Knowing how to draw artifacts – especially pottery, if you’re a ceramicist – is an essential skill that every serious archaeologist should have. This is just a fact.
But as far as I know, there aren’t really that many people who can produce quality artifact drawings in our field. In reality, it seems like such a skill is one that is both specialized and in high demand – field project directors often solicit help from students and colleagues in completing this task.
Moreover, the scarcity of the pottery drawing skill was brought to light by a Collaborative Archaeology Workgroup – a group for graduate students in classical archaeology and anthropological archaeology to come together and collaborate on theory and methodology – at my University a few years ago, when we organized a well-attended artifact drawing workshop. I attended the first session and did, in fact, learn the skill – but it’s really an art that requires a lot of practice (and patience).
No wonder so few people actually can do it and do it well.
It was only a few weeks ago, though, that I noticed on Instagram that someone had taken to applying this high-demand skill to something a little closer to home – that is, doing profile drawings of the beverages that archaeologists across the Mediterranean are most familiar with (mostly beers, but there was one homage to ‘ouzo hour’ which has been an institution at the American School for Classical Studies at Athens for ages).
I can’t tell you why this person decided to start doing profile drawings of the beers of the Mediterranean (as well as other varieties of alcoholic beverages, as seen on their website), but I think that it is a super creative and innovative way to maintain one of the many skills that we otherwise would be prone to losing after a summer without fieldwork.
In a similar vein, I saw that a friend on Twitter had been working on their ceramic conservation skills by putting together broken pieces of modern ceramics, which is another way to go about this.
This actually reminds me of a course I took on ceramics analysis, where one of the practicals we had to complete was to sort and quantify broken pieces of pottery that our professor had purchased from a thrift store and broken herself for the class.
Another friend, I realized, has been experimenting on a larger scale – he constructed an entire kiln at his house and has been experimenting with firing both pottery that he has made himself as well as with metallurgical techniques. It really is impressive, and makes me wish that it were possible to do things like that both at my leisure and in a classroom setting.
I haven’t been able to think as creatively as these people, although I had been flirting briefly with the idea of purchasing my own pottery wheel at the beginning of the lockdown. I talked myself out of it after seriously considering the lack of space in my apartment and the fact that I’d have no way of firing the pots that I managed to make.
The way I see it, you have two choices at this moment. Either you can continue to sit around and lament the fact that you almost certainly won’t be able to study any of the material you had been hoping to this summer because the United States can’t seem to get itself together (as I have been for the last four and a half months). Or you can be like the super cool people I mentioned above and find creative ways to hone your skills even from the comfort of your own home.
Draw profiles of some of your favorite beverages, or your favorite mug, or even the planters for all those plants you probably purchased during quarantine.
Buy a couple of cheap dishes, break them up, and either put them back together or practice your sorting and quantification skills.
Buy some clay and/or a pottery wheel and actually make some things to think about what you’re interested in a new way.
Or start a blog (like this one!) where you can think through different aspects of the field, and/or prominently display those experiments that you’ve attempted (as suggested above). We like to think that being forced to stay and work at home is totally isolating and limiting, but in reality we’re all more connected than ever and, in a lot of ways, have more time than ever to experiment. You just have to know where to start.
Now I know what you’re thinking – podcasts about pottery? How do you talk about pottery through a medium that is audio – not visual – by its very nature?
Well, I had the same thought. This idea arose a little over a month ago, after I attended a panel at the (virtual) annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) on public scholarship in Classics. One of the speakers’ talks was entirely about the merits of podcasts – they, like so many other forms of public scholarship, are often dismissed out of hand as “invalid” forms of scholarship, when in fact they require the same, if not a greater, amount of work and research as more “traditional” forms of scholarship (like manuscripts).
This discussion made me wonder about pottery’s place in these discussions. Indeed, it led me to start this blog about pottery and archaeology, since public scholarship on pottery is few and far between, but it also made me think about whether people had attempted to incorporate discussions of pottery into the vast world of podcasts about ancient history and archaeology.
