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The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou. Vol. 5, Potters’ Marks from Syme and Other Sites of Bronze Age Crete

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou. Vol. 5, Potters’ Marks from Syme and Other Sites of Bronze Age Crete

By Kostis S. Christakis (Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 293). Pp. xviii + 264, figs. 27, b&w pls. 21, charts 10, tables 5. The Archaeological Society at Athens, Athens 2014. €47. ISBN 978-618-5047-13-9 (paper).

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The volume under review is the most recent contribution to the series published by the Archaeological Society at Athens presenting the results of research carried out in the extra-urban sanctuary site at Kato Syme in East Crete. It is written in English, with a Greek summary. The first four chapters present a catalogue and analysis of the 98 vase fragments with prefiring marks found at the Minoan sanctuary at Syme Viannou; the second half of the volume presents a reference catalogue and analysis of 1,016 marks incised or impressed before firing into pottery found at 27 Cretan Bronze Age sites (fig. 1). Worth special mention are the succinct yet comprehensive overviews of studies of potmarks in the eastern Mediterranean generally and of prefiring marks on Crete in particular (1–3), and a brief run-through of various possible functions of Aegean prefiring marks (155).

The potters’ marks from Syme comprise one of the most important assemblages of prefiring marks discovered on Bronze Age Crete to date. Malia (at least 383) and Petras (at least 253) have yielded significantly more, but Syme’s count is almost three times that of the site with the next largest published corpus (table 3). Syme’s potmarks are among the earliest, and only here is a diachronical analysis of marking practices within the Protopalatial possible. Syme stands out, too, as being one of only two sanctuary sites where marked vases have been discovered (the other is Vrysinas in western Crete); otherwise, they are found in ordinary domestic contexts. Finally, Syme is one of the few Bronze Age Cretan sites whose potmark corpus has been fully published. For these reasons alone, Christakis’ study is an important reference for anyone interested in the development of administrative practices or the organization of pottery production on Minoan Crete.

The marked pottery found at Syme represents a small percentage of the total ceramic corpus recovered from the site. Most marks were incised, a few were impressed, all before firing, usually on storage and cooking vessels. They were intended to be visible, and handles were a favored marking spot. As far as can be ascertained from the fragments, no vase carries more than one mark. The marks are generally simple and linear; the author divides them into 24 types, of which one-third occur only once. The largest quantity (66%) and greatest variety date to Middle Minoan IB. These summary statements, following three chapters of supporting data, are tucked away (55–9) in a section unannounced in the table of contents.

The author has chosen to organize the catalogue (descriptions and photographs) by context. This makes excellent sense as a neutral approach and avoids the hazards of imposing significance through authorial choice of an organizing principle. This reviewer applauds the detailed iteration and illustration of contexts—a feature of potmarks too often neglected in favor of isolated scrutiny of the marks as possible indices of (proto)writing. But, as is made clear only in the analysis finally presented two chapters later, at Syme contexts do not help us understand the meaning(s) of the marks. (This may be accidental, as undisturbed contexts are rare at this site.)

Drawings of the marks are presented separately, organized by ceramic (figs. 11–20) or mark type (figs. 21, 22). The different ordering makes it challenging to compare description and/or photograph with drawing; this reader finally had to heavily annotate the plates and figures. The discussion of the vases is commendable for the author’s care to describe the larger contexts of production and distribution. Also commendable is the valiant attempt to use neutral language to describe the mark types, even if not quite consistent (e.g., “T-shaped,” “double axe”).

Chapter 4 is the heart of this monograph. Following Olivier and Godart at Malia Quartier Mu, the author uses the methods of handwriting analysis (graphology) to determine that several different hands made certain marks, thus concluding that marks are not indicative of individuals. (Here the differently organized drawings and photographs are especially frustrating for the reader wishing to follow the author’s arguments.) Like Lindblom in his study of Aegina’s pottery (Marks and Makers: Appearance, Distribution, and Function of Middle and Late Helladic Manufacturers’ Marks on Aeginetan Pottery [Jonsered 2001]), the author also considers the morphological and technological attributes of the marked vases. He observes that the same marks appear on vases made using the same potting technologies, thus the marks identify groups of potters (“Interaction Groups” [pls. 19–21]). One wishes here for some further substantiation of the claim of “same potting technology” (65) given the small size of most marked sherds. Finally, what the author uniquely brings to the table is his suggestion that the personalized renditions of the marks are not coincidental results of handwriting mannerisms, but rather they are intentional assertions of individuality within the parameters of identification with a potting group (73–4). Furthermore, Christakis notes that “this labeling does not serve a practical purpose, since the marked vessels, with a very few isolated exceptions, were not distributed beyond the limits of their production centre, but springs from an inward need to highlight local identity” (154). This reader is not fully convinced. The distinctions between the same marks are of the kind readily recognizable only to the potter and the potter’s colleagues. But, as the author himself points out, there is no need for a potter to mark his or her own pots within the workshop context; ethnographic studies show that potters recognize their own products, and those of others with whom they work (64 [with n. 18]).

The author then turns to the broader context of potmarking practices on Bronze Age Crete. Very helpful are the introductory notes that outline, for each site, where prefiring potmarks have been discovered, the nature of the site, extent of excavation, and state of publication of the potmark corpus. The marked vases are briefly described, and reference to their primary publications is given. Illustrations are limited to regularized drawings of “type marks” (figs. 23–7). Here, the topographical ordering of the catalogue makes sense, for the punch line is that the author finds indication of regional and site-specific marking practices. There is the kernel of another monograph in the author’s further remark that “the emerging regional marking traditions are completely consistent with the regionalism observed in patterns of pottery production, as well as in other expressions of material culture, among the different regions of the island” (154).

At the same time, there are consistencies in the patterns of marking on Bronze Age Cretan pottery. Vases are rarely marked, and it is the coarse and semi-coarse utilitarian vessels used for storage, transfer, and cooking, made and used locally that are more commonly marked, rather than the fine tablewares or widely circulated types. Potmarks most often consist of linear patterns and were incised or impressed before firing and in a manner and location to assure visibility (chart 9).

The author sidesteps or downplays the question of possible connections between marking and writing systems, finding them limited to certain sites and simply coincidental: “The relationship of the pre-firing marks to syllabograms and logograms is limited to form alone. In places where the coexistence of different signification systems is a fact, interactions are only to be expected” (146). The emphasis on examining potmarking systems on their own terms is refreshing.

This volume’s handsome production is slightly marred by too many typographical errors and the occasional illustration that fails to show the mark clearly (most notably fig. 18). The generous front and back flaps serve as useful place markers for the careful reader needing to flip extensively between text, charts, tables, figures, and plates.

Christakis opens with the statement (5): “I do not deceive myself that I will provide a final answer on the function and meaning of pre-firing marks; this contribution, however, is a solid basis for further discussion in expectation of new finds and studies.” The author has done exactly that, for Syme specifically and generally for marks incised, impressed, and stamped before firing on pottery manufactured on Bronze Age Crete.

Nicolle Hirschfeld
Department of Classical Studies
Trinity University

Book Review of The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou. Vol. 5, Potters’ Marks from Syme and Other Sites of Bronze Age Crete, by Kostis S. Christakis

Reviewed by Nicolle Hirschfeld

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Hirschfeld

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