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Lerna: A Preclassical Site in the Argolid. Vol. 8, The Historical Greek Village

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Lerna: A Preclassical Site in the Argolid. Vol. 8, The Historical Greek Village

By Brice L. Erickson. Pp. xxvi + 494, figs. 356, tables 32. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2018. $150. ISBN 978-0-87661-308-5 (cloth).

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Wells without houses, graves without grave goods, archaeological phases without site plans—these are some of the challenges Erickson faced in creating this exemplary study of the post–Bronze Age remains at Lerna. The site is famous for the mythical Hydra and for the House of Tiles, familiar to every student of Greek archaeology as an outstanding achievement of Early Helladic architecture. But Lerna was also inhabited in later times, and even though the prehistorians who excavated there in the 1950s were focused on the site’s earlier phases, they duly recovered and recorded a considerable amount of material of later date. It is this that forms the evidential base for Erickson’s reconstruction of the small settlement that occupied the site between the 10th and the third centuries B.C.E. and for his analysis of the relationships of the people of Lerna with other Argive settlements, and with the wider world.

A lengthy preface explains the origins of Erickson’s involvement in the project and provides an overview of the structure of the book and a concise statement of its goals. An introductory chapter ("Historical and Political Narratives") recalls the early modern history of the site before investigating the issue of village sites in general: what we know about this order of settlement from texts and from (primarily survey) archaeology. Erickson touches on theoretical issues (the definition of a village, center and periphery as it relates to the Argolid) before focusing on the historical topography and myth-history of Lerna itself. The account of Pausanias is crucial, not only for its portrait of a long-lost landscape and its monuments, but also for an understanding of the symbolic importance of Lerna within the Argive state.

Detailed presentation of the material remains of the discrete periods represented at Lerna occupies the central portion of the book. German military trenching during the Second World War revealed an Early Iron age cemetery on the slopes of Mount Pontinus, just west of the mound (ch. 2). Traces of burials visible here drew the attention of archaeologists, who excavated 15 tombs (cist, pithos, pot, and pit), mostly of Middle Geometric date; two more pithos tombs were found on the mound. No site plan was ever drawn; Erickson’s plan (fig. 25) is the result of impressive detective work, cobbling together information from archival photographs, notebook sketches, and satellite imagery. The graves contained little beyond the remains of the dead—summarized here on the basis of the reports of Angel published in the second Lerna volume, The People of Lerna: Analysis of a Prehistoric Aegean Population (Princeton 1971)—but quite a lot of pottery was found outside the tombs, suggesting activity as early as the Protogeometric period.

Due to long-standing interest in the emergence of the Argive state in the course of the Geometric period, the contemporaneous material culture of Argos itself has been studied in some depth, and Erickson could rely on a well-developed ceramic typology in the assessment of the Lerna finds. Extensive research on the period also offers the opportunity to test and refine existing hypotheses in light of the Lerna material. In his analysis, Erickson strives to define Lerna with respect to other settlements in the Argolid, concluding that the village expressed a distinct identity through its burial customs but that integration into a larger whole is indicated by the ceramics, which are indistinguishable from those at Argos in the Geometric period.

