BMCR 2009.10.12

The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna: The Early Iron Age Pottery

, The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna: The Early Iron Age Pottery. Heraklion: University of Crete, 2008. 397. ISBN 978-960-88394-6-5. (pb).

The excavation of the site of Eleutherna in west central Crete was undertaken in 1908 and renewed in 1985. Kotsonas’s volume presents the analysis of ceramics found in and around one chamber tomb (A1K1) in the necropolis of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna, which was excavated between 1992 and 1996. The volume in question is one of four publications that concern the Early Iron Age chamber tomb A1K1, two of which have been published.1

Despite its title, this volume accomplishes far more than merely providing a classification of the 400 vessels found in association with tomb A1K1, which represent the largest published cache of pottery from a single context during this period on the island of Crete (900 -700 B.C.). Kotsonas has produced a ceramic analysis that contends with Early Iron Age Cretan chronologies and systems of inter- and intra-regional communication and circulation, among other topics, and therefore is an invaluable resource for scholars concerned with any aspect of Early Iron Age Crete. Kotsonas provides a thorough analysis of the ceramics that includes modes of production, formal classification, consumption and identification of provenance through petrographic analysis. The volume consists of a foreword by the editor and director of the excavations of the necropolis of Orthi Petra, Nicholas Stampolidis, an introductory chapter, two chapters that deal with the study of ceramics in Early Iron Crete in general (Chapters 2 and 3), two core chapters that focus on the analysis of ceramics from tomb A1K1 in particular (Chapters 4 and 5), a chapter that handles imports in tomb A1K1 and the circulation of ceramic styles in Early Iron Age Crete (Chapter 6), a chapter on ceramic consumption (Chapter 7), a short conclusion (Chapter 8) and an appendix, co-written by Kotsonas and Eleni Nodarou, which details the petrographic project of the necropolis.

Kotsonas begins by establishing the primary objectives of his work: to produce a chronological and typological framework, to examine the funereal cycle and to evaluate the nature and role of imports for the pottery of Early Iron Age Eleutherna. Kotsonas asserts his intention to keep the ceramics of Eleutherna firmly contextualized within the pan-Cretan corpus and to compare his conclusions about Eleuthernian material culture and society with that of the larger Greek world in the Early Iron Age. Finally, the author outlines his methodology, which is informed by post-processual archaeology, in that it emphasizes the dynamic relationship between ceramics and people, and takes a holistic view that ranges from locating raw materials to studying the mechanics of consumption in a funereal context.

In Chapter 2, “Previous research on Cretan Early Iron Age pottery,” Kotsonas reviews ceramic scholarship in Early Iron Age Crete and bemoans the dearth of information about West Crete in comparison to that of East and Central Crete during this period. Nevertheless, the author lists several sites in the vicinity of Eleutherna (e.g. Sybrita), whose ceramic finds he includes in his discussion.

In Chapter 3, “Relative and absolute chronologies of Early Iron Age Eleutherna and other Cretan sites,” the author assesses and critiques the established chronologies of Early Iron Age Crete, with special emphasis on the absolute chronology of Knossos. He proposes revising the dates for the first three phases largely based on equating the number of vessels and burials found in the North Cemetery of Knossos with the duration of the periods in question and the presence or absence of Attic imports during the same periods. The Middle Protogeometric period is shortened so that it ends before the Attic Early Geometric I period (c. 885/880 B.C. versus 875 B.C.), the Late Protogeometric period is moved up so that it ends at the same time as the Attic Early Geometric II period (c. 850 B.C.) and the Protogeometric B period is lengthened so that it begins at the same time as the Attic Middle Geometric I period (c. 850 B.C.) .2 He also formulates a relative chronology for Eleutherna based on stylistic criteria and the stratigraphic location of the vessels within the tomb. Kotsonas rightfully criticizes the prevailing Knosso-centric stance of the absolute chronology of Early Iron Age Crete due to the growing evidence of regionalism, which the following chapters make clear for Eleutherna and to a larger extent west central Crete. He also censures the tentative reliance of the Knossian scheme on major centers of ceramic production (namely Attica), yet he produces his own absolute chronology using the same methodology that he critiques, that is, by contextual association of imports with locally produced vessels. Nevertheless his absolute chronology for Eleutherna serves nicely as a foil to the absolute chronology of Knossos because it is produced using different information, though it also largely corroborates the conventional chronology since it differs only by a few years, except for the seventh century B.C. For this century, Kotsonas argues that the term, ‘Orientalizing’ is misused because it often describes styles that do not display Near Eastern influence and instead proposes the adoption of Protoarchaic, with the subdivisions of Early Protoarchaic (c. 700-640 B.C.) and Late Protoarchaic (640-600/570 B.C.).

