Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.04

Robert B. Koehl, Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta.   Philadephia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2006.  Pp. xxxiii, 423; pls. 61, ills. 17, tbs. 26, figs. 47.  ISBN 1-931534-16-0.  $120.00.  



Reviewed by Judith Weingarten, Belforte (Siena), Italy (judith@judithweingarten.com)
Word count: 1814 words

Every student familiar with the material culture of the Aegean Bronze Age would readily acknowledge that rhyta are among the most appealing, yet enigmatic classes of artifacts. While by no means the most common vessels, they are surely one of the most conspicuous. No other...vessel was made in so wide a range of forms and media, nor with such a consistently high degree of artistry.(1)

This statement from the Introduction to Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta (hereafter ABAR) is so obviously true that one simply assumes that whole of the subject has often been scrutinized and written about. So it is startling to realize that ABAR is the first comprehensive study of this polymorphic vessel since G. Karo's 1911 article "Minoische Rhyta" established the basic typology and functional analyses. Since 1911, of course, the number of rhyta and the range of their archaeological contexts have increased dramatically, so it is not surprising that ABAR has been many years in the writing. Publication has been also been held up by delays beyond the author's control (which did, however, allow some last-minute inclusion of recently-identified rhyta).

The Greek word rhyton (τὸ ῥυτόν ) is derived from the verb rhein (ῥεῖν), "to flow". Just like rhyta of the Classical period, Bronze Age rhyta have two openings: a larger 'primary'opening and a smaller, 'secondary' one--the latter at the tip, base, or lower body of the vase, or, in zoomorphs, usually at the muzzle. From the very earliest EM II-III rhyta to the latest LM/LH IIIC specimens, the diameter of the secondary opening remains a remarkably consistent +/- 0.5 cm. It is the diameter of the primary opening (wide or narrow) that varies and that, rather than the range of shapes, affects the function of each type of rhyton.

ABAR is essentially divided into two parts. In the first part, the author proposes a typology of four types of rhyta--two with wide primary openings and two with narrow--each sub-divided into two classes (Footed or Footless), with each class described and documented by profile drawings and photographs (Chapter 1). Koehl then considers the formal development and origin of each class. This analysis of a very complex 'shape' will surely be the basis for all subsequent studies of chronological sequences and regional distinctions. The typology is followed by a complete catalogue of the 1,340 rhyta known to the author (Chapter 2). Organized by type and class, and further sub-divided into 'groups' (contemporary rhyta made of the same material and having the same profile), this, too, will be invaluable for future comparative studies and for placing new finds within a firm structure.

Each of these chapters includes 'Foreign imitations of Aegean Rhyta', classifying and cataloguing rhyta made outside the Aegean but clearly dependent on Aegean prototypes and having no close equivalents in the local repertory (13 Egypt, 21 West Asian, 10 Cypriot). Chapter 2 also catalogues 'Representations of Aegean Rhyta' within and outside the Aegean, from frescoes (36 examples), seals and sealings (5 ex.), and in Linear A and B texts (5 ex.)

The second part of ABAR will probably be the 'meat and drink' for many readers: why rhyta, how did they function, who used them, where were they used?

Chapter 3 ('The Mechanical Functions of Aegean Rhyta') examines how rhyta were handled, filled, and emptied. The author rightly insists that the consistently small size of the secondary opening means that only liquids could have been used in rhyta--as anything else would have clogged this opening. Koehl conducted extensive experiments to determine how each rhyton type worked, testing his hypotheses, first on a cache of 5 diverse MM III rhyta from Kommos, and later with full-scale reproductions of seven different types. Two examples:

1. Type I rhyta-- almost all figural zoomorphs with a secondary opening in the muzzle--can best be filled by immersing the vessel in the liquid up to the handle so that liquid seeps into the secondary opening-- making it appear that the animal was drinking. By placing the thumb over the primary opening, the rhyton is sealed and may now be removed from the liquid without the loss of more than a few drops. To empty the rhyton, lift the thumb and tip the vessel forward. Wine and oil were both tested and behave exactly the same. The Type I rhyton may thus be understood as a libation vessel, most likely for wine or oil, or possibly water. (260-63)

2. Type III (wide opening, footless) includes the conical rhyta, the most popular type in the Aegean and the only ones depicted in art. Koehl experimented with placing wool in the tip, adding crushed coriander, and pouring in wine while holding the tip closed with a finger. Once the rhyton was filled, the finger was removed and a lightly-scented wine emerged in a thin but continuous stream; at the same time, the wool trapped the lees and bits of coriander. Thus, Koehl concludes that these rhyta simultaneously purified, strained, and flavoured liquids, and then filled other vessels with this 'perfumed' drink. (269-71)

Chapter 4 ('The Uses of Aegean Rhyta') first analyzes the find contexts of rhyta, noting synchronic and diachronic distribution patterns. Tables 5-13 give details of 165 contexts from 39 different habitation and cemetery sites. Comparisons are difficult: the number of Pre- and Palatial contexts is much smaller than the Neopalatial contexts; and most Neopalatial rhyta are from domestic contexts while most Mycenaean rhyta come from funerary contexts. Nonetheless, it is clear that rhyta occur most frequently with drinking vessels (cups, kylikes, goblets), vessels in which liquids were stored (bridge-spouted jars, stirrup jars) or pouring vessels (small jugs and, especially, beak-spouted jugs: Koehl suggests that rhyta + beak-spouted jugs constitute the Aegean 'libation set'). (277-79)

Despite their divergent uses, it comes across strongly that the different forms of rhyta were thought of as the same category of vessels--as may be inferred from different types and classes being stored together in various cult repositories, at times to the exclusion of other vessels.

