Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.06.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.06.33

Nina Fenn, Christiane Römer-Strehl (ed.), Networks in the Hellenistic World. According to the Pottery in the Eastern Mediterranean and Beyond. BAR International series, S2539.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2013.  Pp. vi, 382.  ISBN 9781407311579.  £52.00.  

Reviewed by Rocco Palermo, Università di Napoli Federico II (

Table of Contents

The increasing interest in recent years in regional and global perspectives on the material culture and the historical dynamics of the Hellenistic period is the cornerstone upon which this book was conceived. A wide-ranging geographical approach to the analysis of pottery in a specific time period aims to highlight macro-analogies and regional differences as well as to define a series of networks based on the circulation, imitation and use of artefacts. This perspective is particularly useful as regard the Hellenistic kingdoms, which encompassed an incredibly large area. The vastness of Seleucid-controlled territory, for instance, although it may induce us to think of regional differences, finds common roots when it comes to material culture since a sort of koinè is easily observable in the whole area stretching from the Levantine Coast to Central Asia.1

The present volume takes a further step by including the entire Eastern Mediterranean region into the discussion. The book collects the contributions of a congress held in Bonn and Cologne in 2011, which was specifically intended as a workshop on local and interregional connections as evidenced by Hellenistic ceramics. The editors have organized the book following a geographical order from west to east, with Albania being the westernmost area treated.

The first section of the book is dedicated to case studies from Greece. It opens with a theoretical introduction by Shipley, who stresses the necessity of connecting analysis of the material culture to broader archaeological and historical dynamics. Rotroff offers an analysis of a pottery workshop in Athens (the city probably being responsible for the invention of the mould-made bowls of the late 3rd century BC). Two papers in the “Greece” section specifically point out the formation a koinè related to the material culture. Ackermann discusses several mould-made bowls excavated on the acropolis of Eretria, near the sanctuary of Athena. Particularly interesting is the evidence of a plate decorated with a Macedonian shield, which leads the author to consider the probable presence of a Macedonian garrison in the area. Bollen investigates the case of the West Slope Ware by focusing on a reversible lid with decorations whose existence might confirm interregional connections. Kallini’s paper considers the interesting issue of the production and circulation of kantharoi from Greece to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, while Kotitsa discusses the co-existence of local and imported materials among pottery from the graves of Pydna.

Regional characteristics and external influences are also observable in Albania (papers by Lahi, Shehi and Tichit and Fiedler and Döhner) and the Aegean (papers on the Hellenistic ceramic repertoire from Delos by Gros and Peignard-Giros). In the case of Delos, which always represented a bridge between the Greek mainland and the Asia Minor and acted as a free port in this period, the investigation mainly regards imports and local imitations, which is often the main characteristic of Hellenistic strata.

The section devoted to the East starts with a series of papers that discuss recent research in Hellenistic ceramic assemblages from Turkey (mainly Asia Minor). The pottery production of the region is notably influenced by both indigenous traditions and external sources. A very interesting analysis is proposed by Japp, who approaches the Hellenistic pottery at Pergamon with a special focus on both the indigenous features of decoration and the wide geographical network of Pergamene ceramics. The short but significant article by Lätzer-Lasar is one of the few contributions with a strong sociological and theoretical approach to the ceramic material; it uses the imports to Ephesus in the late 1st century BC to trace social networks and processes.

Among the other contributions on the Hellenistic material from Turkey particularly interesting is a specific study of the emergence and distribution of the important Eastern Sigillata B in the East by Fenn, who starts from the data retrieved at Priene and convincingly suggests that the diffusion of Eastern Sigillata B may be the reflection of a local impulse thereafter developed by Italian potters.

Cyprus and Egypt are the focus of six contributions investigating regional features and imports, with a particular attention to the social habits, cultural interactions and economic life of Hellenistic communities as perceived through their material culture. Particularly interesting is Berlin’s paper, whose focus on the Ptolemaic period ceramics from Coptos, Naukratis and Elephantine points to wider social and cultural changes. Berlin’s analysis persuasively shows that the coming of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, with some of the Greek-oriented kitchen and table traditions, possibly contributed to a change in the dining habits of the entire region, which had been basically unchanged since the Pharaonic period.

