Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.01.12

Catherine Morgan, Isthmia, Excavations by the University of Chicago under the Auspices of the American School of Classical Studies, Vol. VIII: The Late Bronze Age Settlement and Early Iron Age Sanctuary.   Princeton:  The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1999.  Pp. xviii + 526, figs.  ISBN 0-87661-938-3.  102 (I.1-I.83, II.1, III.1, 1-17), plans 6, plates 74.  

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos, Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum (
Word count: 3662 words

This volume presents the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age pottery and other small finds from the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, by a scholar whose contributions on Early Iron Age Greece, particularly the greater area of the Corinthian Gulf, are seminal. The volume is a welcome addition to the early archaeology of the Isthmia and Corinthia, an important contribution to Early Iron Age Greece generally, and a critical volume in our understanding of the early history of the area that was to become the Sanctuary of Poseidon. It is, however, not an easy volume to use, one that would have benefited from a judicious editorial hand. Put bluntly, this is a very large book about a lot of very small fragments. Although meticulously researched, it is dense, not very clearly organized and difficult to navigate, even for those passionate about broken pieces of Mycenaean and Geometric pottery. Moreover, much of the discussion and supporting evidence that made its way into this volume is excessive and unrelated to Isthmia.

The study is divided into three parts. Illustrations, both line drawings and occasional photographs, are interspersed throughout the text as figures. In addition, each sub-section of the volume is followed by numerous plates or plans that go with that particular section. Although the volume is fully, and indeed very generously illustrated, the photographs and drawings are scattered throughout the book on a "need-to-know" basis, which, given the size of the volume, is not always convenient.

Part I deals with the material evidence. The introduction itself is not straightforward. Following two brief paragraphs, there is a section on the "geological evidence for the pre-eighth century topography of the central plateau" by Chris Hayward (3-14). Although presenting very important information, this would have been better as an appendix, with a summary of the key points appropriately noted in the introduction. Then there is a section on "the topography of the central Isthmian plateau" by the excavation director, Elizabeth Gebhard (15); followed by a "history of deposits around the central plateau," also by Gebhard (16-18). The introduction returns, finally, to the voice of Morgan, with a section on "the presentation of data from Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Isthmia" (19-29). This in itself is further divided into an introduction, which would have been helpful earlier on, then "chronology," and an overview as to the manner of data presentation in "the artifact catalogues." Under chronology there is a fairly lengthy review of Early Iron Age chronology, including the Thucydidean foundation dates and Pithekoussai Tomb 102, which hardly seems necessary in what is, essentially, the presentation of material from an excavation, particularly as Morgan herself does not challenge the validity of the conventional dates. A full page repeats Coldstream's well-known and often-published chronological table of the Early Iron Age. In short, there is a lot of padding here.

The catalogue of the pottery follows (Section I.2, 35-155, pls.1-64). This is a detailed presentation of selected sherds ranging in date from "Middle Helladic/Late Helledic I" through "Early Protocorinthian." The pottery is presented chronologically instead of stratigraphically because, as it turns out, it essentially derives from uninformative, redeposited contexts, although it is only later that we are clearly told (Section II, 231) that "the great majority of Mycenaean sherds come from excavations prior to 1989, when standards of excavation were variable and an unrecorded amount of the pottery from most contexts was discarded." This is unfortunate for one of the major excavation projects of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