A series of short essays now examines the many locations of rhyton use: Rhyta in Tholos Tombs (327-29); in Peak Sanctuaries (329-30); in Processions (330-32); in Foundation Deposits (332-333); and in Ritual and Industry (333-335). Considering the rhyton's ritual associations, Koehl notes that the earliest (MM IIB Malia) Type IV rhyton (wide opening, footed) is shaped like a pithos. He suggests that libations would have been poured from a vessel that metaphorically stands for the event being celebrated--in this case, an occasion related to viticulture, such as the harvest and pressing of grapes or opening pithoi to taste the new wine (282, 333).

Another essay certain to provoke discussion is 'Rhyton Use and Gender' (335-337). A gender contradiction arises: on the one hand, all but one rhyton in human form are of females (such female figural rhyta, Koehl thinks, were perhaps also used by women); yet, on the other hand, all the images that depict rhyta together with human figures associate the vessel exclusively with males. Women are never shown either carrying or standing with rhyta. Though numbers are small (and the timescale long), Koehl identifies the specific group of males who handled rhyta as priests ('Rhyta and Priests', 337-342). Furthermore, based on the vessel's distribution in LH I-IIIB:1 and LM II-IIIB burials, Koehl suggests that one or two members of each LBA Aegean community officially served as priests at any one time. It is a pity we cannot know if this possible custom of burying priests with their libation sets started in the Minoan era: although rhyta are found in Prepalatial and Protopalatial Minoan burials, the contexts are too disturbed for any conclusions to be drawn.

Chapter 4 concludes with 'Aegean Rhyta in Extra-Aegean Contexts' (342-350). Significantly, they were the only Aegean vessels that were adopted for ritual use in Egypt, Cyprus and the Levant. The Egyptian evidence is especially compelling. The only Aegean vessel imitated in Egypt in the early 18th Dynasty is the Type III conical rhyton. At Tel el-Dab'a, two miniature conical rhyta were discovered along with many small handleless cups in an outdoor cult spot, indicating that it was the site of some ritual that involved drinking or toasting. Strainers made as matching sets were found nearby which suggests that, as in the Aegean, the rhyta were used to strain a mixed beverage. All four rhyta from Tel el-Dab'a are clearly based on LM IA (or LC I) prototypes. As such, they provide another synchronism between LM IA and the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, supporting the traditional, or "low chronology" (343).

Egyptian imitations of Aegean rhyta found in graves during the mid 18th Dynasty are similar in profiles and decorations to LM IB rhyta, a circumstance which implies that Aegean imports continued to arrive in Egypt even though no such specimens are known. Quite possibly, imported rhyta were made of precious metals--like those depicted on tomb walls in the Valley of the Nobles at Thebes--and, hence, did not survive. As it happens, one of the latest painted representations (in the tomb of Horemheb at Saqqara [temp. Thutmosis IV-Amenophis III]) shows a rhyton being used within an Egyptian context: a servant holds up a conical rhyton before one of four seated guests, one hand held under the tip. A dark spot painted on the servant's hand may represent a spot of liquid, perhaps, as Koehl suggests, perfumed oil dripping from the tip to be daubed on the guests. (345)

By an extraordinary chance, a recently-found painting on a MC III jug from Akroteri, Thera, shows for the first time a rhyton being used in the Aegean itself (add to the catalogue [as P2]: Chr. Doumas in [P. Valavanis ed.] Great Moments in Greek Archaeology, 247, fig.24, Athens 2007. Kapon Editions). It pictures two facing wasp-waisted youths dressed in kilts standing on either side of a large, sinuous, leafy plant. The youth on the left pours a liquid from a narrow-necked libation jar into a Type IV cup rhyton held by the youth on the right. Liquid drips from the bottom of the rhyton onto the plant (very much in line with Koehl's reconstruction of ritual libations, p. 352. The closest comparanda for this cup-rhyton are Phylakopi #1329, 1330 [but why does Koehl call them 'bowls'?])

The Summary and Conclusions (Chapter 5) reviews the chronological and regional variations in the use of rhyta throughout the Aegean. It describes (with diachronic details given on Tables 27-29) the developments in the morphology, mechanical workings, uses (Types 1, II, IV for libations, Type III for flavouring and straining), and evolving meanings of rhyta over time.

Koehl's great accomplishment lies exactly in what he set out to do: to explain the 'how, why, when and where' of rhyta. When I put down ABAR, I had the strong feeling that, now at last, we have a good chance of understanding the role these fascinating vessels played in Aegean life.

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