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The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna: The Early Iron Age Pottery

The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna: The Early Iron Age Pottery

By Antonis Kotsonas. Pp. 397, figs. 74, color plates 6, tables 3, graphs 17. University of Crete, Athens 2008. Price not available. ISBN 978-960-88394-6-5 (paper).

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The study of Early Iron Age Cretan pottery has advanced much since Coldstream’s survey of Greek styles (Greek Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology [London 1968]). At that time, the limited publication record for Crete forced Coldstream to concentrate on the ceramic sequence of Knossos. New publications such as Knossos North Cemetery: Early Greek Tombs (J.N. Coldstream and H. Catling, eds. [London 1996]) have expanded our knowledge of local pottery of this period (ca. 900–700 B.C.E.), while excavations at Chania in the west and various sites in the east (for which, see M. Tsipopoulou, Η Ανατολική Κρήτη στην πρώιμη εποχή του Σιδήρου [Herakleion 2005]) have paved the way for a regional assessment of Cretan styles.

Kotsonas’ book is the second installment in a projected four-volume publication of a large communal tomb excavated at Orthi Petra in the 1990s. It fills a void in the publication record of the island between Knossos and Chania by documenting a new local pottery style at Eleutherna. Moreover, Kotsonas makes an important contribution to Cretan history by using anthropological models and scientific analysis of materials to examine overseas contacts and the presence of foreign artisans on Crete. The result is a meticulously documented study that will not only be invaluable to Cretan archaeologists but also have wider implications for historians of Early Iron Age Greece.

The first four chapters provide an intellectual framework for the study, examining the history of research on Early Iron Age Crete, ceramic chronologies on the island, and modes of production and consumption. Then comes the core of the book, the documentation of local and imported pottery in chapters 5 and 6. In chapters 7 and 8, Kotsonas formulates conclusions about consumption patterns and sumptuary behavior. An appendix by Nodarou presents the results of ceramic petrography conducted on samples to clarify ware groups and identify imports. Although Kotsonas focuses on one class of evidence (pottery) from a single tomb structure, this is an ambitious project analyzing more than 400 objects and burial practices spanning more than two centuries.

Chapters 1–4 frame the presentation of material in the context of production and consumption models that seek to understand the lifecycle of pottery from the study of raw materials, production techniques, and the various uses of finished products (22). Kotsonas’ emphasis on the relationship between makers and users draws on developments in Bronze Age archaeology that have benefited from scientific techniques for tracing the exchange of materials and products. These developments, however, have only recently begun to enter the archaeology of post-Minoan Crete (23, 29). Kotsonas’ emphasis on production decisions manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, he employs traditional methods of stylistic analysis combined with anthropological studies of labor investment and shape standardization to postulate the activity of three distinct workshops specializing in cups and jugs. These workshops employed different potter’s marks and ceramic paste recipes (61–5). Kotsonas’ discussion of drinking sets, and the unusually clear evidence from Tomb A1K1 for particular combinations of vessels based on examples of cups packed inside craters, enriches our understanding of Cretan drinking practices (206, 302, 318).

Chapters 5 and 6 consist of archaeological documentation—the classification, typologies, and chronologies for local and imported pottery. Here, Kotsonas further undermines the traditional view of Knossos as the island’s trendsetter. The Knossian paradigm in Cretan archaeology has influenced almost everything from the dating of pottery to historical reconstructions of island trade (35–41, 296, 338). Study of the local sequence reveals strong ties between Eleutherna and Knossos in the ninth and early eighth centuries, but after this, Eleuthernian pottery must be understood largely on its own terms (49–50). Kotsonas concludes that Eleutherna did not develop an orientalizing ceramic style—a surprise, given the constant trope of Near Eastern connections in Cretan studies (39–40, 50).

