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Hellenistic Pottery: The Fine Wares

Hellenistic Pottery: The Fine Wares

By Sarah A. James (Corinth 7.7). Pp. xxiv + 240. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2018. $150. ISBN 978-0-87661-077-0 (cloth).

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In this volume, James seeks to address a problem posed and lacuna unfilled by Edwards’ Corinthian Hellenistic Pottery (Corinth 7.3 [Princeton 1975]): the chronology of Corinthian Hellenistic fine ware and the quantities in which it occurs. James proposes substantial adjustments to both the beginning and end dates of its production at Corinth. Following on the work of Pemberton and Slane’s The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Greek Pottery (Corinth 18.1 [Princeton 1989]), James suggests that “Hellenistic” shapes such as kantharoi were first made in Corinth not around 330 B.C.E., as Edwards had suggested, but early in the third century. James’ proposed revision of late Hellenistic chronology is more novel: that the ceramic fine ware industry of Corinth was little disturbed by Mummius’ intervention at Corinth in 146 B.C.E. and the dissolution of the city until its refoundation in 44 B.C.E.

Although the volume is subtitled “The Fine Wares,” it includes only local Corinthian fine wares and no imports. James notes that she is studying the imports for publication, but given their centrality to her chronological revisions, it would have been better to include them here so that readers can assess her arguments. For example, James suggests that potters at Corinth started making kantharoi and increased their production of fishplates in response to declining Athenian imports of these shapes early in the third century B.C.E. It would bolster her point to include these Attic imports and their quantity relative to local products. More importantly, given that Corinth was a major city located relatively close to Athens, detailed study of Attic imports and local products would be a key data point for scholars interested in how and why the Attic export industry declined early in the Hellenistic period.

James’ case for continued fine ware production at Corinth between the Mummian sack in 146 B.C.E. and its refoundation as a Roman colony in 44 B.C.E. relies on floor deposit M of the Panayia Field excavations. She dates the deposit to ca. 120–75 B.C.E. on the basis of a Broneer Type XIV lamp with parallels in Athens tentatively dated to ca. 120–100 B.C.E., an imported moldmade oinochoe, and a plate and bowl identified as Eastern Sigillata A (ESA), an eastern Mediterranean fine ware first produced in the 140s B.C.E. James assigns the Corinthian fine ware found in deposit M to the late second or early first century B.C.E. and in turn uses it as a baseline for establishing that much of the Corinthian fine ware found in fills of the south stoa wells was made after 146 B.C.E. There are three problems with this line of reasoning. First, none of the ceramic objects that date deposit M are published here. One of the purported ESA vessels that James has published elsewhere (“Bridging the Gap: Local Pottery Production in Corinth 146–44 BC,” in P. Bilde and M. Lawall, eds., Pottery, Peoples and Places: Study and Interpretation of Late Hellenistic Pottery [Aarhus 2014] 47–63) does not feature the rouletting or well-tooled foot typical of ESA bowls and looks likelier to be an import from the late third or first half of the second century B.C.E. Recent work such as that by Elaigne (“Les importations de céramiques fines hellénistiques à Beyrouth (site Bey 002): Aperçu du faciès nord levantin,” Syria 84 [2007] 107–42) has shown that in the late third and first half of the second century B.C.E., potters in coastal Cilicia or the northern Levant made red-slipped plates and bowls in the same or similar fabrics to that later used to make the distinctive shapes known today as ESA. Second, the Corinthian fine ware shapes in deposit M are identical with those illustrated from deposit L (compare figs. 17 and 19), which James dates to ca. 150 B.C.E. It follows that comparanda for these vessels found in other deposits need not date later than the middle of the second century B.C.E., even if they could date later. Third, in deposit M and 12 other deposits James dates between 146 and 44 B.C.E. or suggests are rich in Corinthian fine ware dating to this period, there are 130 coins, most of which are Late Classical and Hellenistic issues predating 146 B.C.E. Only one coin dates within this 100-year interim, with just seven more overlapping with its beginning or end. Unless we accept an unusual disparity between the date of the pottery and the ample numismatic evidence, the late second century B.C.E. date for the pottery is questionable. At the very least, the curious phenomenon of a dramatic reduction in the circulation and discard of coinage at a site that shows such little disruption of its ceramic industry is worth some discussion. More in keeping with James’ argument are several stamped amphora handles dating between 146 and 44 B.C.E., but these are just as consistent with Romano’s suggestion (“A Hellenistic Deposit from Corinth: Evidence for Interim Period Activity (146–44 B.C.),” Hesperia 63 [1994] 57–104) that Corinth was the home of a reduced population of local Corinthians, Roman and Italian landowners, and itinerant surveyors who were heavily dependent on imported goods.

