Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.34

Michael Lindblom, Marks and Makers. Appearance, Distribution and Function of Middle and Late Helladic Manufacturers' Marks on Aeginetan Pottery. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology CXXVIII.   Jonsered:  Paul Astroms Förlag, 2001.  Pp. 153.  ISBN 91-7081-179-2.  $28.50.  

Reviewed by Carol Zerner, University of North Carolina at Greensboro (
Word count: 2107 words

[On a personal note: I have taken an interest in the work of M. Lindblom (L.), his dissertation for the doctoral degree at Uppsala University, from its beginning: a fair percentage of the pots he studied are from Middle Helladic (MH, or Middle Bronze Age, MBA) deposits at the site of Lerna, Greece, which I am preparing for publication. In the fall of 2001, I acted as Opponent in the public discussion of this book, a requirement for the completion of a Ph.D. in Sweden.]

The minds and hearts of the women and men who lived in Greece in MH (ca. 2000-1500 BC) will never be fully open to us. No writing of any kind that would reveal their thoughts has been preserved, and we must be content with interpretations of their exterior life, their material remains. The objects they crafted by hand do radiate with their spirit, and the pottery, especially, not only retains the actual traces of their fingertips but also reveals their technical skill and artistic sense of design. However, the marks that were drawn or scratched on pots by potters for a purpose other than decoration could reveal something deeper, a meaning communicated by a "written" sign. Such marks have been found on ceramic vessels in prehistoric Greece beginning as early as the Neolithic period, but it is only in the MBA that they appear to be part of marking systems that can be linked to potting traditions or centers in certain areas, for example Crete, the Cyclades and the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf.

Aeginetan potters, working with the excellent clay of their volcanic island, were highly skilled and by the beginning of MH had developed a flourishing export industry. In the book under review, L. presents a large corpus of Aeginetan vessels which had been marked with signs before firing. Numbering 1143, these marks come from 23 different sites and range in date from early MH through Late Helladic (LH) III. Almost 500 come from Kolonna, the main prehistoric settlement on Aegina, considered by L. to be the most likely location of a center of specialized ceramic production and distribution. The largest part of the text is taken up by a catalogue of the marks, most of which are illustrated by line drawings in the plates at the back. These drawings are very well executed and enhanced by clear black-and-white and color (a few) photographs. L.'s work will be of great interest not only to specialists in the Aegean Bronze Age, but also to those concerned with pottery production in other areas and periods of history.

In Chapter 1, the history of research on Aegean potters' marks is surveyed. From the first recognition of such marks in the 19th century to the present, corpora of markings (pre-firing and post-firing) have been assembled from all over the Aegean, especially of Minoan and Cypriote but also of Mainland Greek and Cycladic origin. Numerous theories concerning their meaning have been advanced and attempts made to link them with known writing systems, i.e., hieroglyphic, Linear A and B, and Cypro-Minoan. Most of the pre-firing marks, however, do not fit into these systems and have been variously explained as makers' marks, trademarks, indications of pre-ordered pots, or notations of vessel capacity, contents, destination, etc. In addition to the prehistoric Aegean examples, L. discusses the pre-firing marks of modern, traditional potters who use them to identify their own or their family's products. It is this question of meaning and function that informs the entire work: the appearance and distribution of Aeginetan pottery, the subjects of Chapters 2 through 4, are necessary elements in answering that question.

In Chapter 2, the Aeginetan potting tradition is discussed, including the ceramic wares, shapes and decoration, and the spatial and temporal distribution of the exports. In the 1920's, early on in Aegean pottery studies, Aeginetan products were identified on the basis of distinctive characteristics: decorative style, some vessel shapes, and a visually distinguishable fabric or clay type containing sparkling, gold-colored bits of mica. However, it was only in the last quarter of the century that a wide range of Aeginetan pots, many bearing pre-firing marks, were noted at a number of sites on the mainland and that a picture of an organized export industry in ceramics on the island began to emerge.

In early MH, pots exported from Aegina began to appear with some regularity at mainland sites on or near the coast such as Lerna and Asine in the Argolid (sites which have yielded the largest number of marks outside of the island of Aegina itself). As time passed, distribution expanded and Aeginetan pots reached many sites, primarily in the area around the Saronic Gulf, Attica, the Argolid and Corinthia as well as the Cyclades. They also reached other areas such as Euboea, Boeotia and Central Greece, Arcadia, Laconia, and the western Peloponnese, Crete, and as far away as Italy (Table 9, pp. 43-44).

Researchers now identify Aeginetan pots by the distinctive appearance of their fabric, a wide range of shapes and decorative styles, and by the methods the potters used in their manufacture. In support of these macroscopic observations, scientific analyses have provided a chemical and petrographic characterization of Aeginetan clay. Six classes of wares were produced: Dark Burnished, Painted and Burnished, Matt Painted, Bichrome Painted, Plain and coarse Kitchen ware. These classes appear in shapes and fabrics that covered all everyday household needs, from eating and drinking to mixing and pouring, storing (both liquid and dry), and heating or cooking over a fire (see L.'s very useful chart of shapes, p. 26).