The catalogue has to be read together with the various analyses of the material in Section II; it does not easily stand alone. The Myceanean pottery proper (nos.1-179) is followed by a small quantity of sherds identified as "Submycenaean/ Earliest Protogeometric" (nos.180-183), which are ostensibly dated on the basis of fabric and paint. Although I do not question these attributions, it is important to point out that the largest sherd of this period (no.182) has a maximum dimension of 0.053m, while the rest are considerably smaller. Next comes the Early Protogeometric (nos.184-187), a sum total of four sherds, followed by "Early Protogeometric onward" (nos.188-197), and, in turn, by "Middle Protogeometric" (nos.199-204). A closer look at the sherds, which are very fragmentary, many minuscule, and often extremely worn, makes me marvel all the more at the author's ability to assign such firm chronological divisions. Fragments are, as Sparkes and Talcott once warned (Agora XII, p.2), dangerous allies, and it seems that Morgan is not only splitting hairs here but attempting to fit the material in hand rather uncomfortably into a scheme that was, after all, not developed for Corinthian ceramic products. This is further highlighted in the next subdivision, labeled: "Late Protogeometric (Corinth and Athens)/Early Geometric I (Athens)" and precisely dated to ca. 900-875 B.C. (nos.205-237). What follows is equally unclear; the various divisions imposed on the material are, respectively, as follows: "Corinthian Early Geometric, Attic Early Geometric II/Middle Geometric I, ca.875-835/25 B.C." (nos.238-249). "Corinthian Early-Middle Geometric" (nos.250-257). "Corinthian and Attic Middle Geometric (nos.258-263). "Corinthian Middle Geometric II, Attic Middle Geometric II/Late Geometric Ia, ca. 800-750 B.C." (nos.264-297). "Corinthian and Attic Middle-Late Geometric" (nos.298-310). "Corinthian Late Geometric/Attic Late Geometric Ib-IIa, ca.750-720 B.C." (nos.311-369). "Corinthian and Attic Late Geometric, ca.750-700 B.C." (nos.370-403). "Thapsos Ware (LG-EPC)" (nos.404-405).

By the time we reach "Corinthian Early Protocorinthian" (nos.406-465), there is something of a sense of relief, as we return to a sequence well established thanks to the work of Johansen, Payne, Dunbabin and Robertson, Amyx, Benson and Neeft. But this sense of comfort does not last long, as the following section deals with "Argive Late Geometric, ca. 750-690 B.C." (nos.466-470) and "Lakonian Geometric" (nos.471-473). Whereas Athenian imports are subsumed under the blanket of various phases of Corinthian, Peloponnesian imports are clearly distinguished. In this there is a lack of consistency, and the obvious question is, why so? To be sure, we return--in the fullness of time--not only to the Attic imports, but to trans-Isthmian connections, some 150 pages further on, on page 291. It is exactly this "toing-and-froing" between the various sections of the book to simple questions that is so frustrating.

The catalogue ends with "eighth century Corinthian Plainwares ("Argive Monochrome")" (nos.475-480) and "Coarseware" (nos.481-490). On pages 152-155 there is a useful table of the pottery sorted according to quantity and weight. To be on the safe side, Morgan distinguishes between the material recovered before 1989 and that from the 1989 season, when all the pottery was retained and all the soil was sieved.

So far, my review of the catalogue may seem pedantic, but to avoid losing sight of the forest for the trees, I would like to step back for a moment and assess the "bigger picture." We have here a thorough account of just under 500 highly fragmentary pieces of pottery from largely redeposited contexts. Although the presentation of Mycenaean and Early Iron Age material from both sides of the divide between the two is admirable, a lot of trees had to die before the full significance of these small, worn fragments was made clear. Moreover, the material is presented according to an unwieldy scheme, especially for the Early Iron Age, that works nicely for Athens but not as well for the Corinthia/Isthmia. Furthermore, the central premise of the book, a Late Bronze Age settlement and Early Iron Age sanctuary, is far from clear on the basis of the material thus far presented.

The catalogue of the pottery is followed by the catalogue of the metal objects (Section I.3) penned by the late Isabelle Raubitschek. All of the pieces selected, a total of 19, are fully published in Isthmia VII (by Raubitschek). Although the presentation of the Early Iron Age metal objects (there are none of the Late Bronze Age) together with the contemporary pottery is convenient, is it unclear why previously published and fully discussed material is republished at such length, particularly as Isthmia VII appeared only a year earlier, in 1998.1 The metal objects do not end there. The following section (I.4), by Alastar Jackson, presents three possible early dedications of arms and armor at Isthmia (161-166). With no questioning why these bronzes were separated from the remainder of the metal objects, all three pieces (fragments from two helmets and a fragmentary South Italian spearhead) receive lengthy coverage. We learn, however, that their "full formal publication will follow in the volume on arms and armor in the Isthmia series" (p. 161).

