BMCR 1994.02.19

1994.02.19, Ridgway, The First Western Greeks

Let’s face it: some archaeologists seem to hoard excavated material rather than surrender it to the scholarly masses through legitimate publication. In energetic contrast are Giorgio Buchner (B.), excavator of Pithekoussai (P.), and David Ridgway (R.); of course with impeccable methodology and fabulous discoveries they have nothing to hide.

The formal report and catalog of the initial excavations of P. was completed in the 1970’s, and when the vicissitudes of the Monumenti Antichi series delayed its timely publication, B. and R. encouraged scholars to visit Ischia, consult their manuscript, and handle the famous objects. They gave site tours and even fed us lucky visitors—far beyond the call of scholarly duty! The First Western Greeks began as L’alba della Magna Grecia (editors’ title “The Dawn of Magna Graecia” [Milan, 1984]).

The 1992 edition is substantially more than the original, particularly at beginning and end, with an especially useful bibliography and notes. If you are preparing course material in early Greek history, Geometric and Orientalizing Greek art/pottery, history of metallurgy and the Western Mediterranean, Etruscan/Italic archaeology and more, you will find this book invaluable. Even better, it can be recommended to students (of a certain level of expertise) as both interesting and “safe”—scholarship which is scientifically rigorous and free of the “spin” often put upon evidence for Italian pre-(or proto-)history. R. discusses Etruscans (chaps. 7, 8) and the local Oenotrians briefly, but with respect seldom encountered in works on early Greek trade.

As it happens, P. is a focus for most of the major historical, archaeological and sociological issues of the 8th c. B.C.—which are indispensable for studies of later periods and Classical literature as well. R. presents ancient literary sources (especially chap. 3) with concise, sensible analyses of crucial terms. The island’s name may derive from pithoi (p. 36) rather than pithekoi, although obviously monkeys were more intriguing to most ancient and modern commentators!

Pithekoussai, the island of Ischia ( sciatica sufferers still seek treatment in its volcanic mud baths), is strategically sited off the Bay of Naples. It was not a canonical Greek colony, though its residents later established the more conventional city of Cumae on the mainland. P. was “commercial in tone, Euboean in origin and essentially apart from subsequent Western Greek history”. Eretrians and Chalcidians established a settlement of fertile soil and workers in gold, according to Strabo and Livy. The earliest Greek goods (Euboean and Corinthian Middle Geometric pottery) belong to the first half of the 8th century B.C., but these are sherds from a dump (associated with native Apennine pottery) and theoretically might represent mere trade, a sort of “Euboean advance party” preceding actual settlement (R.’s modest interpretation).

By about 780 B.C., someone was marketing Greek goods to the natives of Campania. Within a relatively short period, one generation or less, by 750 B.C., a large immigrant population occupied the island, covering an axis at least 1 kilometer long. This is three times the size of contemporary Smyrna, with 400-500 households! Extensive local industries produced and exported Late Geometric pottery and a range of metal goods. The 493 excavated graves (chap. 4) represent no more than 5% of a cemetery that filled up between 750-700 B.C. The excavators’ statistical analysis (presented in somewhat daunting sets of charts, pp. 67-77) suggests a constant population in that period of between 890 and 2370 middle class adults, extrapolated to a full census (including the poor, and certain classes of children) of several thousands. (By another formula, based on death rates [p.102], the population is estimated between 4800 and 9860.) The implication is that a city so large was probably actually begun a generation earlier, which I find very likely. Either way, P. predates the earliest “true” colonies (Zancle/756?, Syracuse/737 or 733 B.C.) as well as the formal mold of colonization by oikistes that was created by an earlier generation of scholars out of sparse ancient sources and the perceived template of modern nationalism. P. can be seen as an emporion, a planned commercial enterprise in which hundreds of families prospered by the sale (without coinage) of their skills and labor.

R. offers meticulous background studies (chap. 1) of the “Mycenaean” presence in the Western Mediterranean (substantial, but terminated centuries before Greeks reappeared in Italy), and definition of the identity of the “Euboeans” abroad (chap. 2) with reference to recent excavations on the home island. As for a single home city, there is still doubt; there may be a connection in the similarity of Mössbauer values between the vases of P. and Lefkandi.

The earliest Greek settlers must have relied on information (sailing charts?, market research??) generated by Levantine mercantile sources; so P. resulted from Euboean entrepreneurs “inserting themselves in a pre-existing Cypro-Levantine commercial network that had kept East-West routes open throughout the Greek Dark Age” (p. 13). For the period of 1000 to 800 B.C., little Phoenician material can be identified in the Tyrrhenian, but tantalizing evidence (chap. 6) points to the mixed ethnicity of 8th c. Pithekoussai: Euboean Greeks living, working, and almost certainly intermarrying with native Italic people and with Semitic immigrants.

