Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Antonis Kotsonas (ed.), Understanding Standardization and Variation in Mediterranean Ceramics: Mid 2nd to late 1st millennium BC. Babesch supplements, 25. Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2014. Pp. vii, 196. ISBN 9789042930919. €87.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Patrick M. Thomas, University of Evansville (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Most of the papers published here were first presented at a session of the 16th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in 2010, although three were solicited by the editor from non-participants, with the explicit goal of broadening the scope of the volume. One of the strengths of this collection is in fact its broad chronological range, extending from the Middle Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period. Although most of the papers are connected in some way with Greek archaeology, two deal with non-Greek ceramics (Phoenician and Iberian), and two others focus on hybridized or peripheral wares (Mycenaean pottery in southern Italy and Anatolia, and the North Aegean G 2-3 ware). Some of the papers analyze large assemblages from a number of sites, while others examine smaller ones from particular sites; some authors are concerned primarily with issues relating to production, others to consumption/usage, and others examine both. Familiar metrological approaches are employed in a number of papers, but many of the contributors also (or instead) advocate other methodologies. In particular, the concept of the chaîne opératoire is appealed to in a number of papers concerning production. Most of the authors explicitly address the difficulties involved in defining standardization or of recognizing it in assemblages that may have been produced by many individuals over an extended period of time. Readers anticipating (or perhaps fearing) a great deal of complex statistical analysis will not find it here; all of the contributions should be understandable by anyone with a modest background in archaeological ceramics. All of the papers are in English, and the volume has been handsomely produced, with many high-quality illustrations and helpful charts and tables.

The volume begins with two papers by the editor, A. Kotsonas. The first briefly examines the history of standardization studies and outlines the papers presented in this volume. The second considers the question of what is meant by "standardization" and outlines some of the methodologies available for investigating it. Kotsonas perhaps belabors the point that standardization is a relative concept and that it is unreasonable to expect to find in ancient ceramics the kind of consistency observed in modern, mass-produced, industrial products, but his comments lay the groundwork for arguments developed in some of the papers, that items dissimilar in some of their attributes may be standardized in others. The combined bibliographies for these two papers will be useful for those trying to acquaint themselves with the range of standardization issues.

The contribution of J. Hilditch centers on an analysis of the manufacture of conical cups and ledge-rim bowls of Minoan style from Akrotiri on Thera. Production chaînes opératoires are established for locally made ledge-rim bowls, cooking pots, handled cups, and jugs during Phase C there. The ledge-rim bowl is the only local shape that shows evidence of the use of rotational kinetic energy from a potter's wheel. LC I conical cups from Thera likewise show evidence of the use of the potter's wheel, and Hilditch argues that the mode of manufacture was as important as the shape itself in establishing its "Minoanness."

A. Esposito and J. Zurbach examine locally produced Mycenaean pottery from Miletus and the region of Sybaris in Southern Italy. This provides case studies of how producers of a culturally exotic product interacted both with local consumers and indigenous manufacturing traditions. Their research has demonstrated that the "Anatolian" red-washed imitations of kylikes and carinated cups found at Miletus during LH IIIA2 were not in fact imported from inland Anatolian sites, but locally produced alongside normal Mycenaean pottery. There is no evidence from household deposits that these two styles are the result of "Anatolian" and "Mycenaean" consumers desiring differently decorated pottery. Within the plain of Sybaris, a complex interchange of Mycenaean technologies, shapes, and decoration, reflecting ongoing contact with the Aegean, and local preferences is seen.

J. Hruby considers standardization in the large assemblage of pots from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos. She observes that although much of the unpainted wheelmade pottery found in Rooms 18-22 was probably made by the same potter, based on both preserved fingerprints and consistency of production process, the pots exhibit an unexpectedly high degree of variation. Hruby believes that this is best explained by the potter working at high speed, as is indicated by corkscrew spiraling on interiors, warped rims, pre-firing defects such as tears, and slumping of lower bodies on open shapes.

Studies of standardization in Phoenician pottery are rare, so F.J. Núñez Calvo's contribution is especially welcome. He investigates cinerary urns and accompanying vessels from the cemetery of al-Bass at Tyre, dating from roughly 900 to 600 BC. Most graves included an amphoroid krater as an urn, along with jugs and drinking vessels. The author provides a metrological study of the amphoroid krater urns, concluding that they exhibit a relatively high degree of standardization, with coefficients of variation on different measurements raging between 10 and 15% over the entire time, although only Period IV provides enough examples to be considered on its own. Some of the tables in this paper are somewhat misleading in their apparent precision: percentages are often given down to hundredths of a percent, when the actual number of examples under consideration is less than one hundred and, in one case (Table 8b), only nine. The shades of gray used in some of the bar graphs to indicate different types or attributes are sometimes not easy to differentiate.

P. Ilieva considers G 2-3 ware, a pale fine ware typically decorated with lustrous brown or reddish brown paint and dating to the first half of the seventh century BC. It takes its odd name from the grid square at Troy where it was first identified in quantity, but it is widely distributed over the islands and coast of the northern Aegean. Ilieva argues that G 2-3 ware was probably made in many workshops in this area; its homogeneous appearance is the result of a similar chaîne opératoire in preparing the clay, employing a limited range of shapes and motifs, and in firing. Numerous peculiarities at individual sites argue strongly against the idea of production centralized at only a few places.

