BMCR 2021.10.49

Oil, wine, and the cultural economy of ancient Greece: from the Bronze Age to the Archaic era

, Oil, wine, and the cultural economy of ancient Greece: from the Bronze Age to the Archaic era. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 409. ISBN 9781108835640 $99.99.


This ambitious overview of the evidence for production, consumption, and exchange of two quintessentially Greek comestible liquids, wine and olive oil, over some 1300 years (ca. 1900-600 BCE) has been simmering for some time. Starting in much reduced form as a doctoral dissertation in 2014, it has been preceded by two substantial articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and a third study published in the proceedings of a thematic session devoted to maritime transport vessels at the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists.[1] Notwithstanding those earlier publications (reprised here in substantially abbreviated form), there is plentiful fresh content in this vastly expanded version of the dissertation’s original theme. The 2017 date of the latest titles in the impressively comprehensive bibliography reveals how long the press has taken to see the submitted manuscript into print, a regrettable fact that cannot be entirely blamed on the continuing pandemic.

In a lengthy introductory chapter, Pratt briefly discusses the various sub-themes that will constitute the topical framework of each of the subsequent five chapters covering successive periods of time ranging in duration from 150 to 300 years: the production of the grapes and olives that were pressed to yield the liquids under study; the technology of pressing and the surviving archaeological evidence for it; the nature of “human entanglements” with the liquid products and how these may have changed over time due to differentiable socio-political circumstances, systems of value, modes of exchange, and shifts in climate. Of fundamental importance for an appreciation of the author’s goals in organizing and presenting the evidence for each of the five temporal intervals constituting the book’s core is her definition of wine and olive oil as “cultural commodities” (as opposed to subsistence or economic ones) and her characterization of the three basic modes of exchange (commensal, gift, and commercial) in terms of which she goes on to examine through time and space these two value-added agricultural products (9-21).

In a much shorter concluding chapter, the author argues that her diachronic survey of how wine and olive oil were consumed reveals how the socio-political elite were defined by their control of surpluses of those commodities, no matter how much the scale or degree of centralization of their consumption may have varied from period to period. The resulting “dynamic stability” exhibited by the human entanglement with these two substances thus has an even longer continuous history than that well documented for over two and a half millennia in fully historic times. Their embeddedness in Greek experience is at this point so profound, she contends, that it will ensure their survival as “cultural commodities” even in the face of the dramatic alterations in climate predicted over the upcoming half-century.

Pratt’s text is supplemented by a modest number of endnotes to each of the seven resulting chapters, by the aforesaid wide-ranging bibliography, and by an unfortunately ill-organized and hence rather unhelpful index. Illustrations consist of fifty figures sprinkled through the first six chapters, ten maps through three of them, and ten tables through another four. Two online-only appendices survey mentions of grape and olive cultivation and consumption in the Homeric epics (22 pages) and Hesiod’s Works and Days (3 pages).

By virtue of the breadth of its chronological, spatial, and above all topical coverage, Pratt’s study must be considered an outstanding addition to the burgeoning scholarship on the development of maritime bulk transport of packaged commodities from the Middle Bronze to the Early Iron Age in the eastern and central Mediterranean world. With her particular focus on Greece, she explores the social dimensions of the surplus production of wine and olive oil and the wide variety in the nature of the consumption and exchanges of these commodities to a far greater degree than have recent book-length studies with a greater focus on purely typological or economic concerns.[2] Her decision to tell a chronologically uninterrupted story divided into five evenly weighted chapters from a starting point in Protopalatial Crete through to the middle of the Archaic era allows her to draw appropriate attention to the continuities in the value of wine and oil as Greek “cultural commodities” (carefully defined: 9, 304-305) despite the dramatic and rapid collapse of Mycenaean palatial administrations in the early 12th century and the subsequent decline in the complexity of material culture characteristic initially of the post-palatial Late Bronze Age and then even more markedly in the Early Iron Age.[3]

Despite the wealth of its content, a few minor complaints about it deserve comment. Why is the Minoan Monopalatial era (ca. 1450-1375/1350) subsumed into the “Mycenaean Palatial era” when the surviving palace building at Knossos looks nothing like mainland palaces thus far known (contra 96), almost all of which are in any case later in date? Why is no mention made of the influential Aeginetan ceramic industry of the Middle and early Late Bronze Ages that specialized in the production of large transport vessels (amphoras, hydrias, and four-handled jars, both decorated and plain) that were widely exported by sea throughout east-central Greece and the Cyclades, presumably as much for their contents as for their storage functionality? Arguably the best documented large-scale mainland Greek commensal events of the early (i.e. pre-palatial) Mycenaean era are represented by the vast quantities of pottery recovered from two robbed and refilled shaft graves at Lerna, of developed LH I date. The pottery from these fills demonstrates the overwhelming impact of Aeginetan drinking vessels (kraters and goblets) in addition to transport containers on northeastern Peloponnesian elites at this time, yet neither the Aeginetan potters nor the Argive consumers at these well-attended funerary feasts receive the slightest attention from Pratt.[4] Why is so little attention devoted to the volumetrics of the various ceramic types under consideration, especially after the potential significance of vessel capacity analyses has already been demonstrated?[5]

