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Cosa: The Roman and Greek Amphoras

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Cosa: The Roman and Greek Amphoras

By Elizabeth Lyding Will and Kathleen Warner Slane (MAAR 14). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2019. Pp. xi + 214. $90. ISBN 978-0-472-13143-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume represents the final publication of the late Elizabeth Lyding Will’s work with the amphoras recovered in the American Academy in Rome’s (AAR) excavations at the Roman town of Cosa carried out during the years 1948–1954 and 1965–1972. Will passed away in 2009 before completing her work with these materials, and the project was taken on and seen through to completion by the volume’s second author, Kathleen Warner Slane.

Will, who began working with the amphoras from the Cosa town site in 1955, assumed responsibility for the study and publication of the whole of the site’s Roman amphora assemblage in 1974, working on this intensively through 1977. During these years she was also involved in the study of the Roman amphoras recovered in the AAR excavations of Cosa’s port, carried out during the years 1968–1972. In 1983, Will set aside her work with the amphoras from the town in order to complete her study of those from the port, publishing this in 1987 (“The Roman Amphoras,” in A.M. McCann, The Roman Port and Fishery of Cosa: A Center of Ancient Trade, Princeton University Press 1987, 171–220), and never managed to bring the project to an advanced state of completion.

When Slane took on the project of bringing Will’s work with the amphoras from the town through to publication in 2014, these materials had not been worked on for more than 30 years. What Slane received consisted of a catalogue with entries for all of the complete containers or fragments bearing a stamp, graffito, or dipinto and for a substantial number of additional containers or fragments, photographs of these specimens, a limited number of profile drawings, and compiled figures for numbers of amphoras by type and by context. Will had classified these materials according to a typology of her own devising, which she developed in the 1950s while working on the stamped Roman amphoras from the American School of Classical Studies’ excavations in the Athenian Agora. There has been no definitive publication of this typology, although what is characterized as a working draft of it is available online.

Inevitably, given the very substantial advances that have occurred in the field of amphora studies since the early 1980s, Will’s treatment of these materials was substantially out of date, and Slane (who engaged in no autopsy of the materials) has done a masterful job of undertaking just enough revision and supplementing of Will’s work to render the final product useful to contemporary scholars. This involved composing an introduction that lays out the history of work with the materials, generating an introduction to each of Will’s types in light of the current state of our knowledge, lightly revising Will’s typology and individual catalogue entries, and writing a concluding interpretive essay. Slane also added a catalogue of the stamped Greek amphoras from the site and created a summary of the dating evidence for several of the contexts that have figured prominently in the publication of the various categories of material culture from the Cosa town site. The catalogued amphora specimens are in nearly every case illustrated by a photograph, and a small minority of these also by a profile drawing. The stamps are illustrated by a photograph and in many cases also a line drawing or a rubbing.

The main catalogue contains entries for 440 specimens, and the catalogue of stamped Greek amphoras has entries for another 60. The catalogue entries are more limited than one would like, as they do not contain substantial information regarding details of the micromorphology or the condition of the specimen, and the fabric descriptions are not grounded in an understanding of ceramics as materials. Although several specimens present interesting evidence for vessel manufacture or use (e.g., nos. 20, 210, 383, 396, 433), the descriptions of these are not sufficiently detailed to permit the user to gain an adequate understanding of the relevant features. The substantial set of Sestius stamps on examples of the Dressel 1a and related anepigraphic device stamps, and perhaps also on examples of the Dressel 1b, represent the most archaeologically significant set of items in the catalogue. Also of interest is the substantial number of amphoras from the Imperial and Late Imperial periods.

Slane’s interpretive essay is excellent—scrupulously documented, thoughtful, and carefully argued. She presents a useful table that indicates the number of catalogued and uncatalogued specimens by type for both the town (N = 1,594) and the port (N = 792), summarizing this information in a histogram. These figures appear to represent the number of nonjoining diagnostic elements (rims, handles, spikes/bases). In this chapter, Slane considers the nature and chronology of the manufacture of Dressel 1 amphoras at the port; the evidence for amphora production (including stamps and fabrics) at three more recently investigated sites in the ager Cosanus (La Feniglia, La Parrina, Albinia); the vexed question of the chronology of the production of the different variants of the Dressel 1 type; the implications of the amphora evidence for the nature of occupation at Cosa during the middle quarters of the first century BCE; and the evidence that the amphoras of the Imperial and Late Imperial periods provide for economic relations between Cosa and other parts of the empire. Most interestingly, Slane mobilizes the amphora evidence to call into question the long-held assumption that Cosa was sacked ca. 70 BCE, presumably by pirates, and essentially abandoned until being resettled at some point during the “Augustan” period (a view that R.T. Scott contests in a short afterward that he contributed to the volume).

The summary of the dating evidence for key contexts at Cosa is significant since it highlights the substantial disagreements between the dates that have previously been assigned to these by a set of highly influential publications on the coins, various pottery classes, and vessel glass from the AAR excavations of the town site. With the appearance of this amphora publication, now would be a good time for some enterprising scholar to create a master database for the materials included in these publications and make this available online, as this would permit us to arrive at more firmly grounded dates for these contexts and, on that basis, to revise our dating for the various classes and vessel forms represented. Elizabeth Fentress and Adam Rabinowitz showed the way forward in this regard already in 2002, when they placed online a downloadable spreadsheet of the pottery finds from the AAR’s 1993–1997 excavation of the House of Diana on the Forum at Cosa.

J. Theodore Peña
Department of Classics
University of California, Berkeley

Book Review of Cosa: The Roman and Greek Amphoras, by Elizabeth Lyding Will and Kathleen Warner Slane
Reviewed by J. Theodore Peña
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Pena

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