Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.20

Francine Blondé (ed.), L’artisanat en Grèce ancienne: filières de production: bilans, méthodes et perspectives. Archaiologia.   Villeneuve-d'Ascq; Athènes:  Presses universitaires du Septentrion; École française d'Athènes, 2016.  Pp. 420.  ISBN 9782757414767.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mills McArthur, University of Chicago (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

This collection of twenty papers (two in English, the rest in French) emerges from an October 2007 round table gathering organized by l’École française d’Athènes. The theme is craft production in ancient Greece, and the majority of papers focus on one of three subjects: textile production, metalwork, or ancient glass. But this statement somewhat understates the diverse scope of the book. We also encounter papers on basket making, alum production, and the spatial organization of craft activity. Geographically, we travel as far afield as Roman Gaul. Chronologically, the papers delve as early as the Mycenaean period and extend as late as the 19th century CE.

Above all, this volume will be of value for its contributions to the study of ancient textiles, a subject that has attracted much scholarly interest in recent years.1 One is happy to find Marie-Louise Nosch, a leading authority, among the contributors. Her paper (pp. 157-170) promotes the use of experimental archaeology, defending this form of knowledge from the occasional charges of amateurism. The process of reconstructing ancient garments, she maintains, has the potential to address a broad range of fundamental questions, such as the duration of time required in textile manufacturing, the different techniques employed, and the difficulties encountered during production. She underscores this point with an experiment of her own, in which two experienced spinners spun thread using replica Bronze Age spindle whorls of differing weights. The findings: a skilled worker could spin an average of 50 meters of thread per hour with an 18 g spindle whorl, compared to 40 m per hour with an 8 g whorl. The lighter whorl, however, producing a finer thread, required greater concentration on the part of the spinners, implying a greater degree of skill. For Nosch, these results are an argument for putting tools front and center in the analysis of textile production. The weight of spindle whorls provides a window into the nature of ancient textile production, shedding light on the skills of workers and the type of thread produced at a given site. But exploiting such evidence, she adds, requires adopting rigorous criteria for classifying the tools consistently.

Valérie Marion (pp. 145-156) echoes Nosch’s insistence on the need for greater methodological rigor in describing artifacts of textile production. Much like Nosch’s spindle whorls, Marion sees in loom weights objects of technical precision whose value as evidence is hampered by the lack of a standardized descriptive vocabulary to classify them. The most important point about these weights is their weight — and yet, Marion states, precisely this information is all too often lacking in published inventories. For her, loom weights present an opportunity to pose questions about regional variation, and to that end she offers a case study of two Greek colonies in Thrace: Argilos and Thasos. Despite their geographical and cultural proximity, the evidence of loom weights paints a markedly different picture of textile production in these two communities, as Marion illustrates by graphing the weights’ size distribution and morphology (p. 151). Loom weights, she hopes, will become a means for identifying different technical traditions of textile production across the Greek world.

Quite apart from the tools of the trade, textiles themselves are a source of information for their own production. Some may be surprised to learn just how many ancient Greek textile fragments have been discovered (though they come almost exclusively from funerary contexts). Christophe Moulherat and Youlie Spantidaki (pp. 119-144) present several such artifacts dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, the result of a collaboration between the Hellenic Center for Research and Conservation of Archaeological Textiles (ARTEX) and the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF). The authors describe the fragments, add a few words about archaeological context, and provide details in tabular form about the fragments’ composition, as well as supplying a number of photographs. Especially striking is a fabric from Koropi in Attica that preserves the form of several embroidered lions.2

Across these papers, one gets the impression that a relentless attentiveness to seemingly mundane artifacts of textile production — spindle whorls, loom weights, textile fragments — has great potential to move beyond an understanding of the textile industry resting predominantly on textual and iconographic evidence. Of course, an appreciation of these underexploited data sets need not imply a rejection of text and image, and the remaining papers that treat textile production are a good reminder of their potential. To give one example, Giorgos Sanidas (pp. 15-30) draws on ancient Greek profession titles as evidence for the textile industry.

The volume’s significance is hardly limited to textiles, however. In one of the strongest installments in the book, Virginie Mathé (pp. 239-252) compares the temple-building accounts of Delphi and Epidaurus in terms of their treatment of metal objects — a valuable glimpse of artifacts with a limited archaeological presence. Mathé begins by exploring how the accounts were generated in the first place, allowing for a clear-headed assessment of the strengths and limitations of the epigraphic evidence (for example, things like workers’ metal tools, though obviously fundamental to the temple-building process, are generally irrelevant to these administrative accounts of receipts and expenses). Despite the shortcomings of the evidence, Mathé makes it clear that the construction accounts have potential implications not only for our understanding of Greek architecture, but also for the place of metals in the ancient economy. For instance, apart from lead and gold, the accounts reveal that metal was purchased in the form of pre-made objects rather than as raw material to be worked on site. Mathé attributes this feature to economic motives — a means of avoiding the costs of maintaining metalworkers and their facilities on site. She also makes a valuable comparison between purchases of worked iron objects at Epidaurus and Delphi. At Epidaurus, over the course of ten years, the price per talent of iron objects consistently hovers around 14 dr. 4 ob., before jumping to 15 dr. in the latter years of that period. This uniformity, Mathé suggests, indicates some form of price control imposed on suppliers. In contrast, the price per talent at Delphi ranges from 12.5 dr. to 60 dr. in a span of about five years. These variations in price are not a matter of change over time, but rather correlate to the different suppliers. Thus, Mathé infers, prices at Delphi owed much to the objects’ quality of craftsmanship, as well as to other factors like transportation costs.