Throughout MH and well into LH, the Aeginetan potters produced this full range of vessels which were evidently popular, perhaps necessary, items in the households able to procure them. L. demonstrates that by LH IIIB, however, there had been a major change in the industry (p. 41): export was now restricted to cooking vessels, jars and tripods, many still bearing pre-firing marks. This shift in production strategy is an important one, possibly reflecting a number of factors, including the changing demands of consumers and/or altered social or economic conditions of the potters themselves. L. reasonably suggests that in later LH Mycenaean pottery had taken over much of the export market, compelling the Aeginetans to concentrate on a single vessel type. Resistance to thermal shock is a well-known quality of volcanic clays, and the Aeginetan cooking pot, perfected over the centuries, would have been an attractive, durable product.

In Chapter 3, L. produces his typology of Aeginetan marks, which are fairly simple in form, either incised or cut into, impressed in or applied to the surface of vessels, usually in places where they could not easily be seen. He identifies five elements (an element is the smallest component used in the creation of a mark): 1) linear incisions or impressions, 2) cuts in the baseline, 3) impressed dots, triangular wedges or irregular grooves, 4) shallow ovals or elongations and 5) applied bits of clay, pellets or strings. These elements appear alone and in various combinations which are organized and categorized as mark types. L. has isolated 316 mark types separated into 10 major groupings according to the position of the mark on the vessels; for example below the base, at or near the baseline, on the shoulder, the handle, etc. (Figs. 13-16, pp. 48-51). These types are charted according to ceramic classes and vessel shapes.

Such a large compilation of marks from a recognized source of production has never been undertaken before, and the results of L.'s work are of great significance. He has studied in detail, drawn, and photographed pieces from 23 sites: from the Saronic Gulf (Kolonna on Aegina, Apatheia Galatas and Ayios Konstantinos); from the Cyclades (Ayia Irini on Kea); from the Argolid (Asine, Berbati, Lerna, Midea, Mycenae, Synoro and Tiryns); from the Corinthia (Gonia, Korakou, Loutraki and Tsoungiza); from the Megarid (Pagai); from Attica (Athens, Eleusis, Kaki Thalassa, Kiapha Thiti, Makronisos and Vari); and from Boeotia (Hyria Dramesi). As L. admits, this is a limited number of marks and the list will be expanded by marks he was not able to study, by new marks found in new excavations as well as by others not yet recognized in older excavated material. All of these can be slotted into the functional typological framework established by L.

In Chapter 4, an attempt is made to define the characteristic traits of the marking system by examining the occurrences of mark types in particular ceramic classes and vessel shapes, both at different settlements and in various chronological periods. L. documents the use of these marks by groups of potters on Aegina over a period of almost nine centuries. He has discovered some important changes that can be used to establish a chronology for Aeginetan products and also to relate the history of the industry to the larger history of the Aegean area in MH and LH. These changes are, chronologically:

1) In the earliest years of MH, the marking system came into use at the same time that the pottery industry began to be organized for export.

2) In MH I and II, L. notes that a distinction was made between some ceramic classes and the kinds of marks used on them: tableware was marked with a certain set of mark types and in inconspicuous places on the vessels; cooking pots and some storage pots, on the other hand, were regularly marked in a prominent place on the shoulder with certain mark types combined with plastic pellets.

3) In late MH, there were major changes in the industry, including the introduction of new shapes and decorative classes as well as increased production and expanded distribution. At that time the use and placement of marks became more consistent and the distinction between certain classes (tableware and cooking wares) no longer existed.

4) The industry continued to produce its accustomed range of pottery in early LH.

5) The next major change occurred sometime during LH IIIA to IIIB when production was reduced to one ceramic class, cooking pots.

6) The final change was the cessation of production sometime late in LH IIIC, probably contemporary with the abandonment of Kolonna.

In Chapter 5, L. reviews the evidence and examines the question of the meaning and function of the marks. He rules out designations of capacity or contents: the same mark types are found on vessels of different ceramic classes or wares and of different sizes in the same classes. He rejects designations of destination: the same mark types are found on vessels from different sites in different regions. There are no correlations with established writing systems. No archaeological evidence from Kolonna suggests that the marks were used to label agrarian products exported from the site: it appears that the pottery was produced for the purpose of consumption as pottery, not as containers for goods.

Using ethnographic analogies and providing extensive detail, L. argues that the Aeginetan marks correspond most closely to the marks of potters who work closely together, sharing both ceramic traditions (producing pots that were very similar in appearance) and work spaces (for example, firing in the same kilns). The individual potters or kin groups would distinguish their own products from those of other groups by placing on them their special marks. This argument is convincing and the most reasonable at our present state of knowledge. However, many questions remain. Although a potters' kiln has been excavated at Kolonna and many wasters found in the excavations, working areas or workshops of potters have not yet been identified. We know there was an important ceramic industry on the island but we know nothing about the individual potters, nothing about how or where they worked.

This economically profitable, well-organized industry is linked by L. to the evidence for a ranked society and a powerful elite already emerging on Aegina in early MH. The settlement at Kolonna possessed impressive fortification walls, indication of a strong centralized authority; an important burial of an elite warrior in a shaft grave dating to late MH II (predating similar graves from the Shaft Grave period on the mainland) has been found at the site. Matt Painted pots from Kolonna bearing representations of ships carrying armed warriors imply militarized seafaring. These pieces of evidence are given a solid framework by L., who clearly defines and documents an intensive, specialized ceramic industry geared for export, the first of its kind in the Aegean world.

Errata and desiderata: There are some typographical errors but these are minor. More important is the lack of an index which would have made the volume more useful to the reader.

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:03, Friday, 03 April 2009