Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.26

Nicholas Cahill, Household and City Organization at Olynthus.   New Haven & London:  Yale University Press, 2002.  Pp. xii + 383.  ISBN 0-300-08495-1.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Ruth Westgate, School of History & Archaeology, Cardiff University (
Word count: 1659 words

The excavation of Olynthos, with its numerous well-preserved houses, is one of the most important in Greek archaeology: it is one of our principal sources for the everyday life and work of the inhabitants of a Classical city. The architecture and finds from the site were published very promptly by the excavator, David M. Robinson, and his collaborators in a series of fourteen volumes (Excavations at Olynthus, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929-1952). Robinson originally planned a fifteenth volume, synthesising the results, but it was never written. Fifty years later, Nicholas Cahill's book fills that gap.

But the availability of computers has allowed Cahill to study the site in ways that Robinson could never have imagined. He has analysed the distribution of the finds -- a mammoth project that involved reassessing the context of every object, both published and unpublished, and checking the published accounts against Robinson's field notes -- in order to understand how the space in the houses was used. However, this is not simply a book about houses. It throws light on many of the debates that currently dominate Greek archaeology and history: the relationship between pottery and metalware; relations between men and women in the household; the role of democratic ideology in city-planning; and the nature of the ancient economy.

Cahill rejects the normative approach adopted by most studies of Greek housing (in its most extreme form, by W. Hoepfner and E.-L. Schwandner, Haus und Stadt im klassischen Griechenland, second edition: Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1994), in favour of one which focuses on the diversity of house-plans and domestic arrangements. Olynthos, of course, is one of the few sites where it is possible to do this effectively, because of the large number of houses that have been excavated. He highlights the limitations of a purely statistical analysis, as applied for instance by Nevett (House and Society in the Ancient Greek World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), which is liable to reflect biases in deposition, preservation and recording, and chooses instead an almost anecdotal method of reconstructing activities, by trying to identify 'toolkits' of objects that might have been used together. The result is a subtly argued, illuminating and rewarding book. It is complemented by a website, which (when complete) will provide access to the database of all the finds, linked to their findspots on a new digital plan of the city.

The opening chapter briefly surveys Greek theories of city-planning, drawing on the surviving remains of planned cities as well as on literary sources, and trying to understand the role of the enigmatic Hippodamos of Miletos; in particular, it focuses on ancient ideas about the relationship between social structure and the physical structure of the city.

Chapter Two is a concise introduction to the history and remains of Olynthos, showing how the physical development of the city was shaped by historical events. Particularly careful attention is paid to the final days of the city, during which the archaeological assemblages retrieved in the excavation were created: Cahill modifies the usual picture of sudden destruction, reconstructing instead a more complex process of abandonment, looting and salvaging, probably over a period of years, both before and after 348. In view of the importance of Olynthos for the chronology of Greek archaeology, he devotes a lengthy section to addressing the doubts that still linger about the validity of the terminus ante quem of 348. His answer, that only a small area in the north-west quarter of the North Hill was occupied after the sack, is based on an ingenious analysis which compares the distribution of Macedonian royal coins which are securely dated after 348 with that of less precisely dated coins which might possibly date after 348: he demonstrates that the latter are distributed all over the site, whereas the definitely post-348 coins are concentrated in the north-west area. He also outlines the methods of excavation and recording used by Robinson and his team, in order to expose the biases and inaccuracies that limit any analysis of the finds.

After outlining the broad characteristics that the houses have in common, Cahill selects thirteen individual houses to illustrate the variety that existed within the seemingly uniform ranks of grid-planned boxes. The assemblages from each of these houses are described in detail, room by room (illustrated by useful diagrams showing the finds plotted onto the house-plans), in an attempt to reconstruct patterns of activity. The sceptical reader might have concerns about the danger of reading too much into the small numbers of objects that have survived salvaging, looting and incomplete recording, but Cahill is careful to assess how much is likely to be missing and honest about the limitations of each step in the argument. And, although his reasoning is often bold, the patterns of variation between assemblages in different houses are sufficiently coherent and striking to suggest that they were produced by something more than the random chances of survival.

