Friday, August 4, 2017


Nina Fenn, Späthellenistische und frühkaiserzeitliche Keramik aus Priene: Untersuchungen zu Herkunft und Produktion. Priene 4. Archäologische Forschungen 35. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2016. Pp. 624; 122 plates. ISBN 9783954900954. €98.00.

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University in Saint Louis (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Priene has been central to the study of Hellenistic and Early Roman pottery ever since the appearance of Robert Zahn's classic chapter ("Tongeschirr") in the publication of the site's 19th-century excavations.1 The combination of good preservation, generous illustration, and Zahn's exhaustive commentary made Priene a touchstone, and the work is still frequently cited today. Zahn lacked, however, the perspective and scientific tools that are now available and which have enabled Nina Fenn to make significant strides in her exemplary publication of pottery from renewed excavations at the site. Beginning in 1998, those excavations have brought to light a wealth of new ceramic material, recovered and recorded according to modern standards of stratigraphy and quantification. This forms the basis for Fenn's book (a lightly reworked version of her dissertation), which, using the evidence of context and of an extensive program of scientific analysis, puts the study of ceramic production and imports to the city on an entirely new footing.

Fenn publishes two large and rich contexts: construction fill in the easternmost end of the South Stoa of the precinct of the Athena Temple (Komplex A), and leveling fills over Insula E5 in the northwestern residential quarter of the city (Komplex B). Neither is a closed deposit in the strictest sense of the term, but they are free of later intrusion, and each presents a homogenous and consistent collection of shapes and wares. Although external evidence of date, such as coins, stamped amphoras, or historical events, is absent, the wide variety of well-studied ceramic types in each complex forms a secure basis for establishing both a date of deposit and the likely range of the material. Komplex A was laid down around the middle of the 1st century and contains material dating to the late 2nd century and the first half of the 1st century BCE. Komplex B overlaps it, but was deposited later, around the turn of the era. The two contexts thus offer rich material for the analysis of ceramic change in Priene in the course of the 1st century. This is a crucial period, which saw the transition from Hellenistic to Roman forms in the ceramic assemblage, yet one that is still poorly understood due to a dearth of dated contexts, a gap that this publication goes far toward filling.

The book is divided into three sections. Parts A and B present the contents of the two deposits; Part C is devoted to the chemical analysis carried out in conjunction with the study. Two brief appendices describe the sampling of material from other contexts at Priene and from Miletos. A third and longer one, by Roman Sauer, details the results of petrographic analysis of a representative sample of analyzed pottery and raw material, enabling fuller descriptions of the fabrics in question. A full catalogue follows, including pottery from the two main contexts (472 items from Komplex A, 384 from Komplex B), as well as 29 samples from elsewhere on the site and 21 from Miletos, added to supply fuller reference material for the scientific analyses. Introductory sections summarize the position and history of Priene and of the study of its pottery and define the goals of the work. The nature of the deposits, fills containing fragmentary material and covering long periods of time, puts the development of a fine chrono-typology out of reach. Fenn aims instead to characterize the local production of the city and to identify imports, and furthermore to explore the relationship between local and imported ceramics; in short, to come to an understanding of the changing ceramic landscape of Priene in the 1st century BCE.

The pottery from each deposit is presented according to the usual categories: fine ware, then plain wares (household pottery, transport amphoras, cooking wares), then lamps, and finally rooftiles, included because of their importance as reference material for the local clay. The fine pottery is divided between "Sonderwaren"—well-known ceramic types such as moldmade bowls, West Slope, white-ground, gray, and thin-walled wares, and the eastern sigillatas (ESA, ESB, Pergamene)—and the plainer glazed ("color-coated") wares that make up the majority of the tableware of the period, then subdivided by shape within each ware. More unusually, local and imported items are grouped together within each shape study, an ordering that facilitates discussion of the relationship between imports, local variants, and local creations. Each subdivision includes an introduction to the ware or shape, followed by detailed discussion of the catalogued examples and comparative material; major points are conveniently summarized at the end. The degree of detail can be overwhelming, but the main results can be appreciated in the concise summary that concludes parts A and B (pp. 185-193).

Instead of contenting herself with archaeometric appendices, in Part C Fenn addresses the methodology and results of the extensive program of analysis (chiefly WD-XRF) that formed part of her study, presenting them in language that is highly accessible, even if inevitably technical. Her discussion of the identification or acquisition of appropriate reference material and the pitfalls involved in interpretation are particularly enlightening. A variety of different analytical techniques have been applied to the pottery of the region over the years, and the degree to which comparisons can be made between the resulting data and those that emerged from the present analysis is a serious question. The sad history of extensive sampling programs that never received adequate publication (or any publication at all) and the consequent hesitation of excavation directors to make more material available for analysis makes for sobering reading. Fenn's own study testifies in spades, however, that the marrying of archaeological and archaeometric anaysis is not only useful, but essential if we are to make any real progress towards the understanding of ceramic assemblages and industries. The well-trained human eye—the tool most frequently used to assign an origin to a potsherd—is shown time and time again to be a highly imperfect instrument. Pieces at first assigned to Miletus on the basis of the pale clay and the quality of the gloss turn out to be local products (p. 214); moldmade bowls allotted to Priene because of their inferior quality turn out to be Ephesian imports (p. 219). We cannot test every sherd, but the larger the sample and more thoughtful and well informed the research plan, the fewer errors of attribution we will make. Fenn provides full accounts of the defining chemical elements of each ware, a history of its analysis, and includes a table of the complete results of the WR-XRF analysis, thereby expanding the body of available comparative data.

