sherd "recalls" the painter? At its best, this arrangement does yield valuable insights into the development of a painter's career and how the Agora material coordinates with it: in the discussion of Myson (94-95), for example, the 13 Agora fragments are representative of the typical shapes and subjects of vases assigned to this painter, and it is satisfying to know that.

The author gives no real justification for the decision to provide what is essentially a brief handbook on red-figure pottery coordinated with the Agora material other than to say it tells us which Beazley-identified painters "figure prominently, ... just a little, ... and not at all" (pp.1-2) in the material thus far recovered from the Agora. Moreover, the results are noted, but not really interpreted. What does it mean that a particular painter is present or absent? And what circumstances dictate that we need to have such a status report now, on the material recovered over a 66-year period ending 30 years ago? Excavations in the Agora are not concluded, and this picture may change. On the positive side, the careful integration of the material into a well-known and minutely scrutinized stylistic taxonomy adds once again to the credibility of our relative chronology.

The bulk of the volume -- pp. 133-357 -- is devoted to a catalogue of each preserved and inventoried vessel. It serves as a top-notch exemplum for objective, concise presentation of figural pottery. Most entries are accompanied by a photograph of the sherd or reconstructed vessel, but even more important are the sketches by the author which plausibly reconstruct scenes on extremely fragmentary and enigmatic pieces. This sort of reconstruction, only possible when coming from an experienced scholar, makes all the difference to those less expert who want to make sense of the material: it virtually allows silent evidence to speak. For any vessel preserving a painted inscription, there is a verbatim "facsimile" transcription, which is a real gift. (One frustrating feature, resulting from the way in which the Agora directorship has divided up various aspects and fabrics of the pottery among scholars with different expertise to be published in separate volumes, is the absence of transcriptions of graffiti and dipinti, treated in Agora XXV by Mabel Lang. Sometimes graffiti are visible in the illustrations [No. 699] but not always [No. 802.]).

The indices are extremely helpful, because they are both comprehensive and learnedly nuanced. The author anticipates correctly almost all of the types of things scholars will want to be able to find quickly, from subjects of images to images of shapes. A quick survey confirms for us that divinities, heroes, symposion and komos, athletics, and military are the subjects that preoccupy Athenian painters; even here, in the ancient civic center, the business of running the polis is as absent from the repertory of images as anywhere else.

All in all, the author has clearly targeted and served well a particular audience, specialists in the connoisseurship of Attic figural pottery. There are other scholars of red-figure vase-painting and there are social historians who speak another dialect of scholarly discourse. How do they fare in the interpretive aspects of this volume?

To begin with, shape studies in the past ten years have taken a new turn. Analysis of the standard shapes produced by Athenian potters as outlined by M. in her "Shape Studies," are now accompanied by another type. At least three comprehensive studies, the belly-amphora, the pelike, and the chous, focus on what the imagery preserved in the figural scenes reveals about the social function and even the origin of each shape. M. is not at all unaware of this trend, as her ample bibliography attests, yet she does not embrace or emulate the methodology. To an iconographer, a discussion of how images found on particular shapes from the Athenian Agora conform to or depart from the trends of imagery found everywhere else is of compelling interest. And, indeed, although M. has not done it, her catalogue format makes it an eminently possible undertaking.

In such a definitive publication, one might expect a comment on how the material published contributes to the dispute resulting from the scheme M. Vickers and J.D. Francis promote for down-dating Athenian red- and black-figure pottery (the most efficient summary of the bibliography is R.M. Cook in JHS 1989, 164-170). To be sure, T. Leslie Shear, Jr. already provided, in his masterful article (Hesperia 62 (1993) 383-482) a reminder of the incontrovertible evidence provided through Agora deposits -- no fewer than 16 wells and 5 other debris deposits -- filled with things destroyed by the Persians, as well as the Marathon tumulus, for the traditional dating of black- and red-figure pottery. Shear's is a definitive Agora counter-argument to the position articulated by Vickers and Francis, and that may explain M.'s silence.

Although R.M. Cook (see above, p. 167) has recently advised limiting the use of kalos-names to create synchronisms rather than to determine absolute dates, other scholars continue to be more hopeful (V. Parker, "Zur absoluten Datierung des Leagros Kalos," Archaeologischer Anzeiger 1994 vol. 3, 365-373). Do the red-figure fragments from the Agora by painters whose work is inscribed with kalos-names offer any confirmation of the absolute dating scheme? Such fragments are hard to find in the text, since M. does not distinguish kalos inscriptions in the index of "inscribed names." (p. 419) Once the kalos names are identified, we move easily from catalogue-entry to deposit-index and accompanying bibliography to check absolute dates for context. When done, it is clear we have no surprises. Another avenue is to check ALL pottery painted by those painters whose repertories include kalos-names. For example, the Providence Painter, whose dates of 480-450 are established both through relative chronology and a kalos name, painted at least 10 vases which preserve a kalos inscription about Glaukon, none from the Agora. However, among the Agora fragments, at least one vase, a lebes gamikos, No. 120, is certainly by the Providence Painter. It comes from deposit H 7:1, narrowly dated to 435-425, suggesting the vase was used for a few decades, broken, and then discarded. So, we receive no help in pinning down the dates when Glaukon, and indirectly his father Leagros, were kalos (see R.M. Cook, above, for a summary of the difficulties in establishing when Leagros was born, was kalos, and held the position of strategos). Although M. did not choose to address these issues, the set-up of the volume makes it relatively easy to do so.