The Late Bronze and Early Iron Age figurines are presented in Section I.5, by David Mitten (whose 1961 dissertation on the Isthmian terracottas awaits publication) together with Morgan. The Late Bronze Age examples are mainly small fragments of standard Phi and Psi figurines. Among the slightly more numerous Early Iron Age figurines, bulls predominate, though other types include human and horse figures, as well as a number of wheeled and hollow-bodied figures. The final category is, in many ways, the most interesting. There are three inventoried fragments of handmade terracotta boots (174-5, nos.F36-F38), very similar to the two celebrated pairs of "booties" in the Athenian Agora.2 Two of the Isthmian examples are Athenian imports, one is locally produced. I focus on these boots because, although they are fully discussed further on (336-338), their interpretation remains problematic. Under F36 Morgan lists a number of comparanda, of which the examples from the South Cemetery in Naxos are now fully published, with reference to further parallels.3 What is significant is that all of the complete known boots of this type were found in graves; the fragments from Isthmia are, to my knowledge, the only examples recovered from a non-funerary context. Furthermore, one of the Isthmian examples (F37) is burnt, whereas F36 is not; the same is true for the boots from the Athenian Agora, which were reconstructed from burnt and unburnt fragments. Indeed, had the Isthmian fragments been found redeposited in Classical, Hellenistic or later levels in the area of the Athenian Agora, they would quite reasonably be considered as debris from disturbed Early Iron Age cremation tombs. Although there is no evidence yet for Early Iron Age burials at Isthmia, the possibility of some material being redeposited from disturbed tombs is one that is not taken seriously by Morgan.

There are two final sections to Part I: "Late Bronze Age activity in the vicinity of the temenos," (Section I.6, 177-194), and "The location of Early Iron Age activity" (Section I.7, 195-227, by Gebhard). These two sections, which include a catalogue of all deposits (213-221), present critical contextual material that is essential for an understanding of the site. In some ways, this section may have been more useful toward the beginning of the volume and could easily have incorporated some of the topographical and geological sub-sections in the introduction.

Part II (229-343) is a full and meticulously researched analysis of the material described in Part I. It begins with the Bronze Age pottery (231-250), including an overview of the chronological phases and a useful list of shapes and decorative motifs. Some of the discussion here would have been extremely helpful earlier on, either in the introduction or, better still, together with the pottery in the catalogue. Section II.2 deals with the Bronze Age / Iron Age divide (251-259). Much of it goes over well-trodden ground, and some parts of this section, such as the lengthy discussion on the use of a "multiple brush," the mistaken notion of a "compass," and the incidence of concentric circles and semi-circles on the pottery at Kalapodi, have been overtaken and rendered out-of-date by a number of recent studies not available to the author.4 The account is overlong and adds little that is new, and as the author herself notes (251), the fact remains that there is no single stratified Corinthian sequence that spans the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition.

Section II.3 turns to the analysis of the Early Iron Age pottery; here a full discussion of the material verges on the excessive. Two examples will suffice. In her discussion of the figured wares, particularly pots with human figures, Morgan lets her hair down. On the basis of two minuscule sherds (nos.371-372), the largest with a maximum dimension of 0.044m, and neither preserving anything approaching a complete figure, Morgan waxes lyrical, page after page. On pages 279-280 she launches into a discussion of the Aktorione-Molione Siamese twins, the significance of which is difficult to fathom. Indeed, the discussion revolves around a fragmentary vessel from Corinth (inv. C-66-216), presented at some length in a forthcoming paper by DeVries that has nothing to do with Isthmia. Although I would welcome a study on Corinthian iconography by Morgan, a report presenting material from an excavation, particularly from a site that produced little figurative pottery, is hardly the appropriate venue. In a similar vein, five tiny fragments of the Thapsos Class, of which only two were inventoried (nos.404-405), receive, in addition to their catalogue entries, over four dense pages of discussion. For anyone in search of all you needed to know about Thapsos but were afraid to ask, the quest stops here. The fact of the matter, however, is that the two illustrated pieces (one of which is illustrated in a photograph over life-size!), contribute virtually nothing to our understanding of the Thapsos class, apart from confirming, once again, the rarity of the type in the Corinthia.5

