Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.34

Gonca Cankardeş-Şenol, Lexicon of Eponym Dies on Rhodian Amphora Stamps. Volume 1, Eponyms A. Études alexandrines 33. AmphorAlex, 3.   Alexandria:  Centre d'études alexandrines, 2015.  Pp. 608.  ISBN 9782111390225.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by Nathan Badoud, Université de Fribourg; Fonds National Suisse (

After a Preface by Jean-Yves Empereur and an Introduction by Gonca Cankardeş-Şenol, this book covers 2106 Rhodian amphora stamps, from nearly the same number of dies, dated by eponyms whose names begin with A. Three further volumes are envisaged for the other eponyms, and an unspecified number of volumes for the fabricants. Most of the stamps come from Alexandria, particularly the Lucas Benaki collection which Virginia Grace studied for several decades; but material from a mix of other places has been added to the Alexandrian core.

The stamps were already accessible online on the database of the Centre d’études alexandrines. This could call into question the usefulness of the enterprise, which will comprise more than 1500 pages for the eponyms alone: the author states that it will be “more permanent” (p. 23) than the database. We may add that the printed illustrations are of higher quality than in the database (where the quality is poor) and that the planned appendixes will probably enhance their interest. Like the bibliography on the website, the bibliographical references in the first three volumes will be incomprehensible until a general bibliography is published in the fourth volume or made available online. The press should therefore not have distributed the book volume by volume.

The book, like the database, has some serious conceptual flaws.

1. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not a publication of all Rhodian stamps found at Alexandria, for two reasons. First, the division between eponyms and fabricants omits all the dies which bear neither but have only the name of a month or a symbol, or which could not be completely identified, and omits also the isolated secondary stamps. Second, since most Rhodian dies are attested in Alexandria, it is important not only to offer a sample, but also to establish how many stamps found in Alexandria were produced from each Rhodian die, figures which are not provided. The book does not mention either the existence or the desirability of this basic information; let us hope, however, that it will be provided in the fourth volume.

2. The classification system of the dies, by Jean-Yves Empereur, raises a methodological problem, for only the legends are taken into account. Yet the symbols and the shape of the dies also had a meaning and are therefore as relevant as the legend for the classification. The solution adopted results in a dispersal of stamps conveying the same information, so that it is difficult to grasp the overall system of stamping on Rhodes. The book does not even mention the notion of such a system (which could be defined as the relation between the distinctive units of the stamping, which have first to be identified, like the elements of a code).

3. The terminology used to identify each die is impractical. Catalogues usually assign a separate number to each item, but here the stamps are labeled only by chains of letters and numbers, such as RE-ΑΡΧΕΜΒΡΟΤΟΣ-02-ΠΑΝΑΜΟΣ-ΔΕΥΤΕΡΟΣ-002: something which is not easy to cite, especially if many dies are concerned. Apart from the problems which this poses for scientific classification (above, 2), such a system would be acceptable in an evolving online database, but hardly makes sense in a book intended to give a picture of the evidence at a fixed point in time.

4. The records published by the CEAlex are a mixture of good (generally easy) readings and mistakes which are sometimes understandable and sometimes embarrassing (such as the author’s systematic failure to recognize the form more commonly used for the letter zeta). These mistakes, numbering over 60, will be discussed in the “Bulletin amphorologique” of the Revue des études grecques (2017).

Other problems are specific to the book.

5. The title is disconcerting for two reasons. The book is neither a corpus nor a catalogue of the Rhodian amphora stamps found at Alexandria (above, 1). The alphabetical organization of the material accounts for the title Lexicon. But a proper understanding of the material would require the adoption of a chronological order, to classify both the eponyms and the months. Moreover, the phrase “Eponym dies on Rhodian amphora stamps”, despite its prominent position, is odd, since the dies are lost and known only through the handles stamped with them. What is offered is in fact “Eponym dies illustrated by Rhodian amphora stamps”. Indeed, the book is essentially a collection of images.

6. The Preface by Jean-Yves Empereur describes the classification system used in the book (above, 2-3). It repeats material from a 1986 article, published well before the works of Yvon Garlan, which set the standards of the discipline in both the presentation of material and its historical analysis.1 It also aims to explain how the volume and the following ones will be useful: “this corpus can lead to renewed examinations of various subjects, such as the frequency of month names and their connection with the grape-picking season” (p. 15). But the book is not a corpus (above, 1) and cannot be used to study the frequency with which the names of months appear since the number of stamps known from each die is not provided (1). Moreover, the production curve of Rhodian amphoras bears no relation to the grape-picking season.2 Finally, the Preface gives a summary of research which cites only in passing the name of Lucas Benaki, a man who devoted about thirty years of his life to collecting and preserving the roughly 66,000 handles which form the core of the present work, and says very little about the research on the material done by Virginia Grace and her collaborators in close liaison with him.

8. The Introduction by G. Cankardeş Şenol betrays serious misunderstandings of the history, aims and achievements of what is known as “amphorology”. It starts by stating that “the earliest publications related to amphora stamps appeared in the second half of the 19th century” (p. 17). In fact, the study of amphora handles goes back to the 16th century, and the identification of the Rhodian stamps was made by John Stoddart in an article published in 1850 and based on the material found in Alexandria.3 Cankardeş Şenol goes on to claim that “V.R. Grace undertook the earliest chronological studies” (p. 20), whereas these were the work of C. Schuchhardt (1895) and F. Bleckmann (1907) whose inaccurate dating of the Pergamon deposit lays behind the faulty high chronology developed by Grace herself.

