BMCR 2005.03.21

Ceramicus Redivivus. The Early Iron Age Potters’ Field in the Area of the Classical Athenian Agora. With a contribution by Michael R. Schilling. Hesperia Supplement 31

, Ceramicus redivivus : the early Iron Age potters' field in the area of the classical Athenian Agora. Hesperia Supplement ; 31. Athens and Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2003. xxiii, 370 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 28 cm.. ISBN 0876615310. $45.00 (pb).

Generations of Athenian topographers have puzzled over why ancient authors such as Pausanias refer to the Agora of Athens as the “Kerameikos,” since the historic “potters’ quarter” of the city lay to the northwest of the Athenian Agora. Papadopoulos’ monograph makes it clear that this appellation almost certainly goes back to the area’s long-standing use by potters from the Protogeometric Period until at least the first half of the 7th century BC: the Agora was called “Kerameikos,” because it was the original potters’ quarter of the city. It is important to note that this volume is NOT the comprehensive publication of the Early Iron Age deposits from the Agora that Papadopoulos has been working on for some time and that some readers may be anticipating. The formal purpose of this work is to present the evidence for early pottery manufacture in the area of the Classical Athenian Agora. Although the purpose of the volume is thus rather narrow, in fact the book looks broadly at the technology of pottery production; it also contains an important synthesis of recent discoveries and studies that have reshaped understanding of the city’s development. The book sometimes has a rather sprawling sense, as the author ranges well outside the Early Iron Age, but in my view the expanded coverage of certain issues is appropriate.

The book is divided into five chapters and an appendix, the latter written by M. Schilling. The first chapter serves as an introduction to the study, setting out some background on the Agora excavations, as well as major deposits of Early Iron Age (Protogeometric — Subgeometric) pottery that have provided evidence of actual pottery manufacture in the area. Most of the evidence comes from abandoned wells that had been filled with debris. This is followed by a section discussing the use of test-pieces by potters to check on the status of fabric and decoration during the firing process. The use of such test-pieces is especially helpful with a complex three-stage firing process such as that employed with Attic Black and Red Figure, although it seems clear that even potters in the Protogeometric Period were employing such pieces to ascertain the appearance of the glossy black surfaces on their vessels . Papadopoulos’ discussion of test-pieces is extensive, drawing on examples from Renaissance Italy and China, in addition to ancient Greece.

Chapter 2 constitutes the bulk of the book, taking up nearly two-thirds of the total text. The chapter is essentially an analytical catalog presenting test pieces and other evidence for pottery manufacture, including kilns, wasters, and production discards. Most of the definite test-pieces consist of large sherds or vessel sections cut from unfired vessels that probably had flaws making them unsuitable for firing; they usually have a large perforation that allowed them to be drawn for inspection with a long hook from a hot kiln. Since they were never going to see practical use and the potter only wanted to check the firing of the clay body and state of the painted decoration, test-pieces may also have uncanonical decoration that allows them to be distinguished from ordinary sherds. Wasters are fragments of pots that were discarded after misfiring. The typical waster is usually recognized by a vitrified surface or an entirely melted appearance that is produced by overfiring. “Production discard” is a vaguer category, to which belong pots or sherds that exhibit flaws in shape, imperfect adhesion of paint, or other irregularities that suggest they might not have been saleable; Papadopoulos is rightly circumspect in employing this term.

The pieces are presented in a more or less chronological order, beginning with the Early Protogeometric deposits. Papadopoulos treats each deposit separately, providing for each a summary of the context and the date, followed by the catalog entries for test-pieces and other evidence of pottery manufacture. Virtually every piece is provided with a drawing of the decorated surfaces and a photograph; most have profile drawings as well. The catalog entries themselves are somewhat surprising at first: the trend in recent ceramic publications has been to provide increasingly telegraphic catalog entries, allowing the drawings and photographs to do as much of the “speaking” as possible. Papadopoulos’ catalog has a rather more “old-fashioned” structure, with much fuller commentary than one typically sees these days in publications of Protogeometric or Geometric pottery. In the case of this publication, the longer entries are often helpful, but given the profile drawings, some of the shape descriptions are unnecessarily detailed; discussion of paint condition is obviously of interest here, but the sometimes minute treatments of paint cracking may strike some readers as overkill.

Near the end of the chapter, Papadopoulos provides a fairly full treatment of Deposit S 17:2, which lay to the east of the later Southeast Fountain House, along the Panathenaic Way. He regards this deposit as important for establishing the continuity of pottery manufacture in the area of the later Classical Agora at least until the middle of the 7th cent. BC and probably even later. The ceramic artifacts recovered also indicate that a nearby pottery workshop was manufacturing not only pots, but also lamps, figurines, spindle whorls, loomweights, and other items.

