Sunday, July 22, 2012


Kathleen M. Lynch, The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Hesperia Supplement, 46. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011. Pp. xxi, 376; 165 figs., 14 ills. in color. ISBN 9780876615461.

Reviewed by Mary B. Moore, Hunter College (

Version at BMCR home site

In the 1993-1995 excavations of the Athenian Agora, the partial remains of a private house built during the late archaic period were discovered together with a well that served its inhabitants. The site is north of the Athens- Piraeus railroad tracks, the well is located at J 2:4 on the Agora grid and situated within the rubble of a Roman podium temple. The Persians destroyed the house in 480-479 B.C.; the contents of the well come from both the period of use (POU) and the subsequent fill dumped into it. This is the first Agora well from the late archaic or early classical period for which all of the excavated material was saved and it offers an unusually complete picture of an Athenian household assemblage as well as information about its inhabitants. In addition, soil as well as floral and faunal remains were analyzed. This well is the domestic counterpart of the late fifth century well that served the public dining building in the Agora,1 and taken together, they greatly increase our knowledge about public and domestic dining.

In chs. 2 and 3, Lynch discusses in detail the topography of the area, the stratigraphy and the chronology. Good plans, helpful cross-sections, and numerous graphs charting the material found in various strata of the well accompany her text and provide much important information at a single glance. Lynch is particularly attentive to the character of the well, describing the levels that belong to the POU, those from the clean up and their similarities as well as their differences. The two lowest levels contained the household material; above this was an almost sterile level with very little pottery; the top three are fill. Lynch notes that due to the limited access (only from the NW), it was not possible to distinguish a clear line between POU and the beginning of the dumped fill. Here and there fragments from different levels joined one another, indicating there was some overlap or intrusion. She describes in considerable detail the types of finds and their use. Almost all of the fine-ware from the top two levels (5 and 6) could be mended up and probably broke after they were tossed into the well.

Chs. 4-6 supplement the detailed analysis of the well and the objects found in it discussed in chs. 2 and 3. These three chapters also present a great deal of important material that complements the descriptions of the finds in the catalogue (see below) and increases our understanding of the use of figured and non-figured pottery in a domestic context. Lynch's informative account is expertly woven into her treatment of the pertinent comparative material, especially subjects on vases, relevant ancient texts and other archaeological material. The pottery offers the most valuable evidence for the habitation of the house which Lynch establishes was a single domestic dwelling. Drinking activities seem to have been of considerable importance to this household and most interesting is Lynch's recognition that the largest amount of figured pottery is connected with bibulous occasions, not with consumption of food. Lynch suggests that everyday food receptacles may have been made of perishable materials. There are also plain vessels used in daily life, e.g., for cooking and storage, jars for fetching water, etc., as well as other domestic items such as salt cellars and bowls, also lamps and loom weights. Rather odd is the absence of ceramic kraters for mixing wine and water and Lynch thinks perhaps these were made of metal and either looted by the Persians or retained by the owner. There are no containers for votive offerings or cult activity. All of this material indicates an Athenian household of modest but comfortable means. Lynch's valuable discussion is as full as one could wish for.

In the catalogue the figured pottery comes first (black-figure, then red-figure), followed by black glaze and household ware, finally other pertinent objects. Each entry begins with basic information: shape, dimensions and condition, the elevation in the well where it was found and bibliography. Next is a very careful description followed by relevant comparanda, and the date; some of the figured material is attributed to painters or groups, either by Lynch or by other scholars. Black and white photographs as well as profile drawings (where preservation allows) and facsimiles of inscriptions accompany each entry.

Most of the black-figured material (nos. 1-83) is very well-known in the Agora, especially the ubiquitous lekythoi and cup-skyphoi that were mass-produced during the time of the Persian Wars. While its quality is not as high as that of the red-figure, there are some interesting pieces. Nos. 1-2 (pp. 178-179, fig. 20): Lynch is correct that these are fragments of Panathenaic amphorae, at least to judge by the slope of what remains of the shoulder of no. 2. I could not tell from the measurements if these were full size and perhaps prize-vases (the way to do this is to place the fragment against the pertinent part of a prize vase; some of the fragments in Agora XXIII might be helpful). No. 3 (pp. 179-181, fig. 21) is a small neck-amphora with Dionysos, maenads and a satyr, and no. 5 (pp. 183-185, fig. 23) is a handsome oinochoe Lynch attributes to the Acheloos Painter or one working in his manner; it depicts Herakles and the Bull between Hermes and Athena, both seated. A fragmentary phiale decorated in Six's technique, no. 23 (pp. 195-196, fig. 39) shows a file of cattle; No. 28 (pp. 197-200, ill. 8, fig. 44), a well-preserved skyphos from the White Heron Class and attributed by Lynch to the CHC Group, depicts symposiasts flanked by large birds at each handle, two of them perched on knobby stumps, a more imaginative scene than one expects from this group of painters whose work at best is modest. Each of these is from the lower levels of the well. From the upper fill, one may mention two: a fragment of a stand, no. 25 (p. 196, fig. 41) dated early in the sixth century preserving parts of two animal friezes, and a rim fragment from a dinos or louterion, no. 26 (pp. 196-197, fig. 42) depicting a bull.

