BMCR 2016.12.16

Pots, Workshops and Early Iron Age Society: Function and Role of Ceramics in Early Greece

, Pots, Workshops and Early Iron Age Society: Function and Role of Ceramics in Early Greece. Proceedings of the international symposium held at the Université libre de Bruxelles, 14-16 novembre 2013. Études d'archéologie, 8. Bruxelles: CReA-Patrimoine, 2015. Pp. 289. ISBN 9789461360502. (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume represents the publication of the proceedings of a conference with the same title. The symposium itself comprised one branch of an ongoing research program based at the Centre de Recherches en Archéologie et Patrimoine and centered on evaluating the social and economic underpinnings and impacts of pottery. In this case, the focus is on the pottery of Early Iron Age Greece. The stated purpose of the publication is “to discuss aspects of the production, function, and role of ceramics in early Greek societies” (p. 11). The editors hope to correct what they perceive as a lack of work on Early Iron Age pottery compared to the greater quantity of time that has been devoted to the study of the later Classical black- and red-figure ceramic tradition. Finally, the volume is intended to show how new “lines of attack” based on advances in materials science and interpretative sophistication can help us to see previously unappreciated features of Early Iron Age pottery and its relationship to society and the economy.

A common problem with edited volumes is the unevenness of the papers collected in them, not necessarily in terms of the quality of the research or presentation of material, but in the fidelity with which contributors hew to the stated aims and goals of the volume editors. The volume under review is no exception. While some contributions clearly attempt to stretch methodologically in new directions, to try new “lines of attack” and to discuss the articulation of pottery and society, one wonders whether there could have been a better balance found between detailed descriptions of ceramic assemblages and careful consideration of how these assemblages could best be used to understand Early Iron Age society and economy in the broader view. Of course, it is a “big ask” to find new and innovative ways to illuminate a topic as oft-trodden as the relationship between pottery and society, and the accessible and well-illustrated publication of many unpublished or previously poorly published finds is, in and of itself, a worthwhile achievement. Surprisingly, none of the papers discuss the application of increasingly fruitful scientific methods for the analysis of pottery, such as petrography, neutron activation analysis, or pXRF.

In section I, “Production and Workshops,” four papers tackle various challenges associated with reconstructing the productive capacities and nuts and bolts of early Greek ceramic workshops. In the eyes of this reviewer, the standout paper in this section and probably the most successful piece in the entire volume is the first one, Susan Langdon’s essay on children and production in Early Greece. Langdon’s question is an important and fascinating one: what was the role of children in Greek ceramic workshops? In order to get at this question, we must of course answer a different question first—how can we identify children, and children’s work, in the ceramic record? Langdon shows great ingenuity by using scientific evidence from the study of children’s cognitive development and comparative, ethnographic evidence to develop a system for identifying the kinds of mistakes and inconsistencies (e.g. trouble with symmetry) that are likely to be produced by young hands but not by elderly, or practiced but sloppy ones. This paper is an exemplar of what can be accomplished by the adoption of creative and interdisciplinary approaches to difficult problems in understanding the ceramic record. The papers by Coulié and Vlachou take a more traditional tack, using careful analysis of hands to rethink some aspects of Geometric vase painting and potting workshops. Finally, Gros offers some interesting thoughts on how to reconstruct the existence of a workshop from its final products, with the single-site assemblage from Xobourgo on Tinos as the focus of this analysis.

Section II, “Context and Function,” includes three papers. Within this triad, Whitley’s approach is perhaps the boldest. He draws on anthropological models of agency and personhood in order to reinterpret the role of the belly-handled amphora (bha) in Early Greek society, and specifically in a variety of regions: Athens, the Cyclades, the Argolid, and Knossos. He seeks to set aside “aesthetic” explanations for the appeal of the bha. Instead, he believes that aesthetic assessments are unreliable as a metric for gauging ancient value systems, and suggests that we should use culturally specific notions of “agency” and “personhood” to understand the role of these vessels in society instead. To this end, he seeks to show the complex personhood embedded within the bha, or its lack thereof, in early Greek regions. While Whitley’s paper certainly fits the brief of the volume insofar as it attempts to bring a fresh, interdisciplinary approach to old material, the conclusions are somewhat unspectacular. The takeaway is that the “personhood” represented in the bhas may or may not have traveled with them, and that regional differences in society persisted in the Geometric period. The papers by Kourou and Verdan examine the context of ceramics in funerary assemblages on Naxos and at Eretria, respectively.

