BMCR 2007.03.05

Cretan Bronze Age Pithoi: Traditions and Trends in the Production and Consumption of Storage Containers in Bronze Age Crete. Prehistory Monographs 18

, Cretan Bronze Age Pithoi : traditions and trends in the production and consumption of storage containers in Bronze Age Crete. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xvi, 111 pages, 98 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations.. ISBN 9781623030780 $60.00.

Table of Contents

This brief volume has less than 130 pages of narrative plus highly detailed tables and after matter that focuses on the pithos, a very distinctive utilitarian form in the Cretan Bronze Age ceramic repertoire. Because of its use as a storage container, a pithos is a highly significant object and provides a parameter for the evaluation of the economic organization of palatial and domestic sectors of Cretan Bronze Age society. Christakis points out that this volume is not a “pithos handbook” in the narrow sense — although his analysis offers a typological division of the data with comments on chronology and spatial distribution and integrates stylistic considerations with broad fabric and technological observations in order to elucidate the production and consumption of this important ceramic (p. 1). He does not pretend to be comprehensive in his study and is necessarily selective: “it is not intended to offer a complete corpus of Cretan Bronze Age pithoi” (p. 3). His assessment is based in part on his somewhat more comprehensive 1999 dissertation, 1 and focuses on the period Early Minoan I to Late Minoan IIIC and employs an assemblage of 4,235 complete or partially preserved pithoi and smaller fragments excavated from sites in central, east-central, and east Crete. Evidence from the west is, as he notes, “limited.”

Christakis’s analysis is cogently presented and consists of a brief introduction and four chapters, preceded by a set of 26 abbreviations used throughout the narrative, bibliography, and tables; these include 12 publications, 6 museums and collections, 3 inventory numbers, and 5 chronological designations. The reader must be aware of these in order to fully comprehend his assessment and typology. The narrative is supplemented by a bibliography. There is a useful seven-page double column Index that conflates proper nouns and topics. A 19-page table, “Functional Performance Characteristics and Use of Cretan Bronze Age Pithoi,” lists 122 forms with information in a columnar format on Forms, Morphological and Physical Properties, Functional Performance Characteristics, and Uses. The illustrations include 45 figures illustrating the 122 vessel forms and 126 decoration patterns: rope (n = 36), band (84), and wave (6), and are supplemented by 28 black-and-white plates depicting examples of the decorations and vessel forms.

The author considers vessels taller than 50 cm as “pithoi” and pots below this arbitrary height as “small pithoi” or pitharakia. Christakis provides an illuminating discussion of other definitions (p. 2). Both sets of vessels are made of coarse or semi-course fabric and may have simple or complex decorations. His initial chapter, “A Formal Typology for Pithoi,” contains a discourse on pithoi consumption, principles of classification, definitions of the 122 forms, and a consideration of pithoi distributions in palatial and domestic contexts and in burials. Christakis defines types and forms, and chronological placements: Ovoid (50 forms), Globular (three forms), Piriform (52 forms), Conical (16 forms), and (Tub) (1 form). These distinctions, based predominantly on vessels shapes, are influenced by William Adams and Ernest Adams’s Archaeological Typology and Practical Reality (1991), which applied this typological procedure to medieval Nubian ceramics.2

The second chapter, “Decorative Patterns and Style,” is highly descriptive and focuses on the “most frequent patterns and decorative trends employed” (p. 23) that the author divides into appliqué, incised, impressed, and painted. Specimens are drawn from 9 houses and 19 palaces. Among the appliqué patterns are Rope and Raised Band, which are displayed on pithoi in 24 “frequent” and 6 “rare” arrangements; the latter appear to the distinctive creations of individual potters. Other appliqué categories include Knob and Button-Like (created by a raised circular stamp), Medallion (plain or finger-impressed), and Pictorial (particularly bulls, bull’s heads, zoomorphic figures, agrimia, rosettes, double axes, papyrus flowers, leaves, and “architectural structures”). Knobs are very rare, while Button-Like decoration is also rare and confined to three sites. Medallions are extremely rare and known only from Knossos. Incised Patterns were added to pre-fired pottery with zigzag, herringbone, and X-lines around the pithos bases. Incised lines in the forms of herringbones, zigzags, and foliate bands are notable at Knossos. Impressed Patterns may be impressed directly onto the pithos surface using circular wooden or stone stamps, stone seals, reed stems, or marine shells. Some inscriptions are in Linear A and B. Painted Patterns are in the form of abstract geometric patterns, isolated or combined with others, and may be “main motifs” (principal decorative components) or “secondary” (used to fill in smaller parts of the pithoi or situated between main motifs). Twelve patterns are defined. Appliqué and painted decoration, he thinks, point to a “considerable investment in labor” on the part of the artisan (pp. 3-4). Christakis discusses the variants and placements of these patterns and motifs but neglects to discuss other characteristics of the paints, including colors and pigment consistencies (thick, thin, wash, etc.).