B. attributes certain gold ornaments (from burials) to the influence of native wives. Semitic residents announced themselves with inscriptions and distinctive imports (Levantine amphorae, North Syrian face jugs, Phoenician red-slipped lamps) included in their family burial compounds. Product loyalty is not of itself proof of nationality, since amphorae were reused, flasks were bought for their contents, and Punic lamps were the best available in the 8th century (in the 6th c., an Etruscan ship [wrecked off Antibes] used one). Inscriptions on the Rhodian(?) amphora from grave 575, however, show Semitic activities of life and death: from the original import, an Aramaic label of quantity intended for a Semitic merchant, and later a Semitic funerary symbol for the baby buried therein. An inscribed sherd from a local kantharos of Early ProtoCorinthian (EPC) type (fig. 31) must have been the property or gift of a Phoenician and later part of a funeral pyre; the inscription ran around the body of the cup, thus is not a price tag. The question of the exact origin of Semitic residents is perhaps analogous to the Euboean question: some inscriptions are Aramaic, others Phoenician, but too little is known of the Levantine homelands in the Early Iron Age to link P.’s artisans to a single city or their imported belongings to a single kingdom of origin. (R. gives references for this question; another, also by M. G. Guzzo Amadasi, is “Fenici o aramei in occidente nell’VIII sec. A.C.?”Studia Phoenicia 5 [ed. E. Lipinski, 1987] 35-47.)

The atmosphere of condominium is enhanced by the Corinthian connection: the earliest (pre-colonial) Greek imports to Italy/Sicily, Middle Geometric chevron skyphoi, include a high proportion of Corinthian products as well as Euboean. C. W. Neeft (see pp. 62, 150) has identified three resident Corinthian potters who produced EPC aryballoi for export to Campania, Caere and Bologna (the market driver is the perfumed oil trade, not the collectibility of Greek vases). Pithekoussans also used alot of Corinthian imports, including large, Late Geometric kraters—indicating wine drinking customs, banqueting society and viticulture. The years following 700 B.C. saw rapid Corinthian penetration of Western markets, no coincidence, surely.

Although the later, breadbasket colonies followed a different pattern, the earliest emigrant Greeks went into the Tyrrhenian area completely savvy to the native—and Phoenician—spheres of influence: Pithekoussai is as close as foreigners could get to Etruria without ending up in a portside ghetto (as at Graviscae) under the control of Etruscan aristocrats. The 7th c. sequel to the P. venture is the story of Demaratos (see now D. and F. R. Ridgway, “Demaratus and the Archaeologists,” in Murlo and the Etruscans, eds. R. D. DePuma and J. P. Small, U. Wisconsin, 1994: 6-15 with a different view from O. Wikander in “Archaic Roof-Tiles: The First(?) Generation,”Opuscula Atheniensia 19 [1992] 151-161).

Likewise, Syracuse is the best strategic and commercial option in Sicily, given that other (Levantine) foreigners already controlled the best ports in the western half of the island (Motya, Palermo etc.) and the Sardinian and Spanish markets to which they look. The involvement of Nuraghic Sardinia in Late Bronze and Early Iron Age trade and metallurgy is now recognized in imports from Cyprus and Spain and exports to Italy and the Aegean (pp. 147-148). To R.’s extensive references, add the latest, D. and F. R. Serra Ridgway, “Sardinia and History,” in Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A Footprint in the Sea (= Studies in Sardinian Archaeology Presented to Miriam S. Balmuth, eds. R. H. Tykot and T. K. Andrews, Sheffield/Oxford, 1992) 355-363. (Also see F. Lo Schiavo [296- 303] on Spanish fibula exports, and A. Stos-Gale and N. H. Gale [317-346] on copper oxhide ingots.)

The identification of a Pithekoussan Late Geometric urn in the tophet of Sulcis in southwestern Sardinia (p. 114) reopens the question of the source of the earliest Greek-painted vases in early Punic sites. (For photo, see fig. 116 of G. Pesce, Sardegna punica [Cagliari, n.d.=1961].) In Carthage, the supposed foundation deposit in the Tanit sanctuary of the original tophet included painted pottery imitating ProtoCorinthian shapes (oinochoai, skyphoi) and styles. I felt, on handling those pieces in Tunis in 1973, that the seemingly sandy fabric, not Corinthian, resembled that of the local, Punic, ceramics although the potter/painter was clearly Greek or Greek-enlightened. Now, might a Mössbauer analysis link these vases to Pithekoussai also? (Several have clay of reddish or orange tone, but limey encrustation and the odd seaside burial conditions have obscured surfaces.) The fact that Phoenicians used distinctive Greek type vases for such a sacred ritual as infant sacrifice and the Tanit cult seems to attest great familiarity with Greek artisans. Are the tophet deposits possibly the corollary to the evidence of intermarriage and hellenization practiced by the Semitic populace at Pithekoussai?