In Chapter 4, “Ceramic production at Eleutherna,” Kotsonas examines the evidence for local ceramic production, including procurement of raw materials and production techniques. He argues for the local manufacture of pottery at Eleutherna despite the lack of evidence for production sites (such as kilns or workshops) or for clay sources. Kotsonas uses this assumption as the basis for more conjectural theories as it is a reasonable assumption, since abundant clay beds have been located in the vicinity, and it is unreasonable to think a site would import all of its pottery. He posits that production was carried out by part-time “semi-specialists” due to the low to moderate degree of labor investment and skill, suggested by standardization of form and limited zones of decoration for several types, and to technical and decorative imperfections in the local wares, such as uneven firing and dribbled paint on reserved areas.3 It should also be noted, however, that the author also routinely mentions sumptuary laws and consumer demands as unknown variables influencing ceramic production. In this section Kotsonas also discusses the identification and nature of local workshops through groups of high quality vessels, potter’s marks and diagnostic details, such as the habitual treatment of certain decorative elements usually credited to the subconscious of the craftsman. Included in this analysis of workshops is an argument of particular interest: Kotsonas contends with the highly contested nature of craftsmen mobility and produces an example of foreign craftsmen in Eleutherna based on the use of local fabrics matched with shape and decorative style unknown in Eleutherna but which have close parallels in the Cyclades. Named the “Eleutherna Bird Workshop,” Kotsonas argues that a group of amphorae was produced in Eleutherna by Cycladic, probably Parian, craftsmen, and uses the evidence for a specific firing procedure and the use of a multiple brush, both of which are otherwise unattested in Eleutherna, to support his argument. Although a detailed evaluation of the identification of such a workshop is beyond the scope of the present review, Kotsonas’s line of reasoning is noteworthy due to his application of positive evidence for the identification of foreign craftsmen.

Chapter 5, “Formal analysis and classification of the locally produced pottery,” represents the core analysis of the Eleuthernian pottery. In this chapter, all 400 vessels are discussed in typological groups differentiated according to ceramic form, although other aspects, most prominently decoration, are discussed for each group. The analysis is not consistent, in that not every type includes measurements or a discussion of its function. The real value of this chapter lies in the fact that Kotsonas incorporates ceramic comparanda from over 70 contemporary Cretan sites in his analysis and comments on the origination in Crete and the diachronic development of many of the ceramic groups.

In Chapter 6, “Imported pottery found in tomb A1K1 and the dissemination of ceramic styles in Early Iron Age Crete,” the author examines the imports among the Eleuthernian pottery in tomb A1K1. The provenance of most of the imports has been verified through petrographic analysis, the results of which are discussed thoroughly in the appendix. This allows Kotsonas to evaluate the circulation and influence of ceramic imports both within Crete and in the Eastern Mediterranean, with much greater emphasis on the former, which he concludes was conducted in networks limited in regional scope, although larger “island-wide” networks were available. The author proposes that the imports from other Cretan sites did not exert much influence on Eleuthernian wares and that their prominence fluctuated over time, most likely due to sumptuary practices. Imports from other Aegean centers, such as Corinth, Attica, the Cyclades and the Eastern Aegean, are noted, and their varying degree of stylistic influence is assessed. In examining the strong relationship between Crete and Rhodes at the beginning of the seventh century B.C., Kotsonas evaluates the joint founding of Gela by colonists from these two islands within a ceramic context, concluding that sites along the northern coast of Central and West Crete were most likely the place of origin of the Cretan colonists due to the affinities between Cretan imports found in Gela and the local wares of the aforementioned Cretan regions.4 Finally, three imports from Cyprus, one from Phoenicia and one possibly from Phrygia, none of which proved to be particularly influential to the Eleuthernians stylistically, demonstrate that Eleutherna was in contact with a broad range of international regions as early as the second half of the eighth century B.C. Although drawings are provided of these imports, and a graph showing the total number of imports for each period is presented in the next chapter, a graph displaying the number of imports from each area during each period would be useful to help illustrate the complex patterns the author describes.