In Chapter 3, “The Use of Pithoi”, Christakis’s presentation is influenced notably by the work of four New World archaeologists: David Braun (1983), D. J. Hally (1986), Richard Lesure (1998), and Vincas Steponaitis (1984).3 Christakis focuses on specific uses from a semiotic perspective as well as socioeconomic and ritual contexts. A discussion of functional performance characteristics includes a discourse on vessel stability (the ability to stand upright on a flat base), and a tripartite division into high, moderate, and low stability. Capacity is determined by the size and shape of the containers and he reviews and critiques previous methods for determining volume (beginning with Evans, although the citation date is missing). He also assesses accessibility and the manipulation of vessels’ contents, noting rim and mouth and collar variations and vessel height restrictions, as well as the nature of the contents (liquid versus solid). A pithos with a height over 1 m., he observes, “irrespective of the degree of closure of the mouth, has a low level of accessibility” (p. 48). In addition, he reports on transportability, concluding that ovoid pithoi have a lower transportability when compared to piriform and conical configurations, because of a low level of “graspability.” Vessels with a high degree of stability are not easily transported. Pithoi over 80 cm in height have a low to moderate transportability; those under 60 cm in height are easily moved. He also defines three degrees off transportability: high, moderate, and low. Graspability is an attribute determined by the types of handles, their arrangement, and the size of the pithos. Handle sizes, types (strap, etc), arrangement, and placement on the vessel walls are also assessed. The most frequent and efficient arrangement of handles is in two rows, one placed on the shoulder immediately below the rim and the other above the base; another frequent configuration is a single row of handles on the upper part of the pithos. Interestingly, vessel weights (empty or full) are hardly considered.

The author next evaluates vessel contents, and presents an important body of evidence regarding organic residues, and inorganic substances and objects (such as smaller vessels, baskets, wooden boxes, and ropes). Contextual evidence is also considered, with primary and secondary uses defined. Sixty percent of the specimens were recovered from storage areas of palaces, elite buildings and domestic units. Archaeological data and ethnohistoric fieldwork are cited regarding storage uses of pithoi recovered from storerooms, vessels sunken in the floor up to their rims or shoulders, and buried pithoi. Sunken vessels would maintain internal temperature and moisture levels, save space, and protect the vessels from breakage. Buried pithoi provide ideal environments for the long-term preservation of agricultural products and militate against theft. Christakis also documents the uses of the placement of vessels, contexts (such as assumed associations with bathrooms or lavatories and pottery workshops), associations with other artifacts (such as mortars and tools), and the use of pithoi for burying corpses. A brief discussion considers the secondary uses of whole pithoi (such as mortuary uses), upper vessel parts, and lower parts or bases. In a section entitled “Written and Iconographic Testimonies,” a limited category of evidence, the author reports on written testimonies (pre-firing marks in Linear A script, ideograms, etc.) that identify contents, volumes, recipients, destinations, or other information); iconographic information (seals, signet rings, sealings, and frescos as well as pictorial motifs and potential religious uses), and ethnohistoric evidence. There are useful discussions on olive oil, wine, and, in the subsequent chapter, general storage. In sum, Cretan Bronze Age pithoi served as all-purpose bulk containers for long- or short-term storage. The identification of commodities stores in these containers is highly dependant on excavation procedures and taphonomic circumstances; hence, reliable data is extremely limited.

The final chapter, “Traditions and Trends in the Production and Consumption of Pithoi” includes details on five regional potting traditions (west, south-central, north-central, east-central, and east Crete). Despite the regional differences in technological features and morphology and decoration, potters followed a broadly similar morphological and stylistic “vocabulary” (p. 83) that he sees as “deeply rooted in local traditions” (p. 85). Apparently state control is not a potential explanation—a surprise to this reviewer; see the paradigms developed and refined by Cathy Costin.4 A map would be a useful addition to his discussion of these potting traditions. The brief section on patterns of consumption draws together a variety of information that is limited both qualitatively and quantitatively. Vessel morphology and style, painted decoration, other forms of vessel elaboration, and contexts are emphasized. Likewise, there is minimal information on manufacturing techniques, petrographic analyses and on pigments and painting styles. In her report on Late Bronze Age pithoi from Cyprus, Despina Pilides (2000), reports the results of petrographic and trace element analyses of 34 specimens that generally confirm local production and distribution.5 It is likely that Christakis’ Cretan pithoi production conforms to such local models but much more work must be conducted on larger samples. Nonetheless, relatively few technical analyses have been conducted on ceramic fabrics and vessel contents, both of which provide viable avenues for future research.