The author then deals with the heart of her subject matter, the dies used to produce the Rhodian amphora stamps. Here she is content to cite a 1935 article to state that they were “made from wood, metal or clay”. For wooden and metal dies she provides only an incorrect reference4 and an inconclusive document.5 In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to assume, considering the availability of the material, its ease of use and the ductus of the letters, that all Rhodian stamps were applied by ceramic dies. The engravers of the dies which are the subject matter of the book are not even mentioned, although they have for several decades been among the central figures studied in amphorology on Rhodes and elsewhere.6

The reason for the stamping process is restricted to the following statement: “it has been suggested that the stamps impressed on the amphorae were related to the wine carried in them” (p. 18). Yet amphoras were used to transport all sorts of products (including oil, fish, fruits, and alum). Their stamps never gave an indication of contents, and the same stamps were sometimes also used to mark tiles. One can conclude that they were not related to the wine that was only sometimes carried in the amphoras.

The picture which the author gives of Rhodes goes well beyond modernism:7 in her opinion, it was a state managed by an eponym in charge of the economy (p. 19). In fact the eponym was not “also” but only the priest of Helios. The function of the priest (whether he was mentioned in an inscription or on a stamp) was solely to indicate the date of the document, which was thus comprehensible only within the state itself (hence the occasional presence in inscriptions and ancient authors of eponyms of two or more different cities to date the document or event); this is sufficient to show that the amphora stamp was not for the benefit of Egyptian or other consumers, but for that of specialist Rhodian supervisors at the stage when the vessel was made, and without reference to its contents; it did not guarantee the latter’s nature or quantity. Moreover, the author confuses the potter who made the amphoras and the fabricant who was legally responsible for their production. She also introduces an anachronism in supposing that a wine’s reputation was linked not only to its city of origin but also to the estate it came from (p. 19): this is the price to pay for continuing to imagine that the stamp was aimed at the consumer, which it certainly was not. The hypothesis that “the month name appearing on the stamp was probably an indication of the period/time when the amphora was filled with wine” (p. 19) is no better founded than the others, and is contradicted by everything which has just been said above on the subject. Moreover, it makes no reference to the annual production curve of Rhodian amphoras, and takes no account of the fact that the Rhodian stamps are the only ones which mention the names of months, and then only for a limited period. Regarding “the absence of ethnic” as “the result of the distinctive shape and the surface colour of amphorae, which were already known to the customers and indicated the origin” (p. 19), the author adopts a consumerist point of view wholly at odds with the fact that Rhodian amphoras came in different shapes, and were produced with different types of clay. The absence of an ethnic on their stamps is hardly noticeable since the civic symbols of a rose and a head of Helios, which also occur on the Rhodian coinage, could take its place. Unfortunately, she limits her discussion of the symbols to stating, again without proof, that “they were decided depending on either the preferences of the producers/workshops or the general tendency towards a symbol of the production centre formed by their beliefs, traditions, and ethnics” (p. 20). The idea that the state could exercise control over the stamping process, and that the latter was itself a form of control, appears only in an unjustified connection with the wine. Equally unjustified is the distinction made between the island of Rhodes and the Peraea: both were parts of the same state.

What the author says about the chronology of the material (p. 20-21) is partly out of date, and in particular takes no account of the epigraphic evidence which mentions the same eponyms and the same months as the amphora stamps.8

To sum up, the classification system adopted in this Lexicon is unsatisfactory. The commentary betrays inadequate understanding of the stamps and the society which produced them. Moreover it ignores some basic tenets of scholarship, including the need to consider the arguments of other scholars, to provide supporting arguments for one’s own hypotheses, and to avoid presenting the latter as facts. While we wait for the appendices promised for the fourth volume, the main value of the book will lie in its illustrations.


1.   Y. Garlan, Les timbres amphoriques de Thasos, 1999; Les timbres céramiques sinopéens sur amphores et sur tuiles trouvés à Sinope, 2004.
2.   N. Badoud, Le Temps de Rhodes, 2015, 30-35; see also H. Blitzer, Hesperia 59 (1990), 679.
3.   J.L. Stoddart, TRSL 3 (1850), 1-127.
4.   V.R. Grace, Hesperia 22 (1953), 120 (not 119), no longer admitting the use of wooden dies as in 1935.
5.   How the RE-ΑΡΙΣΤΩΝΥΜΟΣ-ΔΑΛΙΟΣ-001 stamp could reflect the use of a metal die is not specified.
6.   See for instance G. Finkielsztejn, Chronologie détaillée et révisée des éponymes amphoriques rhodiens, de 270 à 108 av. J.-C. environ: premier bilan, 2001 (Rhodes); N. Conovici, Histria VIII. Les timbres amphoriques 2, 1998 (Sinope); Y. Garlan, Amphores et timbres amphoriques grecs. Entre érudition et idéologie, 2000, p. 93-112 (Thasos).
7.   For the use on the concept of "modernism" in ancient history, see for instance A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy, 2016, 2-4, and, more specifically, Y. Garlan, Amphores et timbres amphoriques grecs. Entre érudition et idéologie, 2000, 20-32.
8.   See C. Habicht, “Rhodian Amphora Stamps and Rhodian Eponyms”, REA 105 (2003), p. 541-578 ; N. Badoud, “Bulletin amphorologique”, REG 120 (2007), p. 210-212 and 125 (2012), p. 192-193; “The Contribution of Inscriptions to the Chronology of Rhodian Amphora Eponyms”, in M. Lawall, P. Guldager Bilde (ed.), Pottery, Peoples and Places, 2014, 17-28; Le Temps de Rhodes, 2015, ch. I, VII and VIII.

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