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Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta

Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta

By Robert Koehl. Pp. xxiv + 423, figs. 47, pls. 61, tables 29. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia, 2006. $120. ISBN 1-931534-16-0 (cloth).

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Koehl’s Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta is an exhaustive study of a vessel type that originated on Crete, became popular in Mycenaean Greece, and appeared in Egyptian tomb reliefs. Characterized by a primary opening of varying dimensions and a secondary perforated opening about 0.5 cm in diameter (5), rhyta were ubiquitous in the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age. The monograph, a handsome INSTAP publication, could be a useful resource for anyone working in Aegean Bronze Age studies.

Chapter 1 (“Typology, History, and Development”) reveals the author’s formalist perspective. On the assumption that the structure (width of the primary opening and the presence/absence of a base) determined the function of the vessel, Koehl identified four types based on these features—narrow opening/footed (I); narrow opening/footless (II); wide opening/footless (III); and wide opening/footed (IV). Types are subdivided into classes (overall similar profile), for example, Type IV Figural: Boot. Classes in turn are arranged into groups, according to rim, handle, and base profiles, for example, Type III HL (handleless) Piriform. Koehl includes in this chapter an account of the history and probable origins of each class. Chapter 2 (“Catalog”) repeats the typological organization. Each of the 1,340 entries of extant rhyta includes a description, comments on the context (where applicable), a bibliography, and for many, but not all, photographs and drawings. The same is true for 44 imitations from Egypt, Cyprus, and western Asia, and representations in fresco (36), seals and sealings (5), pottery (1), and Linear A/B texts (5).

Unpersuaded by traditional explanations for how rhyta were filled and emptied, Koehl conducted his own experiments, the results of which are presented in chapter 3 (“The Mechanical Functions of Aegean Rhyta”). According to the author, each type of rhyta required a slightly different tactic. For Types I (mostly zoomorphic) and II (piriform), users partially immersed the vessels while placing a thumb on the primary opening, trapping the fluid that poured in through the secondary opening and, by lifting the thumb, dispensed the contents through the secondary opening. Users of Type III (conical) rhyta filled the vase through the primary opening while placing a thumb on the secondary opening and released the contents by removing the thumb. Type IV (head shaped), with a wide primary opening and a base, had to be immersed at an angle and then tipped back to keep the liquid in place. Koehl also considered which liquids were most likely to have been used and tested, whether wool could have been used as both a filter and a way of introducing flavoring to wine. It can.

Koehl is at his best in chapter 4 (“The Uses of Aegean Rhyta”), with thorough descriptions of selected contexts and some provocative interpretations. Part 1 (“Rhyta and Associated Finds from Selected Contexts”) tracks rhyta from their initial appearance in prepalatial Cretan tombs through Protopalatial and Neopalatial habitations to LM IIIA2 (early) (when rhyta were used only at Knossos both in the palace and in one grave at each of the four cemeteries around Knossos), and LM IIIA2 (late) (when rhyta occur only in burials outside Knossos). On the mainland, the only LH I rhyta I are those found in Shaft Grave IV in Grave Circle A at Mycenae. There are some LH IIA examples from habitation, cult, and grave sites—a smaller number mostly from graves for LH IIB and from LH IIIA2 (late), though LH IIIB1 rhyta are abundant in both habitation and mortuary contexts. After LH IIIB1, rhyta are rare. Rhyta in the Cyclades appear in habitation contexts at Akrotiri (LC I) and at Ayia Eirene on Kea (LC II).

Part 2 (“Special Topics”) focuses on particular uses—tholos tombs, peak sanctuaries, processions, foundation deposits, ritual and industry, use and gender, rhyta and priests, and rhyta in extra-Aegean contexts. Highlights of this section include Koehl’s suggestions that (1) the frequent occurrence of loom weights with rhyta suggests that the vessels figured in libations related to the textile industry (335); (2) only men handled rhyta (337); and (3) Aegean people demonstrated use of the rhyta to those populations in Egypt and the Levant who, according to Koehl, incorporated rhyta in their own religious practices (342). Chapter 5, “Summaries and Conclusions,” summarizes the first four chapters.

Unfortunately, although Aegean Rhyta is a useful compendium of data, the book will ultimately disappoint readers. Because there is no underlying conceptual or theoretical framework, the book lacks a narrative arc that would connect the chapters to one another. Instead, each chapter is an independent series of meticulous descriptions—types, catalogue, mechanical functions, uses—interspersed with interpretations that are never incorporated into a sustained argument. Koehl treats his subjects as though they were specimens, an approach that gives the book a decidedly antiquarian flavor. As a result, when Koehl writes at the beginning of chapter 5: “Thus it may be fair to conclude that rhyta had a greater impact on these (Egyptian, Cypriot, Levantine) cultures than any other single component of Aegean material culture” (351), it is only an assertion, not a conclusion that he has demonstrated.

Even more distressing is Koehl’s essentialism, that is, his elision of geographic or chronological differences. Koehl never explains why he thinks it is appropriate to lump rhyta from Crete, the Cyclades, and the Mycenaean mainland under the “Aegean” rubric. He appears similarly uninterested in the possible significance of dates in interpreting various aspects of the rhyta. In discussing “Rhyton Use and Gender,” Koehl relies on fewer than two dozen objects found on Crete, the Cyclades, the mainland, and Cyprus, ranging in date from EM II to LM IIIA2–B. Koehl concludes that women were associated with rhyta only insofar as vases might be in the shape of women, and that only men actually handled rhyta. The author apparently assumes that attitudes about gender roles with respect to rhyta were both universal and static.

Koehl also fails to situate rhyta in broader social and political contexts. For example, does the distribution of Type I Figural: Bulls, which appear in EM III mortuary contexts in the Mesara, Protopalatial settlement contexts at Phaistos and Archanes, and Neopalatial habitation sites at Phaistos, Akrotiri, and Pseira—but never at Knossos—signify underlying political/power structures? Why doesn’t Koehl comment on the possible significance of the fact that Type IV: Bull’s Head stone rhyta are always found broken? Why does he devote an entire chapter to a description of his experiments and then not integrate those conclusions into a consideration of agency and performance? The list of similar omissions is long.

Beyond these substantive failings, the book is just plain frustrating. Koehl’s division of his subject matter into a typology (ch. 1) and a catalogue (ch. 2) results in needless repetition and forces the reader to flip back and forth between the sections. Koehl creates separate typologies for bases, handles, and rims but never explains the functional significance of these formal differences, even though the author argues that form determines function (2). He also omits illustrations for some of the most unusual rhyta. For example, Type I Figural: Female from Archanes (76, no. 32), a unique human vase with two large openings, a hat, and no clear indication of the figure’s sex, requires more than just a description for the reader to understand what the vase looks like. Koehl justifies the use of Munsell numbers as providing color consistency but does not always include them, and he does not explain how he can assign a Munsell number to number 25 (75), which he has not handled.

In the end, the book reads like a set of file cards rearranged to suit a particular topic, the data linked by only minimal, poorly edited connective tissue. Scholars of Aegean culture now apply a broad range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the investigation of cult and ritual. It is unfortunate that Koehl has chosen not to join them.

Emily Miller Bonney
Department of Liberal Studies
California State University
Fullerton, California 92834

Book Review of Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta, by Robert Koehl

Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Bonney

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