The evidence published in Agora XXX does reveal different sorts of unresolved dating issues. No. 699, a fragment of an oinochoe, from deposit R12, dated 520-480 and part of the debris from the Persian destruction of Athens, is dated on stylistic grounds by M. to the last three decades of the 5th century. As M. indicated in her text, Lang (Agora XXV) dates the fragment to the early 5th century on the evidence of the letterforms used in the graffito. Such discrepancies suggest that, however refined our taxonomies, there is still much to learn about the coordination of different categories of stylistic development with absolute chronology.

To be sure, M. is careful to highlight, in her text, certain items of interest to social historians. In addition to the chous, well-known as the vessel central to its eponymous festival, Choes, other less well-known shapes that seem to play roles in ritual are duly noted: a class of 17 very similar oinochoai (p. 43-44) are decorated almost exclusively with Athena and appear to be by the same potter and possibly by a single painter. Although Moore focuses her discussion on issues of attribution, she also refers to the suggestions of earlier scholars who hypothesized about the cult purpose for these oinochoai. The last word is not out on these enigmatic vessels; through Moore's careful presentation, the data is available for its articulation. Moreover, M. mentions in her "shape study" of the pelike a class of large red-figure examples that were used as receptacles for burial ritual (p. 12). Here is a case where M. does not identify any Agora material as belonging to that class, but the reader immediately wonders if any does. The author cannot do everything, and again, the precision of the catalogue will allow a future scholar to investigate. Those curious about H. Hoffman's conception of the purpose of red-figure pottery -- to accompany burial for a symposium with heroes (e.g. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: the imagery of heroic immortality on Athenian vases," in Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture [ed. R. Osborne, 28-51]) -- would find exploration of this line of inquiry particularly provocative.

What about those scholars who have followed not only Hoffman, but M. Vickers and D. Gill (Artful Crafts, 1994) and even F. Lissarrague (The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet, 1990) in their extremely diverse takes on the function of Athenian painted pottery? This is a substantial group, and it includes a significant number of those scholars who work outside the very narrow subspecialty of figural pottery. Should not they expect from a volume on the painted pottery from the Athenian civic center, the presumed setting for at least some civic food- and drink-sharing, a discussion as to whether or not there is evidence here that such pottery was actually used in commensal settings? Although they will see that symposiasts around a krater appear on a red-figure oinochoe dating to about 500 B.C. (No. 794) and found in a well, they will not find a discussion of the possible application of this evidence to the larger argument.

In fact there exists a curious disjunction between this volume and the prior publication of subsequently excavated pottery from the Agora, mentioned above, clearly identified as commensal (S. Rotroff and J. Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora. Hesperia Supplement XXV, 1992) . This publication of pottery excavated in 1972, five years after the 1967 cut-off point for Agora XXX, is almost totally ignored by M. Where absolutely necessary, there is cross-referencing, but one must actually compare the indices for "potters, painters, groups, and classes," at the end of each volume to see whether Moore has taken the attributions made by Oakley and Rotroff into her painter-by-painter account! M.s does not explain what the relationship is between the two groups of pottery.

Further confusing the issue is the fact that the ligature delta/epsilon, which identifies the Rotroff/Oakley pottery (designated as deposit H 4:5) as publicly-owned, also appears in contexts shared by some of the figural pottery that M. treats. This graffito is found on plain black pottery from a smaller deposit, a well at H 6:5, excavated in 1935, but located not 50 meters away from the deposit published by Rotroff and Oakley. H 6:5 includes red-figure and white-ground pottery. Investigating the pottery Moore publishes from H 6:5, narrowly dated to 470-460, raises interesting questions. Does it help to confirm the function of the "bobbin" as a "magical spinning wheel used to woo unwilling lovers" (M. p. 74) to know that one exquisite white-ground "bobbin" depicting Helios rising (No. 1640, unattributed) was found together with a red-figure neck-amphora, a red-figure oinochoe, and black-glaze drinking vessels and lekanides? And that on the latter, several Athenians, including Charmides who elsewhere is paired with Glaukon as kalos, both praise and castigate each other in the caustic terms of the symposion? To ask M. to have provided an answer may be asking too much, but this is the sort of question the social historian or archaeologist who is not a specialist in vase-painting might have liked to have had framed. Scholars who maintain that the elite used only silver and gold vessels at the symposium would find this evidence, where red-figure pottery is found together with evidence suggesting a commensal use in a public setting AND preserving names of men who travel in elite circles, interesting as well.

To this reviewer, the abandonment of traditional connoisseurship would be a real loss to the meaningful study of Athenian pottery. The value of the taxonomy it provides for dating, for locating pockets of emphasis on particular subjects combined with particular shapes, and for precise charting of the evolution of iconography far outweighs the negatives when connoisseurship is seen as an end in itself. Nevertheless, excavation pottery begs to have its character analyzed in terms of its context and use. This volume meets and even exceeds the highest standards of the profession in those areas which the author deems most relevant; despite its silence on other issues of social history, the volume will be very useful to those who ask broader questions and seek evidence for the answers.