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Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora

Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora

By Susan I. Rotroff (Hesperia Suppl. 47). Pp. xx + 228, figs. 126, tables 15. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2013. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-547-8 (paper).

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In the latest Hesperia supplement, Rotroff offers a valuable addition to the growing corpus of scholarly work on private religious activities in ancient Athens. This volume treats a specific subject, industrial religion, but in doing so covers a wide range of topics: commercial and industrial activities, funerary rites, magic and superstition, and responses to societal stresses in fourth- and third-century B.C.E. Athens. The concept of “industrial religion” is one which the author develops as a partial explanation for the enigmatic “saucer pyres,” defined as small ritual deposits consisting of specific types of ceramic vessels (both full-sized and miniatures) and burnt material buried in a shallow pit (1). Seventy such deposits have been found to date below the floors of residential, commercial, and industrial spaces around the edges of the Athenian Agora and elsewhere in Athens. Rotroff’s study relies on detailed reassessments of dozens of Agora excavation notebooks to build solid (and in some cases new) interpretations for the chronological and depositional relationships between saucer pyres, surrounding strata, and architectural phases. What emerges is a thoughtful and convincing argument that saucer pyres represent multivalent rituals that occurred in secular buildings around the Agora during the late Classical and early Hellenistic periods, often related to architectural remodeling of existing structures and industrial production.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a small wave of scholarship on the related phenomena of funerary pyres and foundation deposits in pre-Roman Greece (e.g., R. Müller-Zeis, “Griechische Bauopfer und Gründungsdepot,” Ph.D. diss., Universität des Saarlandes [1994]; I. Andreou and E. Andreou, “Τα μικρογραφικά αγγεία ως ιδιαίτερη παραγωγή των ελληνιστικών εργαστηρίων της Αμβρακίας,” in Εʹ Συνάντηση για την Ελληνιστική Κεραμική [Athens 2000] 301–10; S. Weikart, “Griechische Bauopferrituale: Intention und Konvention von rituellen Handlungen im griechischen Bauwesen,” Ph.D. diss., Julius Maximilians-Universität zu Würzburg [2002]; G.P. Hunt, “Foundation Rituals and the Culture of Building in Ancient Greece,” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [2006]). While Rotroff engages with these more recent works, she rightly argues that the saucer pyres of Athens are unique in their form, and external parallels are limited in their utility. She begins her introduction with Young’s seminal article (“Sepulturae intra urbem,” Hesperia 20 [1951] 67–134) in which he published a number of saucer pyres as infant burials (5), before expanding on Shear’s suggestion (“The Athenian Agora: Excavations of 1980–1982,” Hesperia 53 [1984] 45–7) that saucer pyres are sacrifices related to architecture and building activities (6). Chapter 2 discusses general patterns in recovered saucer pyres and attempts to reconstruct the process of their ritual deposition. Three key features characterize these deposits: (1) saucer pyres often contain the bones of sheep but do not conform to normative practices of sacrifice (15–16, 41–2); (2) there are distinctive ceramic shapes that occur in saucer pyres, many of which are associated with food preparation and consumption, but there is also a good deal of variation both in the choice of ceramic vessels and in the ritual that accompanied their deposition (17–35); and (3) many of the offerings commonly found in saucer pyres are also used as grave goods or in graveside pyres. The third chapter describes the chronological range of the deposits and details changes in the nature and composition of saucer pyres from the Late Classical to Early Hellenistic periods. The earliest saucer pyres appear during the last third of the fifth century B.C.E. and become increasingly common in the fourth and mid third centuries B.C.E. Evidence for saucer pyres beyond the third century B.C.E. is inconclusive. Rotroff suggests that it is possible the practice continued into the Roman period, but it is equally likely that it stopped sometime in the second century B.C.E. (52–3).

In chapter 4, “Toward a New Interpretation,” Rotroff demonstrates that saucer pyres belong to the general category of building deposits but that they are specifically connected to private houses and spaces for commercial or industrial activities. She persuasively argues that the sacrificial deposits in Building Z in the Kerameikos, which she also categorizes as saucer pyres, can be associated with three different kinds of activities: the building’s initial construction, the raising of the floor, and other unknown occasions during the lifetime of the structure (58–60). Next, she reexamines the stratigraphic relationships between saucer pyres and the architectural development of various buildings in and around the Athenian Agora (60–4, esp. table 5). She finds that saucer pyres from the Agora, with one exception, are buried within existing architectural spaces and therefore cannot be interpreted as foundation deposits. In the second half of this chapter, she discusses the relationship between saucer pyres and contemporary graveside pyres. Cemetery pyres in the Kerameikos and saucer pyres in the Agora vary in their ceramic assemblages, yet they use some of the same vessels, burn offerings in a pit rather than on an altar, and appear at about the same time in the later fifth century B.C.E. (67–72). The connection between cemetery pyres and saucer pyres has been largely avoided in earlier discussions, but for Rotroff it is arguably the key to interpretation of the latter (75). Cemetery pyres can occur for a number of reasons but are most strongly associated with untimely or unexpected deaths (74–5). She therefore suggests that saucer pyres are ritual reflections of accidents or untimely deaths that occurred in connection with specific buildings or their occupants (81–2, 86). This is an appealing interpretation because it explains both the uneven spatial distribution of saucer pyres in workshops and private houses (78, fig. 13) and the similarities in offerings and rituals between cemetery and saucer pyres. She takes this argument further, using ancient literary and art historical evidence, to suggest that saucer pyres may also be part of industrial religion—that is, the warding off of supernatural threats to the industrial process and its practitioners (82–5). At the same time, the numerous minor variations in individual saucer pyres and the fact that they do not occur in every house and workshop may imply that there was no single purpose or occasion for their use (86). In this respect, the modern analogy drawn to Greek roadside shrines in the book’s afterword is particularly apt (91).

The second half of the monograph consists of a catalogue that clearly presents the 70 saucer pyres discussed in the chapters, along with some new interpretations of their stratigraphic contexts. This section also provides excellent and detailed updates on the archaeology of the buildings in question that will be useful to anyone interested in domestic and commercial architecture in classical and Hellenistic Athens. This bold and brilliant analysis of the curious phenomenon of saucer pyres will be of interest to all Greek archaeologists and scholars of ancient Greek religion.

Sarah A. James
Department of Classics
University of Colorado Boulder

Book Review of Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora, by Susan I. Rotroff

Reviewed by Sarah A. James

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.James

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