BMCR 2020.07.18

The historical Greek village

, The historical Greek village. Lerna, VIII. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2018. 544 p.. ISBN 9780876613085 $150.00.

Most readers of this review will know Lerna as the place where Heracles defeated the Hydra, and many also as the Bronze Age site with the House of the Tiles. The area of Lerna, however, has a long habitation history from the Neolithic to the present day. The volume under review mainly covers two features of the post-Bronze Age archaeology of Lerna: heavily disturbed remains of Early Iron Age burials in the foothills 230 meters west of the prehistoric site, and traces of Late Archaic-Hellenistic habitation encountered during the excavation of the Bronze Age remains—mainly wells and their fills (dumps, rather than use-fills), but also materials found in disturbed strata. As no relevant architectural remains are preserved at the habitation site, and the nearby graves are several centuries older than the settlement debris and may belong to another living area, this is not a book about a village, despite its title and its attempt, in the final chapter, to contextualize the Classical and Hellenistic finds in the setting of rural habitation. It is rather a combination of studies, strongly focussing on pottery, of two archaeological assemblages which may not be very closely connected.

The burial area was explored during a rescue operation by the American excavation team in 1955 after it was accidentally uncovered and partly destroyed by the German army during WWII. The Classical-Hellenistic finds were simply ‘collateral damage’ in the prehistoric excavations of the 1950s. As none of these finds had much priority or were considered to be very interesting, the standards of excavation and documentation were below those usual for  the project, and study and publication  were limited. That has changed with the monumental book under review, in which Brice Erickson has managed to bring together and organize all documentation to reconstruct missing maps and data, and to study all the finds which are still remaining (some have disappeared or were discarded in the meantime). This 10-year herculean work on reviving the legacy data alone deserves praise.

An introductory chapter offers solid background information on village archaeology and the historical and landscape setting of Lerna within the Argolid. Chapter 2 is mainly dedicated to the ‘Geometric cemetery’ consisting of 15 mostly destroyed and emptied graves, widely dispersed over two large trenches, which were further divided into sections. As very few finds can be connected directly to the graves, the excavation results are presented by section (labelled as ‘trench’). Each section is treated in an introduction, illustrated with reconstructed plans and excavation photographs, where possible. These introductions include descriptions of the graves and other structures. They are followed by find catalogues organised by date, material, and shape and fabric category. A similar discussion of two pithos graves found in the settlement area and of  some loose complete pots likely to have had  a funerary origin precedes a concluding section. The latter summarizes the finds and their chronology, contextualizes them within what we know of burial traditions in the Argolid (with which they seem to fit well), and offers a short demographic analysis.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 cover the ten later wells and a pit found in the prehistoric site, in chronological order from (very) Late Archaic (ca. 500 BCE) till Middle Hellenistic (ca. 175 BCE). A brief introduction reminds us of the basics of ‘well archaeology’ and of  issues specific to Lerna, where the upper part of the wells is missing and lower fills could not be excavated as they are below the water table, though often work stopped far above that. Then, for each well the basic excavation data (usually all there is) are offered, followed by a more elaborate synthetic discussion of the finds, and extensive catalogues, which cover between less than a tenth and half of the recorded finds. In Chapter 6 a selection of 145 finds from mixed or unclear contexts is presented, covering the Protogeometric to Hellenistic periods, up to the early 2nd century BCE.

Although other finds are properly discussed as well, the pottery catalogues are the core and strength of this book. It is especially praiseworthy that a lot of attention is given to categories of pottery—simply decorated, banded, black and plain pots of local and regional manufacture, and tiles, which are usually neglected in publications. Even though in the Greek world this part of the ceramic range comprises the vast majority of our finds, very few studies of this size and quality have been dedicated to it, certainly not south of Corinth—as is actually apparent from the many references to unpublished finds in regional museums. Precisely its regional embedding is an important quality of the Lerna analysis: catalogued items are not only linked to obvious, but not always very close, possible examples from major production centres like Athens and Corinth, but they are also compared to more similar material from the Argolid and its surroundings, and occasionally from elsewhere in the Peloponnese. Where possible, these various comparisons are then also used in what amounts to a first sketch of a regional classification framework of groups of pottery, although this remains mostly implicit. The amount of work Erickson has invested in his very comprehensive analysis and interpretation is impressive. This will surely be the reference work for decades to come, for the whole Argolid.

Yet, I have a few quibbles. For the first the author is not to blame: in my view the regional approach is not only a strength, since it obscures that, besides local and regional shapes and other characteristics, some features of this pottery fit into a wider context, and have parallels in ‘local’ pottery over much of the Greek world. This lack of a supra-regional perspective affects the study of ‘simple’ Greek pottery in general, for understandable reasons. A grasp of all the extant material is barely possible in practice, especially considering its state of publication: too much exists, everywhere. Nevertheless, one would hope that in our days of big data and digital miracles this situation may begin to change. To phrase it positively, this study is not just a milestone for our knowledge of pottery from the Protogeometric to Hellenistic Argolid or Peloponnese, but should also be a starting point for a more holistic re-evaluation of similar material throughout the Greek world, and inspire and directly help comparable work elsewhere.

