BMCR 2019.07.35

Pottery in Hellenistic Alexandria: Aux origines d’Alexandrie et de sa production céramique; Hellenistic Pottery Deposits from Alexandria. Études Alexandrines, 45

C. Harlaut, J. W. Hayes, Pottery in Hellenistic Alexandria: Aux origines d'Alexandrie et de sa production céramique; Hellenistic Pottery Deposits from Alexandria. Études Alexandrines, 45. Alexandria: Centre d'Études Alexandrines, 2018. 368. ISBN 9782490128013 €40,00.

The ancient reputation of Alexandria as a formidable artistic center engendered great expectations for its ceramics. These were not met, however, by pottery from the city’s cemeteries, many of which were explored in the first half of the 20th century. Instead of finely crafted ceramic art, the tombs were furnished with an assortment of imports and derivative local wares that did not entice scholars to pursue their study further. The foundation of the Centre d’Études Alexandrines in 1990 breathed new life into the archaeological exploration of Alexandria, and excavations carried out by the Centre have unearthed important evidence for the chronology and typology of the city’s ceramics. At the same time, fieldwork elsewhere in the region has widened the scope from local to regional, and continuing study of the Hellenistic pottery of the eastern Mediterranean more broadly is helping to put the Alexandrian case in context. As a result, a clear sense of how the Alexandrians set their tables and furnished their kitchens is now emerging.

The book under review is an important contribution to that project. Its first part, by Cécile Harlaut, traces the Alexandrian ceramic assemblage from the foundation of the city to the end of the 3rd century; the second, a catalogue coauthored by Harlaut and John Hayes, illustrates pottery of the 3rd and 2nd centuries through a series of dated deposits.

Harlaut’s single-authored section, “Aux origines d’Alexandrie et de sa production céramique,” uses evidence from three locations, briefly described in an introductory chapter (pp. 11-18, plans 1-5). The first is the site of the former British Consulate, where an ancient residential area was excavated by the Centre d’Études Alexandrines in 1996-1997. The lowest strata correspond to the time of the founding of the city, and continuous occupation makes it possible to trace ceramic change throughout the history of Hellenistic Alexandria. The material, although fragmentary, provides a well-anchored framework for Harlaut’s chronology, divided into three phases: 1. last third of the 4th century; 2. first third of the 3rd century; 3. ca. 270/260 to the end of the 3rd century.1 At Nelson’s Island, 20 km east of Alexandria, excavations of the Missione Archeologica Italiana ad Alessandria d’Egitto (directed by Harlaut and her husband, Paolo Gallo) have explored the remains of a Ptolemaic colony. Founded near the end of the 4th century and abandoned ca. 270-260, the settlement has produced a full range of well-preserved vessels of Harlaut’s phase 2. Finally, at Plinthine, 40 km west of Alexandria, four tombs of the first quarter of the 3rd century, excavated by the University of Paris Nanterre, enrich the material with a collection of intact vessels of that same phase. Each of these phases is described and discussed in a separate chapter, with an integrated catalogue of selected pieces. Every catalogued item is illustrated, most by the author’s excellent drawings, along with many color photographs (figs. 1-37, pls. A-F).

Phase 1 (pp. 19-60) is documented by about 400 pieces (87 of them catalogued) from the first strata above virgin soil at the Consulate site, dated by coins to the city’s earliest years. Harlaut finds a sharp divide between the fine ware, all of which is imported, and the household and cooking ware, which is chiefly of local manufacture. Attic ware is well represented among the imports, but Rhodes was also an important source, reminding us that many of the earliest Alexandrians themselves hailed from that island. Significant numbers of imports from Cyprus and the southern Levant are also present. Interestingly, imports sort themselves roughly by shape: drinking cups come primarily from Attica, plates mostly from Rhodes and Cyprus. There is a small collection of imported cooking ware (mostly lopades), but local makers using alluvial clays supplied about two thirds of the utilitarian pottery. This local material is the outgrowth of a tradition of Egyptian production of Greek plain-ware shapes that can be traced as far back as the 6th century.

Phase 2 (first third of the 3rd century, pp. 61-97), again with about 400 vessels (55 catalogued), is the only one attested at all three sites. The number of imports now drops significantly, with the establishment of locally produced fine ware. There is, at the same time, a radical change in fabric; the alluvial clays of earlier production are replaced by a fabric described as “ni totalement alluvial ni totalement calcaire” (p. 63), perhaps from the neighborhood of Alexandria, and used for table ware as well as household and cooking vessels. This fabric occurs at all three sites; seemingly a single production center supplied the whole region, and its swift development suggests possible royal involvement. Fine wares fall into two subgroups (FL1, FL2) differentiated by firing and surface treatment but with a shared shape repertoire. Red gloss, rare in Phase 1, now becomes common. Among the most interesting types of this phase are Plakettenvasen (their origin still uncertain, but Harlaut discounts the possibility of local production) and a handsome light-ground local ware with painted decoration, best represented by a remarkable volute krater that provides the cover illustration for the book. Cooking-ware imports continue but are increasingly replaced by local production, which is now more diverse in its forms. A new shape in household ware is the mortar, in a locally made wheelmade version (in a rare bibliographical lapse, Harlaut makes no reference to the recent exhaustive study of the shape by Villing and Pemberton).2

