Sunday, April 3, 2011


John W. Hayes, The Athenian Agora, Volume XXXII: Roman Pottery: Fine-ware Imports. Princeton, N.J.: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2008. Pp. xli, 341; 149 p. of plates. ISBN 9780876612323. $150.00.

Reviewed by J. Theodore Peña, University of California, Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book, by John Hayes, one of the most influential figures in Roman pottery studies over the past half-century, presents a typological description of the Roman-period pottery of non-local origin (excluding amphoras) recovered in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens' excavations in the Athenian Agora. For the purposes of this study, the Roman period has been defined as extending from the sack of Athens in 86 BC by forces under Sulla through the effective end of occupation in the area of the Agora during the sixth/seventh century AD. The volume considers only the materials recovered in the excavations carried out under the direction first of T.L. Shear and then H.A. Thompson over the period 1931-1967. Hayes is currently engaged in the production of a second volume that will present the non-amphora pottery of local origin recovered in these same excavations. Together, the two will constitute a companion to the chronological study of the Roman-period pottery from the Agora excavations published in 1959 by Henry Robinson as Agora V, and extend the studies of the non-amphora pottery of the Hellenistic period published by Susan Rotroff as Agora XXII (1982), Agora XXIX (1997) and Agora XXXIII (2006).

The organization of the volume is standard for a work of this kind, with an introduction that reviews the history of the project and aspects of the methodology; a series of chapters that discuss either individual wares or groups of related wares; a catalogue that presents descriptions of representative examples of the various forms attested for each of the wares; supporting materials (a summary of basic information regarding the stratigraphic units in which the materials included in the catalogue were recovered, a concordance of inventory and catalogue numbers, and various indices); and then graphics (profile drawings of most of the catalogued specimens, photographs showing details of overall appearance, technique, decoration, makers' stamps, and graffiti, and two plans of the Agora showing the location of the stratigraphic units in which the materials included in the catalogue were recovered).

As the nearly fifty-year gap between the publication of Robinson's study and the appearance of this volume might suggest, the project to publish this material had a complex history. This is worth reviewing, as it had significant implications for the way in which the materials are presented. At the outset of the project, during the late 1960s, Robinson took responsibility for the three main categories of gloss-slipped tableware from the early Roman period——Eastern Sigillata A and B, and Italian Sigillata—assigning Hayes—then in the early stage of his career—the various gloss-slipped tablewares from the middle and late Roman periods. While Hayes produced a manuscript for his part of the work by the early 1970s, but Robinson was able to complete his only in the late 1980s, neither of which were published. Hayes agreed to take on responsibility for seeing the project through to completion, revising and updating both Robinson's manuscript and his own. As Hayes makes clear in the book's preface and introductory chapter, in the interest of producing a good rather than a perfect book, he chose to retain as much of Robinson's manuscript as he believed to be compatible with a satisfactory presentation of the materials. Specifically, he carried over certain aspects of Robinson's typological schemes that he might have improved upon, rewrote Robinson's catalogue entries as little as possible, and, in updating Robinson's bibliography, added only those items that he believed to be of crucial importance. While Hayes's own sections thus tend to be richer, more cohesive, and more current, it is clear that for these too he elected to forgo providing a complete bibliographic update, as can be inferred from the fact that references tend to drop off from the mid to late 1990s, with just a handful dating to the period after 2000. That said, it should be noted that the volume's bibliography is a rich resource that reflects Hayes' immense knowledge of Roman pottery.

Hayes's principal focus is typology, followed by issues of provenance and chronology. Due to the paucity of stratigraphic units that can be associated with dated historical events and the high incidence of residual materials, there are only a modest number of cases in which the evidence allows him to revise or refine the dating of individual forms or entire wares. It is clear that Hayes would also gladly engage more fully than he does with issues of supply and consumption, but was prevented from doing so beyond some very general observations regarding the ebb and flow of pottery imports to Athens over the centuries due to the impossibility of developing reliable quantitative data for materials excavated so long ago and subjected over the years to at least two episodes of winnowing and discard. Not surprisingly, given his focus, topics such as ceramic technology, fabric composition, practices in the repair and inscribing of vessels, and vessel use/function receive considerably less attention. In particular, the characterization of fabrics and slips is limited to verbal descriptions of these as they appear in the hand specimen, with no effort to document these by means of photographs and/or photomicrographs.

