Pot of the Week #4: What Do You Call a Vessel with One Handle?

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

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).

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

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).

Bibliography

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.