A collective tomb spanning two centuries affords the opportunity to examine changing strategies and Chapter 7, “Ceramic Consumption in tomb A1K1,” embraces post-processual theory by examining the multi-linear approaches to the funereal consumption of ceramics. Including information from the previous chapter about the diachronic patterns of imports at Eleutherna with the number and type of vessels for each period, Kotsonas notes interesting patterns about sumptuary practices. For example, he points to the peak consumption of ceramics in the Protogeometric B period in contrast to the lower numbers for the succeeding periods as possibly indicative of sumptuary laws that limited ceramic deposition in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., which is also attested by the ceramic range in these centuries being limited to vessels suitable for storing cremated remains. The author takes his analysis one step further by examining the homogeneous figural imagery of birds on both the locally manufactured and imported storage vessels in tomb A1K1 from the late eighth through seventh centuries B.C. and tentatively concludes that this specific imagery served an apotropaic function due to its relationship with the Cretan myth of the birth of Zeus, in which birds figure prominently. Kotsonas acknowledges that this interpretation is highly conjectural and will no doubt be altered by the forthcoming publications concerning tomb A1K1.

Kotsonas concludes by reiterating his methodology in constructing his formal typology. He emphasizes his holistic approach in terms of a continuous pan-Cretan perspective and a focus on the entire life-cycle of ceramics. He also underlines his view that ceramic production and consumption are embedded within the larger social sphere and therefore production is conducted by diverse modes and heavily influenced by many social factors. The wealth of information that Kotsonas reviews in his conclusion is a testament to the interpretative richness of the volume, which is also evident in the impressive bibliography.

Although the author should be commended for producing such an invaluable resource for the study of ceramics in Early Iron Age Crete, the integrity of the volume suffers from being part of a series, half of which has yet to be published. Several components that should be included in this volume are relegated to other volumes in the series: extensive photographs, an itemized catalog of the ceramics, and the results of chemical analyses of the contents of the vessels, not to mention the relationship between ceramics and other finds within the tomb. Although it is understandable that the tomb itself and its accompanying monument are the subject of a different volume, a cursory description of the tomb or even a drawing would seem necessary.


1. The first is Anagnostis Agelarakis, The anthropology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna. A Narrative of the Bones: Aspects of the Human Condition in Geometric-Archaic Eleutherna, Athens 2005 and the second is the volume under review. Of the remaining two, one will focus on the tomb itself, including a catalog of finds, and the other on the non-ceramic finds and burial customs associated with the tomb.

2. For the ceramics of the North Cemetery in Knossos during these periods, see J. N. Coldstream, “The Protogeometric and Geometric Pottery,” in Knossos North Cemetery: Early Greek Tombs, vol. II (BSA Suppl. Vol. 28), J. N. Coldstream and H. W. Catling (eds.), London 1996, pp. 311-420.

3. Kotsonas relies on the production model of D. P. S. Peacock, Pottery in the Roman World: An ethnoarchaeological approach, London-New York 1982.

4. Kotsonas’s theory stands in contrast to that of J. N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery, London 1968, 375, 382 and Geometric Greece, 900-700 BC, 2nd ed., London-New York 2003, 289, who proposed an origin in south central Crete.