The core of the book presents interpretations of these patterns, with the aim of understanding the social, economic and practical considerations that shaped the houses and their contents. One chapter centres on the evergreen question of male and female space, which he addresses by studying the distribution of 'gendered' artefacts, such as food preparation equipment, looms and kraters. Inevitably, no clear division of space is discernible, but the analysis produces results which challenge conventional assumptions about what the apparently function-specific room-types in the Olynthian houses were actually used for in practice, as well as throwing interesting sidelights on other issues. The distinctive 'oecus units', for instance, which are usually thought to be the place where the women of the household carried out their domestic tasks, produced relatively little evidence for such activities, a circumstance that Cahill explains by the fact that Olynthos was sacked in the summer, when most activities might have moved to the courtyard; likewise the purpose-built dining rooms yielded very little material at all. Surprisingly, kraters were hardly ever found in dining rooms, or even stored elsewhere in the houses that had recognisable rooms designed for symposia; instead, most were found in houses with no specialised dining facilities, and a disproportionate number in the irregular dwellings on the South Hill. This, along with the small number of pottery cups found at the site, suggests very strongly that by the mid-fourth century at least, most of the inhabitants of Olynthos were using metal vessels at their symposia.

Chapter Five looks at the factors that governed the planning of the residential blocks. Cahill rejects Hoepfner and Schwandner's theory of Typenhäuser whose original uniformity has been obscured by later alterations, on the grounds that few houses revealed traces of large-scale rebuilding; he stresses instead the role of individual choices made at the time of building. His experiments with different forms of cluster analysis suggested that the diversity produced by these numerous individual decisions is best understood in terms of five broad categories. The two largest groupings consisted of houses with regular plans that included several architecturally specialised rooms (such as purpose-built dining rooms and kitchens), and those with similarly regular plans but with fewer or no specialised spaces; in addition there were a small number of irregular houses, several with one or more shops on their street frontages, and one apparently non-residential unit (A.v.8, a half-plot occupied mainly by two dining rooms). Significant patterns can be identified in the distribution of these 'types': as one might expect, the houses with shops are concentrated along the wide north-south avenues; the more irregular houses tend to be near the Agora; and the houses with regular and specialised plans are the most likely to have painted walls and mortar or mosaic floors. Houses in the same block or row tend to be of the same type, which Cahill attributes to co-operation between householders when the houses were built; to permit this, he proposes a process of land distribution that would have enabled people with similar needs or priorities to group themselves together, taking as a model a decree from Korkyra Melaina, which seems to stipulate that settlers will choose their plots of land in an order determined by lot.

The final chapter directs the evidence onto the economy, attempting to distinguish commercial from purely domestic production. Once again, the aim is to show the variety of economic strategies pursued by the Olynthian households, and once again distinctive and interesting patterns emerge. The larger, grander houses in the Villa Section seem to have had facilities for large-scale storage of agricultural produce, whereas none of the houses on the North Hill had storage capacity for longer than a short period; conversely, the distribution of coins and industrial and craft equipment showed a marked preponderance towards the North Hill. In other words, some of the inhabitants of Olynthos seem to have relied on the traditional strategy of producing and storing their own food, while others engaged in a variety of trades -- agricultural processing, textile production, manufacture, commerce -- and perhaps were more heavily involved in the monetary economy. The arguments in this section are particularly bold, conjuring up domestic industries often from the most exiguous evidence, and many questions are raised which only a field survey of the Olynthian chora might help to answer, but the final picture has the authentic messiness of real life. The conclusions cut right across the debate about the 'primitive' or 'modern' character of the economy: they suggest that, in a sense, everyone is right.

This well-written and enjoyable book is a significant advance in the study of Greek houses, moving away from over-simplified interpretations based on architectural form and towards a recognition of social and economic diversity; it should stimulate debate for years to come, and the associated database will provide an important resource for future research. But it derives much of its fascination from the insight it provides into the minutiae of individual lives: Cahill's imaginative reconstructions seem to repopulate the houses of Olynthos with real, living people.

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