Archaeological approaches on Attic Early Iron Age Society

July 4th, 2017

The following information comes from the authors PhD thesis on Attic Geometric and Orientalising pottery. This is an isolated article that presents an overview of archaeological approaches on Attic Early Iron Age society. In must be clarified that not all approaches relate to the study of decorated pottery; however, they formulate the background of any discussion on the production and consumption of Attic finewares and the changing social demands of the Geometric and Orientalising periods.

Archaeological studies on Attic Early Iron Age society
The first attempt to produce a full archaeological volume on Early Iron Age decorated pottery was by Vincent Desborough (1952), who noted two important things: firstly, that the Protogeometric style was not homogeneous all across Greece but followed regional variations; secondly, that Athenian workshops exercised strong influence not only in Attica but also on many other Greek regions, with which they developed and maintained frequent contacts (1). He was also the first to note the deliberate use of specific amphora shapes in relation to the gender of the deceased in Attic Protogeometric burial rites: neck-handled amphorae for males and belly-handled amphorae for females (Desborough 1952, 5-6). After him, Kübler (1954) noted the social significance of drinking vessels placed in separate trenches (Opferrinnen) (2) in Late Geometric adult inhumations at Kerameikos, and also the prevalence of miniature vessels in infant burials of the same period.

In the most extensive archaeological volume on Greek Geometric Pottery, Coldstream (1968) followed the discussion by Desborough (1952) on the local variations of Early Iron Age styles. Coldstream (1968, 332) argued that the existence of numerous -yet connected- Geometric styles across the Aegean showed that there must have been decentralisation after the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system. Coldstream (1968, 332-3) saw a gradual move from the homogeneity of Mycenaean styles towards the variety and diversity of local Geometric styles, and rejected Desborough’s (1964) views for a clear break of ceramic traditions during the 11th century BC. Despite regional diversity, however, he suggested that there must have been some sharing of ideas through the travelling of potters or through the export of pottery, which resulted to reproductions of foreign originals in local clays (Coldstream 1968, 332-4).

Smithson (1968, 96) was the first to note the symbolic role of the shapes of Athenian decorated finewares and their possible connection to social class. She suggested that a long narrow ceramic chest with a lid surmounted by five model granaries in a row, placed in the Middle Geometric Tomb of the Rich Athenian Lady at Areopagus, was possibly the wealth badge of the Pentakosiomedimnoi. According Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia (3, 1), this was the highest social class of early Athens (Smithson 1968, 96-7). Despite this interesting explanation, it is highly unlikely that the class system discussed by Aristotle existed in Athens during the 9th century BC.

The 1970s were a new period in Greek archaeology due to the contributions of Anthony Snodgrass (1971) and Colin Renfrew (1972). Archaeological interest gradually shifted from typologies and styles towards why and how complex social structures emerged from less complex tribal communities (Whitley 2001, 55). In his critique on previous studies on decorated pottery by Desborough (1952), Kübler (1954), Cook (1960) and Coldstream (1968), Snodgrass (1971) argued that they limited research in providing a relative chronological framework, in showing local differences in style and in describing some social and economic influences; however, once pots were used to shape the whole picture, this became dangerous (Snodgrass 1971; 2000, 27-8). Even though Snodgrass᾽ (1971) contribution in ceramic studies was limited, he made a clear point that pottery could not be used as the sole mean of exploring the Greek past.

Similarly to Snodgrass (1971), Nicolas Coldstream (1977) produced a full publication on Greek Early Iron Age material culture. He (1977; 2003a, 107) examined the ‘Greek Renaissance’ of the Late Geometric era and suggested that there used to be a network of aristocratic patrons, who demanded gigantic vessels to stand on their graves. In his second edition of The Dark Ages of Greece Snodgrass (2000, 413-14) argued against Coldstream (1977; 2003a, 107) that the so called ‘Renaissance’ of Late Geometric figurative decoration was probably symbolic. The connections between material culture and aristocracy had also been discussed in a similar manner by Jeffery (1976, 101) for the Archaic period. Coldstream (1970; 2003a, 110) suggested that Late Geometric funerary vessels depicted scenes related to aristocratic social views and by the end of the Geometric period there was “a marked contrast in quality between large and small shapes, perhaps symptom of widening social distinctions” (Coldstream 2003a, 135). Coldstream (1977; 2003a, 295-302) also stressed the role of the Phoenicians and the Greek-Levantine contacts, which formed the ideological context to produce such artistic representations.

