Online Review: Book

Transport Stirrup Jars of the Bronze Age Aegean and East Mediterranean

Andrea Vianello


By Halford W. Haskell, Richard E. Jones, Peter M. Day, and John T. Killen (Prehistory Monographs 33). Pp. xxix + 192, figs. 18, pls. 36, graphs 30, tables 30. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia 2011. $80. ISBN 978-1-931534-62-8 (cloth).

This clear and concise monograph publishes the results of a long-term research program on stirrup jars (hereafter SJs) carried out by the authors, expanding the results and discussions of previous articles (primarily H.W. Catling et al., “The Linear B Inscribed Stirrup Jars and West Crete,” BSA 75 [1980] 49–113) and publishes a substantial amount of analytical and scientific data. The volume is divided into 11 chapters (the last one being a catalogue), followed by the references, an appendix (a gazetteer of SJs found in eastern contexts), two concordance lists, an index of references to sampled pieces (a further concordance table), and a general index. The second half of the volume consists of tables, graphs, figures, and plates (including six color plates with 72 pictures of thin-sections, one for each fabric). The monograph focuses on a single ceramic shape—the coarse ware transport stirrup jar—with few mentions of other evidence, and the geographic focus is centered on Crete and mainland Greece. The result is an analytical volume with no room for speculations that is set to become a reference volume.

The jars were used extensively in the Late Bronze III Aegean world. Because of their connection with Aegean exchanges (these were utilitarian vessels employed to move goods along the exchange routes), they have been singled out early as an ideal test case for physicochemical analyses. The interest in this specific subject continues to acquire momentum, with significant specialist researches on inscribed jars (Y. Duhoux, “La fonction des vases à étrier inscrits en linéaire B,” Kadmos 49 [2011] 47–92), Levantine jars (D. Ben-Shlomo, E. Nodarou, and J.B. Rutter, “Transport Stirrup Jars from the Southern Levant: New Light on Commodity Exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean,” AJA 115 [2011] 329–53), and assemblages from Kommos (P.M. Day et al., “A World of Goods: Transport Jars and Commodity Exchange at the Late Bronze Age Harbor of Kommos, Crete,” Hesperia 80 [2011] 511–58) published at about the same time as this monograph.

The volume aims at “establishing the origins and distribution of transport SJs” (2) by determining provenance and mapping their context of deposition, and in so doing tracking movements. The volume publishes the results of an interdisciplinary research project integrating scientific analyses at its core. The methodology has much improved since previous publications, rebalancing the bias toward inscribed jars by including more uninscribed jars and widening the sampling to both the west (Italy) and east (esp. Cyprus), adding petrographic analyses, and attempting to address the issue of the reuse of some containers by focusing on stoppers to determine their function at the time of their final deposition. The analysis of SJ contents through organic residue analyses was excluded, but the authors acknowledge that it will provide occasions to expand our knowledge even further. Results of such analyses undertaken by other authors are summarized in the first chapter. Preliminary results recognize perfumed oil and probably wine as the commodities most frequently contained in SJs. Contents are of great importance for the study of these vessels because they did not seem to have the same instrinsic value as other Aegean fine wares. The integration of the systematic study of jars inscribed with Linear B also provides evidence for their use as containers of commodities produced in palatial workshops.

Haskell (ch. 2) categorizes SJs into typological groups based on the observations of ceramic features and decoration. Twenty-two such groups have been produced, but because SJs are coarse wares, the addition of four additional broader groups has been necessary. Haskell considers relative chronology but makes no correlations for most typological groups, though chapter 9 features an effective analysis of depositional contexts that reaches better conclusions.

In chapter 3, Jones and Day summarize the history of SJ analysis and methodology, and they candidly and clearly outline methodological issues in the research. In particular, they note a bias toward chemical analyses. It is rare to find a discussion of shortcomings in recent publications, and this chapter is the more commendable for demonstrating how excellent research does not need to reach “definitive” conclusions.

Jones (ch. 4) presents briefly the results of the chemical analyses, which have recognized three main groups, each a separate production area. Day’s petrographic analyses (ch. 5) have yielded 24 different fabrics, though only 15 fabrics have multiple vessels assigned to them. He recognizes two different broad modes of manufacture (a topic that should have been expanded) and concludes that most SJs have been produced in Crete (table 17). The Uluburun ceramics have mixed fabrics and provenances. Jones and Day (ch. 6) combine their analyses, confirming the Cretan provenance for most of them. They report that only a few contradictions have emerged between the two methods. The results are summarized in tables 19–29. Chapter 7 combines chemical, petrographic, and typological analyses, integrating all data thus far presented. Firm conclusions include the absence of inscribed transport SJs originating in mainland Greece, where only a few uninscribed jars were exported.

Killen thoroughly discusses Linear B inscriptions (and potters’ marks) in chapter 8. He provides a useful table in the text (fig. 8.1) but cannot overcome difficulties in explaining the purpose of the inscriptions.

Haskell, in the first half of chapter 9, assesses the chronology of SJs in a systematic gazetteer of sites ordered by geographic location, each one describing the general archaeological contexts where analyzed SJs have been found. The second half of the chapter discusses social and economic power. Shortcomings in the present knowledge continue to be stated. The discussion of west Crete is particularly balanced, and Haskell recognizes the crucial role of both Knossos and Kommos in central Crete. The discussion then focuses on trade in chapter 10. Both tramp ship merchants and gift exchanges remain possibilities for trade routes. Haskell discusses the role of palatial administrations in the use of SJs, recognizing the complex role of palaces. Cyprus was a major destination in that market. He proposes the possibility of Aegean settlers in the central Mediterranean, following some outdated publications, but at least the “highly complex commercial patterns between this area and the eastern Mediterranean” (129) are recognized. Furthermore, he proposes a direct trade route between Cyprus and the central Mediterranean, now supported by the Nuragic pottery found at Pyla-Kokkinokremos (V. Karageorghis and O. Kouka, eds., On Cooking Pots, Drinking Cups, Loomweights and Ethnicity in Bronze Age Cyprus and Neighbouring Regions [Nicosia 2011] 87–112). According to Haskell, the circulation of oil rather than wine may be one of the reasons for the expansion of the trade network to the west because of a peak in Cretan production. On the assumption that oil was the principal commodity traded, a broader overview of patterns across the whole Mediterranean is attempted in two pages, which present several key facts but cannot reach any solid conclusion because of the extreme complexity of trade that SJs alone cannot outline. The conclusions do not reach any preferred hypothesis, with multiple possibilities only mentioned.

The data-driven narrative and balanced presentation of different suggestions, which deliberately does not endorse any generalization or assumption that cannot be proven, is an asset to the book. The narrative, however, follows a layered approach, where the conclusions of each chapter ignore perspectives and data discussed in subsequent chapters. This approach helps in understanding the methodology employed but also results in multiple partial conclusions that may confuse readers. Recent bibliography is unaccounted for (some topics fare worse than others), and the catalogue contains some errors (e.g., Mycenaean materials moved in 1999 to Mycenae are still reported to be in Nauplion) that could have been addressed in a volume published in 2011.

This monograph is a significant contribution to Aegean (and Mediterranean) prehistory and is essential reading for specialists and anyone interested in Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade.

Andrea Vianello
19 May Road
Sheffield S6 4QF
United Kingdom

Book Review of Transport Stirrup Jars of the Bronze Age Aegean and East Mediterranean, by Halford W. Haskell, Richard E. Jones, Peter M. Day, and John T. Killen

Reviewed by Andrea Vianello

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Vianello

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