F. Pérez Lambán, J. Fanlo Loras, J.V. Picazo Milán, and J.M. Rodanés Vicente report on standardization in handmade pottery from houses at Cabezo de la Cruz in northeastern Spain, a site dating to the Iberian Early Iron Age, ca. 800-550 BC. The study focuses on conical plates and so-called "necked vases," small jars with a nearly vertical neck and very slight lip. The authors argue that households produced their own pottery, based on contrasting characteristics seen in vessels from different households. A potential problem here is that the number of vessels from houses other than House 7 is very small, although the observations of the authors are reasonable. The necked vases from House 7 exhibit small coefficients of variation in both height and rim diameter; the authors suggest that the smallest size of this shape is a base measure of volume (ca. 0.25 l), and larger examples occur in multiples of this number. The authors concede that additional research will be needed to ascertain whether this volume was a common measure in the region, but material from Cabezo Murrudo supports their tentative conclusion. The possibility that the necked vase was used for wine consumption is considered at the end of the paper.

V. Stissi explores some general perspectives on standardization, as applied to a range of Archaic through Hellenistic Greek pottery types. Stissi notes that Greek pottery was produced in a very uniform manner over much of the Greek world; similarly, households around any given time tended to acquire and use the same sorts of vessels. Although there seems to be good evidence that Greek potters were capable of making very highly standardized pots in terms of both shape and decoration, it does not appear that the creation of many identical copies was a goal. Greek consumers seem to have balanced considerations for a basically uniform set of vessel types with what happened to be in fashion within each type, but they do not seem to have valued sets of identical vessels within their households. Stissi observes that the avoidance of strict repetition is a common characteristic in much of Greek culture.

A. Smith focuses on the pelikai attributed to the Pan Painter, a red-figure Athenian mannerist of the Early Classical period. She reviews the formal characteristics employed to recognize the hand of this pot painter. Pelikai attributed to him fall into three different size groups, of which Smith is particularly interested in the smallest, since these exhibit a less controlled and more casual style than his other works. It is suggested that this might have been the result of the painter undertaking what amounts to a commission from a workshop for a set of similarly sized pelikai.

Also working within the same general time-frame, K. Volioti investigates differential sizes of so-called "Haimonian" Attic black-figured lekythoi of the Late Archaic and Early Classical periods, ca. 500-450 BC. By "Haimonian," the author is referring not only to vessels decorated by the Haimon Painter, but to a large group of similarly shaped and decorated lekythoi. Volioti employed 600 of the approximately 2000 known examples of this vase type for her study. The vessels were divided into three phases (early [35.5%], middle [37%], and late [27.5%]), using a shape typology advanced earlier by U. Knigge. The author discerns three basic sizes among these vessels, but only a medium and large size are very distinct within the first two phases, and a small and a medium size in the third phase. There is a very strong tendency for the height of the lekythoi to be around three times the maximum diameter, which is typically at the shoulder. The extreme fineness of the bins (0.1 cm) used by Volioti in her analysis and graphs is a concern. For a typical vessel of medium size, around 16 cm, this would be well under 1% of the height. The author obtained many of her dimensions from published sources, so there is a question of consistency and accuracy. Volioti acknowledges this, but it seems clear from her bar diagrams (especially Graphs 1 and 2) that some measurers were working at best only to the nearest 0.5 cm, as the extreme peaks on those intervals seem to indicate. Graphed as they are, her hypothesized sizes are visible, but one might also see a right-skewed normal distribution for the early and middle phases. Subjecting this data at least to a Shapiro-Wilk test for normality might be a good idea. Volioti's analysis also suggests that certain regions had preferences for differently sized lekythoi. She notes as well that there is no reason to believe the lekythoi were not functional vases, as has been sometimes suggested. In fact, a back-of-the-envelope calculation treating the body portions (usually about 60% of the total height) below the necks as a simple cylinder indicates that her three suggested height sizes (ca. 13, 16-17, and 19-20 cm) would yield effective capacities in an approximately 1:2:3 ratio.

The final paper, by C. Beestman-Kruyshaar, reports on variability within groups of late Classical and Hellenistic drinking vessels, especially kantharoi, from Halos in Thessaly. The author argues against allowing ideas concerning the Greek symposion to dominate interpretation of domestic assemblages. At Halos, based on the relative infrequency of plain or coarseware cups, Beestman-Kruyshaar argues that decorated fineware kantharoi were probably used in a variety of social contexts, and even for everyday use, not only formal occasions.

The strength of this collection of papers is the variety of approaches to different aspects of standardization and their application to quite different ceramic assemblages. Although some of the papers could be improved and extended in future work by the application of more complex statistical techniques or more justification of the ones employed, all of the authors provide thoughtful and reasonable analyses. Most ceramic specialists will find something of interest in this book.

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