Another problem which must be seen in the light of P. is the position of Al Mina in relation to early Greek colonization and trade. Leonard Wooley’s excavations there turned up warehouse-like buildings with large amounts of Greek pottery, Euboean in the 8th c. and Attic later, and helped to nurture the myth of Greek ascendency in the Early Iron Age Levant. It’s often assumed that Greek emporia in the Levant preceded the Orientalizing period of Greece and the western migrations. It will be a long time before enough coastal sites in the Lebanon-Syria can be studied to settle this question. The picture of Al Mina painted by Boardman’s The Greeks Overseas (1981) is of a Greek colony with some sort of charter from the Syrian kingdom. Boardman (“Al Mina and History,”Oxford Journal of Archaeology 9 [1990]: 169-190) presents some distortion of statistics to enhance this: actually a tiny sounding at Tyre (see P. M. Bikai, The Pottery of Tyre [Warminster 1978]) produced more Greek pottery than all of contemporary Al Mina and no one impugns its Phoenician autonomy. Al Mina’s 8th c. houses look native rather than Greek, with Levantine cooking set-ups—were it not for the few Greek inscriptions, one might easily see it as a Syrian commercial enclave with several merchants who specialized in the import of Greek wares. (R.’s reasonable interpretation sees a few Euboean merchants trading in a Syrian town, pp. 24-26.) For P., R. supposes that Levantine craftsmen were invited in by Greek entrepreneurs, but others see the Phoenicians as the employers, Greeks as the invited, with Corinth included to secure use of the Isthmus. (See G. Kopcke, “What Role for the Phoenicians?” in G. Kopcke and I. Tokumaru, eds., Greece Between East and West: 10th-8th centuries B.C. [NYU meeting, 1990/ Mainz/Rhein, 1992] 101-113. Also has R. on Demaratus, pp. 85-92, and much else, including M. Hudson’s suggestion [pp. 128-143] that the Phoenicians introduced the interest-bearing loan to Greece, Italy and Western Europe! Certainly there is precedent for postulating condominium by treaty for Pithekoussai.)

A jeweler’s weight (p. 95) found in the industrial quarter seems to reflect the Euboean weight standard, since it is only slightly heavier than the Euboic-Attic stater of 8.72 grams. Its use, probably by an 8th c. gold or silversmith, precedes by centuries the next datum point for official standards, the 5th century coins of 1/10 stater struck by certain hellenized Sicilian towns. Of course, the “notoriously international” (p. 148) oxhide ingot was the universally respected symbol of preceding periods .

A Greek amphora reused for enchytrismos burial (grave 575, chap. 6, fig. 29) was previously labeled in Aramaic “200 [liquid] units”, implying another consensus, on metrology of perishable commodities. Since Greek cities in the homeland were not to observe universal standards of measurement for centuries to come, one may look to Phoenicians for this early enlightenment: confidence in the quality of traded goods was necessary to the operation of the consortium. The amphora’s capacity, 54.8 liters, equates to a unit like the Ionic-Attic kotyle (0.27 l) probably designed for unguent oils.

The trade in raw ores illustrated by the Elban iron worked at the Ischian foundry is perplexing. Why carry shiploads of ore instead of producing refined ingots near the minehead? On analogy with the late U.S. steel industry, I assume that the problem to be solved involved either labor or fuel. (Evidence on Elba so far only begins with the 6th c.—see J. and L. Jehasse, “Aleria et la metallurgie du fer,” in Il commercio etrusco arcaico = Quaderni del Centro di Studio per l’archeologia etrusco-italica, 9 [1985]: 95-101.) It is a pity that, given the rapidly growing corpus of documented ancient Mediterranean shipwrecks, virtually no actual ships are known for the period of exploration that led to the Greek colonies. The oldest related finds (600-500 B.C.) are considered Etruscan, the small “sewn” vessels carrying mixed Greek and Etruscan cargoes. Apparently, the vessels of choice in the 9th-8th cs. were longships, including pentekonters, which Snodgrass ( Archaic Greece, London, [1980]: 137-139) indicated were likely to be owned by wealthy individuals (aristocrats) or groups who contracted with agents, rather than self-employed merchants. Loss of a ship would be too much for an independent shipmaster to support—Sostratos who became so rich (and dedicated in Graviscae en route) did so only at the end of the 6th c. (Herodotus 4.152)

Note that the recomposition of the famous, locally made “shipwreck krater” from Pithekoussai (one of a whole category of narratives on seafaring and the dangers of western waters) has been slightly updated (see p. 150; fig. 10 drawing is correct). The correction was published in 1966, but the older version, which seemed to suggest a central mast and slightly different man-eater, still circulates, e.g. Lucien Basch’s Le musée imaginaire de la marine antique (Athens 1987) fig. 394 [a wonderful book, but beware its drawings].