The imports in Tomb A1K1 lead Kotsonas to further conclusions about Eleutherna’s relations with other communities. Perhaps because of the small number of overseas imports and pottery from other Cretan sites (55 pots representing 13% of the total ceramic assemblage), he refrains from drawing wider conclusions about possible economic networks (233–34). His theme is rather the selective incorporation of foreign elements into the local stock. There was, Kotsonas argues, nothing passive about this response. If the Eleuthernians had simply been the beneficiaries of connections sponsored by others, we would expect their import pattern to emulate that of Knossos or some other “center.” But this is not the case. For example, the strong influence of Attic Middle Geometric at Knossos is not apparent at Eleutherna (265–67). To take another example, the users of Tomb A1K1 expressed strong preferences for particular Corinthian shapes, preferences not observed at Knossos or other Cretan sites (256–63, 294). By placing the imports from this tomb in a pan-Cretan context, Kotsonas creates an up-to-date synthesis of the island’s import record and makes a valuable contribution to intra-island and overseas exchange.

Kotsonas’ other arguments for local production of perfume bottles of Cypriot style and Parian-type amphoras have even wider relevance for ancient exchange routes (65–9, 72–7). Crete has been a favorite location for those seeking Near Eastern immigrants and itinerant craftsmen. Such claims have tested archaeological methodologies and the relationship between pot style and ethnic identity. For example, Hoffman (Imports and Immigrants: Near Eastern Contact with Iron Age Crete [Ann Arbor, Mich. 1997]) reached essentially negative conclusions about the presence of foreign craftsmen on Crete. Kotsonas shifts the debate by viewing style as a permeable quality, favoring closer study of production techniques as a better clue to artisan traditions and geographic origin (69, 270). His attribution of seven amphoras to an “Eleutherna Bird Workshop” founded by immigrant craftsmen from Paros is based on the use of decorative tools (multiple brush) not otherwise found in the Eleuthernian tradition, unusual decorative motifs, and differences in firing technology (73–7, 296). In this example, production materials and techniques help distinguish the works of immigrant craftsmen from mere stylistic influence on local potters. This also brings a more nuanced perspective to the flow of styles and ideas in the eastern Mediterranean, with orientalizing influences reaching Eleutherna through specific Cycladic channels rather than diffusing from an amorphous Near Eastern source (329).

Chapters 7 and 8 contain valuable insights on the role of pottery in funerary ritual. Seeing the cemetery as reflecting changes in social practice, Kotsonas makes a convincing case for a shift in feasting etiquette as participants began mixing their wine individually in large cups rather than in the communal craters of the ninth century (316). In a book so grounded in statistical counts of vessel shape and assemblages (306–25), scientific analysis of materials, and careful reasoning from anthropological models, the discussion of figural imagery is more conjectural. Kotsonas connects images of birds in A1K1 with the idea of mythical animals protecting the tomb, but his discussion is based on a sample of only 16 figural pots, six of them imports (326–32). Moreover, in contrast to the rich field of juxtaposed images in the mainland Geometric repertoires explored by Langdon (Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–750 B.C.E. [Cambridge 2008]), much of the Cretan evidence consists of isolated elements not conducive to contextually nuanced readings.

This book will best be appreciated in conjunction with the two anticipated final volumes in the series. The reader intrigued by Kotsonas’ brief description of virtual stratigraphy within the tomb, depicted as a gradual accumulation of offerings at higher elevations, will eagerly await a later volume assessing the tomb’s archeological context (43). In addition, the eventual publication of pottery catalogues and photographs will facilitate discussion of the pottery and its meaning. The two published volumes already raise expectations that the completed series will establish a benchmark for Early Iron Age Cretan archaeology. As important as it is to document such a substantial corpus of new material—and many would say that Cretan archaeology stands most in need of a richer data set from a wider variety of sites and contexts—Kotsonas achieves far more. He combines impeccable stylistic analysis and almost peerless knowledge of the ceramic repertoires of Early Iron Age Crete with a postprocessualist emphasis on human agency. This approach underlines the relevance of pottery in the human scale of social history and helps lift post-Minoan Crete from underserved obscurity to the forefront of debates in Greek archaeology.

Brice Erickson
Department of Classics
4080 HSSB
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California 93106

Book Review of The Archaeology of Tomb A1K1 of Orthi Petra in Eleutherna: The Early Iron Age Pottery, by Antonis Kotsonas

Reviewed by Brice Erickson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Erickson

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