In my search, I found a few podcast episodes which addressed the topic, but perhaps the most extensive treatment of ancient pottery has been (appropriately) on the Ancient Art Podcast. Essentially, the podcasts are done in video form, with an image of the topic of discussion accompanied by voice-over.
By and large, the podcasts dedicated to pottery on the Ancient Art Podcast focus on the iconography on the pots which are featured in several episodes, like “Dionysus and the Pirates” on the Dionysus Cup by Exekias.
Of the almost 10 minute episode, most of it is dedicated to a discussion of the broader mythological and literary background of the image seen on the cup; much less is about the cup itself (although there is a bit of shade-throwing at the name for this particular type of cup, an ‘eye-cup’, so named because it bears two large eyes on its exterior).
Something closer to my own interests as a ceramicist is an episode on “Black Figure vs Red Figure” where I had hoped there would be more focus on the techniques.
Indeed, there is a discussion of the technical differences between the black and red figure techniques, as well as the steps of the process, which I appreciate. However, much like the above episode, this episode was disorienting, because when speaking about decorative elements of a pot, you (as the listener) want to be looking at it and following along with what the speaker is pointing out.
I also thought that the choice of images in this particular was too arbitrary; if you’re going to choose representative examples of black- and red-figure pottery, I think you should talk about them specifically and at length. Maybe the episode would have worked better if each technique had been treated separately.
I don’t know, I’m not an expert in podcasting.
While I appreciate the attention that has been given to ancient pottery by the Ancient Art Podcast, I think that there are other things that I personally would like to “see” in a podcast on ancient pottery, based on other podcasts that I have listened to.
Here are just two ideas.
Interviews with specialists
Like archaeology as a whole, the study of ceramics is also broken down into specialties, because it would be impossible for one person to study it all.
Ceramic study ranges from different geographical regions (Central and South America, Greece, Italy/Rome, the Balkans, Egypt, Near East, and beyond), to different periods (Neolithic, Bronze Age, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and other culturally specific chronologies), to different methodologies (macroscopic study, fabric study, scientific analyses, ethnography, experimental archaeology).
Of course, subjects that foreground cultural topics (such as drinking and dining, religious practices, politics, economics, etc) and use pottery as supporting evidence are important, but I think that, like “traditional” scholarship, more work needs to be done just to highlight the pottery itself and the things that ceramicists do (a lot of which is super cool if I do say so myself).
Problematizing aspects of the field
This could be done through interviews or as just a discussion of different aspects of the field that have been contentious. One thing that comes to mind is the study of connoisseurship, which to me is not something that should be at the forefront of our studies anymore. While it is certainly important to try and get at the individual in these studies, I think that sometimes we have to decide where to draw the line, and what information that we collect is actually meaningful. For example, attempting to identify ‘hands’ based on stylistic patterns (in the manner of Beazley) is much less interesting or meaningful to me than the study of fingerprints found on fired ancient ceramics.
Other topics could be: pros and cons of invasive/destructive analyses, general best practices, collection and discard procedures, and more.
I think that if there were more podcasts that focused on these elements of the field then maybe discussions of pottery would “fit” better in the world of audio-focused scholarship. It doesn’t seem like this would be hard to do – lots of podcasts, like The History of Ancient Greece Podcast, are structured in similar ways to the things that I have suggested above, but by and large the focus is on aspects of ancient history, not archaeological or art historical topics.
Other pottery-themed episodes by Ancient Art Podcast:
People who know me in real life know that I am not a huge fan of vase painting or iconographic studies of pottery, although I did get my start with ceramic studies by analyzing the depiction of the persuasion of Helen of Troy in my senior year of undergrad. It is for this reason that this week’s (long overdue) Pot of the Week is yet another shape study.
Is it a bowl or a cup? This question has plagued me and, it seems a good chunk of the archaeological ceramics community, for years. No one can seem to agree on a single function for the shape.