The focus of section III is “Pottery and Rituals.” Alexandridou presents a careful and important restudy and reinterpretation of the Late Geometric pottery from the so-called Sacred House from the site of the Academy of Plato in Athens, originally excavated in the 1950s by Stavropoullos. She shows that much of what Stavropoullos interpreted as funerary pyres should be reinterpreted as the remains of ritual activity, and that the “Sacred House” should be recast as a center of kinship-based feasting. The paper by Palaiokrassa-Kopitsa and Vivliodetis provides a similarly excellent republication and reanalysis of material from the Sanctuaries of Zeus Parnessios and Artemis Mounichia that also addresses a number of inscribed, retrograde inscriptions in both the Attic and the Boeotian alphabets from the former sanctuary. The authors argue convincingly that the two sanctuaries drew very different worshippers, reflecting their rural/marginal vs. urban/central locations. Finally, Simantoni-Bournia presents the ceramic assemblage from the Hyria sanctuary on Naxos, which for the most part confirms the current picture of economic and social ties between Naxos and Attica, but still cannot confirm the hypothesized connection between the cult and Dionysos.

Section IV on “Mobility and Interaction” comprises four papers, two of which describe new finds and two of which are more analytical. Paspalas and Lentini summarize imported wares found at Zagora on Andros and Sicilian Naxos, respectively. Papadopoulos and D’Agostino, on the other hand, present new interpretations of assemblages of imported and exported pottery. Papadopoulos compares the import and export records of four sites (Athens, Lefkandi, Knossos, and Torone), bringing into focus the dramatically different patterns of imported and exported material at each one. Papadopoulos’s description and quantification of these patterns is characteristically masterful and truly enlightening, reinforcing the established notion that Greek sites in the Early Iron Age are characterized by fundamentally localized rather than pan-Aegean economic and social realities. A pattern of special interest is shown by the absence of imports from Athens, in strong contrast with the abundance of Attic exports found at other sites. How can we explain the contrast between Crete, for instance, where imports are abundant but ceramic exports are sparse, and Athens, where the opposite pattern prevails? Papadopoulos’s conclusion, that we are looking at the product of simple market economics – Attic pottery was sought after as a fungible commodity, while Cretan pottery was not – leaves something to be desired. Ceramic imports and exports, while important, represent only the tip of the iceberg of the ancient economy, and further discussion of how they might have interacted with other factors such as demography, productive economies, and commodity access and distribution would add further nuance to this argument.

D’Agostino’s paper investigates the perennial question of how the relationship between Greek imports and local imitations of Greek imports should be interpreted in Italy. Focusing on one site, as is practical for a short conference paper, he specifically examines the relationship between Greek imports and their locally produced counterparts in the cemetery of Pontecagnano on Sicily. He focuses on skyphoi, the most abundant Greek shape found at the site, the local imitations thereof, and the relationship between the presence of Greek and locally produced pottery with tomb and burial types. D’Agostino argues that, although the role of Greek pottery in Italy was doubtlessly complex, it was originally introduced because of its connection to the symposium, but later became a local component of the symbolism used to represent intra-group definition and distinction. His analysis suggests that further careful examinations of individual burial assemblages in Italy may help archaeologists understand the complex dynamic between Greek culture, especially Greek sympotic culture, and local communities with which it came into contact. In section V, “Iconography and Early Society,” the highlight is the presentation of a new fragment from the abundantly strange temple roof model from the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Helike in Achaea. The terracotta roof model was originally published by Gadolou in 2011, but her analysis here is based on a new fragment that came to light soon after that publication.1 Using this new fragment, Gadolou argues that the scene on the roof model involves the abduction of a maiden or the acquisition of a maiden as a prize. What seems to be lacking from this publication and its 2011 predecessor is a thoughtful consideration of the question of why such a scene would be painted on the model of a roof. This reviewer was immediately reminded of the opening scene of the Iliad (1.39), in which the priest Chryses appeals to Apollo for help by reminding him how many temples he has “roofed over” for him. Could this terracotta model provide some archaeological correlate for a link between religious patronage, divine favors, and the provision of shelter for cult statues? Perhaps in further publications this fascinating object itself, rather than its iconography alone, will be considered in its interpretation.

