Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.44
Beryl Barr-Sharrar, The Derveni Krater: Masterpiece of Classical Greek Metalwork. Ancient Art and Architecture in Context, vol. 1. Princeton: ASCSA Publications, 2008. Pp. xvi, 239; figs. 169, map 1, pls. 32. ISBN 9780876619629. $75.00.
Reviewed by Alexis Q. Castor, Franklin & Marshall College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1826 words
This detailed and copiously illustrated study offers a complete technical and stylistic analysis of one of the best-known metal vessels discovered in Greece. The gilded bronze krater decorated with a Dionysiac scene stands almost a meter high and was discovered in an intact late fourth-century tomb at Derveni. While the book is focused on the interpretation of one bronze vessel, readers will also be treated to chapters concerning the manufacture of bronze vessels in Greece, Macedonian elite burial practices, Dionysos and funerary imagery of the Classical period. B.-S.'s goal is, "to place the Derveni krater in historical perspective, exploring its importance to the study of ancient Greek art in general and ancient Greek metalwork in particular." (p. xiii) She accomplishes that goal through her meticulous study of a truly expansive array of evidence: coins, bronze handle fragments, scientific analysis, clay impressions of metalwork, South Italian metal vessels, iconography and myth. Barely a page passes without an illustration: 168 black-and-white figures in the text and 32 color plates at the end. A stack of bookmarks will come in handy to mark both the black-and-white and color images and the endnotes while reading the text, as the author points the reader to fine points captured in the figures and the plates. In the opinion of this reviewer, the study will stand as the definitive analysis of the Derveni krater and serve as an important contribution to the study of Classical Dionysiac iconography.
The book is divided into three sections: the first two chapters describe the excavation history of the Derveni tombs and the use of metal vessels in Macedonian society. The second part of the book is a traditional shape study of volute krater shape and the details of its manufacture, in both clay and metal versions. In the third section, B.-S. examines the complex and intriguing iconography of the vessel.
Chapter 1 (Metal Vessels in Macedonian History) sets out the social contexts in which Macedonians used metal sympotic ware, particularly in burial settings. The array of silver and bronze drinking equipment discovered in the Derveni tombs in 1962 gave archaeologists their first real hint that metal vessels enjoyed a wider use than previously suspected, and since then the inventory of excavated bronze and silver vessels has increased substantially. B.-S. summarizes that evidence here. Macedonians used some containers, such as the Derveni krater, to hold the remains of the dead. Other pouring vessels such as oinochoai, open containers such as situlai, ladles and many cup types were invested regularly in tombs as part of Macedonian elite funeral rites. Despite these new finds, the Derveni krater remains the only known example of a metal vessel so elaborately embellished with relief frieze and figural attachments.
Chapter 2 (The Derveni Tombs) describes the Derveni tomb group which consisted of five cist-tombs and a pit-grave.1 Tomb B, which held the Derveni krater, also contained forty-three vessels and other sympotic accoutrements, divided almost equally between bronze and silver, were interred in Tomb B. Elements of parade armor and horse trappings also accompanied the dead. The krater held the cremated remains of an adult male (35 to 50 years old) and a female whose age could not be established. Tomb B was the richest of the graves found at Derveni, but all the burials had goods of similar character, perhaps suggestive of a family grouping, but at the very least, "there can be little question that they were members of the Macedonian elite." (27)
In Chapter 3 (The Derveni Krater), B.-S. turns to the second part of the book, a close study of the vessel and its manufacture. The krater is dominated by the figural repoussé frieze that spreads across the body of the vessel: a young Dionysos sits with one arm over his head and his right leg resting on the lap of Ariadne on side A. Five maenads and a Silenos sport across Side B; the final figure in the frieze is a bearded man in hunting costume, but with his right foot bare. Pairs of animals, sometimes a singleton, are positioned below the main scene, and the neck is decorated with more animals--felines, deer, a griffin and a stag--added in appliqué. Bronze statuettes are fastened to the shoulder of the krater and the handles are ornately decorated with masks of underworld deities.
An inscription in Thessalian script inlaid on the mouth of the Derveni krater states that it is a, "krater of Astioun, son of Anaxagoras from Larissa." Whether the occupant of the krater was Astioun himself or a descendent remains an open question. B.-S. discusses the Macedonian predilection for heirlooms as grave goods throughout her analysis of the krater, since this habit has important ramifications for establishing the date of the vessel. B.-S. identifies the occupant of Derveni Tomb B was a high-ranking cavalryman who had moved to Lete by the mid-fourth century, quite possibly a veteran who served with Alexander the Great.
Chapter 4 (Precursors to the Derveni Krater) and Chapter 5 (Elaborated Volute Kraters of the Late 5th and Early 4th Centuries) discuss the volute krater and its typological development. Seven complete bronze volute kraters, only two of which have a secure provenience -- one from Derveni Tomb A and one from a shaft grave in Agrigento -- are identified by B.-S. as belonging to a group that dates to the late fifth century. The Derveni Krater itself belongs to the next generation of bronze volute kraters, a form that developed fully in the fourth century when luxury goods were again in wide circulation.