On the one hand, Flint Dibble (2010) has championed the one-handler’s use as a bowl, stating that
“The vessel…seems to be a likely candidate for soup and/or stew eating. The single handle would have made it more portable and easier to carry hot contents. In addition the handle suggests the vessel’s ability to self-serve by doubling as a ladle or scoop” (p. 128)
In his conception, Dibble imagines the one-handler as being akin to the modern oversized mugs which are better suited for consuming liquid-based foods (like soups and stews) rather than drinking a warm beverage (like coffee or tea).
Other scholars have emphasized the one-handler’s aptitude for use as a drinking vessel. Sparkes and Talcott (1970) point to certain morphological characteristics of the shape, such as the rim.
“The rim, which is one of the distinguishing features of the shape, is broad on top, often rounded and slightly overhanging on the inside. The overhang has a particular purpose: it checks and guides the flow of the liquid. Practical experiments have proved the one-handler an excellent bowl to drink from…” (124)
Compared to other contemporary drinking shapes, such as the kantharos and the skyphos, the one-handler is unusual in its capacity for being an effective drinking cup because it lacks the symmetry of having a handle on each side. Nevertheless, Sparkes and Talcott’s observations about other aspects of the shape, like its rim, in addition to their experiments show that such a function would have been possible.
You may be asking yourself at this point: but which function is the more likely one? I would answer: does it matter? (The answer is yes)
Indeed, Sparkes and Talcott, although the experiments they reference confirmed the possible use of the one-handler as a drinking cup, go on to acknowledge that it would have also probably held “solids, porridge or gruel” (1970, 124). Similary, Kathleen Lynch has noted that assignment of function to vessels is largely up to the discretion of the researcher.
“The researcher must decide how a shape is used, decide what functional category is meaningful, and then assign each shape to a category. Several shapes have more than one function and thus rightly could belong in two or more categories…Different scholars may also place the same vessel shape in different functional categories” (2016, 48)
And indeed, in the case of the one-handler, scholars have disagreed about the primary function of the vessel in the ancient world.
I agree that it may have had any number of functions, just as I think that we too quickly assume that more well-studied vessels like skyphoi and kraters had only one function and one context of use.
Sparkes and Talcott’s publication serves largely to identify and describe a range of black and plain ware forms – less important is pinpointing the functions of the different forms. This is up to secondary researchers like Dibble, Lynch, and even me, whose categorization of these vessels is meant to be more definitive and serve their specific analyses.
For Dibble, it seems clear that he chose to categorize one-handlers as eating vessels largely because his study revolved around changes in diet in ancient Athens. By comparison, Lynch lists one-handlers among her counts of drinking vessels, perhaps because she is more interested in differentiating between private and public drinking events.
In light of my own study of sympotic assemblages, I think that I follow more closely Lynch’s categorization, since it would serve my study better to include one-handlers among drinking vessels – due to morphological reasons akin to Sparkes and Talcott’s assessment as well as the probability that they were multifunctional – rather than to exclude them on the possibility that they were more often used for eating than drinking (which cannot be proved without extensive usewear and starch analyses).
Dibble, W.F. 2010. The Archaeology of Food in Athens: The Development of an Athenian Urban Lifestyle.
Sparkes, B.A. and L. Talcott. 1970. Black and Plain Pottery of the 6th, 5th and 4th Centuries B.C. The Athenian Agora XII. 2 parts.
Lynch, K.M. 2016. “Can Pottery Help Distinguish a Brothel from a Tavern or House?”, in Houses of Ill Repute, eds. A. Glazebrook and B. Tsakirgis.
Overall, this episode is fantastic – as a super fan of Chrissy Teigen, her cookbooks, and her general no-nonsense and carefree approach to life, this should come as no surprise. but when one of my friends told me that the episode featured not only her, but her throwing pottery, I knew I had to see it.
What I love about this episode the most, though, is how it highlights not only the cultural importance of food, but also shows how traditional meals would have been (and continue to be) made.
At one point they come across a local food stall called Chez Lamine who roasts a whole lamb in a pit in the ground (which actually turns out to be a cave of over a dozen roasting lambs!), and are given fresh portions from it to eat shortly thereafter.
