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The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora

By Kathleen M. Lynch (Hesperia Suppl. 46). Pp. xxi + 376, figs. 207, tables 15. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Athens 2011. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-546-1 (paper).

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In the 1990s, excavations north of the Athenian Agora uncovered a Late Archaic house with a well in a corner of its open yard. After the house was destroyed in the Persian Wars, the well was filled in; later (ca. 470–460 B.C.E.), when the house was remodeled, a new interior wall partly covered the well. Lynch’s monograph, recent winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s James R. Wiseman Book Award, presents the well and its varied contents (“Deposit J 2:4”) with admirable clarity. All finds were retained; they included a body of Attic fine ware drinking vessels, whose study inspired the title.

The text, in six analytical chapters, is followed by a catalogue of 217 items, mostly ceramics; careful attributions are made of the figured wares. Ample illustrations, including color photographs, support the text. Valuable appendices complement the study: transport amphoras (Lawall), vessel capacities, and remains from a Sub-Mycenaean inhumation (Little).

After a brief introduction, Lynch addresses the archaeological context in chapter 2. Conditions made stratigraphic excavation in 1995 a challenge; nonetheless, six levels overall were distinguishable. The preponderance of broken water vessels identified the lowest, level 6, as the period of use (ca. 525–480 B.C.E.). In level 5 (and upper level 6), complete vessels not for water collection, often fine ware, had been discarded. Levels 4 and 3 were composed of, respectively, a dump of stone with slag and coarse ware, and one of crushed bedrock. At the top, levels 2 and 1 had many sherds. Fine ware ceramic joins linked the levels, especially levels 5 and 2. The point matters, as Lynch is careful to establish: the well was filled in one episode shortly after Xerxes’ invasion, mostly from the same source, which was presumably the house in which it lay. The well would therefore seem to present an ideal opportunity to learn about the social and economic life of a household of Late Archaic Athens (the architecture of its house will be fully published by Barbara Tsakirgis in a study of houses of the archaic and classical Agora).

The heart of chapter 3, “Quantifying the Household Assemblage,” and the basis for subsequent discussion, is a series of tables conveniently summarizing the contents of the well. They culminate in table 6, a calculation, according to clearly articulated criteria, of the vessels arguably used by the household during its final period. The relative proportions of ceramic are noteworthy: 46% drinking cups and service vessels (perhaps not all for symposia), 22% tableware, 21% cooking and household ware, and 11% miscellaneous. Not surprisingly, among fine ware, black-gloss vessels in a variety of shapes predominated; a range of vessels was decorated with black-figure, while red-figure was limited to stemmed cups, with one pelike.

There is much to think on here, and in the following chapters, Lynch teases out some of the nuances, especially in her area of focus, which is communal drinking (chs. 4, 5). Most interesting for symposium studies is her argument that the household possessed three or four different sets of drinking vessels, each distinguishable by type, technique, and workshop, and, accordingly, that their different qualities reflect different modes of drinking. The sets are red-figure Type C stemmed cups (500–490 B.C.E.) for formal symposia; black-figure Class K2 cup skyphoi, mostly Haimon workshop (500–480 B.C.E.), for more mundane drinking (black vessels produced in the same workshops round out both sets); large Heron Class skyphoi with a three-liter capacity, for deep drinking or perhaps for mixing; and two treasured (mended) coral red cups from Kachrylion’s workshop (ca. 515 B.C.E.) for more intimate drinking or more special occasions. The need for careful determination of whether the deposit represents the goods of one household alone becomes clear.

There are surprises, such as the lack of any sign of a krater in use at the time of the destruction and only one fragment of a hydria, a black-figure kalpis. Lynch asks whether the absence of these forms in ceramic is to be explained by an incomplete deposit, use of metalware, or use of substitute shapes. Her preferred explanation is that there was a metal krater whose recyclable fabric saved it from the well or that fine ware oinochoai served to transport water for symposia.

Interesting issues of taste emerge. There was evidently no restraint in mixing visual modes: drinking cups, while matched, did not match mixing and serving vessels. Yet this household boasted no less than three black psykters, state-of-the-art symposium equipment for this period. Black-stemmed dishes perhaps held nibbles. The stemmed dish is an outsider, more at home in Lydia and East Greece; is it another Lydian contribution to archaic Greek high living?

The amorphous “other” category is tackled in chapter 6, “Household Activities Other than the Symposium,” which includes thoughtful comments on different categories of material for such domestic functions as food preparation and storage. A clear contrast is drawn between the functionally specific vessels of the symposium and the more fluid functionality of other vessel types (much like the lack of architecturally distinctive space for cooking noted in recent scholarship). There is much to illumine Late Archaic Athens: technology (an obsidian blade), domestic religion (including two phialai in the distinctive Six’s technique), and trade. There is a surprising range of imported goods, including mortar sherds in a fabric—“pale porous”—identified by Berlin as being from Achaemenid Anatolia (“Ilion Before Alexander: A Fourth Century B.C. Ritual Deposit,” Studia Troica 12 [2002] 131–65), and a small terracotta herm that, if set in a niche on the house’s exterior, might explain the disjuncture between the literary sources on herms and the archaeological evidence.

Throughout, and especially in chapter 7, Lynch bravely and somewhat precariously tackles larger historical questions. Her conclusions, as relate to the household of well Deposit J 2:4, are persuasive, though it is questionable how far one should extrapolate from the specific to the general. Lynch rightly observes that the relative social standing of the household, though crucial for some levels of interpretation, cannot be confidently answered without comparative data from all over Athens, which is not yet available.

The Symposium in Context is a thorough (and beautifully produced) study with scrupulous attention to detail, notable for its exploration and integration of a significant body of ceramic and some other materials within their archaeological context. Naturally, questions remain that can only be resolved by parallel studies, but Lynch has provided an excellent starting point and exemplary foundation for such future work.

Margaret C. Miller
Department of Archaeology
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry
University of Sydney
NSW 226 Sydney

Book Review of The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora, by Kathleen M. Lynch

Reviewed by Margaret C. Miller

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Miller

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