Over the last few months there have been some ongoing ‘challenges’ which have allowed participants from all over the globe to contribute their favorite photos of objects, museums, archaeological sites, etc. The first one that I was only (regretfully) marginally aware of was #MuseumsUnlocked on Twitter.
I had seen people posting with the hashtag for weeks and it never even occurred to me that this could be something I could contribute to, because my mind has been stuck in a mindless scrolling loop since self-isolation began in mid-March. One of the days was even dedicated to ceramics! However, a solution finally materialized this week, the answer to all our ceramicist prayers.
Throughout the week, different people across Twitter have contributed images of their favorite pieces of pottery – from archaeological ceramics to homemade pottery and beyond. So many different research and general interests have been highlighted this week, like this before-and-after shot of a vessel that was reconstructed:
Or this black-slipped fragment of Central Gaulish ware:
My very first post of the week featured my proudest ceramic accomplishment – the very first pot I ever managed to attach a handle to, and it received a lot of heart-warming feedback.
This was my second time taking an introductory-level pottery-throwing course at a local pottery studio, and I managed to hone my skills a bit more than the first time around (although I had definitely gotten rusty in the year and a half that had elapsed between courses).
I hope that this is something that can be normalized (in addition to #MuseumsUnlocked) even once this COVID-19 pandemic has subsided and we can get on with our lives again.
Sure, people would probably just go back to posting their photos whenever they want, but it would be nice to have themed challenges like this (annually? biannually?) to bring out aspects of the ancient/museum/archaeological/pottery world that people would have otherwise overlooked.
Since this is the first installment of my Pot of the Week series, I thought I’d take a more thematic approach by choosing a few pots which represent a subject that I have been thinking about a lot lately – the goddess Hekate.
Although not especially prominent in ancient Greek mythology (unless you know where to look), most casual interlopers of the subject probably know Hekate best as a goddess of witchcraft and magic, and the crossroads. In vase painting, it has been common for scholars to identify her by her presence in certain mythological episodes – like the Return of Persephone or the Sending of Triptolemos – wielding a pair of torches.
Hekate is also variously depicted – particularly in other media – in particular dress (peplos), accompanied by dogs and snakes, and/or in triple-bodied form. But as we will see, identifying Hekate with certainty can be a difficult task, especially if we consider the overlap between her attributes and other areas of ancient Greek culture.
Perhaps the most popular and recognizable image of Hekate is one where she appears in triplicate. Such depictions vary over time and across space, representing her as either one woman with three heads and six arms or as three women encircling a column back-to-back.
Depictions of Hekate in triple-bodied form, however, post-date the Classical period of vase painting – the 5th and 4th centuries BCE – appearing more often in the Roman period and later. As a result, these depictions abound in other media, including in relief sculpture, sculpture in the round, on coinage, and on magical amulets made of precious materials.
Hekate rarely, if ever, appears with animals in vase painting. In other media, her animal companions – including dogs and snakes – are represented more frequently.
Hekate is traditionally identified as a youthful woman wearing a peplos (a long tubular garment that, when folded over, gave the appearance of two pieces of clothing).
However, in the depiction on a South Italian volute krater (above), Hekate has been identified as the woman on the right side of the vase, holding a single torch and wearing a chiton (could be short or long, worn by men or women, but made of a lighter fabric than the peplos).
Other deities, including Aphrodite and Dionysus, have also been identified as wearing the chiton in their depictions. Although neither of these deities are typically associated with torches, identification of Hekate on the basis of clothing alone is not sufficient.
You may have already noticed that, while the above vase is the same one that I included at the beginning of this post, the angle is different. Does it depict Hekate from a different angle, or is it someone else entirely? And if this is Hekate, then who is the person depicted on the other side of the vase?
Both women appear to be around the same age, have similar hairstyles, and wield two torches. They differ primarily in their clothing – in the first image, the woman is wearing what appears to be a peplos, while the second woman wears a long chiton which peaks out at the bottom of her himation or cloak.
According to Edwards (1986), Hekate is the first young woman, while the second one is “hierophantis, the priestess of Eleusis” (p. 316). This is based on an inscription that identifies Hekate on the vase.
So…how many attributes?
All in all, it is clearly difficult to identify Hekate based on her attributes alone when she is depicted in her single form (she is much more recognizable in her triple-bodied form).
Most often, we are not so lucky to be given labels on vases which identify the various figures depicted. We are forced to rely on attributes and context clues (such as a particular mythological scene, furniture, architecture, objects, etc).
One such example can be seen in the case of a skyphos found at Eleusis dating to 430 BCE which depicts the Rape of Persephone.
As Edwards has noted, although the “female figure wearing an ungirt peplos and a mantle around her arms” (p. 316) and holding what appears to be a scepter has traditionally be identified as Demeter, Demeter is not present at the time that Persephone is abducted. Instead, Edwards argues that this figure is Hekate, “a goddess of entrances and exits, of transition points” (p. 316). This is further corroborated by another vase painting on a pelike by the Painter of Tarquinia 707 depicting Hekate accompanying the chariot of Triptolemos, again holding two torches.