In many ways, Section II.4 (295-343) is pivotal, as it deals with the nature of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age activity at Isthmia. It begins with a significant question: continuity of cult? In the attempt to identify a sanctuary, the reader is subjected to a patronizing lecture that seems aimed more at undergraduates than to professional colleagues. Morgan reviews behavioral correlates of cult activity, drawing significantly on the seminal contributions of Renfrew,6 as well as Pilafidis-Williams,7 including the reprinting of whole slabs of their work, with the appropriate permission. Again, this is excessive. It may have been deemed necessary had Phylakopi I or Pilafidis-William's 1998 study of the Sanctuary of Aphaia on Aigina been out-of-print or impossible to find, but these are recent and accessible studies. What was needed here was a succinct, theoretically and methodically informed summary. Rather, Morgan goes over, once more, the evidence of the context, the pottery, the metalwork, the terracotta figurines, before even addressing the identification of activity and the deity worshipped. The same material will be used again in Section III, in order to arrive at an interpretation.

The lengthy Section III (347-482) is a monograph on its own, and I wonder whether parts of it should not have appeared as a separate study (or studies). Isthmia and the Late Bronze Age Corinthia are reviewed (347-367) against the backdrop of the Argolid and the greater Corinthia, including Corinth, Perachora, Solygeia, the area of Sikyon, as well as Nemea and Zygouries. There is even a nice overview of the "Mycenaean wall" at the Isthmus (362-365), though I would not have thought to look in this volume for such detail on the subject. All of this evidence is brought to bear in an attempt to reiterate, once more, that there is no archaeological evidence for specialist cult installations of any sort in the Late Bronze Age Corinthia. Accordingly, the area of the plateau at Isthmia is considered the site of a small settlement(s) during the Late Bronze Age. More than this, the end of the Mycenaean period, according to Morgan, sees--in all probability--a hiatus before the resumption of activity in the Early Iron Age. If we return to the material itself, then these are conclusions based on very little evidence: four fragments of Submycenaean/Earliest Protogeometric, and four fragments of Early Protogeometric. To what extent such a hiatus is real, or the result of the manner in which certain scraps of pottery were retrieved and analyzed, or the result of imposing a predetermined chronological sequence based on evidence outside Isthmia that does not fit, remains moot. Be that as it may, the first evidence for cult activity for Morgan dates from the start of the Protogeometric period. The remainder of Section III.2 (369-400) deals with the early development of the Isthmian Sanctuary, ca.1050-800 B.C. Here, too, Morgan casts her net wide, to include discussion of other early shrines, such as Olympia, Kalapodi, the Amyklaion, and various sites in the Argolid. The motivation for the institution of cult on the Isthmian plateau is also discussed (with further comparanda), as is the evidence for status and wealth in early Isthmia, the relation between Isthmia and Corinth, and the rise of the latter.

The next phase of the Sanctuary is treated in Section III.3 which covers the eighth century B.C., a time long recognized as a key period of change throughout the Greek world. The material evidence is again reviewed and seems to point to two stages of activity: an early phase of steady escalation of "sanctuary activity" and a later phase, when the range of offerings increase, and the first constructed feature appears. Again, these are conclusions based on little physical evidence from Isthmia itself and more on evidence from other sites; there may even be something of a desire to fit Isthmia into a scheme already predetermined for other large sanctuaries, such as Olympia or Delphi. Also reviewed is the relation between Isthmia and Corinth, so, too, external relations. Mythology receives an airing, particularly the role of the Athenian hero Theseus at the Isthmus. Something of a link is even tentatively hypothesized between Theseus' relationship to Athens, the presence of Athenian Early Iron Age pottery at Isthmia, and the later grant to the Athenians of the proedria at the Isthmian games (see esp. 423). The section ends with some brief remarks on Corinthian shrines of the early seventh century.

The end matter of the volume includes a wonderfully brief site summary (431-433), to which every reader must first go, an appendix on the Late Bronze Age activity in the vicinity of the Isthmian plateau (435-447), another on the distribution of non-ceramic finds (448-449), and a third on the distribution of the Early Iron Age pottery (450-466). A final appendix provides a gazetteer of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age activity in the Corinthia (467-482), an important piece of work that would have made a nice article. There is a long bibliography (483-517), a concordance of catalogued material by inventory number (519-522), and an index (523-526).

