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Maritime Transport Containers in the Bronze–Iron Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Maritime Transport Containers in the Bronze–Iron Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean

Edited by Stella Demesticha and A. Bernard Knapp (SIMA-PB 183). Pp. x + 242. Åströms Förlag, Uppsala 2016. €60. ISBN 978-91-7081-211-8 (cloth).

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Ancient economics is a much-discussed topic in anthropological, archaeological, and historical disciplines, and it has been treated through many different approaches according to the physical properties of material culture and the sociopolitical background of those engaged in the debate. In the case of a closed sea such as the Mediterranean, the history of ancient economics has been almost identical to the history of transport amphoras or jars, which in this book are called “maritime transport containers,” abbreviated “MTC.” Demesticha and Knapp collected 11 contributions on some of the most well-known transport jars from the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean dating from the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age. This collection of papers focuses on issues of ceramic technology, chronology and typology, standardization of shape and capacity, content, and, of course, circulation, in relation to the development of transport jars through time and in many different regions in the Aegean and the Levant.

The book opens with a paper by the editors, who define their recently introduced term “MTC,” discuss several issues connected to such containers’ alternative functions as storage or transport vessels, and present an overview of these containers’ development through time and space—barely touching, however, on their function as socioeconomic devices for exchange of commodities (9–11). Day and Wilson study what they regard as the earliest Aegean transport container, the collared jar of the Early Bronze II period, which circulated mainly in the central and southern Aegean. By means of petrographic and chemical analyses, they locate the origin of some fabrics in several places, demonstrating a widespread production of that shape, whose increasing popularity as, allegedly, a wine container was connected with a shift in the feasting habits of that period (33).

The next five papers treat the Levantine transport containers, known usually as Canaanite or Phoenician jars depending on their chronology in the Late Bronze or Iron Age. Cateloy’s study, which begins with the emergence of those jars in the Middle Bronze II period, comments on their typological variability, which makes the designation as Canaanite jars sound oversimplified. The author focuses on the study of their capacity and sees a decrease in their volume between Late Bronze I and II, when exchange was flourishing. Pedrazzi’s contribution, one of the best papers in this volume, focuses on certain types of Canaanite jars that she typologically analyzed in a preceding monograph (T. Pedrazzi, Le giare da conservazione e trasporto del Levante: Uno studio archeologico dell’economia fra Bronzo Tardo II e Ferro I (ca. 1400900 a.C.) [Pisa 2007]), which is fundamental for the study of the Levantine economy. After a comprehensive and systematic discussion of morphology, function (storage or transport), capacity, content, and distribution of the Canaanite jars, Pedrazzi concludes that the angular type 5-4 that was produced along the entire Levantine coast circulated in international exchange networks, which ceased to exist after the collapse of palatial systems at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Some other bellied and slightly carinated jar types (4-2 and 4-1), however, were used within another low-ranking exchange network that was limited to the eastern Mediterranean and remained unchanged through the transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age (73–4).

In the next paper, Monroe undertakes the difficult task of searching for volumetric patterns in the Canaanite jars’ capacities. The focus is on kadu (kd), which is the term for a jar with a supposedly known capacity in the texts of Ugarit. The textual evidence contains interesting information about the variability, quantity, and value of commodities exchanged with these jars and their circulation. The conclusion is that jars with wine or resin, two of the most popular commodities exchanged, were of significantly lower “market” value when compared with other commodities such as bronze ore and were probably well appreciated for their social value as royal gifts, as Monroe persuasively argues (91–3). The paper by Artzy maintains a focus on the Levant, where salvage excavations at Tell Abu Hawam highlighted a remarkable aspect of this well-known site situated next to modern Haifa. A large quantity of Cypriot pottery and a considerable number of Canaanite jars produced at the nearby Carmel coast—which proved to be similar in origin to numerous jars from the Uluburun shipwreck and others imported to Egypt, the Aegean, and the Syro-Lebanese coast—are regarded by the author as evidence for the interpretation of Tell Abu Hawam as a trading station, where Cypriots supposedly had a prominent role.