Phase 3 (270/260 to end of the 3rd century; pp. 99-112) occurs only at the Consulate site. With only 24 catalogued items, it is the most sparsely illustrated, though the picture is fleshed out by twice that many in the catalogue in the second part of the book. This phase too witnesses marked changes. Imports decrease in overall numbers but furnish all of the drinking cups. An import perhaps from Rhodes, probably dating near the beginning of the phase, introduces a new shape, the cup with recurved handles, which will subsequently become an important drinking shape, replacing the kantharoi of Attic type (Attica now supplies only a few bowls and plates). Pottery from Pergamon, the Ivy Platter Group (perhaps from southern Asia Minor), and Italian imports (Gnathia, black-gloss) are now represented modestly. Local production undergoes another fabric revolution, as FL1 and FL2 are abandoned in favor of two new fabrics, one alluvial, the other calcareous; fuller reference to the study of these fabrics published elsewhere would have been useful. The switch suggests a large-scale reorganization, which Harlaut dates around the middle of the century. Again, the swiftness and thoroughgoing nature of the changes and the standardization of the new products suggest a royal patron. In any event, this is the production that will endure until the end of the Hellenistic period. Local tableware is reduced mostly to the echinus bowl, carinated bowl, and plate. Local cooking wares imitate Attic forms at first, but then diverge along an independent trajectory.

A concluding chapter (pp. 113-120) summarizes these results and offers three observations. The first two concern differences between pottery of phase 1 and presumably contemporary material at two key sites: Naukratis and the Chatby cemetery. Recent research on pottery from the former has attributed a local black-gloss production of stamped plates and bowls to the late 4th and early 3rd century. The earliest inhabitants of Alexandria should have offered a perfect market for such products, so their absence from phase 1 of the Consulate site is puzzling. Either the Naukratite pieces have been wrongly dated, or networks of distribution did not function as we imagine. As for the early cemetery at Chatby, grave gifts there include early types that are absent from the Consulate site. This may illustrate differences between funerary and domestic assemblages, or possibly Chatby documents an as-yet undiscovered Alexandrian community, perhaps that of the very first Greek settlers. Finally, Harlaut wonders why, although the Alexandrian workshops turned out works of some quality at the beginning, their products devolved into a monotonous and standardized repertoire, while regional centers elsewhere, such as Asia Minor and southern Italy, built upon their beginnings to develop distinctive assemblages. This seems to her to reflect an absence of will rather than of suitable materials, but the underlying reasons remain obscure.

The second half of the book, “Hellenistic Pottery Deposits from Alexandria,” is precisely what the title promises: a series of nine “deposits” (C-K) from ancient houses at the Cricket Ground, adjacent to the Consulate site and excavated by the Centre d’Études Alexandrines between 1994 and 1997.3 This is largely the work of John Hayes, who completed the catalogue in 2000, then undertook revisions together with Harlaut in 2011; Harlaut contributed two small sections of the catalogue (D’ and D”) as well as the drawings. “Deposits” is perhaps not quite the right term here, since some of them are made up of “several layers that were not strictly connected” but contained pottery “rather similar in date” (p. 163, n. 375); in all, 17 different stratigraphic units are included. Assemblages containing restorable (and therefore probably not residual) vessels were selected, and the deposits are of various types: pits, construction fills, one occupation level, and one abandonment deposit.

Three units fall within Harlaut’s phase 2, five within phase 3, and thus usefully multiply the material illustrating the early Hellenistic period. The rest (about two thirds of the catalogue) extend the range of the book down to 120 or perhaps 100 B.C. The 2nd-century “deposits” (H-K) seem to have been at first conceived of as chronological phases or stages—ca. 200-180; after 180; mid-2nd century; and 130-120—but the material in the subdivisions within some of them falls outside of this scheme. Thus, H’ continues on beyond H, overlapping I, and K” may (or may not) be earlier than K and K’. Despite these fuzzy edges (which may better approximate archaeological reality than a neater scheme would), this material offers an approximate sequence of 2nd-century ceramic development.

The catalogue for each unit is introduced by a statement of date and a short paragraph describing its nature. Independent evidence for dating is sparse; only three units include amphora stamps, and coins are rare. The earlier deposits are dated by comparison with the material of Harlaut’s phases 1-3; fine-tuning of the 2nd-century dates presumably rests upon Hayes’s broad experience of Mediterranean pottery and legendary sense of ceramic development. The catalogue comprises over 260 items, each illustrated by a profile drawing, occasionally augmented by a color photograph (plates 1-61). Fabric descriptions are detailed and meticulous but do not adopt Harlaut’s or other established terminology for local wares, so individual pieces cannot easily be related to established production groups. There is no commentary, summary, or conclusion, so this section serves mainly to expand upon the examples presented in the first section of the book and to offer dated comparanda for material of the 2nd century. Welcome as this is, one misses the sort of overarching commentary that the first half of the book provides.

The volume ends with a bibliography, concordances, and a very detailed table of contents, compensating for the absence of an index. These studies are an important addition to the growing library of works on Alexandrian material culture. Harlaut’s presentation of the crucial transitional period of the 3rd-century is particularly valuable. It could have stood alone, but the addition of the Cricket Ground material, however limited in terms of analysis, serves to put the earlier material in context and highlight the differences between the restless experimentation of the 3rd century and the work-a-day production that followed. The book (begun in 1999) was long in the making, but well worth waiting for.


1. Later pottery from the site has been studied by S. Elaigne, in La vaisselle fine de l’habitat alexandrin, Etudes Alexandrines 21 (Cairo 2013), on fine wares of the 2nd and 1st centuries.

2. A. Villing and E. G. Pemberton, “Mortaria from Ancient Corinth,” Hesperia 46 (2010), pp. 555-638.

3. Two more deposits from the Cricket Grounds (A, ca. 120 B.C.E., and B, ca. 100 C.E.) have been published previously: J. W. Hayes and C. Harlaut, “Ptolemaic and Roman Pottery Deposits from Alexandria,” in J.-Y. Empereur ed., Alexandrina 2, Études Alexandrines 6 (Cairo 2002), pp. 99-133.