Examples of misinformation are few but nevertheless irritating. The contention that Mycenaean kylikes were “entangled with the palatial authorities to the point that when the palaces collapsed, kylikes quickly disappeared” (120) is simply not true, as Pratt herself goes on to show (168-169). Choices of images are also problematic: the krater from Tiryns illustrated as Fig. 3.6 is a post-palatial vessel and depicts what most authorities identify as a chariot race, not a palatial era commensal drinking ritual (121). The vessel raised by a seated goddess on the gold ring from the Tiryns treasure (Fig. 3.7; 122) is not a kylix but a chalice, and once again the scene has nothing to do with commensality. Why the author failed to illustrate her text with more appropriately chosen images of Mycenaean and Minoan palatial convivial drinking such as those in the frescoes she herself mentions (120-121) is unclear. She has also been ill-served by her Cambridge editorial staff: simple typographical errors are quite common; unnecessary repetitions of content pop up more often than they should; at least half-a-dozen titles cited for the most part in footnotes lack bibliographical entries (Bendall 2002; Brun 2009; Kopaka 1997; McGovern 1995, 2009; Pratt and Momigliano 2017); maps are often reproduced at such reduced scales as to render them difficult to read (e.g. 1.2 [44], 4.3 [233], 4.5 [236], 6.2 [278]); and the important maps (1.1-2) and chronological table (1.2) that should have been printed early in the introductory chapter are inexplicably displaced to its end (40-41, 43-44). Illustrations of all kinds are disappointing in their quality. The author’s discussions of relevant Aegean iconography would profit from additional reading, as would her treatment of Late Bronze Age drinking assemblages.[6]

The book is therefore flawed in some respects, many of them probably through no fault of the author, since Pratt’s previously published scholarship cited in n. 1 above is noticeably superior insofar as its editing and illustrations are concerned. She has undeniably provided those of us who study the traffic in and consumption of olive oil and wine in prehistoric Mediterranean contexts with an enormous amount of food for thought as to how we might more profitably approach our subject.


[1] Critical Commodities: Tracing Greek Trade in Oil and Wine from the Late Bronze Age to the Archaic Period (PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles 2014); “The ‘SOS’ Amphora: An Update,” Annual of the British School at Athens 110 (2015) 213-245; “The Rise and Fall of the Transport Stirrup Jar in the Bronze Age Aegean,” American Journal of Archaeology 120 (2016) 27-66; “Greek Commodities Moving West: Comparing Corinthian and Athenian Amphorae in the Early Archaic Period,” in S. Demesticha and A. B. Knapp (eds.), Maritime Transport Containers in the Mediterranean Bronze and Iron Ages [Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology and Literature PB 183] (Uppsala 2016) 195-213.

[2] T. Pedrazzi, Le giare da conservazione e trasporto del Levante: una studio archeologico dell’ economia fra Bronzo Tardo II e Ferro I (ca. 1400-900 A.C.) (Pisa 2007); H. W. Haskell, R. E. Jones, P. M. Day, and J. T. Killen, Transport Stirrup Jars of the Bronze Age Aegean and East Mediterranean (Philadelphia 2011); A. B. Knapp and S. Demesticha (eds.), Maritime Transport Containers and Seaborne Trade in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages (New York/London 2016).

[3] For a similar narrative with a focus on continuities rather than on total collapse, but again more concerned with the economy than with the social ramifications of select agricultural surpluses, see S. C. Murray, The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Imports, Trade, and Institutions 1300-700 BCE (Cambridge 2017).

[4] M. Lindblom, “Early Mycenaean Mortuary Meals at Lerna VI with Special Emphasis on Their Aeginetan Components,” in F. Felten, W. Gauss, and R. Smetana (eds.), Middle Helladic Pottery and Synchronisms (Vienna 2007) 115-135.

[5] S. Demesticha, “Appendix: Volumetric Analysis and Capacity Measurements of Selected MTCs,” in Knapp and Demesticha 2016 (see n. 2 above), 172-184. More recent publications include C. Sturge, “Behavioral Aspects of Aegean Pottery: Toward a Metrical and Volumetric Analysis,” Kentro 23 (2020) 26-30; L. Phialon, “Thoughts on the Capacities of Goblets and Consumption Practices in Middle Helladic and Early Mycenaean Settlements,” Archaeologia Austriaca 104 (2020) 195-229.

[6] J. Crouwel, “Pictorial Pottery of the Latest Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age,” in S. Deger-Jalkotzy and A. E. Bächle (eds.), LH IIIC Chronology and Synchronisms III: LH IIIC Late and the Transition to the Early Iron Age (Vienna 2009) 41-60; P. Stockhammer, “Household Archaeology in LH IIIC Tiryns,” in A. Yasur-Landau, J. R. Ebeling, and L. B. Mazow (eds.), Household Archaeology in Ancient Israel and Beyond (Boston 2011) 207-236; J. H. Crouwel and C. E. Morris, “The Minoan Amphoroid Krater: From Production to Consumption,” BSA 110 (2015) 147-201; B. Bohen, Kratos & Krater: Reconstructing an Athenian Protohistory (Oxford 2017).