Speaking about the progress of the discipline, another feature of this book deserves notice. The presentation of finds follows the well-known format of excavation publications by the American School in Athens, as established by the Agora and Corinth teams in the 1930s: after introductory sections, selected items are described and illustrated in an extensive catalogue. This is an excellent way of presenting finds for reference purposes and as a dating tool, but the role of artefacts in archaeology has developed considerably, and the traditional way of publishing does not fit the approaches and questions many of us focus on nowadays so well.  Although Erickson’s catalogue entries comprise 881 items—all  of them illustrated with at least a profile drawing or a photograph—they still present an only partially explained selection of an unclear total. Occasional references to, and even illustrations of, uncatalogued items, usually offering little information beyond noting their existence, underscore this problem.

If one is primarily interested in contextualization, for example as part of (quantitative) research on pottery use, or even to just understand what the finds actually represent and what the biases of the catalogued material are, a selective presentation does not work well. Erickson seems to acknowledge this problem, as he presents summary lists of all pottery from each well in five fabric categories, but this is not helpful since these categories are generic and broad, and (except for tiles) hardly related  to function. In a 2018 publication, one would expect complete counts of all finds, by fabric, shape (as far as possible) and surface finish, offering an overview of all that is preserved—as some Agora publications already did in the 1990s.[1]

The fact, noted by Erickson, that complete counts of heavily selected assemblages are of limited use for quantitative (consumption) studies, does not mean they are useless. Indeed, they would have helped to gain insight into the very process of selection, and its implications for interpretation—issues which Erickson discusses on several occasions, but does not really manage to clarify. Although the excavation diaries provide anecdotal information on discard rates and practices, they do not offer a useable picture of the process, and Erickson’s reliance on such problematic data is not only rather uncritical, but also does not lead to a comprehensive assessment, or even a basic overview, of the main resulting biases.

This lack of clarity regarding how representative the catalogued finds are of the entire assemblage strongly affects the sections in  Chapter 7 which contain a valiant attempt to offer a functional interpretation of the material in its domestic and village context. While perhaps useful as a starting point for reflection, Erickson’s comparison of only the catalogued sherds from the wells of Lerna with the far more completely counted domestic material from Halieis as published by Bradley Ault and a single rather artificially reconstructed well-assemblage from Athens produced by Kathleen Lynch is too problematic to take at face value, because both the contexts and the ways of processing vary enormously between the cases.[2] The Lerna figures mainly underline that they are very incomplete, as utilitarian pottery is almost completely missing and even the fine ware assemblage does not make much functional sense. Surprisingly, Erickson here seems to disregard his own earlier warning against the use of selected assemblages for quantitative studies. There is, moreover, other published material that would offer better comparisons and a better frame of reference, not only for interpreting the material but also for assessing what is missing at Lerna.[3]

On the positive side it must be stressed that Erickson’s functional interpretation and his more general synthesis are important innovations in a traditional volume focusing on excavation pottery. Furthermore, the section which follows the detailed quantitative comparison—on the role of the symposion (or rather, wine drinking) in a provincial village like Lerna—offers a rich and balanced qualitative discussion of the evidence. Although I find the tendency to connect all wine drinking to the symposion mostly an anachronistic obsession, Erickson does show convincingly that even simpler villagers did invest considerable expense and effort in acquiring drinking pottery and wine. While I find this a less surprising conclusion than Erickson does, it is an important point that clearly still needs to be made.

The rather substantial sections on pottery use and drinking are followed by briefer synthetic sections on ‘domestic economy’ and ‘religious landscape’, which again offer interesting and thoughtful insights, although perhaps some conclusions are a bit excessive in view of the limited evidence on which they are based: it is a big step to connect a handful of ambiguous short graffiti on sherds from secondary contexts to a sanctuary of Poseidon mentioned by Pausanias centuries later, for example. On the other hand, the four appendices by other authors, offering the results of an extensive petrographic analysis program (by Heather Graybehl), overviews of transport amphora finds (by Mark Lawall) and faunal remains (by David Reese), and a study of two Doric capitals (by David Scahill) are mainly descriptive, and little of their outcome is integrated with the rest of the book, which particularly in the case of the ceramic analysis seems quite a waste.

Although some loose ends are frustrating, this is an important and ground-breaking publication, which is in many ways exemplary as a pottery study, and shows the importance and relevance of a comprehensive approach and interpretation of fieldwork finds, offering a good and innovative base for further improvement of our understanding of the Greek countryside.


[1] S.I. Rotroff and J.H. Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora, Princeton 1992 (Hesperia suppl. 25); T.L. Shear, Jr., “The Persian Destruction of Athens. Evidence from Agora Deposits”, Hesperia 62 (1993), 383-482.
[2] See B.A. Ault, The Excavations at Ancient Halieis, Vol. 2 The Houses. The Organization and Use of Domestic Space, Bloomington 2005 and K.M. Lynch, The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora, Princeton 2011 (Hesperia Suppl. 46).
[3] See e.g., besides the studies mentioned in the previous footnotes, M. Haagsma, Domestic Economy and Social Organisation in New Halos (PhD dissertation, University of Groningen 2010).