Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.30

Maria Berg Briese, Leif Erik Vaag, Trade Relations in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity: The Ceramic Evidence. Halicarnassian Studies 3.   Odense:  University Press of Southern Denmark, 2005.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 87-7838-958-5.  DKK 250.00.  

Reviewed by Jane Francis, Concordia University (
Word count: 2456 words

Table of Contents

This volume of essays on Hellenistic and Roman pottery is based on a conference held at the University of Aarhus in 1998. It brings together established scholars with graduate students, and the resulting publication is a happy outcome for all. There are eighteen articles, along with a brief preface and introductory remarks; a list of abbreviations and a unified bibliography are located at the end. Drawings, plates, and endnotes are published within the individual texts.

The aims are outlined in the Introductory Remarks: to see how ceramic evidence can be used to study trade routes and contact in the eastern Mediterranean. The geographical limitation was enforced because of the large body of scholarship already existing for the western Mediterranean, which is better known and offers evidence like kiln sites, typologies, and shipwrecks. While our understanding of the west has had considerable influence upon interpretations of the east, the east and its ceramic traditions remain more unclear.

Topics as large and unwieldy as trade and exchange and ancient ceramics naturally produce the eclecticism observed in this publication. Several large, overarching themes are repeated, implied, or emphasized, although they are not necessarily present in each offering. These seem to strike at the core of the topic of trade, and it thus seems appropriate to approach the volume accordingly, rather than review each chapter separately.

Several articles stand outside these themes. An overview of recent developments (J.W. Hayes), the first chapter, illustrates well the gaps in scholarship and knowledge of chronology, typology, distribution, and production. Numerous specific examples show how omissions and misconceptions can be corrected with current finds and interpretations, but also demonstrate how pottery can be used to understand relationships and influences between different parts of the Mediterranean.

Another chapter that stands on its own, albeit it with broader implications for all ceramic studies, is a consideration of the economic arrangement of a potter's workshop (J. Poblome and R. Brulet). Written documents, including legal agreements, and papyri are used to establish a model for ceramic production, with consideration of the roles of slaves, landowners, potters, contractors, and sub-contractors. The authors offer a theoretical starting point for scholars, before they attack the sherds, and it is an intriguing, if hypothetical stance, as they themselves admit. There is only scanty documentary evidence for production centers, let alone for the social and cultural positions and relationships of the workers, from the landowner on down. Perhaps the next step could be to correlate available written evidence for a specific workshop with fabric analysis to determine precisely what was produced: the workshop set up for a widely disseminated ware like Eastern Sigillata A would probably differ from a regional storage vessel.

One of the major issues of trade and exchange is the relationship of one site or region with another. This is easily enough documented, on the face of it, by the identification of vessels that come from somewhere else. One stray find may be significant, but it pales in comparison to a larger assemblage that may document a long-term or frequent pattern of exchange. This volume offers a number of such studies, and they take different forms. The most straightforward examples outline imported finds, lay these quantitatively beside 'local' ceramics, and draw conclusions regarding preferences, trade routes, and availability, within a context of regional history. Changes in ceramic material are seen to document or reflect societal, political and/or economic changes. At late Hellenistic/early Roman Knidos (P. Kögler), the site is marked by imports from Pergamon and Ephesos, with little movement in the other direction; the Roman phase sees the production of local pottery surpass imports, including imitations of Pergamene and Italian shapes, some of which are themselves exported. This may be a response to growing pressure from nearby production centers and a desire to assert a flagging local economy.

Preferences of the purchaser or access to certain types of imports may underlie changes seen in eastern Macedonia, where four pottery groups were studied (V.K. Malamidou), each from a different type of context. These show local Roman traditions based on pre-existing Hellenistic trends but also on an increasing taste for imported fine wares from Asia Minor. At the Roman colony of Knossos, on Crete, a study of the imported fine wares (G. Forster) identifies trade contacts: one of the two deposits studied is dominated by C,andarli ware, the other by Phocaean red slip. This shift, again, probably reflects tastes but also availability.