Christakis is to be applauded for his attention to the details of the “micro-finishing” of the vessels and their details of the decorative processes, and has also provided the reader with relative chronological dates for the contexts of the pithos he discusses. He notes that his assessment emphasized the technological profile of each pithos inferred from its appropriate attributes — such as standardization, in morphological, decorative, and forming features, labor investment, and skill” (p. 3), citing the study of Andean storage jars by Cathy Costin and Melissa Hagstrum (1995)6 and a distinguished group of other New World scholars of archaeological ceramics — Prudence Rice, John Clark, James Skibo and Gary Feinman (in the main, Mesoamerican scholars).The table, “Functional Performance Characteristics and Use of Cretan Bronze Age Pithoi,” is an extremely valuable synthesis. The lack of a characterization of painted decoration (colors, pigments, and styles of application) is disturbing. Comparatively, Attic pithoi have been studied previously by Elizabeth Chalfant MacNeil Boggess7 while Cypriote vessels, as noted, have been reported by Despina Pilides (see n. 5). Together, these three reports provide us with a better understanding of the dynamics of pithos production and distribution. Lastly, a further avenue of investigation would be a comprehensive assessment of storage vessels — from production to final disposition — such as has been published in the highly useful assessment of Roman amphoras that have been the lifelong study of Elizabeth Lyding Will.8


1. Kostandinos S. Christakis, “Minoan Pithoi and their Significance for the Household Subsistence Economy of Neopalatial Crete” (Ph.D. dissertation, Bristol University, 1999). He has also published a brief interpretive version of this work: Kostas S. Christakis, “Pithoi and food storage in Neopalatial Crete: A domestic perspective,” World Archaeology 31(1):1-20 (1999), in the thematic issue “Food Technology in Its Social Context: Production, Processing and Storage.” In this article he presents a methodological framework for examining Minoan subsistence economy based on the pithoi recovered from 70 Late Minoan I houses.

2. William Y. Adams and Ernest W. Adams, Archaeological Typology and Practical Reality: A Dialectical Approach to Artifact Classification and Sorting (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

3. David P. Braun, “Pots as Tools” in A. Keene and J. Moore (eds.), Archaeological Hammers and Theories, New York: Academic Press, New York, pp. 108-134, 1983; D. J. Hally, “The identification of vessel function: A case study from northwest Georgia,” American Antiquity 51:267-295 (1986); Richard G. Lesure, “Vessel form and function in an Early Formative ceramic assemblage from coastal Mexico,” Journal of Field Archaeology 25:19-36 (1998); and Vincas P. Steponaitis, “Technological studies of prehistoric pottery from Alabama: Physical properties and vessel function” in S. van der Leeuw and A. C. Pritchard (eds.), The Many Dimensions of Pottery: Ceramics in Archaeology and Anthropology, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Universiteit van Amsterdam, pp. 79-127, 1984. Christakis incorrectly cites “Pots as Tools” as “Pot as Tool” and does not cite Steponaitis’s fuller account Ceramics, Chronology, and Community Patterns: An Archaeological Study at Moundville (New York: Academic Press, 1983).

4. Cathy L. Costin, “Craft specialization: issues in defining, documenting, and explaining the organization of production” in M. B. Schiffer (ed.), Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 3, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp. 1-56, 1991; “Craft production and mobilization strategies in the Inka Empire” in B. Wailes (ed.), Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, pp. 211-255, 1996); “Craft production systems” in G. M. Feinman and T. D. Price (eds.), Archaeology at the Millennium: A Sourcebook, New York: Kluwer/Plenum, New York, pp. 273-327, 2001; and ‘Craft production” in H. Maschner and C. Chippindale (eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Methods, Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, pp. 1034-1107, 2005.

5. Despina Pilides, Pithoi of the Late Bronze Age in Cyprus: Types from the Major Sites of the Period (Republic of Cyprus, Ministry of Communications and Works, Department of Antiquities. Nicosia: Published for the Republic of Cyprus by the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus, and Printed by J. G. Cassoudlides and Son Ltd, 2000). Published in English but includes a final appendix in German and summaries in English and German.

6. Cathy Costin and Melissa Hagstrum, “Standardization, labor investment, skill, and the organization of ceramic production in Late Prehispanic Highland Peru,” American Antiquity 60:619-639, 1995). This analysis is based on the paradigm published previously by Costin (1991) and was used as a test case to refine the model (see n. 4).

7. Elizabeth Chalfant MacNeil Boggess, “The Development of the Attic Pithos”. Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, 1972.

8. Elizabeth Lyding Will, “Production, distribution, and disposal of Roman amphoras” in G. J. Bey III and C. A. Pool (eds.), Ceramic Production and Distribution: An Integrated Approach, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 261-274, 1992. See also her online bibliography. Her studies have emphasized the use of amphoras as a source of information about Roman trade.