The last section is devoted to the region between the Levantine coast and central Asia, grouping together evidence from southern Anatolia (Dülük Baba Tepesi) and inner central Asia (Merv). If this large grouping seems challenging, linking and gathering together as it does data from different regional contexts, the aim of the volume is precisely to show a common cultural horizon in a wide geographical framework. Papers in this section discuss data from Turkey (Gaziantep area and Dülük Baba Tepesi by Strothenke) and the Levantine Coast and the Southern Levant (Kramer and Stone for the coastal area, Krenkel for the Southern Levant region).

Although Palmyra reached its peak in the Roman period, the site always had a certain importance because of its strategic position. Even if its history in the Hellenistic period has not yet been fully investigated, the article by Römer-Strehl intriguingly shows how the material culture was strongly affected by influences from both the Orontes valley, western Syria and possibly the Levantine coast, as well as the middle Euphrates and Mesopotamia. The pattern affirms a pivotal role in the region for the city already in pre-Roman times. Likewise, the importance of local traditions mixed with western impulses forms the basis of Alabe’s contribution on the Hellenistic vessels from Dura Europos. The particular position of the city, on the edge of the Roman Empire and the Parthian kingdom, favoured the encounters of western style imports (West Slope, Eastern Sigillata A) and local productions and imitations.

Tidmarsh and Jackson’s presentation of the pottery material from Jebel Khalid occupies a peculiar position within the contributions in this section. Jebel Khalid was a Macedonian settlement, which always preserved its western roots. Western pottery types outnumber local types, a clue about the large presence of Macedonians in this Seleucid fortified citadel, which controlled the route crossing North Syria from the Mediterranean towards the Mesopotamian plain.

The last two articles treat ceramic material from central Asia. Puschnigg’s quantitative analysis of the pottery from Antiochia in Margiana demonstrates the increasing number of serving vessels in the oasis along with the persistence of locally produced wares and points to a change in social habits (mostly related to dining and food preparation), probably due to western influences. The last article of the volume is by Riedel who discusses the application of network theory to material culture, which may mark social interactions within ancient societies as well as economic.

The volume is undoubtedly a valuable source for scholars dealing with the Hellenistic world and its material culture, but it also brings a wider theoretical perspective to ceramic issues in general. Considerations such as the diffusion of certain types, the imitation of others, the presence or absence of specific vessels even in relatively small geographic contexts call the reader’s attention to the broader issues of social reconstructions, economic dynamics and cultural habits. Such a wider perspective on the Hellenistic world in general underlines the intentions of the editors, who aim at the definition of a "network" that embraces the cultural contacts, the exchange of ideas and the inclusion of local traditions within the new world order. Ceramics certainly help to identify such a connection and the similarities and/or differences in this large spectrum of cases prove that. The construction of a "new world order" during the Hellenistic time is something that obviously is reflected in the material culture.

What is missing from the book is a substantial conclusion that proceeds beyond the collation of evidence to the creation of a theoretical model for understanding trans-regional cultural networks through the analysis of the ceramics. The impact of these artefacts on the daily life of different Hellenistic communities shows how the mutual relationship between tradition and innovation drove these communities towards the adoption of common fashions and similar dining habits while retaining, however, their uniqueness.

However, the role of ancient pottery within both the physical and the socio-economic environment where it was produced and/or circulated appears to have been fundamental in the Hellenistic period and the diversity of case studies offered by Fenn and Romer-Strehl’s book certainly support this. Despite some very minor flaws, the book demonstrates the appeal of the topic with a series of highly valuable papers, each of them with appropriate plates, pictures, tables, and stratigraphic plans. Drawings and photos are clear and make the reading very much enjoyable.


1.   P. Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings. Space, Territory and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

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