Quantifying excavation pottery is notoriously difficult. At large settlement sites with complicated depositional histories like Corinth, pottery occurs in overwhelming abundance, and vessels range from mostly intact to partially reconstructable through to individual sherds. Given such variability of preservation, James made the reasonable choice to sort vessel fragments according to shape and determine their total weight, thus ensuring that she would not overcount, say, thin-walled vessels that tend to break into many small sherds. James traces the percentage by weight of shapes in dated deposits to determine when the production of each individual shape probably began, peaked, and ended. However, with weights alone, it is difficult to discern the relative quantities of different shapes whose weight varies, making it hard for researchers to reconstruct typical table settings. For instance, James highlights that kraters make up 5–10% of the weight of fine ware in Hellenistic deposits and suggests that this shows greater continuity in sympotic behavior at Corinth than at other sites like Athens, where Rotroff (The Missing Krater and the Hellenistic Symposium: Drinking in the Age of Alexander the Great [Christchurch, N.Z. 1996]) has noted a steep drop-off in the popularity of kraters in the Hellenistic period. James shows that kraters occurred regularly at Hellenistic Corinth, but since kraters are the largest vessel in the fine ware assemblage it would help to have some indication of the relative number of kraters and individual drinking vessels by (for instance) quantifying well-preserved vessels from a sampling of contemporary deposits.

At the beginning of the volume, James states that the “local fine ware tradition slowly embraced elements of the Hellenistic koine” (1) between the mid third and early second century B.C.E. The publication here of many more individual examples of Corinthian Hellenistic fine ware vessels than in Edwards’ 1975 volume does make it easier to situate Corinthian production in relation to regional and international trends. More clarity in the identification of parallels could make this argument stronger and more nuanced. To take one example, James (82 n. 45, 84 n. 54) identifies the same Attic “Corinthian type” skyphoi (Rotroff, Hellenistic Pottery, Athenian and Imported Wheelmade Table Ware and Related material. Agora 29, [Princeton 1997] 95, 258, fig. 12, pl. 15) as comparanda for both Corinthian “one piece” and “cyma” kantharoi. Several examples of one-piece kantharoi find closer matches in shape and decoration with Attic “baggy” kantharoi, which are not referenced (Rotroff 1997, 103-105, 266-271, figs. 16-18, pls. 22-28). The low stems of most cyma and some one-piece kantharoi seem to be the main feature that differentiates them from otherwise comparable Attic kantharoi. Zooming out from the typological weeds and taking a wider view of Hellenistic ceramic trends, the numerous examples now published from both sites make it clear that in the mid to late third century B.C.E. potters in Athens creating kantharoi (straight-wall, angular, and baggy) and in Corinth (one-piece and articulated) shared a tradition of vertical handles, a low center of gravity, an elaborated ring foot, and often a horizontal band of west slope decoration on the upper wall. These similarities are notable because such kantharoi are not widely attested outside of Greece or the Aegean in the way that moldmade drinking bowls were in the second century B.C.E.—suggesting, at least in Greece, regional commonalities in production and drinking behavior in the third century prior to the adoption of some more “international” fashions in the second.

In sum, this volume gives us a much clearer picture of the typological range of Hellenistic Corinthian fine ware and the quantities in which it occurs. Thus, it will be an important resource for surveys and excavations in the northern Peloponnese and for scholars interested in the range of fine ware production around the Hellenistic world. Proper assessment of the ambitious chronological revisions will need to await more detailed considerations of other datable finds, like coins and lamps, and the publication of the imports, which will also do much to elucidate the wider connections of this rich and strategically situated city.

Peter J. Stone
Department of History
Virginia Commonwealth University

Book Review of Hellenistic Pottery: The Fine Wares, by Sarah A. James

Reviewed by Peter J. Stone

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Stone

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