The production value of the volume is high. The illustrations of ceramics are uniformly excellent and often in color, and for this the publisher is to be commended. There are few maps or plans to go along with these lavish ceramic illustrations, a point which perhaps once again underlines the fact that the publication tends to drift a bit farther from the integration of ceramic evidence with analysis of its function and context than is suggested in the title. But given the focus of the volume, it is understandable that the authors and publishers apportioned most of their resources for illustrating pottery. The copyediting of the volume is relatively tight, although the quality of the English, in many cases probably translated from manuscripts originally composed in other languages, is occasionally awkward, inelegant, or confusing.2

Despite these quibbles, it is clear that this is an important publication and one that should be sought out by all scholars of the Early Iron Age wishing to stay up-to-date with current research. This is primarily but not exclusively due to the massive amount of new information about important Early Iron Age sites (and especially their ceramic assemblages) it presents. While most of the papers are relatively conventional in their theoretical and methodological approaches to the relationship between pottery, workshops, and society, readers working on the many complex interpretative difficulties that confront archaeologists and historians attempting to read social and economic structures from the ceramic record will find some inspiring new insights here as well.

Table of Contents

Athena Tsingarida, “Foreword”
Nota Kourou and Vicky Vlachou, “Introduction. Production and Function of Ceramics in Early Greece”
I. Production and Workshops
Susan Langdon, “Geometric Pottery for Beginners: Children and Production in Early Greece”
Anne Coulié, “L’atelier du Dipylon : style, typologie et chronologie relative”
Vicky Vlachou, “From Pots to Workshops: The Hirschfeld Painter and the Late Geometric I Context of the Attic Pottery Production”
Jean-Sébastien Gros, “Defining a Workshop for the Production of Domestic Pottery: the Case of Xobourgo on Tenos”
II. Context and Function
Nota Kourou, “Early Iron Age Mortuary Contexts in the Cyclades. Pots, Function and Symbolism”
James Whitley, “Agency, Personhood and the Belly-Handled Amphora: Exchange and Society in the Ninth Century Aegean”
Samuel Verdan, “Images, supports et contextes: sur quelques « amphores funéraires » érétriennes”
III. Pottery and Rituals
Alexandra Alexandridou, Domestic Ware, Ritual Utensils or Funerary Vases? Functions of the Late Geometric Pottery from the “Sacred House” of the Academy in Athens”
Lydia Palaiokrassa-Kopitsa and Evangelos Vivliodetis, “The Sanctuaries of Artemis Mounichia and Zeus Parnessios. Their Relation to the Religious and Social Life in the Athenian City-State until the End of the 7th Century B.C.”
Evangelia Simantoni-Bournia, “More Cups for “Dionysos”: A Selection of Geometric Drinking Vases from the Sanctuary of Hyria on Naxos”
IV. Mobility and Interaction
John K. Papadopoulos, Owls to Athens: Imported Pottery in Early Iron Age Athens”
Stavros A. Paspalas, “Imported Complexities among the Painted Fine Wares at Zagora, Andros”
Bruno d’Agostino, “Pottery and Cultural Interaction in EIA Tyrrhenian Settlements”
Maria Costanza Lentini, “Some Late Geometric and Early Orientalising Tableware from Sicilian Naxos”
V. Iconography and Early Society
Dyfri Williams, “Ship, Horse, Battle: Some Attic Geometric Fragments from the Sanctuary of Aphaia, Aigina
and Attic Geometric Gold Jewellery”
Anastasia Gadolou, “Narrative Art and Ritual in the Sanctuary of Poseidon Heliconius in Ancient Helike, Achaea”
Manolis Mikrakis, “Pots, Early Iron Age Athenian Society and the Near East: The Evidence of the Rattle Group”


1. Gadolou, A. 2011. “A Late Geometric Architectural Model with Figure Decoration from Ancient Helike, Achaea.” Annual of the British School at Athens 106: 247–273.

2. P. 1, “The role of CReA-Patrimoine, a really pottery oriented research center…”; p. 83, “…it is difficult to trace a persisting pattern…”; p. 142 “a number of adult and children urn burials”) and some typos remain (p. 108: “as one of member of the audience”; p. 272, “the literacy sources reinforce the above statement.”