Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.20

A. Coulié, La céramique thasienne à figures noires.   Athens:  École Français d'Athènes (Paris: De Boccard), 2002.  Pp. 256; pls. 102.  ISBN 2-86958-148-3.  EUR 100.00.  

Reviewed by Sara Owen, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge (
Word count: 986 words

Archaic Thasos provides an important case study for the discussion of 'Greek colonization'. According to Coulié (hereafter C.) the available evidence indicates a flourishing community, with its own distinctive styles and identity, which inhabited the "frontier between Greece and the barbarian world" (p. 182). C.'s interest is in one particular aspect of the evidence for this period -- the black figure pottery.

La céramique thasienne à figure noire is a sophisticated discussion of a very fragmentary data set. The book is divided into two sections. A short introduction sets the scene and discusses the history of research into this material. Here the object of C.'s research is made clear. She has studied more than 3000 sherds belonging to around 640 pots. Unlike many such data sets, the find-spots of these were almost exclusively sanctuaries and houses. Her aim has been to produce a coherent classification system for this material, attributing the pots to individual hands and workshops. This introduction is followed by a full catalogue, which is divided into three generations, with a final section for unattributed pots.

The second part of the book is the synthesis, divided into four chapters and a conclusion.

Chapter 1 'La question de la localisation: comment justifier l'appelation thasienne?' discusses the evidence that justifies the identification of a distinct Thasian type of black figure pottery. C. claims that there is a coherent group of pots which not only have hands distinctive from those of the imports but also distinctive fabric. She also argues that the iconographical choices, such as the representation of dance and the repetition of certain myths and deities which are of principal importance on Thasos (Apollo and Artemis, Herakles and Dionysos, for example) corroborate the concept of a local Thasian tradition. This chapter also addresses the issue of diffusion. The influence of this style is limited to Thasos (and not even all areas of Thasos1) and its peraia.

Chapter 2 'Le style' addresses the wider issue of a Thasian style, asking the question: does a distinctive Thasian style exist? C. answers this in the affirmative, suggesting that in many areas of craftsmanship (architecture, sculpture and ceramic) the Thasian style evolved through the selective and creative use of diverse influences. She notes two tendencies in ceramics: first, limited and selective borrowings within a local tradition, second, literal imitations of styles such as Chiot and Attic. Thus she sees the key to Thasian style as eclecticism: "L'éclectisme constitue, de façon durable, un principe fondamental dans l'évolution du style thasien" (p. 176). She also briefly notes the choices exerted by the Thasians -- whilst Attic styles are influential, for example, there is, interestingly, no attraction at Thasos for images of Thracians, which are so popular in Attic black figure. C. puts this down to the different situations of the two cities, asserting that the Thasians have a need constantly to assert and defend their Greek identity in the face of the 'barbarian' world (pp. 179-82). This latter point betrays assumptions concerning the nature of Archaic Greek 'colonization' (and indeed a characterization of the Thracians) that I do not share. However, this chapter is well argued and, importantly, calls attention to the fact that Thasos created its own material identity -- it was not simply a transplanted version of the material culture of Paros.

Chapter 3 'L'atelier' comprises a well ordered and intelligent discussion of the issue of attribution to individual hands and to workshops, followed by a discussion of the evolution of styles in individual workshops. C. shows here that she is fully aware of the issues surrounding the identification of painters and workshops. She has, for example, taken on board Sparkes' important point that such attribution can be seen as pandering to the art market, and, indeed, encourage the looting of archaeological sites (p. 184). She argues however that attribution allows us to approach the issue of the professional organization of pot production. She straddles the line between those who emphasize individual hands and those more interested in collective style, suggesting that these approaches can be reconciled by viewing the relationship between the two as dialectical (p. 185). She is keen to discuss the dynamics of the workshops she identifies -- her classification is not simply descriptive. The available evidence, according to C., indicates an integrated community of craftsmen situated (in Limenas) around two small centres of production. In addition, she proposes that immigration of pot painters (in particular of the 'Peintre chiote') may have occurred (pp. 214-15).

Chapter 4 'La chronologie' discusses the chronological issues with reference to archaeological context, images on coins, chronologies of ceramic imitated by Thasian workshops, and the stylistic evolution of these Thasian workshops. It is only here, and briefly, that the archaeological contexts of these fragments are addressed at all.

This book is in a particular genre -- the genre of catalogue and stylistic analysis of pottery. Of its type it is very successful. The catalogue is full and detailed, the synthesis is well argued, the plates are excellent and, crucially, enough detail is given that one could reanalyse the data. C. has done an admirable job. However, the fact that this is a catalogue of sherds from sanctuary and domestic contexts, as opposed to a catalogue which contains unprovenanced whole pots, draws attention to one of the strangest aspects of such publications. This genre isolates the ceramic from its archaeological context, and, more specifically, from the assemblages in which it was found. We gain no real idea from the synthesis, for example, of how the pots were being used, or of what kinds of pots (and which kinds of decoration) were used in which contexts. Whilst I would not deny that the stylistic and workshop analysis gives us interesting information about the ways in which new material cultural identities were forged in the new 'Greek' settlement, a contextual analysis of this archaeological material could perhaps shed even more light upon this fascinating process.


1.   It is noted, for example, that this style is absent from Aliki in the south of the island.

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