Many of the red-gloss wares that were widely distributed beyond their area of manufacture reached Athens in substantial quantities, and thus receive extensive treatment. These include Eastern Sigillata A and B, Italian Sigillata, Çandarli Ware, African Sigillata C and D, and Phocean Red Slip Ware. Represented in fairly exiguous amounts and thus receiving more abbreviated treatment are Campanian Orange Sigillata (aka Tripolitanian Sigillata), South and Central Gallic Sigillata, African Sigillata A, C/E, and E, Sagalassos Ware, Cypriot Sigillata/Red Slip Ware, and Pontic Sigillata. Entirely absent are Hispanic Sigillata and Egyptian Sigillata/Red Slip Ware. Also represented in small amounts and thus subject to abbreviated treatment is a wide variety of mostly less well-known wares, including various red- and black-gloss wares, gray wares, relief-decorated wares, lead-glazed wares, and thin-walled wares. With the exception of one of the lead-glazed wares and some of the thin-walled wares, which are certainly or likely of Italian origin, plus a few vessels from Egypt, these wares were certainly or likely manufactured either elsewhere in Greece or in Asia Minor. The volume also treats two classes of unguentaria—one Italian, the other probably from Knidos—and two classes of imported cookware—Pompeian Red Ware and African Cookware, the latter represented by but a single specimen. So-called Aegean Cookware, the main class of cookware imported to Athens during the Roman period—manufactured at least in part in the vicinity of Phocea—will presumably be treated in the volume currently in preparation.

The chapter of perhaps greatest interest to many users of this book will be the one concerned with the various African Sigillatas. Hayes, as has been his practice since he produced the seminal study of these wares in his classic 1972 book Late Roman Pottery,1 lumps these together under the rubric African Red Slip Ware, rather than treating them as distinct wares according to the scheme worked out by Carandini and collaborators (African Sigillata A, C, D, E, A/C, A/D, and C/E). He is clear about his reasons for employing this approach, indicating that his preference is to focus on forms rather than production groups, and that he intends his treatment of these materials to constitute, in effect, a second supplement to their treatment in Late Roman Pottery and the supplement to this that he published in 1980.2 The reviewer must confess that his initial feeling of annoyance at Hayes's decision to stay with this approach—inconsistent, for example, with his division of Eastern Sigillata B into the subcategories of B1 and B2 in a different chapter—quickly evaporated as he worked his way through the masterful presentation of the evidence for each of the various forms. It was, in fact, a disappointment to learn that certain of the more important forms—the Hayes Form 80 and the early variants of the Hayes Form 91, for example—are not represented among the materials from the Agora, since this means that we are deprived of a discussion of these from the vantage point of Hayes's impressive command of evidence drawn from every corner of the Roman world.

The big picture that emerges in terms of supply and consumption of tablewares can be summarized as follows: import tablewares enjoy a distinctly larger share of the market at Athens during the Roman period that they did during earlier periods. Eastern Sigillata A, likely manufactured on the coast of Cilicia, is present in substantial quantities from the beginning of the Roman period, being joined by Eastern Sigillata B, from the Meander Valley, and Italian Sigillata during the last quarter of the first century BC. The import of all three of these wares drops off during the second century AD. Çandarli Ware, from the area of Pergamon, appears during the first century AD and is imported in moderate amounts into the third century AD. South Gallic Sigillata and African Sigillata A, from northern Tunisia, are almost entirely absent during the first to third century AD. African Sigillata C, from central Tunisia, appears near the middle of the third century, while African Sigillata D, from northern Tunisia, appears in the early fourth century. These two wares come to dominate the market in the course of the fourth century and continue to be imported, sometimes in greater quantities, sometimes in lesser, into the fifth and sixth centuries, respectively. Phocean Red Slip Ware, from northwest Anatolia, appears during the late fourth century, comes to dominate the market during the fifth century, and continues as the most abundant import tableware through the end of the sixth century.

