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L’alabastre attique: Origine, forme et usages

L’alabastre attique: Origine, forme et usages

By Isabelle Algrain (Études d’archéologie 7). Pp. 320, figs. 103, tables 11. CReA-Patrimoine, Brussels 2014. €80. ISBN 978-9-461360427 (paper).

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This book comes from a doctoral thesis defended at the Université libre de Bruxelles in January 2011. It focuses on the origin, development, and uses of Attic alabastra (perfume vases) produced by Athenian potters from the middle of the sixth century to the start of the fourth century B.C.E. The study comprises two parts: one on the formal development of Attic alabastra and the other on their uses.

In her introduction, the author provides an overview of the history of studies on alabastra and sets out to bridge the gaps in the research by carrying out “a proper typological study” (14). Indeed, she appears to have succeeded in her goal of distinguishing between the hands of the different potters. Algrain carries out an extremely thorough analysis of the material and provides the reader with a great deal of interesting information and relevant comments. It is nevertheless surprising to find no mention of the study by Mauermayer (“Das griechische Alabastron: Formgeschichte und Verwendung,” Ph.D. diss., Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität [1985]). Although this university degree work was not published, it is astonishingly similar in structure and should be mentioned by Algrain. Indeed, Mauermayer also studied the evolution of the form of Attic alabastra by placing the vase profiles in series.

In the first part of her thesis, Algrain starts by examining the origin of the form of alabastra in Egypt and their spread to the Near East and throughout the Greek world, before focusing on the first Attic workshop, that of Amasis. By comparing the Amasis alabastron with the banded ware alabastra produced in eastern Greece, she maintains that the Attic form of alabastron was inspired by prototypes from this region of the Greek world, which themselves came from the Egyptian form.

She goes on to study the production of alabastra, dividing it into three phases: phase I (from the second half of the sixth century to the first quarter of the fifth century B.C.E.), phase II (the first half of the fifth century B.C.E.), and phase III (from the end of the fifth century to the start of the fourth century B.C.E.). Her detailed analysis of the formal features of the vases—the profile of the ears, the decorative patterns, and the principal decorative elements—enables her to identify the potters and the painters and reveal the complex relationships that united them. She thus establishes that certain painters worked with numerous potters, as in the case of the painter Psiax, who worked with the potters Hilinos and PSI, and that the workshops often worked with a number of painters. This was the case for the Group of the Paidikos Alabastra, in which she identifies at least two artists: the Pasiades Painter and a second painter whose work was often less meticulous. This remarkable study of the form and decoration of these perfume vases also leads the author to review the attribution of certain representations made by different experts, such as alabastron DAM 8, attributed by Beazley to the Group of the Negro Alabastra, placing it in the series of alabastra produced by the Potter of the Checked Alabastra (Potier des alabastres aux damiers).

Also of note is the fact that not only does Algrain compare the production of alabastra in the different workshops, she also takes into account the entire collection of pottery produced by each of the workshops that made alabastra. She therefore distinguishes between workshops that specialized in the production of perfume vases and others that occasionally produced alabastra. Nevertheless, quite a significant number of alabastra were produced in the different workshops not specializing in the production of perfume vases, and they have very different formal features; therefore, she does not seek to identify the manufacturer of each of them (in total, for the three production phases, 391 of the 659 alabastra in her catalogue are not attributed to a potter).

In the second part of her thesis, Algrain concentrates on examining the uses of alabastra, taking into account the iconography of the vases, written sources, and archaeological discoveries. As alabastra have already been the subject of earlier research (see esp. Mauermayer [1985]; S. Luchtenberg, Griechische Tonalabastra: Untersuchungen zu ihre Formentwicklung, Verbreitung und zu ihrem Ursprung [Marburg 2002]; P. Badinou, La laine et le parfum: Épinetra et alabastres. Forme, iconographie et fonction: Recherche de céramique attique féminine [Louvain 2003]), the author cannot avoid repetition as far as the majority of her observations and ideas are concerned. It is regrettable that she failed to acknowledge her debt to these works. See, for example, the ideas that the contents of the alabastra must have been precious (199, compared to Mauermayer [1985] 52, 60, and Badinou [2003] 57–8) and that the representations of the Negros and Amazons are reminiscent of the precious and exotic contents of the alabastra (204, compared to Badinou [2003] 117). Also of note is the observation in her conclusion that alabastra are seen iconographically as perfume vases linked to female seduction (214, compared to Badinou [2003] 68, 122).

Nevertheless, the author sets her discussion apart from previous studies by offering a more nuanced reading of the iconography, basing her argument primarily on the approach taken by Lewis (“Iconography and the Study of Gender,” in S. Schroer, ed., Images and Gender: Contibutions to the Hermeneutics of Reading Ancient Art [Fribourg 2006] 23–39), who maintains that the images often portray people whose social standing is not taken into consideration. She therefore suggests looking at the women of the oikos in scenes in which female figures are “traditionally” interpreted as hetairai, despite neither seeking to resolve this problem nor mentioning the fact that no hetairai are represented on Attic pottery (165, 167). Similarly, the author challenges the interpretation of the purse as a symbol of a commercial transaction because, in her view, it is not present in the majority of trading scenes. But did painters really need to depict it in these scenes to show that oil was being sold? And, if one sees the purse as a bag containing astragals, as Algrain suggests, how should one interpret this object in the hand of a man in scenes in which oil is being sold (see, for example, the black-figure pelike, Paris Louvre F 376)? Could it be a customer going to buy oil with a bag of astragals? As iconography is a very complex research field, the author should really provide a better definition of her methodological approach here.

A number of other weaknesses can be found in the argument of this part of her thesis. She claims, for example, that the use of perfumes and alabastra was associated with luxurious practices, since alabastra appear in wedding ceremonies, during which, according to the author, the opulence of the oikos was displayed in classical Athens. It is a shame that, in order to back up this idea, she draws a parallel with the gold alabastra that were among the luxury furnishings in the bathroom of King Darius III (169). Care should also have been taken with regard to the statement that alabastra were used by men in the athletic context. Although we have evidence for the Hellenistic period, the two images that Algrain provides are not irrefutable proof for classical Athens, especially since the author underscores elsewhere that one should not envisage the representations on Attic vases as true portrayals of reality (160).

Finally, there are some concerns about part of her conclusion that the iconography of alabastra is not a coherent whole related primarily to women. Indeed, the table in which she classifies the images in six main categories is not very clear. The author should have provided a better explanation of what these categories comprise. For example, is there no connection between the representations of the Amazons, which are mythological figures, and the female world?

The book has two appendices: a list of alabastron potters and painters and a table with the profiles of the vases that were characteristic of each workshop. These are followed by a catalogue of alabastra classified by pottery workshop, and a rich bibliography. Nevertheless, it is a pity that there is no index classifying the alabastra by museum, which would facilitate use of the catalogue.

In conclusion, Algrain’s thesis is an interesting work aimed primarily at experts. It has the advantage of combining material from recent excavations with information on already known alabastra. The study of their archaeological context is one of the strengths of this work, which gives researchers a better idea of how these perfume vases were used in Attica, as well as in other parts of the Greek world. It also contributes to a better understanding of the evolution of the form over time and the reasons for which it was created in Attic workshops before disappearing toward the start of the fourth century B.C.E.. Finally, Algrain’s thesis enriches the debate on the reading of vase iconography and paves the way for future research.

Panayota Badinou
Faculty of Arts
University of Lausanne

Book Review of Lalabastre attique: Origine, forme et usages, by Isabelle Algrain

Reviewed by Panayota Badinou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Badinou

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