Edwards, C. 1986. “The Running Maiden From Eleusis and the Early Classical Image of Hekate,” AJA 90:3, 307-318.
For most people, pottery is everywhere, and because it is everywhere, it is uninteresting. Pottery crowds our household cupboards, the shelves in shops, the display cases of museums, the grounds of archaeological sites, and the stratigraphic layers of our excavations.
Because pottery is ubiquitous, it is seen as dispensable unless it can prove its worth by bearing an interesting inscription or an appealing image or design.
Just as in the field, in the – history, classics, archaeology, art history – classroom, pottery serves as a vehicle for discussion of relevant themes or textual sources, such as dramatic performance or daily life. No modules centered on pottery and what it can tell us exist, and I believe that this is the reason for a general lack of interest in the field.
The reason I decided to start this blog stems from my belief that pottery is important in archaeology and that it should be given more credit than it seems to have been given in the past. While architecture, inscriptions, metallurgy, and coins all contribute something important to the study of the ancient world, it is my hope that this blog will show just how much the study of ceramics can and continues to contribute to the field and our modern engagement with the ancient world.
In order to lend some support to this idea of what the study of pottery can contribute to the field of archaeology, I have to start by dispelling some of the myths surrounding this endeavor.
These myths are just a few of many which stand between current and future ceramicists (or pottery enthusiasts).
Myth #1: It’s Just About Dating
As early pioneers of pottery study have shown, archaeological ceramics can in fact be used for dating and forming typologies. However, this is not the only thing that pottery can be used for when considering ancient society. This has most recently been emphasized by Clare Burke et al. in an article:
[T]he integration of insights into provenance and technology are vital in the construction of two elements usually considered the domain of typology: the identification of cultural groups and areas , and the construction of basic chronologies . Provenance studies, especially the determination of specific locations of production, remind us that pottery is crafted in particular locations, by resident communities who themselves have social and commercial ties based on previous practice, kinship, alliances and reputation. Not only that, but the other side of these patterns tell of choices made by those who access and consume the pottery.
– Burke, C., Day, P.M., and A. Kossyva. 2020. “Early Helladic I and Talioti Pottery: Is It Just a Phase We’re Going through?”
As they point out, there are many questions that can be asked of pottery and even more things that pottery can tell us beyond creating typologies and constructing chronologies.
The field is consistently moving towards questions relating to human agency and human relationships, which yield, at least to me, much more interesting, insightful, and satisfying conclusions.
Myth #2: It’s Just About Connoisseurship
I think that everyone can agree that there is far more to studying pottery than trying to pinpoint the person (painter, potter) who commissioned it.
Most of the heavy lifting for connoisseurship studies of ancient pottery was done decades ago (notably by John Beazley, a British archaeologist who attributed the specific “hands” of ancient workshops and artists), leaving us free to focus on more fulfilling lines of inquiry, including, but not limited to, provenance, production, distribution, and iconography studies.
Myth #3: Only Decorated Pottery Is Important
While certainly more pleasing to the eye, decorate pottery is not the only pottery out there that’s worth anyone’s attention – and this is saying a lot, coming from someone whose research focuses on fine-ware pottery.
Some of my friends and colleagues specialize in undecorated pottery, which often features just as prominently in everyday life.
For example, an analysis of cookware would likely tell us more about ancient diet than would a finely decorated dining set. It might also provide insight into technological choices made by potters in the production process, since undecorated pottery is often coarser in fabric, preserving natural impurities in the clay matrix as well as added tempers which can easily be viewed under the microscope. Added tempers can further point to specific choices made by potters in the course of production.
Myth #4: Everything Worth Doing Has Already Been Done
Just like everything else in archaeology, there’s always more to do, more to be uncovered, more to study. Even if something has been studied before, this does not mean that it couldn’t stand to be looked at again, from a different perspective, using a different methodology.
Because pottery is so ubiquitous, pottery study is necessarily an endeavor governed by strict boundaries on objects of research. No one person can study every kind of pottery out there.
There will always be something that someone overlooked, that they thought wasn’t worth their time or effort, or that was out of the scope of their particular interests.
Therefore, there are plenty of ways to get in on the pottery action.
Myth #5: Only Specialists Can Study Pottery
While there is certainly a learning curve involved in picking up on some of the techniques that are involved in pottery analysis, this is true of most specialties in archaeology.
Sure, anyone can learn to dig a hole in the ground, but can you recognize a bone from a rock? Can you identify and date a coin? Can you set up and use a total station? All of these require some degree of instruction and years of practice, just like studying pottery does.
It took me years before I even realized I cared about pottery, and then a few more to get the hang of knowing how to properly wash, sort, and process it, let alone identify specific shapes and wares. Even now, having learned, I’m still a little rusty every summer after a year without practice.