An investigation of a late antique farmstead at Berbati (J. Hjohlman) demonstrates that ceramic study can change preconceived notions about a site or area, especially when attention is turned to coarse wares. The imported fine wares here are minimal, which might suggest an isolated site with little external contact, but the coarse wares tell a different story. Local amphoras indicate wine production and agricultural self-sufficiency, while foreign vessels confirm connections with the outside economic world.

The most dramatic evidence for trade certainly comes from R. Tomber, who outlines trade routes between India and the Roman world. This topic may come as a surprise to scholars unused to considering India when plotting ceramic distribution and trade, and the array of common Mediterranean wares found there, even in small amounts, is staggering. Amphoras confirm the import of wine to India, but this evidence should not be used to identify trade routes; this material probably served a small number of Roman merchants and traders exploiting the commodities of this rich, exotic country that supplied luxury items like spices, herbs, and rice to wealthy Romans.

This last article on India emphasizes another aspect of this volume, namely Romanization, a topic of much discussion in recent years. Assemblages of Roman pottery in a foreign land can indicate an adoption of a Roman lifestyle, but in the case of India, probably do not. The degree and date of Romanization of an area are tricky subjects and cannot be accurately gauged, but ceramic analysis can in fact confirm contact and awareness, at a minimum.

This is well illustrated by an examination of pottery from late Hellenistic/Imperial Argos (C. Abadie-Reynal). This superb contribution begins by outlining the state of ceramics at the site in the 1st c. BC: majority local and minimal imports, which probably arrived through secondary distribution routes, perhaps other sites in the northern Peloponnesos, like Corinth. This evidence suggests self-sufficiency at this time, but the picture changes in the late 1st c. AD, when the number and range of imports increase. These document changing tastes, like a desire for Cretan wine, and Argos is certainly now part of mainstream trade. Curiously, the cooking vessels initially stay the same, lacking any significant change (new wares, shapes) until the 2nd c. AD. This shows that while the Argives were embracing new styles in pottery, their diet remained the same and they did not need the new vessels demanded by the adoption of Roman cuisine; even when the Roman diet does arrive in Argos, the new cooking pottery seems to come from Asia Minor rather than from Italy.

The situation at Argos demonstrates clearly how changes in diet are linked to changes in pottery, but this is seen at other sites as well. At Bliesbruck, in northeastern Gaul (P.-A. Albrecht), Romanization is assessed through a study of the ceramics. Three chronological phases document an initial domination of northern, in particular Belgian, wares, which are slowly overtaken by more typically Roman shapes and wares, like mortaria and terra sigillatas. Amphoras in the late phase show growing tastes for olive oil and fish sauces.

Changes in the pattern of imported pottery, especially amphoras, may reveal a more complex economic situation, as at Carthage (S. Martin-Kilcher), where a quantitative study of the imported amphoras indicates a number of exchange-related issues. On the face of it, the Carthaginians in the 1st c. AD imported a wide range of foodstuffs from around the Mediterranean. This would seem to imply a flourishing local economy with money for such things, as well as a secure infrastructure among wealthy suppliers. The 2nd c. AD at Carthage, however, shows a decline in imported amphoras. This may be due to availability, with problems at source drying up supply; economic difficulties at Carthage may also be responsible if the buyers can no longer afford the product; preferences and trends in diet may also be factors. The ceramic evidence, however, provides another possibility: most of the later amphoras are for wine, and it is posited that other previously imported goods were now being produced locally, and the economic relationship between Carthage and its suppliers has shifted. The author of this article also quietly emphasizes a point that may seem obvious but still bears repeating: one must not discount the use of other containers, like goatskins, that leave no archaeological record, when considering trade and diet quantitatively.

The distribution of a specific shape, vessel class, or ware is of utmost importance to an understanding of ancient trade practices. This usually means foreign pottery that is found in another part of the world, but there are also instances where locally produced material is found at home. This is well illustrated by a study of a deposit of cooking pots from Ephesos (S. Zabehlicky-Scheffenegger and G. Schneider). Here, fabric (including petrology), forms, quantity, and date are used to confirm the majority of pottery as local products. The authors conclude that these deposits were originally in a storeroom awaiting export, since no fragments show signs of use. One amphora type that ranged far and wide in the Hellenistic Mediterranean is the so-called Coan amphora (V. Georgopoulou). A study of the distribution of this amphora as well as its numerous imitations shows a preference for Coan wine in the east, as at Alexandria, but that the western Mediterranean seemed to prefer other wines (Rhodes, Knidian); numbers of Coan are less, although still present.