Criticism of this work must flatter by its fussy nature. I am sorry that R. limited discussion of Pithekoussai to its “Euboean period” which ended c. 700 B.C. He only hints (p. 40) at an important deposit of the 7th century with architectural and other terracottas and Corinthian pottery. There is apparently evidence for continued metallurgy on Ischia, in the discovery of a lead foundry of the 3rd c. B.C. on the seabed off Castello, Ischia (A. di Stefano, IJNA 4 [1975]: 383-384). Finds included foundry tools, lead ingots and slag, possibly from Sardinian galena.

While it is intriguing to postulate a funerary design for certain objects (like Attic white-ground lekythoi with fugitive paint), I do not think the eggshell-thin Late Geometric (“Aetos 666”) kotylai (upon which many chronologies hang) were designed for funerals only (as p. 64, R. quoting Benton). The status of thin-walled PC and later kotylai (cf. D. A. Amyx, Corinthian Vase-Painting of the Archaic Period II [1988]: 457-459) in Corinth itself is attested by plenty of examples from non-funerary contexts (Anaploga Well, Potters Quarter, Acrocorinth Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore). There is ample precedent among Phoenician red-slipped wares imitating metalwork (c. 1025-760 B.C.) for hard, burnished fabrics that seem as thin and as strong as a modern wine glass. At Sarepta and Tyre large amounts are found in residential and industrial areas (W. P. Anderson, Sarepta I [1988] pls. 38:2-4, 33:27, pp. 162-165, 344-346, drinking cups with walls often less than 5 mm thick; Bikai op. cit. p. 29, pl. XIX:1-8). The earliest Etruscan bucchero also is extremely thin ( sottile), and many of its shapes blatantly imitate Levantine silverware; may not Corinthian potters have tried out a posh, thin fabric while remaining loyal to their traditional repertoire of shapes? As evidence of potters’ fascination with exotic ceramics, note the presence of Etruscan 6th c. bucchero kantharoi in the Corinth Potters’ Quarter ( Hesperia 43 [1974]: 35 nos. 1-2).

Since R. implicates Sardinia in early trade currents, I wish his maps (figs. 2, 33) had extended a further millimeter or two to Sardinia. He and Fulvia Lo Schiavo et al. have warned us: future treatments of 8th c. trade are going to have to make substantial additions for Spain as well!

Fig. 31 (p. 117) is printed upside down—the very sherd that was erroneously read upside down as Greek by Guarducci, but independently identified as Phoenician by two Semitic scholars. Does this make us sympathetic to the plight of those who study inscriptions through photos?

I wish for more presentation of chronologies like the Mycenaean table (p.5) and for tabulation of the quantities of various MG and LG pottery exports to parallel that offered for sample Veientine burials (p. 132). Actually, P., with 1300 burials (of all periods) excavated, approaches a statistically meaningful sample (493 graves are 8th c.), much better odds than are possible for most archaeological publications. Some grounds for identifying 15% of the population as Semitic are thinner—3 out of 21 LG I cremation graves containing Levantine aryballoi (p. 116).

The First Western Greeks can’t solve all our problems, after all: I still approach absolute chronology for the 8th-7th centuries with great trepidation. The dates of Greek pottery styles are keyed to colony foundations and the like, yet these were oft en dated by the circular route. Thus, P. is dated by Coldstream’s Geometric scheme, which incorporated material from P.—probably they are perfectly correct, but there are still no guarantees.

R. is careful to recall the human element in P. Adventure and romance in the untamed West are still beyond archaeological scope, but the documentation of P.’s quality of life is remarkable. Literacy, it seems, was not just for the business world, but integral to a social koine where Greek and Semite both appreciated Homer. The Nestor cup’s place in the burial of a Semitic man’s son may further suggest a well educated 10-year old. Other allusions to the heroic epics and the nostalgic application of once-aristocratic cremation and libation rites (again by all ethnics) seem to attest the powerful influence of epic poetry on the working classes. With all that affluence, peace and cooperation, they were lucky to stick it out beyond the 8th century!