A pair of articles on minting furthers the volume’s contribution to matters of economic history. Olivier Picard (pp. 205-224) considers the nature of ancient Greek mints in terms of their physical characteristics and their human capital. Picard largely avoids the Athenian evidence; his discussion of the “personnel technique” (those workers engaged in engraving dies, creating blanks, and finally striking the coins) does not mention the use of public slaves in the Athenian argurokopeion, even though he is interested in the legal status of mint workers. But this is all by design; Athens, with its silver mines and relatively large population, is a special case. Picard instead seeks to capture the reality of the majority of Greek states, whose coin production, he maintains, happened on an ad hoc basis without the luxury of permanent mint facilities. Thomas Faucher (pp. 225-238), in turn, writes on the value of experimental archaeology in uncovering techniques of coin production, a nice complement to Nosch’s advocacy of experimental approaches to textile production. Key questions here include the means by which ancient mints created blanks of a consistent weight, and the total number of coins a worker could strike in a day.

At a price of 48 euros, this volume is no minor investment. Certainly, it is a valuable product: over 400 pages long, with a number of images and data graphics throughout the book, including several in color. On the other hand, I noticed a recurring typographical error of missing spaces between words.3 In a particularly jarring example, an entire line of a section heading lacks spaces (p. 301). This would seem to be a mere technical glitch, and in no case do these errors pose a serious threat to readability. But this may not be an isolated incident: a similar edited volume from the same publisher has recently attracted criticism for its abundance of typos.4 Hopefully such issues will not become a trend in the publisher’s future releases.

Despite these minor flaws of production, the book serves its purpose. Several of the papers promise to advance scholarship in meaningful ways (and the summaries above only scratch the surface of what the book has to offer). Others will at the very least provide a means to get one’s feet wet in unfamiliar branches of craft production. Given the subject matter, this work should appeal to a broad spectrum of scholarly interests, ranging from strictly archaeological questions of the materiality of craft production, to matters of epigraphy, numismatics, and the ancient economy.

Table of Contents

“Introduction,” Francine Blondé

1. Approches topographiques
“Artisanat en Grèce et espace économique : le textile et la métallurgie” by Giorgos M. Sanidas
“L’artisanat en Gaule romaine : organisation et place” by Alain Ferdière

2. Corderie, vannerie et textile
“Corderie et vannerie grecque archaïque : les trouvailles de Cala Sant Vicenç (Pollensa, Mallorca)” by Carmen Alfaro
“Le tissage, un art oublié” by Marion Muller-Dufeu
“Textiles de l’Âge du Bronze à l’époque romaine conservés en Grèce” by Christophe Moulherat, † Youlie Spantidaki
“Pesons et tissage dans les colonies grecques de la côte thrace” by Valérie Marion
“L’archéologie textile expérimentale : une approche systématique des outils textiles” by Marie-Louise Nosch
“Les soieries occidentales « pour le Levant » (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles) : un cas d’archéologie des textiles modernes” by Marie- Laure Portal

3. Métallurgie
“Métallurgie thasienne : approches archéologique et archéométrique” by Valérie Pichot
“L’« atelier monétaire » dans les cités grecques” by Olivier Picard
“Les techniques de fabrication des monnaies antiques. L’apport de l’expérimentation” by Thomas Faucher
“Les métaux dans les comptes de construction de Delphes et d’Épidaure aux IVe et IIIe s. av. J.-C.” by Virginie Mathé
“Productions en métal de Petres (Macédoine occidentale)” by Polyxeni Adam-Veleni
“Les croyances des artisans : le cas des metallurgists” by Anne-Catherine Gillis
“La sidérurgie dans l’Est des Gaules de la Tène au haut Moyen Âge : bilan et perspectives” by Michel Mangin

4. Verre et alun
“Neither Phoenician nor Persian: Glassworking in Archaic and Classical Greece” by Despina Ignatiadou
“Déblais d’un atelier de verrier à Délos : fouilles dans l’Aphrodision de Stèsiléôs” by Mathilde Douthe, Cécile Durvye
“Le verre au Haut-Empire dans le monde égéen” by Marie-Dominique Nenna
“Production and Distribution of Glass Objects in Late Antique Thessaloniki (3rd-7th c. A.D.)” by Anastassios C. Antonaras
“À propos des alunières de Sapès (Macédoine orientale) : techniques et artisanats sur la longue durée” by † Maurice Picon, Chrysa Karadima–Matsa, Francine Blondé


1.   Cf. the remarks of S. Spantidaki, Textile Production in Classical Athens (Oxbow Books 2016), p. xxii.
2.   A black and white image shows one of the lions, p. 136. Additional images can be accessed at
3.   E.g., p. 153, “dimensionssemblent”; p. 204, “Thasos.Outre”; p. 349, an entire line of text lacks spaces.
4.   C. Holleran, Classical Review 66.1 (2016): 235-237.

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