Fenn was able to establish the existence of an extensive local production, despite the fact that no kilns or production waste have so far been found at Priene. The clay beds available to 1st-century potters lie deep under the alluvial deposits of the Meander. Extensive coring produced material for analysis, but the results did not provide close matches to the ceramics. It was possible to identify a local ceramic fingerprint, however, on the basis of a mold for a relief bowl with motifs that are well-documented locally, medicine bottles stamped with the head of Athena, construction material (roof and water tiles), and samples of the abundant and consistent color-coated wares. A clear picture of 1st-century production emerges, illustrated not only by the extensive profiles (almost every sherd was drawn), but also by three color plates, well chosen to communicate the visual impact of the ware. It is a shame that Priene did not export her products; they can now easily be recognized on the basis of Fenn's work.

Considerable numbers of imports were identified on the basis of style, then confirmed by selective analysis. Most imports come from the immediate region (Ephesos, Knidos, Tralleis), but many also from Pergamon and Phocaea further afield. Other than the ESA of northern Syria, which makes a modest showing with 33 items, extraregional imports are rare: a single piece of Egyptian faience, one fragment of western sigillata, a few Italian amphoras. A single Attic import (A139) is residual, dating around the middle of the 4th century (somewhat earlier than Fenn places it). A fascinating and fluid picture of interplay between homemade and imported pottery emerges here. Imports play a large role in Komplex A, a much reduced one in Komplex B. For example, nearly half of the cooking pottery in Komplex A was imported, mostly from Phocaea. In Komplex B, however, two-thirds of the cooking pottery was locally produced, often copying Phocaean forms. Similarly, among the fine ware, imports from Ephesos and in smaller numbers from Knidos and Pergamon account for over 30% of the tableware of Komplex A, while in Komplex B 90% of the tableware is local, again with numerous local variants based on imported models. It is clear that the local industry expanded in the second half of the 1st century to fill more and more of the ceramic needs of Priene's inhabitants.

Chemical analysis has enabled the recognition of several unexpected local productions. Fenn has discovered that potters at both Priene and Ephesos made their own versions of the Knidian cup. Clear formal differences between the Knidian and Prienian products will make the distinction between them easy in the future. Thin-walled ware, modeled on the products of northern Italy, is relatively well represented in in Komplex B, at 12% of the Sonderwaren, the highest percentage after gray wares. Italian imports were reaching the Eastern Mediterranean by the middle of the 2nd century, and some of the pieces at Priene may come from Italy. It has long been realized, however, that much of the thin-walled ware found in the Eastern Mediterranean was produced there, although up to now none of these industries have been definitively localized. Fenn has now established the existence of a center at Priene producing moldmade cups on the model of the Italian Aco-cups. Priene's potters also made their own versions of Ephesian moldmade bowls, Pergamene sigillata and appliqué ware, Ionian platters, and braziers, in addition to the cooking pots of Phocaean type mentioned above. Much of this local creativity would have gone unrecognized, or at least unconfirmed, without the benefit of archaeometric analysis.

Fenn's study also makes a contribution to current discussions of the early development of Eastern Sigillata B. Many years ago, Philippe Bruneau drew attention to a small collection of vessels on Delos that exhibit traditional Hellenistic forms but are made of a fabric visually identical to that of Eastern Sigillata B.2 He postulated that they were Hellenistic forerunners of the Roman ware, a thesis that was generally accepted, but WD-XRF analysis recently revealed that their fabric differs significantly from that of ESB.3 Now, however, two vessels of Hellenistic forms but apparent ESB fabric from Komplex A at Priene prove indeed to share the chemical composition of ESB (pp. 53-54), reviving the thesis that ESB represents not a wholly new ceramic type, but rather a "romanized" version of a pre-existing Hellenistic industry. The small collection of fragments from Komplex B enlarge the early shape repertoire of standard ESB.

The instances above are just a few of the certainties that this study has established, and together they constitute a major step towards a reconstruction of Priene's economic history during the period in question. This, however, Fenn explicitly leaves to others, and given the monumentality of the task she has completed, one can hardly fault her. The publication is sure to become a standard reference for the study of late Hellenistic and Early Roman pottery; let us hope that it will also become a model.


1.   T. Wiegand and H. Schrader, Priene: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen und Untersuchungen in den Jahren 1895-1898, Berlin: Reimer 1904, pp. 394-468.
2.   Bruneau et al., L'îlot de la Maison des comédiens, Exploration archéologique de Délos XXVII, Paris 1970, p. 247, pl. 42, fig. 126.
3.   M. Daszkiewicz and G. Schneider, "Laboratory Analysis of So-called Pergamenian Sigillata from Delos, Greece, Études et travaux 24, 2011, p. 83; H. Meyza and A. Peignard-Giros, "The Sigillata of Delos Greece Archaeological Report," Études et travaux, 24, 2011, pp. 127-128.

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