You are here

The Ceramics Industry of Roman Sikyon: A Technological Study

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

The Ceramics Industry of Roman Sikyon: A Technological Study

By Conor P. Trainor (SIMA-PB 181). Pp. xviii + 125, figs. 55, tables 9. Åströms Förlag, Uppsala 2015. €36. ISBN 978-91-7081-203-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume investigates surface pottery finds from Sikyon, Greece, in order to shed light on ceramic production in the region between the second century B.C.E. and the third century C.E. The Sikyon Survey Project, an extensive surface survey of the Sikyon Plateau, was a multidisciplinary research endeavor conducted between 2004 and 2008, with study seasons from 2009 to 2012. The ceramics collected in this survey, a total of 739,313 fragments, include vessel sherds and kiln wasters. Ceramic fabric analysis and typological study of 89,924 sherds enabled the material to be separated into fabric types. Approximately 2,000 sherds were examined macroscopically, and a further 121 samples of the major fabric types, plus some outliers, were examined in petrographic thin-section to identify local and nonlocal pottery.

Analyses of modern-day clay sources within the region were undertaken and the results compared with the composition of the ancient ceramics. Modern potters who employ “ancient sourcing and firing techniques” were also interviewed as part of the research project (2–3). The results of the compositional analyses of modern clay sources suggest that there are two main types of clay present in the Sikyon region today. The first is calcareous clay, which frequently contains carbonates, especially calcite and micrite, along with subangular monocrystalline quartz. Subangular to angular polycrystalline quartz is frequently to occasionally present in some samples. The second clay type, terra rossa, frequently includes carbonates, especially calcite and micrite, along with subangular chert, monocrystalline quartz, and polycrystalline quartz.

Compositional characterization of the ancient Sikyon ceramics indicates that the main fabric type, which Trainor calls the “Sikyon silicate fabric,” contains angular and subangular calcite and micrite as well as angular to subrounded monocrystalline quartz, polycrystalline quartz, and chert. In contrast, kiln wasters lack the amount of carbonate seen in the pottery, and the main components are polycrystalline quartz and angular chert. Hence, the ancient pottery contains more carbonates than are visible in the kiln wasters, a result also found in analysis of ceramic material from Corinth. Trainor explains that this is because the kiln wasters were fired to a higher temperature.

Trainor concludes that all the local pottery and kiln wasters found in the survey were made from the one fabric group, the Sikyon silicate fabric. He correctly states that the similarity of the modern clay samples to the composition of ancient ceramic material could indicate that the ancient potters utilized local clays (34). Despite the uncertainty of this observation, the author surprisingly concludes that ceramics were being produced at Sikyon during the Hellenistic and Early and Middle Roman periods with possible small-scale production lasting until Early Byzantine times (34–5).

Trainor’s theory of ceramic production in Sikyon relies heavily on the sampling of modern clay beds within the region. The composition of the material within these beds is unlikely to be similar to those of ancient times, because of environmental changes, such as variations in climate, shifting watercourses, and fluctuating erosion patterns within the landscape since Roman times. The comparison of ancient pottery composition with modern clay samples is helpful only if the local geological makeup of the region contains unusual or unique combinations of minerals. Calcite and micrite are both constituents of limestone, a sedimentary rock commonly found throughout the world, and chert is also often associated with this geological material. Similarly, quartz, a globally distributed silicate mineral, is commonly associated with clays derived from limestone. Consequently, the composition of modern clay identified in this study cannot be linked with certainty to the production of ceramics in ancient Sikyon.

Trainor also cites the concentration of kiln wasters around the modern clay deposits as a further indication of local pottery production (104). This theory is problematic, however, because potters, modern and ancient, use kiln furniture such as spacers and props to separate vessels within a kiln, thereby ensuring even distribution of heat and oxygen during firing. Although kiln wasters were found near the most probable modern clay sources, their presence alone does not demonstrate categorically that Sikyon was a ceramic manufacturing center, and the apparent absence of kiln furniture is a troubling issue that Trainor has not addressed.

The visual material presented in the volume is helpful, although the sherd photographs accompanying the drawings in chapter 4 are difficult to interpret because of their low resolution. Similarly, the area distribution maps in chapter 4 are hard to read because of their small size; the resolution and size of figure 4.1 makes it almost illegible. Often the figures are not referred to in the text, and many, such as figure 3.2, lack adequate annotation. The description of color throughout the volume is inconsistent, sometimes referenced to Munsell charts but often described subjectively.

The author’s explanation of ceramic manufacturing techniques indicates a limited knowledge of the subject. Chapter 2, where the basic methods of clay preparation and production of vessels are examined, is brief and often confused. A later discussion of the uniform color exhibited by Sikyon fabric when fired to 1050°C, in contrast to the range exhibited by the pottery found in the survey, is followed by a description of the color variations exhibited in specific wares over time. Trainor provides no explanation for these temporal variations and draws no conclusion from this evidence, although the author correctly states that color variation in ceramics is usually the result of different firing temperatures. The Sikyon Survey Project also investigated environmental changes in Sikyon during the same period of occupation. An investigation of the availability of fuel over this time span would be a valuable interdisciplinary exercise and might shed light on the temperature variations evident in the pottery over time.

Trainor has established that the ancient Sikyon ceramics were made from clays similar to those found in the region today, and this will be extremely important data for future archaeological investigations at Sikyon. It is likely that Trainor’s theory of ceramic production in the region is accurate; however, without more tangible evidence, the hypothesis is tenuous. Despite the methodical and intensive analysis of the Sikyon surface survey pottery, excavation of kiln sites and the analysis of ceramics found within secure contexts will be required to verify Trainor’s theory.

Jaye McKenzie-Clark
Department of Ancient History
Macquarie University

Book Review of The Ceramics Industry of Roman Sikyon: A Technological Study, by Conor P. Trainor

Reviewed by Jaye McKenzie-Clark

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.McKenzieClark

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.