In the course of her research, B.-S. investigates the famous "pottery" workshop scene on the Caputi Hydria and re-identifies it as a metalworking shop creating the recently-introduced volute krater form and other metal vessels. The brushes wielded by male and female workers are not for painting, but instead, B.-S. argues, for the patination of bronze vessels. (66-68) This is but one of several examples in which B.-S.'s careful study of the Derveni krater allows her to illuminate other aspects of Greek artistic production. Examples such as this help to locate this single artifact firmly within the wider cultural and historical context and make this study valuable to any reader interested in Classical art.
Chapter 6 (Relief Friezes, Further Elaboration, Floral Ornament, and Workshops) serves as a transition from the discussion of the form of the volute krater to its embellishment. Here, B.-S.'s careful description of the manufacturing techniques required to make the relief frieze is complemented very well by the exceptional photos of the exterior and interior of the vessel. She estimates that it took "five or six artisans, working together, more than 18 months to produce." (103) Although a specific workshop cannot be identified, B.-S. assigns the krater to a southern Greek workshop and argues that it was a special commission that carried an important religious message to the owner.
Chapter 7 (The Major Repoussé Frieze) tackles the main decoration on the vessel: the frieze of ten figures that represent Dionysos, Ariadne and a retinue of Dionysiac followers, including a hunter, whom B.-S. identifies as Pentheus. The overtones of mystery cult or initiation ritual are carefully set out by B.-S., and she persuasively argues for an emphasis on the dangerous power of Dionysos. (156) Each figure is described and placed within its iconographic context. The long analysis of the maenads on the frieze and their analogues in red-figure pottery and Neo-Attic reliefs offers B.-S. the opportunity to present a master class of art historical interpretation. Her descriptions encouraged this reviewer to see details of pose and clothing missed even through study of the close-up illustrations. For example, in reference to the exhausted maenad who collapses into the lap of her companion, B.-S. writes that, "Her feet, previously in a dance step, have lost all intention, and while she still gains some support from the right one, the heel of her left foot is raised off the ground and turned slightly inward without purpose, as if weakening at the ankle." (134) Such a sensitive and thoughtful description demonstrates the value that a true understanding of style can bring to iconographic interpretation.
Chapter 8 (Animal Friezes, Volute Masks, and Cast Shoulder Figures) demonstrates that even the seemingly adjunct decoration of the krater plays an important role in connecting the imagery to the religious themes established by the main frieze. Animal combats carried chthonic overtones in South Italian art and B.-S. links their presence on the Derveni krater with the future death of Pentheus. (161-163) The bronze statuettes depict sleepy and ecstatic maenads and a Silenos, all suffering the consequences of their ritual frenzy, and a young Dionysos, the only figure who is awake. Underworld deities appear as masks in the volute handles, suggesting to B.-S. that there may be implied, "a relationship between such Dionysiac activity, which is shown on the frieze itself, and the promise of an afterlife." (175)
Chapter 9 (The Uses and Workshop Origin of the Derveni Krater) concludes the study. B.-S. proposes that the figures on the frieze replicated a lost fifth-century monument on display in Athens. The detailed comparison that she draws between the style of the figures on the Derveni krater and Neo-Attic relief figures makes her argument entirely convincing to this reviewer. As for the function of this extraordinary vessel, B.-S. moves into the religious sphere, specifically the realm of mystery initiations, so closely connected with Dionysos. This suggestion must remain speculative, but the imagery resonates with ideas of mystic rites that may have carried Orphic connotations.
Studies of luxury goods--either through literary descriptions or realia like the Derveni krater--in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have reminded us that Greeks enjoyed, traded and recycled gold, silver and bronze goods on a greater scale than the archaeological record suggests. 2 Macedonian, Thracian and Scythian tombs preserve some valuables--and more will likely be discovered--but it has proven difficult to fully integrate these goods used by barbarians into traditional mainland Greek art and life. B.-S.'s study situates the Derveni Krater squarely within the artistic bounds of Classical Athens. This book will be valuable for any student or scholar interested in the Classical iconography of Dionysos, and it provides an especially cogent discussion of maenad iconography presented in Classical and Neo-Classical art. Future investigations of connections between southern and northern Greece will now be able to refer to this study for key evidence of such cultural links.
In sum, The Derveni Krater offers a significant contribution to the study of Classical Greek art. Those interested in bronze and metalwork production will find a thorough discussion of the history of Greek metal vessels and a new typology of the bronze volute krater type. In her analysis of metalworking in Classical Greece, B.-S. collects preserved handles and attachments, gathering this diverse--and understudied--material in one location. The range of media analyzed in this study reminds us of the complete integration of figural themes and motifs in both the so-called major and minor arts.
1. The Derveni Tombs have been fully published by P. Themelis and I. Touratsglou, Οι τάπηοι του Δερβενίου (Athens, 1997). One of the tombs, Tomb A, contained fragments of the Derveni papyrus scroll with an Orphic text, studied by Gabor Betegh, The Derveni Papryus (Cambridge, 2004)[reviewed BMCR 2005.01.27] and published with commentary by Theokritos Kouremenos, George M. Parássoglou and Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, eds., The Derveni Papyrus (Florence, 2006) [reviewed BMCR 2006.10.29].
2. For example, Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persian in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity (Cambridge, 1997) Leslie Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece (Princeton, 1999); Kenneth D.S. Lapatin, Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford, 2001).