In addition to offering a solid presentation of the material from the Agora excavations, this book provides a useful and interesting tour d'horizon of the state of our knowledge of the more important export tablewares of the Roman Mediterranean. On the basis of this, it is evident that there are two wares for which our understanding is very much in need of improvement. The first of these, Thin-Walled Ware, comes as no surprise, inasmuch as it is to some extent a contrived category that subsumes a variety of quite disparate productions from several different parts of the Roman world. Here, the situation has not been helped by the fact that the extreme slenderness of vessel walls has tended to confound efforts to employ traditional approaches to the definition and recognition of production groups, as these depend on the examination of sherds either with the naked eye or under a hand lens. Nor, indeed, by the fact that, lacking both molded relief decoration and maker's stamps (art and literature, such as Roman pottery can offer these), Thin-Walled Ware has seemed less worthy of attention.

That the second of these wares, however, should be Italian Sigillata—the Roman export tableware par excellence—seems much less easy to justify and accept. It is well understood and has been for some decades that Italian Sigillata was manufactured not only at Arezzo and its satellite of Cincelli/Ponte a Buriano, but also in the Po Valley, the environs of Pisa, the Val di Chiana and the Tiber Valley (including the Rome area), and Campania, and that the products of these different areas can be recognized as such not just on the basis of maker's stamps, form, and decoration, but also, to some extent, at least, on the basis of the characteristics of their fabric and slip. Yet, so far as the reviewer is aware, there is nothing available either in print or online that provides the researcher a comprehensive, reliable tool for recognizing the products of these different manufacturing areas and/or the workshops situated within them on the basis of these two fundamental and universally present attributes.3

The treatment of Italian Sigillata in this volume reflects this state of affairs. Hayes limits himself to the not inaccurate statement: "The subtle differences in their (i.e., the various regional production groups) reddish clays and surface coatings, often not apparent to the naked eye, are not easily described.", supplementing this with a quotation drawn from Robinson's manuscript: "In brief, within an overall range of reddish tints, Puteolan ware may be brick-red, with a brilliant luster, or else more pinkish than that of Arezzo, in which case the gloss is duller; the later wares of the Pisa region have a darker red clay than these, while the external (and sometimes internal) gloss is dull; 'Central Italian' clay is slightly coarser than Arretine and (like Puteolan) slightly pinkish in color, with a dark red to orange-red slip, generally dull inside and out.". (p. 42) Hayes also provides a table in which he presents data for the color of the fabric and slip (expressed using the notation employed in the Munsell Soil Color Charts) for a small number of what he presumably regards as representative specimens of Arretine, Central Italian, and Puteolan origin. (p. 43) The indications of provenance that appear in the catalogue reflect the limitations inherent in the application of verbal characterizations of this kind, with numerous instances in which the origin of a vessel is indicated with a phrase such as "probably Puteoli ware", "Cincelli ware?", "Arezzo? Pisa?", "probably a non-Arezzo product (Puteolan?)", or "hardly an Arezzo product". Tellingly, one of the two specimens presented by Hayes in the previously mentioned table as Central Italian and two of the three presented as Puteolan are in the catalogue assigned a provenance—here we must presume by Robinson --that is at odds with this. One is left with the feeling that it might be better to say nothing on this score rather than to venture speculative and unsupported identifications that could not possibly be replicated by other researchers.

The arrival on the scene of inexpensive, easy to operate digital microscopes may well offer a way forward, as these permit researchers to produce quickly and at effectively no cost large numbers of color photomicrographs of ceramic bodies and slipped surfaces at magnifications of up to about 50x. These images can be shuffled on the computer screen to help with the task of defining fabric groups, emailed as attachments to other researchers with a view to resolving the "Is what I've got the same as what they've got?" question that looms so large in the lives of pottery specialists, and made available to the broader scientific community through web sites, journal articles, and final reports such as the one under review.


1.   J. Hayes, Late Roman Pottery, London, 1972.
2.   J. Hayes, Supplement to Late Roman Pottery, London, 1980.
3.   See on this issue A. Klynne, "Consumption of Italian sigillata: yesterday, today and tomorrow, " in D. Malfitana, J. Poblome, and J. Lund, edd., Old Pottery in a New Century: Innovating Perspectives on Roman Pottery Studies. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi, Catania, 23-24 Aprile 2004 (Catania, 2006),167-74.

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