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Stamps on Terra Sigillata Found in Excavations of the Theatre of Aptera, Crete

Stamps on Terra Sigillata Found in Excavations of the Theatre of Aptera, Crete

By Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 54). Oxford: Archaeopress 2019. Pp. ii + 207. $45.38. ISBN 978-1-78969-238-9 (paper).

Reviewed by

The site of Aptera in northwest Crete boasts some of the best-preserved architecture of the Greek and Roman periods on the island, including the remains of a magnificent theater constructed in the third century BCE, rebuilt in Roman style in the first century CE, and repaired in the second century. This theater was initially excavated in 2008–2009, when 40 fragments of Italian and Eastern Terra Sigillata bearing stamps were recovered from the site. These were studied and published by Baldwin Bowsky in an earlier publication (“Stamps on Italian Sigillata and the Renaissance of Aptera, Crete,” Hesperia 83.3, 2014, 503–68). A second phase of excavation (2012–2015) revealed an even larger number of stamped sigillata vessels, which forms the basis for the book under review.

This research is a continuation of the author’s long career of Roman epigraphical studies on Crete that in recent years has focused on the stamped objects, including instrumentum domesticum from Lappa, and Italian Sigillata stamps from, for example, Eleutherna (“Setting the Table at Roman Eleutherna: Italian Sigillata Stamps from Sector I,” in P.G. Themelis, ed. Ancient Eleutherna, Sector I, vol. 1, University of Crete 2009, 157–95) and Knossos (“Colonia Iulia Nobilis Cnosus, the First 100 Years: The Evidence of Italian sigillata Stamps,” in R.J. Sweetman, ed. Roman Colonies in the First Centuries of Their Foundation, Oxbow 2011, 117–34). This research has identified and analyzed connections between sigillata production centers in Italy and the eastern empire and specific sites on Crete, and documented the island’s consumption of foreign goods. The publication of the stamped sigillata from Aptera expands this knowledge, especially for the role played by the city in trade networks both on and off the island.

The book begins with a brief overview of the excavations at Aptera, its preserved architecture, and especially the theater, in which 258 fragments of stamped sigillata were found. To the west is a Roman residential area, and sigillata stamps from a villa there are in preparation for publication by the author. Baldwin Bowsky then provides a history of the theater’s main construction phases. 

The second chapter analyzes the stamped sigillata according to several primary issues. The author first explores the workshops indicated by the stamps: 232 examples from Aptera come from 86 separate potters from Italy. She finds comparisons from other sites on Crete for 23 of these potters, thus incorporating Aptera’s import network into a broader island-wide context: for example, stamps from Knossos reveal connections with two of the Aptera Eastern Sigillata stamps. Another 55 stamps come from workshops not known from other Cretan sites, 21 of which are not even known from elsewhere in the Greek East. This pattern not only reveals the economic importance of Roman Aptera but also emphasizes the degree to which Cretan cities were au courant with transport trends throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Baldwin Bowsky then explores Lappa, Knossos, Eleutherna, and Gortyn, revealing the presence in Cretan cities of a high number of stamps repeated from individual workshops—for example, at least 50 come from the potter L. Rasinius Pisanus. Names used by more than one potter are also noted, as are multiple dies for individual potters, which Baldwin Bowsky places in the broader context of their distribution across Roman Greece. This section finishes with a discussion of the sources of the stamped vessels.

The next issue explored concerns the chronology of the production and import of the stamped sigillatas. For the Italian examples, Baldwin Bowsky follows the four phases defined by Philip Kenrick in the Corpus Vasorum Arretinorum (A. Oxé et al., eds., 2nd ed., Habelt 2000), from ca. 40 BCE through the mid second century CE (Periods A–D). To these are added the Eastern Sigillata, from the late first century BCE to the first half of the second century CE. After an explanation of the development of sigillata workshops in Italy and the movement of potters between these, the author presents the types of stamps from Aptera, including in planta pedis, rectangular, oval, trefoil, in tabella ansata, crescent, and elliptical. These date to Periods B, C, and D, which are correlated with the building phases of the theater and demonstrate a diminution of Campanian products in favor of those from Pisa.

Baldwin Bowsky then focuses on the distribution patterns of Italian Sigillata on Crete. The island’s location is crucial, both for north–south routes between Achaea and Cyrenaica and for east–west routes from Italy and on to Syria and beyond. She proposes other influences: Crete’s involvement in the reorganization of the grain trade in the early second century CE, the export of wine from Crete, and Aptera’s probable role in this trade as a distributor of imported pottery.

The last issue considered involves the consumption of this pottery at the Aptera theater, and specifically its public context. Few other theaters on Crete have survived or been excavated, but material from the Odeion and Theater of the Pythion at Gortyn provide comparable shapes and potters’ stamps. Specific findspots at the Aptera theater shed light on the individuals using these vessels, both the actors and the spectators. The shapes testify to drinking as well as serving and eating, the height of which corresponds to the Roman floruit of the city in the first and early second centuries CE. This section ends with a cautionary note that the stamped sigillatas are only part of the story and must be considered along with the unstamped red-slipped vessels, which have not yet been published.

The remainder of this volume is a catalogue of 230 fragments, followed by appendices presenting the previously published stamped fragments and the 86 identified potters. Individual entries record vessel shape, findspot, dimensions, description of stamps, vessel origin, and attestations of the potter; each is well illustrated with color plates.

This research uses stamped sigillatas to reconstruct trade routes between Aptera and production centers in Italy and Asia Minor—although the latter are far less plentiful—and probable distribution routes of this material throughout Crete. This is a more nuanced examination of the evidence than has been produced previously for Crete: imported pottery is the earliest and most tangible Roman presence on the island, some arriving prior to the Roman occupation, and this evidence testifies to Cretan involvement with foreign—especially Italian—trade networks by the middle of the first century BCE. This study also offers a glimpse into Aptera’s possible role in Cretan trade as a distributor of foreign pottery, a role that may be clarified with the study of additional sigillata stamps from a greater number of contexts and sites as well as other imported pottery at Aptera. As such, this volume is not a standard pottery publication that will provide comparanda for ceramic experts but rather it will be of most use to historians of the ancient economy and the still-small group of scholars of the Roman period on Crete.

Issues with this work are few. One of the maps (fig. 6) is awkward and not specific enough; while in another (fig. 2), the use of different colors and sizes of stars to represent site locations is not explained. A significant question arising from this research concerns the implications for the shifts in sigillata production documented in Italy that affected the specific goods arriving in Crete: is a shipment of stamped vessels from a particular potter and site in Italy the result of a change at the source—movement of the potter, decline of one workshop area in favor of another—or does it derive more from individualized, preferred trade routes between Aptera and a western center? That this question can even be asked of material from Roman Crete is a testament to the thorough and precise research of Baldwin Bowsky.

Jane Francis
Concordia University (Montreal)

Book Review of Stamps on Terra Sigillata Found in Excavations of the Theatre of Aptera, Crete, by Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky
Reviewed by Jane Francis
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Francis

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