Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.23

J. N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery. Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. Great Britain, Fascicule 25; The British Museum, Fascicule 11.   London:  British Museum, 2010.  Pp. 65; 86 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780714122632.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos, University of California, Los Angeles (

Few scholars have had an impact on a whole class of material culture as profound as that of Nicolas Coldsteam (1927-2008) on Greek Geometric pottery. His 1968 monograph, reprinted in 2009 with a hefty supplement, remains to this day a veritable bible of the largely wheel-made and painted pottery of the Greek world between ca. 900 and 700 B.C.1 Reviews published soon after the appearance of the first edition praised the volume for what it was. Thus we read:

"Coldstream has written a monumental study…destined to become the classic in the field. This for several reasons: intelligence of planning, authority of judgment, lucidity of prose style, sensitivity of observation."

Classical Journal, 1970

"Coldstream’s study belongs to the handful of works in classical archaeology that can only be described as fundamental…"

The Art Bulletin, 1970

"Greek Geometric Pottery will remain for the foreseeable future the indispensable tool of all archaeologists, as well as historians and art-historians, seeking a firm foundation on which to reconstruct the springtime of Classical Greece"

Times Literary Supplement, 1969

In Coldstream’s obituary published in the London Times of April 9, 2008, the same volume was described as an "irreplaceable masterwork", and it will remain so for many years to come. It is one of the few books in Greek archaeology that is a true Thucydidean "ktēma es aiei".

In a similar vein, his 1977 synthesis entitled Geometric Greece, immediately became a seminal text (I first read it as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney and my personal copy is much worn due to constant use), and this, too, has a revised and updated edition published in 2003. The same London Times obituary describes Geometric Greece in the following terms: "The richness of its engagement with the complex, multi-ethnic material culture of the Greek, eastern and central Mediterranean Iron Age worlds, based on acute observation, very wide knowledge and perceptive historical judgment, is precisely what enables new questions to be asked of the material".

The volume under review, which publishes all the Greek Geometric pottery in the British Museum, will quickly take its place among Coldstream’s authoritative studies dealing with pottery ranging in date from the Protogeometric period (ca. 1050-900 B.C.) to the end of the Geometric style (ca. 700 B.C. in the conventional chronology). It is in many ways surprising that a definitive catalogue of the Greek Geometric pottery in the BM was only begun in 2004, when Coldstream himself approached the museum with the proposal that he might prepare a CVA of the Geometric pottery in the collection. Although the text of his manuscript was finished before his death, Coldstream did not live to see the published version, and only minor adjustments and additions were subsequently made, including the purchase from the Bellon Collection, of no. 123 bis, which was acquired by the museum in Coldstream’s memory.

It would be no exaggeration to state that the collection of Greek Geometric pottery in the British Museum is one of the finest anywhere in the world outside of Greece. For anyone interested in the pottery of this style this is a must-have volume. It publishes 201 individual vessels, including Attic (nos. 1-123), Corinthian (nos. 123 bis-127), Argive (nos. 128-131), Lakonian (nos. 132-136), Boiotian (nos. 137-141), Euboian (nos. 142-164), central Cycladic (nos. 165-166), Melian (nos. 167-178), Theran (nos. 179-180), Cretan (nos. 181-186), Rhodian (nos. 187-197), and Carian (nos. 198-200) Geometric pots. This is followed by a concordance of registration numbers and catalogue numbers (pp. 61-62), and various indices (pp. 63-64), which include an index of workshops and painters, another of donors, collectors and dealers (among the many are Lord Elgin, Fauvel, Lenormant, Burgon and Beazley), as well as an index of findspots (much of this pottery has a known provenance). The exclusively black-and-white photographs are first-class, all of them new digital images of the pottery; the only two color illustrations are to be found on the dust jacket.

