Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.12

Stefania S. Skartsis, Chlemoutsi Castle (Clermont, Castel Tornese), NW Peloponnese: Its Pottery and Its Relations with the West (13th-early 19th Centuries). BAR international series, S2391, 2012.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2012.  Pp. 201.  ISBN 9781407309835.  £35.00.  

Reviewed by Diana Gilliland Wright, Seattle (

Stefania Skartsis has published an admirably thorough discussion of the medieval and early-modern ceramics found at Chlemoutsi Castle. Chlemoutsi was built by French settlers in Greece—probably in the 1220s, probably by builders from Syria—on a low hill looking over farmlands, and out to sea to the islands Zakynthos, Cephalonia, and Ithaca. This was the heartland of Frankish Greece, the Principality of Achaia, and it subsequently came under Tocco, Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian, and Ottoman rule again, before Greek became independent. Although the first Ottoman occupation made some small additions, Byzantine, Venetian, and later Ottoman possession have left no trace, it retains its French flavor.(37)

Skartsis gives an excellent history of research into, and the present state of knowledge of, Frankish, late-Byzantine, and post-Byzantine pottery over a broad geographical area—Constantinople, Cyprus, the Middle East, Peloponnesos, central Greece, Epiros, northern Greece, Crete and the Aegean Islands. She has used much of this as comparative material in identifying the Chlemoutsi pieces. After a brief historical and archaeological account of Chlemoutsi, she reviews the excavations in the castle. Although the records of the Greek Archaeological Service's excavations between the 1960s and 1990s do not allow adequate information about the sites of pottery finds, it seems that most of the finds came from within the castle buildings (Skartsis uses the term "galleries" without explanation).

The main characteristic of Chlemoutsi pottery "is the continuous and significant presence of Italian wares" (17), 64% of it from Apulia (92), and so Skartsis deals primarily with pottery from a large number of Italian sources, most of which are very little known in Greece except for Corinth. Despite the strong presence of Italian pottery at Greek sites, and despite the extensive medieval merchant records in Italian archives, no documents appear to survive for pottery, not even as many as the sparse Venetian documents for glass shipments which mention orders for 750 drinking glasses or for 600 footed cups, or for 26 glasses. Guy Sanders suggests that we are looking at small-scale imports in mixed cargoes.1 It is a shame that Theodora MacKay never committed her ideas on this to writing: her experience with medieval pottery at Corinth, Heraklion, and Cairo gave her strong ideas about imports and fashions.

Travelers like Cyriaco of Ancona and Evliya Çelebi,2 or individuals, especially those coming to live in Greece, must surely have brought a few pieces with them. Soldiers did. Skartsis has found two fragments of late 17th-century German stoneware—one part of a jug with a whirl design, the other a sherd with the face of a "green man"—which must have come with German mercenaries in the army Morosini brought to Greece in 1686. (#243, #243, and pl.148) Her best piece, the cover image and one totally unrepresentative of the finds, is a splendid jug ca. 1500 covered with impressionistic peacock-feather eyes in blue, orange and yellow. (#210 and pl.17) The Ottomans would have had clear possession of Chlemoutsi for twenty years by that time, and took Methoni and Koroni that year: there are a number of ways to account for a Venetian jug in Ottoman possession.

Non-Italian pieces in the Chlemoutsi finds include ceramics from Greece, Arta, Iznik, Kütahya, although there are only two Iznik pieces and a single eighteenth-century cup from Kütahya. This is counter-intuitive, but Skartsis cites a study from Boeotia that finds a much more significant presence of Italian than of Islamic pottery.(103) Similarly, the presence of Italian ceramics at Chlemoutsi is strong for the Ottoman period, although few can be connected to the 1686-1715 period of Venetian occupation. (102) An interesting detail about sources and use is found in the fact that while Evliya says that non-Muslims were not allowed into the Ottoman-held castle, the Ottomans used Italian table ware. The few pieces from the Venetian period are a uniform group of monochrome whitewares found in the outer enclosure of the castle (#219, #220, #221) and one could speculate that they formed part of an officer's kit. It is fascinating to see that Chlemoutsi produced sherds of English transfer-printed ware from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the mostly blue-and-white dishes (or copies of) that we have in our own kitchen cabinets—Chinese images, images of English castles and abbeys.(82)

The major focus of Chlemoutsi is on the most recent and most careful excavations, those of 1997-2000, on which Skartsis worked. This material is strangely divided between Chapter 4, Appendix C, and the Figures where there are good maps. Most of the pottery from this excavation period comes from the Ottoman period. Very usefully, Skartsis reports that the excavated structures and roads in the outer enclosure of the castle correspond closely to the Venetian plans of 1701, and with Evliya's report of 80 houses around a mosque. (41)

As a historian with the most minimal knowledge of medieval ceramic types, I found Chapter 5 particularly useful, as Skartsis gives careful descriptions of more categories of medieval and post-medieval ceramics than most historians know exist. It is common for terms like "sgraffito ware", "archaic maiolica," "protomaiolica," and "lead-glazed polychrome ware" to be inserted into labels and texts without anywhere giving the non-ceramicist some helpful clue as to meaning, although sgraffito can be guessed at. This section is the strength of the book, but also results in its great weakness, for when I find with delight an explanation and description of protomaiolica, it continues for two columns before I am referred to an actual image in the back of the book, although there are numerous references to images in other peoples' books. Further information requires constant flipping back and forth to the two pages of minute color plates, and then to the black-and-white, as well as to Tables 1 and 2 of terms and dates in the middle of the book. I am sure it is much simpler and cheaper to produce a book with plates inconveniently located, but it diminishes the value and functionality of the book. While each plate comes with a string of identification numbers for the pieces shown, the numbering does not at first coincide with the numbering of the identifications in Chapter 5. Nor do the images include dates: I have had to scribble them around the borders. I am sorry to be so critical: a book like this needs to be useable by both archaeologists and historians.

Skartsis has been ill-served by BAR's editors who should have done something about what must be one of the clumsiest titles in modern book-making, and who should have taken more care with the infelicities inevitable when English is not one's first language. BAR issues ugly publications, with home-computer typography and minimal margins, and the 23 pages of black-and-white plates are printed small and dark, and at a very low resolution. A model presentation for presentation of ceramic materials is The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio, by Erminia Lapadula (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

Chlemoutsi has 20 pages of profile drawings, 5 of maps, 2 of color plates, and 9 tables.


1.   E-mail communication, 10/9/2012.
2.   Skartsis refers to him as "Çelebi": this is an honorific, and he should be called Evliya.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010