The "history" of the Isthmian Sanctuary presented in this volume seems straightforward. But if we strip away, for a moment, all the layers of discussion, as well as all consideration as to what happened at other sites, and focus just on the material presented in this volume, then, once more, we are faced with little scraps of pottery, a few metal objects, some figurines, and quantities of animal bone. True, there is some indication for "locations of activity." The evidence, however, is very limited indeed. There is a path at the southeast side of the central plateau that appears to have been in use during the eighth century; a few postholes near the western end, suggesting a small temporary wooden structure (not a priori cultic), and another path leading to a surface on the plateau in the vicinity of the later Long Altar and Archaic Temple (see 212). A skeptic may even state that all we have, at the end of the day, is the fill for a big Archaic temple. If we overlook, for a moment, other sites in the Corinthia or the Peloponnese, and focus on Athens, then we have another possible interpretation. It is clear that the construction of the Archaic Parthenon in the sanctuary on the Athenian Akropolis required thousands of tons of fill to be brought up to the citadel from other parts of the site. Is such a scenario possible in the case of Isthmia? Could it be that virtually all of the material presented in this volume was brought in from elsewhere--from other parts of the site, both nearby and more distant, including disturbed tombs and various other installations--to create the necessary foundation for the temple and temenos? Could it be that the leveling fill containing the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age pottery and other small finds was deposited in the Archaic period and, as such, represents not prehistoric activity in the immediate area, but a construction episode dating sometime after ca.700 B.C.?

In conclusion, it is clear that this is an important volume for our understanding of a major site in Greece, one ranging in date from the earliest stages of the Late Bronze Age, through the Archaic period, and well beyond. The quality of production, including copy editing, is typical of the high standards we have come to expect from the publications office of the American School of Classical Studies. The volume, suffers, however, from a lack of editorial input at a higher level; the author should have been reined in by those responsible for overseeing the publication of this material, first and foremost the excavation director. For the truth is that this volume contains a good deal more than its title suggests and includes material well beyond the stated scope of the Isthmia series as outlined by the director.8 Indeed, Christopher Pfaff's publication of 141 fragments of Early Iron Age pottery from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth, including small quantities of bronzes and a discussion of early graves, all from a context not unlike that of Isthmia, was presented in detail in an 80-page paper.9 Between the latter and the 526 pages devoted to 490 fragments in Isthmia VIII there is, surely, a manageable compromise and perhaps even an ideal length for a study of this sort. I raise these issues as one responsible for the publication of contemporary material from another large excavation project. If all pottery from such projects were to be published according to the system adopted in Isthmia VIII, the result would be an unwieldy series of volumes of uncertain, if not questionable, value.


1.   See my review of Isthmia VII in Classical Review 1999, 615-616.

2.   R.S. Young, "An Early Geometric Grave Near the Athenian Agora," Hesperia 18, 1949, 275-297.

3.   N. Kourou, Anaskaphes Naxou, Athens 1999, 64-69.

4.   R.C.S. Felsch, ed., Kalapodi: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen im Heiligtum der Artemis und des Apollon von Hyampolis in der antiken Phokis, I, Mainz 1996, especially the definitive publication of the Late Mycenaean through Early Protogeometric pottery by Margrit Jacob-Felsch. The latter corrects many of the earlier published statements on the pieces from the site with concentric circles (see also my review in JHS 119, 1999, p. 217). For the pivoted multiple brush, see now J.K. Papadopoulos, J.F. Vedder and T. Schreiber, "Drawing Circles: Experimental Archaeology and the Pivoted Multiple Brush," AJA 102, 1998, 507-529.

5.   Compare the more judicious treatment of a similarly small sample of Thapsos Class pottery from the Corinth published in C.A. Pfaff, "The Early Iron Age Pottery from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth," Hesperia 68, 1999, 58-59.

6.   A.C. Renfrew, The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi (Phylakopi I), London 1985; see also id., "The Archaeology of Religion," in A.C. Renfrew and E. Zubrow, eds., The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology, Cambridge 1994, 47-54.

7.   K. Pilafidis-Williams, The Sanctuary of Aphaia in the Bronze Age, Munich 1998.

8.   E.R. Gebhard, "Preface," in Isthmia VIII, pp. vii-viii.

9.   See above, note 5.

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