The largest group of pottery is Attic (most of it I would call Athenian), and this is accordingly grouped and catalogued by shape, beginning with amphorae (mostly neck-handled: nos. 1-15, and two belly-handled: nos. 16-17), various types of oinochoai (nos. 18-31), pitchers (nos. 32-45), including pitcher lids, tankards (nos. 46-49), mugs (nos. 50-51), lekythoi (nos. 52-54) and a lekythos-oinochoe (no. 55), a rare example of an Athenian aryballos (no. 56), a wide selection of pyxides, including lids (nos. 57-73)—not least of which is the magnificent tall pyxis originally in the Elgin Collection (no. 57)—spouted kraters (nos. 74-75), skyphoi (nos. 76-94), a kantharos (no. 95), a kotyle (no. 96), two kalathoi (nos. 97-98), a plate (no. 99), a variety of bowls (nos. 100-120), a pomegranate vase (no. 121), and a tripod stand (no. 122) and concave stand (no. 123). Indeed, the range of shapes is impressive. Among the highlights is the spouted krater (no. 75) with the representation of man grasping the forearm of a woman, advancing toward the ship, his legs overlapping the steering oars, with 19 and 20 rowers shown in two registers. Since its first publication by A.S. Murray in 1899, the scene, together with the chariots and horseman on the opposite side, has spawned a massive bibliography, best summarized by Klaus Fittschen, with further thoughts by Anthony Snodgrass.2 The most recent, and compelling, analysis of the krater is that by Susan Langdon, which appeared the same year in which Coldstream passed away and thus could not be cited in this CVA.3

Among the other regional styles of Geometric pottery published in the volume, there are various vases and fragments from the Greek mainland (Corinthian, Argive, Lakonian, and Boiotian Geometric), but one of the greatest strengths of the book lies in the fact that Coldstream does not shy away from distinguishing between the various island wares of the Greek world.4 This section opens with pottery from the big island of Euboia, which was considerably less known in 1968 than it is today, much of it from Al Mina.5 Similarly, the two fragments of central Cycladic Geometric pottery (nos. 165-166) are also from Al Mina. There is an interesting selection of Melian Geometric, not least the fenestrated stands, as well as two pieces of Theran Geometric (an amphora and an amphoriskos), one previously unpublished. Similarly, most of the Cretan Geometric pottery is published here for the first time. There follow several examples of what Coldstream refers to as Rhodian Geometric, with some of the individual pots having already received discussion in Coldstream’s 1968 volume, though here, too, there are a few previously unpublished pieces.6 The catalogue ends with three examples of Carian Geometric, all three selected from tomb finds at Assarlik, the ancient Lelegian settlement of Termera, excavated by W.R. Paton in the 1880s.7

The only shortcoming of the volume that I can see is the lack of profile drawings, and this fault I would lay at the doorstep of the editors who saw the volume through press rather than Coldstream himself. This is to be regretted all the more since Coldstream’s 1968 magnum opus was exclusively illustrated by photographs, so too the various volumes of Early Iron Age pottery in the Athenian Kerameikos series of the German Archaeological Institute. There are, to be sure, a handful of drawings of the decoration on certain pots, primarily details, which greatly aid the reading of the iconography (e.g. details of nos. 6, 14, 15, 20, 47, 48, 54, 180, 193), but these are few and far between. The few profile drawings of fragmentary pots with an extended elevation of the decoration that are published (nos. 144, 150, 154, 157, 165a-b, as well as a composite drawing of nos. 151-152) provide a great deal of information that cannot be rendered in a photograph alone. Such drawings should have been prepared for all the pottery in the volume.

For an undergraduate like myself studying archaeology in the late 1970s, Nicolas Coldstream was one of those mythical figures, a truly great archaeologist. When I got to know him in person, I found him an inspiring mentor and a gentle but astute critic. His opinions on the Early Iron Age pottery of Greece, like his dignified and modest persona, will be sorely missed. I am saddened to review what may well be the final book he ever wrote, but as with all of his books, I have learned a great deal from it, and I will cherish his insights for years to come.


1.   J.N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology, London 1968; J.N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology, Bristol 2009.
2.   A.S. Murray, "A New Vase of the Dipylon Class," JHS 19, 1899, 198-201; K. Fittschen, Untersuchungen zum Beginn der Sagendarstellungen bei den Griechen, Berlin 1969, 53, with footnotes 270-273; A.M. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art, Cambridge 1998, 55-66.
3.   See S. Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100-700 B.C.E., Cambridge 2008.
4.   For further discussion of especially Cycladic Geometric pottery, see J.K. Papadopoulos and E.L. Smithson, "The Cultural Biography of a Cycladic Geometric Amphora: Islanders in Athens and the Prehistory of Metics," Hesperia 71, 2002, 149-199.
5.   With some of the pieces first published by C.M. Robertson, "The Excavations at Al Mina, Sueidia, IV: The Early Greek Vases", JHS 60, 1940, 1-21.
6.   Indeed, the survey of Dodecanesian Geometric pottery provided by Coldstream in his 1968 volume remains seminal to this day.
7.   W.R. Paton, "Excavations in Caria," JHS 8, 1887, 64-82.

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