A long gap then follows at Lerna. Renewed activity is signaled by a Late Archaic well, the first of several features stretching from the late sixth to the early second century B.C.E. These fall into three chronological groups: Late Archaic and Early Classical (two wells, ca. 500–490 and 460–440; ch. 3); Classical (five wells, ca. 430–375; ch. 4); and Hellenistic (three wells and a pit, ca. 320–175; ch. 5). Most were encountered just below the modern surface; the excavators recorded few architectural traces, so the contexts of these wells remain the subject of conjecture (though Erickson concludes, after lengthy consideration in chapter 7, that they are most likely to have been domestic). Excavation records are sketchy, and as much as 90% of the material was discarded; the sherd count for the richest well is only slightly over 700, the average about half of that. Erickson squeezes every bit of information he can out of what remains. Mostly it is pottery, but there is also weaving equipment, a few figurines, fragments of roof tiles, and coins. He traces the comparanda for each, although the material culture of this period in the Argolid is poorly known. Argos itself must be a treasure-house of material, but it is largely unpublished, a continuing source of frustration for classical archaeologists working in the Peloponnese. Nonetheless, Erickson presents a full catalogue and a thorough discussion of the material within each of his phases. The very fact that little Argive pottery of this phase has been published makes his study all the more valuable, as it provides a framework for the chronological development of broadly Argive pottery of the period, and it will be enormously useful to archaeologists working in the area. Erickson also devotes a chapter to interesting finds from dated contexts—objects unusual in their date, remarkably complete, or unique in their forms (ch. 6). They range in date from Protogeometric to Hellenistic and help flesh out the typology developed on the basis of the contextual material. Erickson has has honed his expertise on material of these periods, and his identifications of the material are careful and persuasive. Sparse though the collection is, it can make a contribution to the discussion of ceramic chronologies elsewhere. For instance, fragments of kantharoi in Lerna’s Hellenistic wells may call into question the new and radically lowered chronology of Corinthian Hellenistic fine wares recently proposed by James (Hellenistic Pottery: The Fine Wares. Corinth 7.7 [Princeton 2018]).

One risks drowning in the necessary, but sometimes overwhelming, detail of the descriptive chapters, but Erickson brings it all together in his final chapter on village society and economy. While he is always aware of the limitations of the material, he pushes it as far as is reasonable in his exploration of such questions as the status of Lerna within the Argolid, the nature of the settlement documented by the wells, the domestic economy of the village (particularly the textile production that is documented by numerous loomweights and spools), and the contribution of the finds to an understanding of religious activity. Particularly interesting is a lengthy discussion of the institution of the symposium and whether or not it existed as such in the Argolid.

Four appendices complete the book. The first, by Graybehl, describes petrographic analysis of 62 ceramic samples, which resulted in the probable identification of Corinthian and Aiginetan wares and also in the insight that the homogeneous geology of the Argive plain militates against distinguishing products of different areas within it. Whether or not Lerna produced its own ceramics remains an open question. Lawall provides a portrait of the transport amphoras, showing clear shifts in the external contacts of Lerna from the Late Archaic to the Hellenistic period. Faunal remains, described by Gejvall at the time of excavation but now mostly lost, are reviewed by Reese, who also identified a small number of specimens recovered by Erickson in his search through the excavation storerooms. Finally, Scahill presents fragments of two Doric columns, the sole witness to anything more ambitious than domestic architecture on the site.

The book is fully indexed and beautifully illustrated. Every catalogued object appears in a drawing or a photograph, often both. Erickson has combed the archives for drawings and photographs of the features during excavation and has redrawn or recreated stratigraphic sections of wells from the notebook accounts. His recovery of the site plan of the Geometric cemetery from archival material has already been mentioned; the location of the wells on the mound, most of which were not plotted at the time of discovery, is a similar feat of reclamation, enabling the recognition of a village plan with houses sited along contour lines.

Nobody ever went in search of the historical Greek village of Lerna. But through the unwitting efforts of anonymous German soldiers, the professional practice of American prehistorians, and the meticulous work of Erickson, a portrait of the settlement has emerged. Erickson’s book provides a model for the rehabilitation of aging excavation data. As a compendium of pottery produced and used in the Argolid for more than half a millennium, it will be a valuable tool for excavators and scholars working in the region. Beyond this, it sketches the beginnings of a map of the Argolid in a time that is poorly documented in the published archaeological record. It provides much food for thought concerning the archaeology of small settlements and how their histories played out in relation to the cities that dominated the countryside and continue to dominate our thinking about ancient Greece.

Susan I. Rotroff
Washington University in St. Louis

Book Review of Lerna: A Preclassical Site in the Argolid. Vol. 8, The Historical Greek Village , by Brice L. Erickson

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.rotroff

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