This is also shown during and after Chrissy’s brief stint in a traditional pottery workshop in Marrakesh, where she and Dave attempt to throw tagines on the wheel (Dave claims that making a tagine might be her calling after she gets excited about the prospect of making one herself). The tagine is “not a dish, but actually the vessel…it’s a whole genre of cooking.” (in the words of Dave Chang)
For anyone who’s ever been a beginner at throwing pottery on the wheel, the scene is totally relatable – it shows just how difficult the practice is, and also highlights the immense skill that traditional potters of Marrakesh exhibit in their craft – in the show, when they ask a potter about how many they typically make in a day, he replies that the number is around 120-140!
This is why I think it’s important to document and highlight these moments – to show that pottery (and its production) is not unimportant, and that it’s being depicted right under our noses everyday. Perhaps seeing our favorite celebrities engaging with the craft will make pottery more palatable, and potentially more interesting, for our friends, families, and colleagues down the road.
Over the past few weeks, as my feeling of being overwhelmed by stress surrounding COVID-19 and the protests for racial justice mounted, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the state of the fields of Classics and Classical Archaeology in relation to current events.
In not wanting my newly minted pottery blog to fall to the wayside, I have tried to think of ways in which pottery and discussions of race and ethnicity might intersect, and the first thing that came to mind was this vase-type – the ancient Greek plastic vase depicting a “Greek” on one side and a decidedly “non-Greek” on the other. This made me start to wonder about how we talk about (or don’t talk about) race in the Classics classroom, particularly when it comes to images like this one.
The topic of “diversity” in the Graeco-Roman world is not a new one (see here, here, here, and here), and indeed it has been met with a mix of responses over the past few years. The debate needn’t be rehashed here, but I think that this particular moment in time is a good one in which to reflect on our relationship – as art historians, as classicists, as ceramicists – with diverse populations in the ancient world, and how that relationship is translated into the makeup of our departments, our institutions, and our field.
Even the most casual reader of ancient texts will find discussion of what we today call race and ethnicity in a wide range of ancient authors — from Homer and Hesiod to Herodotus and Hippocrates, from Aeschylus to Ctesias, Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Pliny, Livy, Sallust, Horace, Ovid and more. Further, any trip to a museum yields ample images that further display the Greek and Roman interest in and engagement with human diversity. And yet, we still hear the refrain that wanting to study or teach race and ethnicity is a part of a “social justice” political agenda because the ancient Greeks and Romans had no words that are exactly equivalent to our modern concepts of race or ethnicity — which is not, in fact, true.
But where some scholars have made genuine efforts to diversify their lesson plans, departments, and institutions, others have done much less, merely scratching the surface of a problem with a long, racist history. In most cases, the efforts of Classics departments have been focused on how to make classes more diverse by introducing subject matter that might “appeal” to students of color.
But as a woman (and student) of color, I have never been drawn to Classics because of a course on “Slavery in Antiquity” or “Greeks and Barbarians,” two topics that I find more alienating that intriguing. Indeed, as Sarah Derbew has succinctly pointed out, such courses rarely challenge the “preconceived notions of Black people [and other PoC that] are seared into our country’s collective consciousness.”
Potential solutions to this perpetual problem have been suggested in greater numbers over the past few weeks, with this Eidolon article by Pria Jackson gaining the most traction. In her article she advocates for systemic and ongoing change to the discipline, to how we teach and transform our departments. She also insists that we start the conversations about Classics’ long, white supremacist history early because:
It is these students who go out into the world and spread Classics culture. Their half-forgotten memories of lessons from that one Classics course they took back in college which they bring up over drinks with friends, or during a brainstorm session at work, or while watching the latest historical drama on Netflix will quite frankly do far more to change the Classics’ culture than a paywall blocked, 25-page JSTOR article on the reanalysis of Ethiopian motifs in Herodotus.
However, while her calls for mandatory collaborative interdisciplinary “discussions” seems well meaning, it isn’t enough. In recent weeks I have seen and attended too many “conversations” and town halls centered around “discussions” about racial injustice and how to enact change. There hasn’t been enough meaningful work at the departmental or institutional level beyond putting heads together to think about how to lure students of color into their classes (newsflash: you can’t).
