Where does pottery fit in the world of podcasts?

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.

Dionysus and the Pirates, the Dionysus Cup by Exekias (90 ...
Dionysus Cup, attributed to 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).

Dionysus and the Pirates, the Dionysus Cup by Exekias (90 ...
Dionysus Cup, attributed to Exekias.

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:

Pot of the Week #1: How Many Attributes Make a Depiction of Hekate?

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.

Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.
Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.

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.

Triple-Bodied Form

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.

Animals

Hekate rarely, if ever, appears with animals in vase painting. In other media, her animal companions – including dogs and snakes – are represented more frequently.

Clothing

South Italian volute krater depicting the Rape of Persephone. 370-350 BC. The British Museum.
South Italian volute krater depicting the Rape of Persephone. 370-350 BC. The British Museum.

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).

Caryatid - Wikipedia
Caryatids wearing peploi on the South porch of the Erechtheion, Athenian Acropolis.

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.

Torches

Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.
Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.

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.

Bibliography

Edwards, C. 1986. “The Running Maiden From Eleusis and the Early Classical Image of Hekate,” AJA 90:3, 307-318.