Online Review: Book

The Rhyton from Danilo: Structure and Symbolism of a Middle Neolithic Cult-Vessel

Omer Rak

116.4

Reviewed by Andrew M.T. Moore

Pp. xx + 212, figs. 40. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2011. $70. ISBN 978-1-84217-977-2 (cloth).


The beginning of ceramic manufacture in the eastern Adriatic, as elsewhere in the central and western Mediterranean, coincided with the start of the Neolithic. During the Early Neolithic, or Impressed Ware phase (ca. 8,000–7,500 b.p. [calibrated]), pottery vessels were made in a restricted range of shapes using simple techniques, in keeping with the inception of a new technology. These monochrome pots were decorated with incised or impressed designs. In the Middle Neolithic, or Danilo phase (ca. 7,500 to perhaps 6,700 b.p. [calibrated]), there was a significant change in pottery manufacture. A much wider range of shapes was created, and the decoration of these vessels was often rich and varied, with an array of incised designs, among them the characteristic spirals and application of red paint and white incrustation. The heartland of this culture complex was central Dalmatia in Croatia, where the typesite of Danilo Bitinj is located.

One of the most conspicuous vessels found in Danilo sites is the rhyton, a distinctive object with four legs that support a tilted bowl. The bowl is often topped with an open semicircle that looks like a handle. Fragments of rhytons are quite common finds in Danilo sites and are easy to recognize because of their distinctive shapes. These pots have attracted attention ever since they were first found around the middle of the last century. Most commentators have assumed that they were used in rituals and have only rarely examined them from a functional point of view.

In this book, Rak has written one of the most comprehensive studies of these enigmatic objects that has yet appeared. A journalist by training who comes from Šibenik, the nearest town in Croatia to the site of Danilo, he has developed an interest in the subject as an amateur archaeologist. Rak has read widely and thoughtfully in the archaeological literature, so that his discussions of the strictly archaeological aspects of his topic are well grounded. He has also explored other literatures, in anthropology, philosophy, mythology, and much else besides, and has applied a variety of perspectives derived from these sources to his subject.

This book is a translation into English of a text that was originally published in Croatian in 2008. It opens with a foreword by the respected Italian prehistorian Biagi. The first two chapters discuss the rhytons in their cultural context. These pages of the book will be of interest to students who seek a description of the discovery of the rhytons, their form, and distribution. While most common on Dalmatian Middle Neolithic sites, they have been found elsewhere in southeast Europe and in Italy. Beginning in chapter 3 and continuing through the rest of the book, Rak diverges from the archaeological data to embark on extensive reflections about the possible interpretations of the rhytons that draw heavily on his reading in other subjects and comparatively little from the archaeological evidence. The book concludes with a few surprisingly muted statements that do not in the end say very much about the rhytons or the spiritual world of Dalmatian Neolithic people, even though these are the main topics of the preceding discussion. There is an inclusive bibliography and a set of excellent photographs, mostly in color, of the rhytons themselves and a map of their distribution.

Early in the book, Rak reviews the interpretations that others have put forward for the rhytons and their possible meaning. He chooses not to explore the possible practical uses of these vessels but almost immediately adopts the view expressed by Korošec, who carried out extensive excavations at Danilo in the 1950s, that these were cult objects (J. Korošec, Neolitska naseobina u Danilu Bitinju: Rezultati istraživanja u 1953. godini [Ljubljana 1958–1959]). And here we see Rak’s preferred mode of analysis presented very clearly. He proceeds by quoting the views of a succession of authorities on archaeological, philosophical, and other topics and then adopts them uncritically. There is no attempt at a quantitative or systematic analysis of the rhytons, their form and decoration, nor a discussion of their contexts. Rather, the book consists of a qualitative discussion of an array of themes that Rak considers relevant for elucidating their meaning.

It is hard to discern for whom the book was written. Its subject matter is too abstruse for the general reader. Students will find parts of the book useful if only as a source of references and illustrations. Despite the generally favorable reception its publication has received in the archaeological community in Croatia, few international archaeologists are likely to embrace the perspectives outlined here in what is really an exercise in alternative archaeology.

Andrew M.T. Moore
Rochester Institute of Technology
New Castle, New Hampshire 03854-0902
ammgla@rit.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1164.Moore

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