I think that the real solution is three-fold.
First, we need to recognize and showcase the work that has been done by scholars of color in the field.
The listof digitalresources surrounding the works of scholars of color has been growing exponentially over the past few weeks, so this is a good place to start for anyone considering how to rethink courses that already exist, or how to create new ones. But these lists are only one part of this initiative.
We should also highlight ongoing work by scholars of color in the subfields of Classics, like archaeology and art history, so that students can “see themselves” in the work they want to do. This, I think, would be an important step in moving away from Classics’ white supremacist history and reputation.
Second, we need to provide students of color with real opportunities and resources to help them get involved.
In a recent tweet, a glaring issue in archaeological field schools was highlighted: they are inherently exclusionary because of the enormous financial burden it places on students wanting (or needing to) participate in field schools.
Believing that you can’t afford to do something like a field school is a surefire way to get students of color – or really anyone – to give up on continuing in the field. I know that I would not have been able to participate in the digs that I did in undergrad if I hadn’t been given scholarships to do so.
Finally, returning to the question of race and ethnicity in the ancient world, particularly in the case of the plastic vases (and other vase paintings) depicting glaringly non-Greek features, we need to think critically and carefully about what we want our students to get out of the experience.
We shouldn’t have students walk away thinking “Oh, the Greeks were racist,” because the choices made by potter and painter may have been influenced by any number of opinions and experiences that we might not be able to access today.
Indeed, Sarah Derbew explains that:
Ancient Greece’s visual heritage included representations of black people that nimbly provoked and cut across hierarchies. Objects like the sixth-century BCE head-shaped pitcher and water jar…above were not part of any chromatic hierarchy because such categories had yet to be codified. Instead, they existed within their own historical and artistic context.
We should have students interrogate these factors, as well as think more broadly about the uniqueness of the object (Why don’t we see these vessels very often? What choices are made in descriptions for these vessels in museums? What assumptions are made about the identities of the faces and the intentions of the makers?) and what sorts of images are more often used in white supremacist propaganda and why.
The possibilities are endless, and I can appreciate that this may be part of the reason why scholars who have been set in their ways for decades are wary about changing along with the times. But this is important work, and it’s work that can’t just be done once and over with.
As Pria Jackson so importantly states,
The first step towards making a qualifiable difference in Classics…would be to yank the chair out from underneath Whiteness. Start teaching an anti-white supremacist, anti-racist Classics curriculum! Today! And tomorrow! And next week. And forever.
Selected Further Reading
Barrett, C.E. Egypt in Roman Visual and Material Culture. Oxford Handbooks Online. 2017.
Battle-Baptiste, Whitney. 2011. Black Feminist Archaeology. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press.
Bindman, D., H. Gates Jr, and K. Dalton, eds. 2010. The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the Pharoahs to the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vols. 1 and 2. Harvard University Press.
Gaither, Paula. 2019. Blacks in Context: An Analysis of Aethiopians in Roman Art. MPhil Thesis. https://www.academia.edu/43349980/Blacks_in_Context_An_Analysis_of_Aethiopians_in_Roman_Art
Rankine, Patrice D. “The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship.” American Journal of Philology 140, no. 2 (2019): 345-359. doi:10.1353/ajp.2019.0018.
Salmon, P. 1994 “L’Image du Noir dans l’Antiquité Gréco-Romaine.” In Emmigrazione e Immigrazione nel Mondo Antico, edited by M. Sordi, 283-302. Milano: Pubblicazioni dell’ Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Contributi dell’Instituto di storia antica, vol. 20).
Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1970), Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Snowden, Jr. Frank M. (1983), Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
If you, like me, watched this video clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live! At Home wanting to know more about Seth Rogen’s not-so-recent hobby, you’ll know just how I disappointed I was by how little time (<5 minutes) was spent discussing it.
The phenomenon of celebrities making ceramics is not a new one – among the other celebrities that have been recognized as pottery enthusiasts are James Franco, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio. However, I don’t think it’s been talked about enough.
Or maybe it has, and I missed it, despite being glued to my computer and phone for the past three months.