In the following paper, Martin studies the Canaanite and Phoenician transport jars through the Middle Bronze and Early Iron Ages and explores their origins in the Early Bronze Age. In discussing the Phoenician transport jars, he highlights a certain regionalization in their distribution pattern during Iron Age I. This contrasts with the more internationalized exchange network in which they were circulating during the next period; Martin, however, overlooks the recent finds from Methone that show how expansive this network became in the later phases of the Iron Age (122–23).

With the next two papers, we suddenly shift back to the Bronze Age Aegean, following a geographical and chronological order in the structure of the book that is not completely comprehensible. The topic of both papers is an Aegean transport container of a rather special shape, the stirrup jar, whose origins can be traced to the Middle Minoan III and Late Minoan IA periods in Crete. Haskell focuses on the value-added status that derives from its conspicuous form and is archaeologically attested through copying at other sites such as Akrotiri. The stirrup jar, sometimes bearing Linear B inscriptions, is regarded as a marker of special commodities mostly from central Crete, which was intended to generate elite prestige as part of a “market separation” strategy (132). Kardamaki, Day, Tenconi, Maran, and Papademitriou discuss a large assemblage of stirrup jars from the Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns. Petrographic analysis has shown that most of them came from Chania and the western Messara plains after the destruction of the palace of Knossos. The finds from Tiryns highlight the operation of a new exchange network between the Mycenaean mainland and Crete in this period.

In the next paper we return to the Levant, this time with the study by Waiman-Barak and Gilboa on some Phoenician transport containers from Tell Keisan in the Akko plain. Even though Tell Keisan has yielded more Phoenician flasks imported from Lebanon than has any other site in the southern Levantine coast, it was practically uninvolved in the major supraregional Iron Age exchange networks in the eastern Mediterranean. During the Early Iron Age, Tell Keisan and Dor were some of the major production centers in the Levant of carinated jars, which were locally consumed. Only in the later phases of the Iron Age did transport jars from southern Phoenicia circulate widely along the southern Levantine coast. The next paper is a systematic discussion by Pratt of the circulation of the two most popular Aegean transport amphoras within a colonial landscape. It highlights the prominence of the transport amphora of a noncolonial state, Athens and part of Attica, in Sicilian exchange networks during the early colonial period. A change took place in the Late Archaic period, when Attic transport amphoras started being gradually replaced by Corinthian ones. The commodities exchanged with these amphoras are regarded as supplies to the newly established colonies but also as luxury goods in the local Sicilian context (206–7).

Lawall closes the book with a critical overview of issues raised in the preceding papers and a concise discussion of topics such as use and reuse of transport jars, transactions, questions of standardization and related advertising, and, finally, the crucial topic of surplus redistribution. Lawall’s focus is, however, on the earliest Aegean transport amphoras, starting with the north Aegean subprotogeometric amphoras of type II, whose designation as Thermaic Gulf amphoras is misleading, as I have noted before (S. Gimatzidis, “Πρώιμοι ελληνικοί εμπορικοί αμφορείς και οικονομία στο βόρειο Αιγαίο,” in D. Mulliez, ed., Thasos: Μétropole et colonies. Αctes du symposion international à la mémoire de Marina Sgourou, Thasos, 21–22 septembre 2006 [Athens 2017] 278–79) and as has been recently shown by a long series of neutron activation analyses to be published in due course. The introduction of transport amphoras in the Aegean is framed against the background of the newly introduced social institution of the symposium (224–25).

This book is a very useful collection of papers on the earliest Mediterranean transport amphoras that were produced in the Aegean and the Levant. It fills a considerable gap in Mediterranean archaeology by making possible for the first time a comparative study of the development of the earliest transport vessels, and therefore the editors’ endeavor merits praise. The discussion focuses mainly on technical ceramic issues and leaves space for further historical analysis of the transport jars or amphoras, which form a material projection of past economic relations in an archaeological record that was created through a complex depositional process.

Stefanos Gimatzidis
Austrian Archaeological Institute
Austrian Academy of Sciences

Book Review of Maritime Transport Containers in the Bronze–Iron Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Stella Demesticha and A. Bernard Knapp

Reviewed by Stefanos Gimatzidis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.gimatzidis

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