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The Neolithic Pottery Sequence in Southern Greece

The Neolithic Pottery Sequence in Southern Greece

By Bill Phelps (BAR-IS 1259). Pp. 277, b&w figs. 91, color figs. 8, charts 4, maps 8. Ar chaeopress, Oxford 2004. £44. ISBN 1-84171-617-0 (paper).

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In the late 1980s a photocopy of Bill Phelps’ doctoral dissertation was circulating for consultation among several of us, at the time graduate students in the Program in Classical Archaeology at Indiana University with a keen interest in Greek Neolithic pottery. I was, therefore, surprised to see the once hard-to-obtain thesis—at least in the United States—published in the BAR International Series, but I was also skeptical about its relevance to current Neolithic research nearly 30 years after its submission to the University of London.

The author, at first reluctant to proceed with the publication of his thesis with only minor additions, especially after such a long delay, was in the end persuaded by the genuine interest of students and field archaeologists working on the Neolithic period (1), which in recent years has finally received in Greece the attention it deserves.

Even though dissertations and final publications of several of the Neolithic sites mentioned in Phelps’ text and their related finds have recently appeared (e.g., Franchthi, Ayioryitika, Aria) or are forthcoming (e.g., Lerna, Asine), a concise account of the three-millennia-long ceramic sequence of the region has yet to be written. It is regrettable that Phelps’ book can fill that gap only partially, since it has not been possible to include either a discussion, however preliminary, of the pottery from the more recent Neolithic excavations in southern Greece or an update of the chronological charts (see below) or the stratigraphy.

The structure of the book is typical of many studies of Greek pottery produced in the 1960s and 1970s. In the first chapter, the author summarizes the characteristics of the major phases of the Neolithic period in Greece and points out the disagreements among archaeologists working in different parts of the country on the appropriate terminology to be used, especially with regard to the end of the period. Phelps himself adopts the broadly accepted division of the Greek Neolithic into four main phases, Early, Middle, Late, and Final, which he alternatively names, for the sake of simplicity, “Periods I–IV” (7). These divisions are based primarily on ceramic typology.

However, the issues of “nomenclature,” as the author calls it, will remain unresolved, unless a thorough, systematic analysis and interpretation of the stratigraphy is undertaken at each site (as, e.g., at the Franchthi Cave), coupled with a reliable series of radiocarbon dates where possible. Furthermore, I also believe that because of poor recovery methods the amount of stratigraphic or quantitative information one can obtain from old excavations, as is the case with many of the sites included in Phelps’ discussion, is extremely limited.

The next two chapters are mainly descriptive. In the “Historical Synopsis” the reader is acquainted with the most important excavations of Peloponnesian sites with a Neolithic component from the beginning of the 20th century onward, as well as with the contributions of prominent scholars and prehistorians to Neolithic research, such as L. Walker-Kosmopoulos, C.W. Blegen, S.S. Weinberg, J.L. Caskey, T.W. Jacobsen, and others. The chapter “Sites and Evidence” provides an account of specific sites in the Peloponnese from which the author drew his principal chronological and ceramic data. In the same chapter, a three-page discussion of the largely unpublished “key site” of Elateia in central Greece is also included because of its close ties to Corinth, a key site in the Peloponnese.

A detailed list of the ensuing catalogue’s contents, together with a cross-index, will help readers correlate the pages of the thesis to those of the present publication (25–6).

The core of the book is the “Catalogue of Wares and Types,” which covers about 100 pages. It is divided into four sections, one for each of Phelps’ periods. It includes a list of sites, a detailed presentation of the pottery of each phase according to shape, fabric, surface finish, and decoration, as well as short explanations of the terms used for the description of pottery. The reader should keep in mind that Phelps’ analysis is based primarily on individual sherds and not on whole or restorable pots. Moreover, one is advised to treat the stratigraphic information provided in the text with caution, since in most cases the stratigraphy from a given site has not been published by its excavators.

One of the problems I had with Phelps’ classification of Neolithic ceramics has to do with his choice of surface color as a criterion for assigning sherds to a particular ware. Since Neolithic pottery is hardly ever monochrome, that is, it rarely has on its surfaces one single color, a sherd can be assigned potentially to more than one category. It is a pity that the groundbreaking study of the Neolithic pottery from the Franchthi Cave by K.D. Vitelli and her system of classification could not have been taken into consideration in the present publication. In addition, color descriptions such as “dusky beige” instead of the standard Munsell color chart designations further blur the classification, making it difficult for another researcher to reproduce. The discussion is limited to the search for parallels for individual sherds among sites or the origins of particular wares. Also, labeling the decoration of particular sherds as “exclusively Peloponnesian” or “Attic” is, in my opinion, unsubstantiated.

Already at the time when Phelps was writing his dissertation, ceramic studies were undergoing rapid changes regarding their scope, methodology, and focus, especially under the influence of ceramic ecology, ethnoarchaeology, and the advancement of new methods of scientific analysis. None of these approaches, at the time novel, is detectable in the present publication. The four chronological charts (145–48) are based on the ¹⁴C dates available to the author when writing his thesis and, therefore, should have been revised and updated. Undoubtedly a solid and carefully researched piece of scholarship, Phelps’ study of the Neolithic pottery from southern Greece can only have a limited impact on future research.

The text of the catalogue is followed by a complete list of the captions accompanying each of the 61 figures, which show primarily line drawings of pottery. Although I found the number of illustrations adequate, I must note that they are not easy to use, as one has to go back and forth to read the caption, usually abbreviated, for each piece of pottery shown.

The book has two appendices. Appendix A briefly presents the major features of Early Bronze Age (Early Helladic I) pottery so as to differentiate it from that of the Final Neolithic. It would have been useful to have taken into account recently excavated EH I pottery from, for example, Tsoungiza in Nemea. Appendix B lists a number of Web sites, including those of selected Greek museums, which, however, can easily be accessed alphabetically through the main Web site of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. One of the sites listed seems to be no longer functioning. The rest of the sites were not particularly informative. Appendix B could have been omitted.

Among the weaknesses of the book, one cannot fail to notice a number of editorial mishaps (missing captions for four maps [170–73]; sites in coastal Argolid listed under Arcadia, [10]; scattered misspellings of Greek titles and names [124, 132]). The most recent bibliographic references seem to be from 2002, but I miss Susan Petrakis’ 2002 publication of C.W. Blegen’s excavation at Ayioryitika.

This book targets a small audience with very specific research interests, namely graduate students working on Neolithic pottery from southern Greece or excavators looking for a general reference book for shapes and decorations to compare their ceramic finds. Large research libraries strong in area studies should, therefore, consider purchasing this publication.

One cannot but applaud the author’s attempt to provide an orderly and informative synthesis of the Neolithic pottery excavated from so many different sites, with such varied methods, and over such a long period of time. The book contains a lot of unpublished pottery one may never have the chance to examine firsthand. Also, the numerous illustrations are useful for comparisons among sites and identifications of particular shapes. A student of John Evans, Bill Phelps is an attentive, meticulous scholar and one of the few archaeologists possessing a good command of such diverse material. It is a pity the publication of his thesis did not appear earlier.

Ada Kalogirou
24 Aigaiou Street
17121 Nea Smyrni

Book Review of The Neolithic Pottery Sequence in Southern Greece, by Bill Phelps

Reviewed by Ada Kalogirou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Kalogirou

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