It is one thing to assess the existence of a vessel type or ware around the Mediterranean, but it is far more difficult, in most cases, to pinpoint its origins: accurate patterns of exchange can only be identified when a source is known. For instance, Corinthian relief ware vessels are a well-known type, common at numerous sites, but their attribution to Corinth rests on a single mould found there (D. Malfitana). An investigation of forms and iconography correlated with distribution, nonetheless, expands the traditional chronology for this ware (into the 4th c. AD) and plots possible trade routes, although no precise center of production is known. This effort is peculiar and more methodological than informative, although it raises numerous points for future investigations. A less wide-ranging vessel, the Aradippou goblet, is easier to source (J. Lund), as it is a rare shape with a very limited distribution (eastern Cyprus). Its typological origins may rest in two other shapes, a skyphos and a kantharos, but these are not all necessarily made at the same place. Findspots suggest a somewhat closed system of exchange within eastern Cyprus, where these vessels circulated, a pattern indicative of different trade relations than elsewhere on (or off) the island. This article also raises the question of what constitutes "local" pottery, but can only explore it for the shape under discussion. This is a much larger, more complex question that is germane to all studies of production and trade, but this is the only contribution to the volume under review that considers it, albeit briefly.

An investigation into another Cypriot shape, the Late Roman 13 amphora, may denote ceramic responses to changing political and accordingly economic situations. This vessel is presumed to have been made on the island because of wasters from several production centers, but it occurs elsewhere in the Mediterranean as well, especially in the Yassi Ada shipwreck and on Samos (S. Demesticha); its presence on Cyprus is minimal. Two main workshops are known (Amathus, Paphos), but the shape shows many small differences, probably indicating a period of development. It seems to have been made alongside the much more popular Late Roman 1 amphora type, and its creation may have been required for a specific purpose, although this cannot be precisely defined.

The most credible and precise method for determining the origins of a vessel type or ware is certainly fabric analysis and petrography. A quickly developing field of inquiry, fabric analysis can separate sherds that may otherwise look alike, group products of a single area or possibly workshop, and help to define what is "local." These aspects are crucial to the study of several well-known wares in the late Roman period. Phocaean red slip is ubiquitous in the late Roman period, but its origins at Phocaea have been questioned (L.E. Vaag). Two primary workshops, at Phocaea and Grynion, the latter of which also produced C,andarli ware, are proposed, with secondary establishments putting out imitations. Fabric analysis confirms Phocaea as the main area of production and export. The Late Roman 1 amphora is also considered (D. Williams) in order to answer a long-standing question about source: Asia Minor/Cilicia or Cyprus. Chemical analyses do in fact identify two production centers which are difficult to separate without proper fabric study; a catalogue of thin-section examples should provide a basis for encouraging the application of fabric studies in the field. Finally, the fabric of Koan and sub-Koan amphora types of the late Hellenistic/imperial era at Halikarnassos is considered (M. Berg Briese) in order to ascertain origins. Ten separate fabrics are identified from Kos, Knidos, and Halikarnassos, and a catalogue of identifiable type fabrics included. These are clear, approachable macroscopic descriptions that should stand as a model for future fabric study and publication.

This volume is in general well presented; some editing problems occur from time to time, but the overall quality is good. The informative nature of figures, charts, and maps varies considerably, but the majority are useful. The bibliography is up-to-date, to time of press. Sufficient amounts of profile drawing are included, especially where a specific ware or assemblage is discussed; black and white photographs are minimal.

It is unfortunate that the separation of graduate student contributions from those of established scholars is so clear. This is not to denigrate the efforts of junior scholars, but their research naturally focuses on a specific assemblage or site and usually takes the form of an overview. This type of data can be very informative, but the real meat of this volume is certainly the broader, more complex issues of trade and ceramics presented by senior scholars. Of special note and I believe importance are the articles of Abadie-Reynal on Argos, Vaag on Phocaean red slip, and Williams on LR 1 amphoras; these deal with aspects beyond the material at hand and present methods and models that should be well considered by anyone undertaking the study of pottery.

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