Either way, I thought it would be a fun idea to do a roundup of Seth Rogen and his pottery for those of us who haven’t been keeping up with the celebrity news. I am also partially motivated by a need for other people to be as jealous as I am that he has not one but three pottery wheels and a kiln at his house! Oh, to be rich.
Here’s an older video of Rogen talking about his hobby:
And here are some photos of his work taken from his Instagram:
Their kiln is named “Brad Pitt.” No big deal.
Even though there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about a celebrity making pottery, seeing Seth Rogen’s work both warms my heart and breaks it. It warms it because it has a sort of humanizing effect for a celebrity to be doing something that even I could do; it breaks it because I now know that he has been able to dedicate time and energy (and money) into his craft and now he is producing far, far better pots than I ever will. Alas.
This week’s Pot of the Week is yet again not necessarily a single pot, but a collection. However, they all share one characteristic – they are all dinoi, a particular (and peculiar) shape of ancient Greek vase that was popular at symposia, or all-male drinking parties.
The dinos itself was a peculiar shape in the Greek repertoire because it consisted of two parts: a large bowl and a tall moulded foot or stand.
It was particularly designed for use at elaborate banquets and drinking parties, and like the standalone krater, it was used for mixing and serving wine. Wine would be ladled out into individual cups, like the kylix from which the central figure is drinking while reclining on a cushion (above). The use of the dinos in this capacity can be traced as early as the late 6th century.
The dinos above, on which we have the words ‘Sophilos painted me’ inscribed, is significant because it is an excellent example of black-figure, Corinthian style vase painting, and it depicts the wedding procession of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of the hero Achilles.
Evidence for the use of a stand in combination with the large bowl can be seen in the fact that the rounded bottom likely would not have been able to stand on its own. Additionally, one can see that the painter was careful to leave a portion of the bottom of the bowl undecorated, so that it would not be obscured or damaged by the stand.
Few “footed dinoi” have been identified, but it seems like this was a much later innovation.
A further connection to the use of the dinos to serving wine at Greek drinking parties can be found in the choice of decoration, particularly on the inside of the vessel, as can be seen in this black-figure dinos from the Getty.
It has been suggested that the inclusion of the ships on the interior of the rim on this dinos was done with the intention of making the ships appear to be bobbing on a “sea” of wine when the vessel was full. While we may never know if this was the painter’s attempt at a joke or if the owner had it commissioned this way, such visual humor can be found in other media throughout the Greek world.
Perhaps the most obvious place to find a similar analogy is in Homer, where he makes reference to a “wine-dark sea” on more than one occasion.
Another relationship between wine and the sea has been identified by Hallie Franks in the space of the symposium itself – the andron or formal dining room, which was often decorated with painted walls and mosaics. The focus of Franks’ research is the mosaic floors of andrones, which she argues can tell us about how Greeks interacted with one another within the space of the symposium.
The Eretria Nereid, shown without the company of her sisters or the figure of Achilles, presents a “quotation” of the full narrative, introducing to those entering Room 9 the notion of travel over the sea—a theme underlined by the border of waves surrounding her. It is also worth noting that she is also a protector of sailors.
Franks goes on to draw parallels between the experiences of seafarers and symposiasts:
Furthermore, in ancient Greek culture, sea journeys had a deep association with the symposium. Both activities, after all, depend on communal identity: like the crew of a ship, symposiasts are a company of men who are isolated within a contained space and who enter into solidarity with one another. Added to this is the popular appeal of their similar physical effects, which might include swaying, loss of balance, and nausea.
Like the physical effects experienced by seafarers and symposiasts alike, symposiasts who gathered around the dinos depicting the ships on the inside of the rim would likely be reminded of sea journeys by the “swaying” of the ships on the “sea” of wine. And if it wasn’t immediately obvious, it would certainly become more so after a few drinks.
Franks, H. 2014. “Traveling, in Theory: Movement as Metaphor in the Ancient Greek Andron,” The Art Bulletin 96:2.
Franks, H. 2018. The World Underfoot: Mosaics and Metaphor in the Greek Symposium. Oxford.
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.