BMCR 2021.02.13

L’immagine e il contesto. Produzioni figurative e immaginario sociale nelle comunità della Siritide e del Metapontino (VIII-VI secolo a.C.)

, L'immagine e il contesto. Produzioni figurative e immaginario sociale nelle comunità della Siritide e del Metapontino (VIII-VI secolo a.C.). Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente, Supplemento. Atene: Scuola Archaeologica Italiana di Atene, 2019. Pp. 251. ISBN 9780609559140 €42,00.

This book is an original and important contribution to the archaeology of Southern Italy. It deals specifically with an area where indigenous Oenotrians and immigrant Greeks came into contact very early in the process of Greek colonization and where already at the end of the seventh century B.C. at least one new polis was established, Metapontion. The author surely chose it also because it has been intensely investigated by the Soprintendenza of Basilicata and its collaborators since the 1960s. He has studied the results of these investigations very closely and deeply and has offered new interpretations of his own. His reading has been wide and his thorough bibliography is one of the book’s strengths. His choice of subject is of particular relevance to the recent scholarly debate about the nature of Greek colonization, a debate that even questions the existence of the phenomenon itself even questioning its existence.[1]

The geographic and chronologic limits of the study are the Ionian coast between the Bradano and Sinni Rivers from the 8th to the 6th centuries B.C., embracing the territories of the future apoikiai Metapontion and Siris. The book is divided in two according to the periods that follow. Period I covers the span of time from the leading indigenous Oenotrian settlements (Incoronata and Santa Maria d’Anglona) to the foundation of Metapontion, while Period II runs from that event until the Achaian conquest of Siris. The discussion of each period opens with a consideration of the archaeological picture, a reconstruction of the dynamic development of the geographic context to which the images of the book’s title refer, and an examination of the iconographic documents. The images presented here are two-dimensional, painted decorations on pots or three-dimensional terracotta figurines or raised reliefs. The extensive and well-illustrated corpus of images is complemented by numerous maps and plans of their contexts—excavation sites, habitations, burials, and parts of public buildings.

De Stefano has organized a large and very complex body of material to form an iconographic/ topographic system interpreting the images diachronically, and providing an efficient instrument to define the cultural system within the complete evidence of its figural expressions. An outstanding quality of De Stefano’s work, in my opinion, lies in his accurately observed and incisive iconographic analyses and his precise and wide-ranging choices of comparisons. For example, he traces the figure-8 human forms on Oenotrian pots back to their Greek inspirations. This and similar comparisons force the question: Did Greeks actually live at the settlement of Incoronata? The author sees Greek merchants and artisans and recognizes locally-made Greek-style pottery that brief trading contacts cannot explain. Yet there was no “fusion” of Greek and native, as some have argued.[2] The immigrant population at Incoronata lived, according to a forthcoming study by Sveva Savelli, within a system firmly managed by Oenotrians.[3] It is hard to see how a village such as Incoronata could have evolved into a polis, as one scholar has suggested.[4]

An outstanding example of De Stefano’s methods is his analysis of the enormously impressive mold-made terracotta perirrhanterion from Incoronata. In successive bands around its stand run, from bottom to top, mythological scenes of combat (Herakles vs. Centaur, Odysseus vs. Circe, Theseus killing the Minotaur, Perseus vs. Medusa). In the middle band warriors fight over a fallen comrade, and on the upper band of the base, a wedding of gods in chariots is drawn by winged horses. The whole, according to De Stefano, works together to exalt the arête of the aristos. In the case of the individual, the triumph over the monster is a founding (fondativo) event. He conquers and returns to the community having succeeded in his iter and achieved identity as a soldier and citizen—dies as a child, and is reborn as an adult. Rejoining the community as an adult, he establishes his place as a candidate for kingship. The triumph of the hero results in the domestication of space. In concrete terms it results in the placing of the cults, monuments, and collective space. Looking at the whole iconographic patrimony, there is a mixture of artisan traditions, particularly Aegean, east Greek and Cycladic. The result is not simply a transfer of themes from the Hellenic repertory, but an organic cultural structure. Taking into account the polisemia of the iconography (p. 79), he sees at least two interpretive levels which lead the observer from the horizontal to the vertical sense of the compositions. In the first the decoration seems to represent the basic values of the Archaic Greek aristocracy—arche, basileia, and gamos. In the second it calls to mind the fundamental moments in the social life of the aristos: the conquest of arête in the marginal area of the eschatia, the battle agon/polemos of peers in which the aristos must demonstate his virtù in relation to other gene and groups outside the polis, and finally marriage, by which he completes the status of the aristocrat, and the promise of immortality through the continuation of his line and that of the group. As a whole this iconography is specific to one area—the Bradano/Sinni—and one period of time—the middle to the end of the 7th century B.C.—though there are similar expressions in other iconographic documents from this area. There is nothing like it either in southern Italy or Greece. Therefore it must be an expression of the thoughts, ideals and aspirations of the precolonial population of this time and this area of the world. There was no “fusion” of populations at Incoronata. The interaction of Greeks and indigenous people there did not result in a unique, new and different population. There was no similar appropriation of Greek iconography outside of the Bradano/Sinni area, or at other sites with mixed populations such as Amastuola, near Taras.

I am glad to report that I found no major factual errors in De Stefano’s book. An exception is the map on Plate Eleven (p. 225), where the Venella, a tributary of the Basento River, is incorrectly drawn and mislabeled. Also on this map, site 397S has been misplaced; it belongs on the Bradano side of the chora. On the other hand, the amount of information presented is almost overpowering, and the organization is not always clear and straightforward. There are too many repetitions in this text, which basic editing should have eliminated. This and marginal or irrelevant information, such as the excessively long footnote 52 on the Tavole Palatine (p.105) are the traces of a dissertation insufficiently revised or rewritten as a book. The cross-referencing can be confusing.[5] The author’s style is academic making frequent use of words like “hermeneutic” and “epistemological,” which in this reviewer’s opinion do nothing for the argument. As a result, this is, for all its virtues, a very challenging work. It is definitive and exhaustive, and I must admit that getting through it was exhausting. But for those interested in Greek colonization and indigenous-Greek interaction, the effort will be extremely rewarding.


[1] L. Donnellan, V. Nizzo, and G.-J. Burgers (eds.), Conceptualising Early Colonisation. Brussels: Belgian Historical Institute in Rome, 2016. See especially the chapters by R. Osborne, “Greek ‘colonisation’: what was, and what is, at stake?” (pp. 21-25) and I. Malkin, “Greek colonization: the right to return” (pp. 27-50).

[2] S. Savelli, “Models of interaction between Greek and indigenous populations on the Ionian coast: contributions from the excavations at Incoronata by the University of Texas at Austin.” Paper delivered at Potenza, Italy, November 2014.

[3] S. Savelli, Incoronata, forthcoming.

[4] Ignoring abundant documentary and archaeological evidence to the contrary, D. Yntema suggests that “perhaps” Incoronata “fathered” the polis of Metapontion (“Greek groups in southeast Italy during the Iron Age,” in Conceptualising Early Colonisation, pp. 209-223). If this were so, the “father” was probably murdered by his offspring.

[5] To take an example: on p. 157 there is a reference to “louterion with hieros gamos (12a).” In order to find this image we have to go back from p. 157 to p. 144 (top), “(tipo iconografico 12) standing female figure,” which tells to go to Tav. XXd (a potnia theron) on p. 120. Surely there are less burdensome ways to connect illustrations to text.