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Pithoi: Technology and History of Storage Vessels Through the Ages

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Pithoi: Technology and History of Storage Vessels Through the Ages

By Mimika Giannopoulou (BAR-IS 2140). Pp. 296, figs. 51, pls. 279. Archaeopress, Oxford 2011. £60. ISBN 978-1-4073-0681-0 (paper).

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Although considered of marginal scholarly interest for many decades, coarse ware has received much attention lately. It is now widely acknowledged that coarse ware contributes to the investigation of political, economic, and ideological parameters in a given cultural setting. The study of pithoi (large storage jars), in particular, a quite distinct coarse ware shape, may shed light on patterns of pottery production and distribution as well as on the reconstruction of storage behaviors and economic practices. The book reviewed here is intended as an ethnoarchaeological study on the potting technology of pithoi in Greece and Cyprus. Its temporal span extends from the Neolithic to the modern age (6500 B.C.E.–20th century C.E.). The author discusses the relevant issues, drawing information from the literature and the results of her archaeological and ethnographic project in the area of Messenia, southwest Peloponnese.

The book is divided into five chapters plus three appendices. It opens with an introduction (ch. 1) that presents the theoretical and methodological framework adopted, the history of past research, and introductory remarks on the two case studies. The next chapter focuses on selected pithos assemblages, discussing their morphological, technological, and functional attributes. Starting with a brief introduction to the practice of storage and the use of pithoi for this purpose—both issues could have been developed more extensively—the chapter focuses on the presentation of data from key prehistoric, historic, and modern sites. The coverage is impressive in its breadth; it must, however, be noted that the discussion of a few assemblages (the assemblage of pithoi from the palace of Knossos is the most prominent example) is not up-to-date in light of new published research.

The third and the fourth chapters form the core of the book. In chapter 3, the author examines issues concerning the manufacture of storage containers and the organization of production. The discussion is exemplary, based on a solid theoretical framework mostly inspired by the works of Dean E. Arnold, Prudence M. Rice, and Cathy L. Costin. The reader has the opportunity to gain an in-depth understanding of all the processes associated with pithos production and how those processes have developed over time from the Neolithic to the present day. Archaeological data, however, is not always adequate. For example, in the macroscopic commentary on the clay fabrics of pithoi dated to the historic period, the author briefly discusses only 11 cases, while in the discussion of forming techniques, she does not discuss assemblages of pithoi from Bronze Age Crete at all. In my view, these sections required more extensive coverage. The ethnographic survey is nevertheless detailed, with a particularly interesting comparison of the four forming techniques described here with corresponding examples from other cultural contexts around the world.

The fourth chapter discusses the archaeological and ethnographic study cases. The first is concerned with the production of pithoi in ancient Messene. The assemblage studied here comprises all the pithos material, 63 sherds and a partly preserved specimen, excavated in 1999–2001 and dated to the Hellenistic period. Thirty-eight of these sherds were subjected to petrographic analyses carried out by Kiriatzi at the Fitch Laboratory of the British School at Athens and presented in appendices A–C. Pithoi were produced locally, while the paste and firing technology suggest that all the vessels were the output of professional potting groups specializing in the production of storage containers. Although the methodological approach adopted here and the discussion that follows are thorough, the quantitative and qualitative constraints of such a limited and fragmentary body of data prevent us from forming a full picture of the production and use of pithoi in Hellenistic Messene. It would have been more fruitful if Giannopoulou, lacking more data from Messene, had included information from other Hellenistic sites of the Messenian region, leading to a better understanding of patterns of process in pithos production.

The ethnographic study concerns the production and distribution of storage containers in the region of Messenia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Messenian pottery production has been the subject of high ethnohistoric recognition, with the most significant contributions being those of Roland Hampe, Adam Winter, Frederick Matson, and especiall Harriet Blitzer (for references, see the relevant section in the present volume). Giannopoulou’s discussion is based on the results of an extensive research project in the Koroni area, commencing in 1993, and published information. The discussion brings together data on the types of workshops, their equipment, and finished products; extraction and processing of raw materials; vase-making procedure; surface treatment; firing; potting techniques; migrant potting groups; and finally, trade and productivity. Of particular interest is the description and discussion of the coil-building potting technique without rotational aid. Large pithoi are not made in this way in any other part of Greece except the mastic-producing villages of Chios. The discussion is enriched by a sequence of 295 photographs recording all the stages of manufacture. The discussion is the fullest presented to date, its thoroughness due to systematic and diligent research.

The final chapter evaluates all the data, seeking to highlight diachronic trends in the production of pithoi. The first section compares coil-building technique with slab-building and tournette techniques and throwing on the kick wheel, highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of each. The next section discusses investment of labor, learning time, and specialist knowledge as applied to pithos production. Giannopoulou examines the relationship between production output and potting technology, as well as standardization of output with professional specialization. She measures the output of pithos workshops in Messenia, Lesbos, and Crete and relates it to the potting technologies adopted in these contexts: coil building is less productive than technologies involving rotational aid. Another important observation is that standardization is not always related to professional specialization. The author concludes that pithoi present the greatest technological standardization through time compared with other vessels and are the products of specialized and well-organized potting groups. The last section of the chapter evaluates ethnographic and archaeological data, seeking to isolate variable and constant elements in pithos production through the ages. The elements subject to change are those linked with economic, social, and cultural parameters, while those linked with potting technology and use remain constant or change only slowly over time. The discussion is close and substantial, demonstrating the technological and socioeconomic complexity of pithos production.

The references provided form a starting point for both new researchers and specialists in the field of pottery and storage containers. The inclusion of research conclusions drawn from Greek scholarship is particularly helpful for those whose limited knowledge of Greek prevents them from accessing the relevant bibliography. One major omission is that of an index, an omission that is particularly noticeable in a study containing such a wealth of information. The text is accessible, despite minor editing errors, and the language straightforward. The text layout, however, certainly requires further polishing: the lack of paragraph indications, for instance, makes it hard to read.

The text is supported by black-and-white drawings and photographs, a few color plates, tables, and diagrams. Many pictures have resulted from the author’s ethnographic fieldwork and form an important contribution to the documentation of traditional pottery production. The absence of maps marking the ancient and modern sites mentioned in the text—only one map showing the distribution of Messenian pithoi has been included—prevents readers, especially those unfamiliar with Greece and the Aegean, from forming a clear picture of the geographical setting of the study. Unfortunately, the visual material is poorly reproduced.

Giannopoulou’s work is a welcome contribution to the scholarship of the potting technology of storage containers and of pottery in general. Her research and discussion are organized around a solid theoretical and methodological framework, allowing the author to provide an in-depth discussion of almost all the facets of her research subject. The diachronic approach she adopts highlights the continuities and gaps observed in construction practices, production structures, and consumption trends, demonstrating how these processes are affected by contemporary social, economic, and cultural factors. The volume is highly specialized and will be of immense interest to experts in the field as well as a less specialized reading public wishing to understand the basics of potting technology. The book is not only addressed to scholars active in Greece and Cyprus but is of equal interest to those working worldwide, something which enables crucial comparisons and juxtapositions among potting technologies from different cultural contexts. However, the book is more than a study of potting technology: it is the textual and visual documentation of a craft in the course of extinction. For future generations of scholars, when many of the potting centers discussed here will no longer exist or will be radically transformed because of modernization, this volume will be a precious testimony.

Kostis S. Christakis
Department of Education
University of Crete
741 00 Rethymnon

Book Review of Pithoi: Technology and History of Storage Vessels Through the Ages, by Mimika Giannopoulou

Reviewed by Kostis S. Christakis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Christakis

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