The red-figured material is more varied iconographically than the black-figured and the images depict daily life. Absent are heroes and gods. A pelike, no. 84 (pp. 224-227, ill. 13, fig. 82), by the Nikoxenos Painter (Bothmer) or a painter from the Pezzino Group (Lynch), depicts a man walking to right holding a barbitos with a basket hanging from one handle. Lynch suggests he is singing (p. 129), but singers usually look upward, not downward as this man does. Perhaps he is just steadying the instrument and its burden or testing the strings before he bursts into song. On the other side a youth has had too much to drink and vomits.2 There are two small cups, nos. 87-88 (pp. 228- 230, figs. 84-85, ill. 10), one (no. 87) attributed to Euphronios, which are decorated with coral red, a fragile technique rather difficult to produce. Each was repaired by the owner suggesting they were of special value to him. There is a very handsome set of small cups, mainly decorated on the inside only, that look like they may have been reserved for special occasions, nos. 89-95 (pp. 230-239, figs. 86-92, ills. 1, 3-7). Notable are: no. 89 (pp. 230-232, fig. 86, ill. 3): a man carries a large skyphos; no. 91 pp. 234-235, fig. 88; ill. 5): a youth treads grapes; no. 90 (pp. 232-233, fig. 87, ill. 4): a youth carries strips of meat and on p. 83, nn. 55-56 Lynch discusses aspects of butchering meat and eating it, one of the many examples of her interest in comparative material pertaining to domestic Athenian life. No. 92 (pp. 235-236, fig. 89, ill. 6) has a charming little owl in its tondo, a reference to Athena, and one wonders if this might have deterred the user from over-imbibing. Lynch (pp. 86-88) offers a particularly interesting discussion of this cup. Nos. 104-171 (pp. 243-274) present the black-glazed material, all of it utilitarian and some of it quite handsome. Nearly all have comparisons in Agora XII. So too for the household ware, nos. 172-217 (pp. 275-293).

There are three appendices. Appendix I: Transport Amphoras dealt with in detail by Mark L. Lawell (pp. 295-326, cat. nos. A1-A 35). Most of these vessels are very fragmentary, but often enough remains to profile details such as the mouth, neck and handle, or the shape of the foot. Tables and charts also accompany this material. Appendix II: Volume Studies calculate how much each nearly complete vessel could hold. Appendix III: the skeletal remains of a human foot. These three sections are followed by a very comprehensive bibliography, general index, an index of catalogued objects and a deposit list.

A few observations:

P. 89, n. 104: re: cat. no. 93, ill. 7, fig. 90. The tondo of this cup Type C depicts an eight-spoked wheel. Lynch suggests the painter may be trying to depict ("unsuccessfully") both wheels of the chariot. I doubt this. Each example cited in footnote 104 is an eight-spoked wheel, but not an indication of each four-spoked wheel of the chariot, because there is just a single rim. Representations of chariots depicting both wheels are normally shown frontally or in three-quarter view wheeling round. In vase painting, the frontal chariot is known as early as 600 B.C.; the wheeling chariot comes in around 500 B.C.

P. 115: the hydria cited in n. 248 is now MMA 1988.11.3 and was published in Metropolitan Museum Journal 41, 2006, pp. 33-57; the chorus on the shoulder discussed by Lynch (p. 115) is on p. 35, fig. 2. The objects projecting from the headbands of some of these figures are not feathers, as Lynch suggests, because they do not have barbs or quills, but are plain. The identification that they are horse ears suggested by Green and Brijder seems more likely (pp. 38-39). What Lynch calls a quill is simply the base of the ear.

Pp. 126-127 and no. 4 (pp. 181-183, fig. 22) is identified as a stamnos. This shape is extremely rare in black-figure and is glazed on the inside (see B. Philippaki,The Attic Stamnos, (1967), p. 12, n. 2), which no. 4 is not (see fig. 22 e); thus it is probably a neck-amphora with a broad band of black glaze below the figures. See p. 183 for examples, also CVA MMA 4 (1976), pp. 50-54, pl. 43.

Pp. 131-134 and n. 35: for the psykter holding the wine and placed in the coolant, see also Agora XXIII, p. 21, n. 4. For wine and water being poured into a krater simultaneously, possibly a unique representation, see MMA 1997.493 d+e+f : Metropolitan Museum Journal 45, 2010, p. 23, fig. 3, p. 35, fig. 22.

This is an exemplary study, a very thorough, painstaking endeavor that enables the interested reader to gain valuable information about the household of an Athenian citizen (and his family) during the turbulent time of the Persian War and a bit beyond. It is a welcome glimpse into an aspect of the ancient Greek past that is often very elusive. In every way this splendid new book meets the high standards we have come to expect of Agora publications.


1.   See Susan I. Rotroff and John H. Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora [Hesperia, Suppl. XXV], Princeton, 1992.
2.   For a list of scenes depicting this repellent behavior, see CVA, The J. Paul Getty Museum 8 (1998), pp. 28- 29.

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