Online Review: Book

The Late MBA and LBA Pottery Horizons at Qatna: Innovation and Conservation in the Ceramic Tradition of a Regional Capital and the Implications for Second Millennium Syrian Chronology

Felix Höflmayer


By Marco Iamoni (Studi Archeologici su Qatna 2). Pp. 358, figs. 60, b&w pls. 71, tables 8. Forum Editrice, Udine 2012. €65. ISBN 978-88-8420-729-6 (paper).

The book under review publishes key ceramic evidence from the Syro-Italian excavations directed by Daniele Morandi Bonacossi at the Bronze Age site of Qatna in western Syria. Since 2005, the project has been working parallel to the Syro-German excavations directed by Peter Pfälzner. The ceramic material is of considerable importance for the pottery chronology of Syria and soon will be complemented by respective publications of the Syro-German team. Middle and Late Bronze Age pottery as well as connections with neighboring regions are currently being studied as Ph.D. projects by Tulip Abd el-Hay and Stephanie Döpper of the University of Tübingen.

While the Syro-Italian team focused on the remains of the second millennium (the Middle and Late Bronze Ages) and excavated in four areas (Operations H, J, K, and T), the present volume deals mainly with the pottery sequences from Operation J (which ranges, with a break between the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, from Early Bronze III to the end of the Iron Age), Operation K (the palace in the lower city of Qatna with main phases in Late Bronze I and Late Bronze II), and Operation T (the so-called eastern palace, with significant data for the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the beginning of the Late Bronze Age).

The book is divided into six main chapters plus the catalogue of the pottery discussed, presented on plates, with additional information such as stratigraphic unit, categorization of wares, forms, fabrics, and decoration arranged in tables.

Chapter 1 describes the geographical setting and historical background of central-western Syria, while chapter 2 provides an overview of Middle and Late Bronze Age pottery assemblages from central-western Syria, the upper Euphrates, and the Mediterranean Syrian coast. Southern Syria, Lebanon, and other sites in the southern Levant are only rarely considered, although Kamid el-Loz/Kumidi in the Beqaa, Tel Dan in the Huleh Valley, and Hazor in Galilee are considered for pottery parallels in the present study.

Chapters 3–5 deal with the situation at the site of Qatna proper. An overview of the respective sequences, discussing contexts and stratigraphy, is given in chapter 3, while general issues of the pottery database, its formal classification, and its fabrics are presented in chapter 4. Chapter 5 discusses the main pottery corpus and also presents parallels from various other sites. Unfortunately, the author does not always reference the most recent publications. For instance, although the Late Bronze Age pottery of Kamid el-Loz was recently published in a fundamental volume by Penner (Kamid el-Loz 19: Die Keramik der Spätbronzezeit [Wiesbaden 2006]), it is only rarely mentioned and referenced in the section about the pottery forms and their parallels. And for Tel Dan, one might additionally consider the recently published volume on the Late Bronze Age edited by Ben-Dov (Dan III: Avraham Biran Excavations 1966–1999. The Late Bronze Age [Jerusalem 2011]).

Unfortunately, the study relies heavily on traditional chronological terminology and does not present the evidence according to archaeological phases of the site of Qatna. As the author points out at the beginning of chapter 5, “the entire body of data was subdivided into two main assemblages corresponding to the periods that are the subject of this investigation” (97), and thus, first, the study presents open forms, closed forms, and bases/decorations for the Middle Bronze Age and afterward for the Late Bronze Age (108–39). This makes it difficult to follow certain developments through time; for instance, the issue of mineral vs. mineral-vegetal temper and how it changes over time is presented in two different graphs, one for the Middle Bronze Age and one for the Late Bronze Age, thus ripping apart the continuous sequence as evidenced in, for example, Operation J (figs. 5.10, 5.14).

The separation of the evidence into two different chronological sets is indeed a major drawback of the study. Why the author would have liked to “propose a third corpus corresponding to these phases that might have belonged to an intermediate period between the MBA and the LBA” (97) remains unclear. A much more useful approach might have been to present all the material according to the archaeological stratigraphy instead of first subdividing the pottery evidence into two distinct (chronological) parts and then considering introducing a third one in between. Yet even more troubling is the reason the author gives for not having inserted a third part: “this would have relied on the stratigraphic sequences and not on the existence of a precise archaeological phase with proper features in the ceramic horizon of the relative chronology of the Northern Levant” (97). Indeed, one would seriously hope that all pottery development discussed in this book is really based on stratigraphic sequences and hopefully not on any preconceived notions of “precise archaeological phases” and “proper features in the ceramic horizon” (97). It has to be stressed that only the precise stratigraphic evaluation and analysis can lead to a sound description of pottery development, which is obviously the aim of the book under review, and much potential is given away with this unnecessary clinging to the traditional phases instead of making the archaeological context and the stratigraphic sequence the starting point for any further analysis.

However, Iamoni makes a very good point about the problem of using the traditional chronological terminology both for political events and as descriptive terms for pottery development. He rightly states that “historical data sometimes generates edges or borders that do not correspond to real breaks or changes in the ceramic tradition” (163). Using chronological terminology for political history and development of material culture becomes especially problematic in the case of Ebla. Since the destruction of Ebla IIIB2 is considered to define the transition of the Middle to the Late Bronze Age, the author rightly asks if the Middle Bronze II phase would have continued if Ebla had not been destroyed (163). This is also a very important point for other fields; for example, in Egyptian archaeology, political terms are still used for the classification of pottery, although it is well known that so-called Second Intermediate Period pottery continues well into the 18th Dynasty (A. Seiler, Tradition & Wandel: Die Keramik als Spiegel der Kulturentwicklung Thebens in der Zweiten Zwischenzeit [Mainz 2005]).

In the concluding chapter (ch. 6), the author correctly points out that one should be cautious using Cypriot pottery as a marker for the Late Bronze Age, since this kind of imported pottery could be lacking at certain sites, especially in inland Syria, and one would have to assume that this imported pottery appears all over the eastern Mediterranean at the same time (162–63). Nevertheless, it would have been useful to include the imported wares in this book. While the author points out that “imported pottery is perhaps the most significant feature of Phase K12” (139), it is not discussed in the present book; instead, the reader is referred to a paper by Luciani (“The Late MB to Early LBA in Qatna with Special Emphasis on Decorated and Imported Pottery,” in M. Bietak and E. Czerny, eds., The Bronze Age in the Lebanon [Vienna 2008]), which is, however, only a preliminary report. Surely one would expect to find also a discussion about these wares, especially if the volume aims at discussing implications for second-millennium Syrian chronology.

It is very positive that the author tries to include scientific dating evidence that could be linked to material culture. Table 2.3 provides calibrated radiocarbon dates for Qatna, Tell Hadidi, El Qitar, Tell Sukas, and Umm el-Marra, and those for Qatna are also plotted on the INTCAL09 radiocarbon calibration curve on figure 3.4. However, the tables and graphs provided are unfortunately of little help, as they lack the lab numbers, most context information (stratigraphic phase), and archaeological date (according to current archaeological/historical terminology). Nevertheless, despite some methodological issues, the book is overall an important contribution to Middle and Late Bronze Age pottery studies for the northern Levant.

Felix Höflmayer
The Oriental Institute
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Book Review of The Late MBA and LBA Pottery Horizons at Qatna: Innovation and Conservation in the Ceramic Tradition of a Regional Capital and the Implications for Second Millennium Syrian Chronology, by Marco Iamoni
Reviewed by Felix Höflmayer
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2 (April 2014), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Hoflmayer

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