The third chapter is a wide-ranging discussion concerning what the test pieces and other evidence indicate about the manufacture of Athenian pottery. The somewhat eclectic, but interesting topics include literary and pictorial evidence for pottery manufacture, especially that relating to problems that confront potters in firing their wares, as well as an informative discussion of ancient pottery kilns. Papadopoulos has read widely and provides references ranging from Minoan kilns all the way to those of the Ottoman Period. For the most part, however, kiln technology did not change much over this long period, since the Greeks employed fairly simple updraft kilns with perforated floors. Papadopoulos also employs the test pieces to show that the three-stage firing process known to have been used in later Black and Red Figure wares was being utilized as early as the Protogeometric Period. The sequence consisted of firing under oxidizing conditions, followed by reduction, and finally another period of oxidation, followed by cooling. Connected with this discussion is the book’s appendix, by Michael Schilling, which presents the results of a study of firing temperatures in the Agora test-pieces. What is surprising here is that temperatures indicated by this study are considerably lower than previously imagined, ranging from 700-800 degrees Centigrade, with maximum temperatures no greater than ca. 850 degrees Centigrade. The appendix contains an up-to-date presentation of different techniques for determination of firing temperature and related information, along with improved procedures suggested by Schilling for interpreting actual firing temperatures from raw results given by various kinds of thermomechanical analysis. Other topics discussed in Chapter 3 include the issue of the so-called “fast wheel,” the multiple-brush compass, and the evidence for foreign potters in Athens.

Chapter 4 is a study of test pieces from the Archaic through Hellenistic Periods. The examples presented include pieces not only from Athens, but also from Corinth, Crete, Sindos, Thasos, and several sites in Italy. Even specialists in later periods than the Early Iron Age can read this chapter with profit.

For many readers, the concluding chapter may be of the greatest interest, since it contains an extended treatment of the vexing question of the topography of early Athens. When I took a course in Athenian topography more than twenty years ago, the prevalent view was that although the area of the later Classical Agora contained cemeteries, residential areas developed here as well, beginning in the Protogeometric Period. It was conceded that terracing operations connected with the later Agora would have obliterated most of the actual evidence of houses, but the numerous wells discovered were thought to be connected with residential units. Papadopoulos argues that in fact the cemetery areas were much more extensive than is commonly believed, and that many of the wells were connected with pottery establishments, given the evidence of test-pieces and other waste found within them. Most of the wells with evidence of pottery manufacture were found in areas of the later Agora in which cemeteries were absent, so we are not dealing with a situation in which cemeteries and potters’ establishments were mixed in the same plot. It is not clear to me whether Papadopoulos sees these workshops as being completely separate from the actual residences of potters; at this stage in Greek history, it seems peculiar to demand segregation of residence from work area.

Papadopoulos broadens his discussion to encompass the topography of early Athens in general. This is a very full and well-documented discussion of the controversy concerning the question of an earlier agora, the main residential areas, the use of the Acropolis in Athens’ early history, and when the area of the Classical Agora actually began to be developed as such. Papadopoulos supports the idea of an “old agora,” which lay to the east of the Acropolis; given the development of the evidence and debate over this issue that has taken place over the last twenty years, this seems to be close to incontrovertible. He sees the main residential areas as lying to the south of the Acropolis and even on the Acropolis itself in the earliest stages of the Iron Age. His argument for secular use of parts of the Acropolis until the 7th century BC is thought-provoking and should give pause to those who see the entire Acropolis being purely given over to religious functions from the earliest stages of the city’s development.

In terms of the Athenian Agora, it now is absolutely clear that the area of the later Agora was not developed as such until near the end of the Archaic Period at the earliest. Papadopoulos deals skeptically with suggestions connecting the development of the Agora with the Peisistratids; in particular, he disputes, on good grounds, the reconstructed plan of Building F (sometimes called the “House of Peisistratos”) underneath the later Prytanikon and its connection with any public function or indeed, the Peisistratids. Papadopoulos argues that it was probably a potters’ workshop. The “Tholos Kiln,” discussed extensively by Papadopoulos in Chapter 2, is clear evidence for pottery manufacture in the area of the later Prytanikon at least until the 7th century BC, but any connection with Building F is uncertain. To summarize, Papadopoulos clearly believes that the Agora was developed after the Persian War ended, but concedes that some earlier origin connected with the Kleisthenic reforms and their immediate aftermath cannot be ruled out. The final chapter can be recommended as an excellent resource for anyone needing a current presentation of the debate over early Athenian topography.

The production staff at Hesperia have much to be proud of with this volume. The figures, which include both line drawings and photographs, are of exceptionally high quality; the layout of text and illustrations is pleasing and easy to follow; generous gutter margins make annotations easy for those so inclined. Typographical and other errors are negligible. At only $45, this volume is a remarkable bargain as well.

Ceramicus Redidivus is an important work of scholarship that deserves a wide audience among those interested in Athenian pottery production and topography.