In his Archaeology and the Rise of the Greek State, Snodgrass (1977) introduced a new discussion regarding the rise of the Greek polis based on a study of settlements, cemeteries and demographic expansion. Snodgrass (1977, 19) argued that the regional uniformity of pottery decoration in large and thinly populated areas was the result of tribal organisation within the community. For example, the people of Early Iron Age Mycenae decorated their pottery in pretty much the same way as the people from Troezen (40 miles away), yet differently from the people of Kleonai (only 10 miles away). This pattern indicated communities based on tribes and kinship. By contrast, the uniformity of Attic styles of the 8th century BC, recovered in different cemeteries between Anavyssos and Kerameikos, was explained as the effect of the polis’ urban core imposing its own popular styles on the people of its rural periphery (Snodgrass 1977, 19-20). In later years, Morgan & Whitelaw (1991) analysed the distribution of Argive pottery in the Argolid plain and concluded that the formation of the Argive polis and Argive hegemony were to be placed in the 8th century BC. Their conclusions contrasted with the views of Snodgrass (1977, 19), who saw diversity of ceramic styles in the Argolid plain during the same period.

Merle K. Langdon (1976) noted an increase of fine pottery during the late 8th/ early 7th century BC at the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Hymmetos near Athens, by contrast to pottery dedications of the previous three centuries. Snodgrass (1980, 104-5; 2006, 257-67) noted a similar increase in bronze dedications at others sanctuaries such as Delphi, Olympia and the Athenian Acropolis during the same era. He explained that during the rise of the Greek polis ritual activity shifted gradually from burial sites to sanctuaries, which became the new focal point of local communities. In later years, De Polinac (1984, 84) argued that this did not necessarily imply an abandonment of competition amongst individual aristocrats, which was evident in burials of the Late Geometric. Instead, sanctuaries became an arena of externalised competition through which a more coherent social structure was about to emerge (De Polinac 1984, 84).

In 1987, Ian Morris published his book Burial and Ancient Society. He argued that the rise of visible burials during the Attic Late Geometric was not due to demographic expansion as previously suggested by Snodgrass (1977), but due to political struggles related to citizenship (more in Chapter 8). Major fluctuations in the archaeological record, particularly c.760 BC and 700 BC, were the result of competition amongst the nobles (agathoi) and the non-elites (kakoi), who did not always possess the same access to formal burial (Morris 1987, 94-6). In his opinion, the idea of the polis emerged during the 8th century BC as a result of social struggles in communities that were already highly stratified (Morris 1987, 1).

In his Style and Society in Dark Age Greece, Whitley (1991, 44) argued against Morris (1987) that his model of stratified society for Dark Age Athens presupposed the emergence of a slave-society in accordance to the Classical polis model as early as the 8th century BC. By contrast to the distinct political stratification suggested by Morris (1987, 1), Whitley (1991, 11) argued in favour of a rank social order similar to the Nuristan model described by Jones (1974). This model was the result of major social changes related to gender, wealth and status that began during the 9th century BC. Such changes gradually led to the rise of competing elites and finally to the collapse of elite ideologies during Late Geometric II (c.735 BC) (Whitley 1991, 182-3).

Furthermore, Whitley (1991, 182) suggested that male and female distinctions became visible in the Athenian archaeological record as early as the Protogeometric period, while they declined towards the end of the 8th century. In later years, osteological analysis of the material from the Tomb of the Rich Athenian Lady (c.850 BC) showed that the female occupant of the tomb was pregnant. In their analysis, Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) suggested that the tomb might not have associated with the female but with the neonate; therefore, they suggested that gender distinctions in Early Iron Age Athens might have been more complex than what we might think today. Finally, Langdon (2008, 63) argued against Whitley (1991, 182) that Late Geometric iconography implied a re-affirmation of gender distinctions around LGII, if not earlier

With regard to Attic Geometric finewares, Whitley (1991, 11-12) saw that the shape and decorative elements of the pottery found in grave assemblages played important role in social demarcation. Certain types of vases and decoration were to be found only in Attic graves, and at the same time, not only the selection but the entire production of such vases must have been stimulated by the social requirements of the occasion and the interests of the buriers. The decorative forms of the pots were as much an outcome of social demand as they were of technical or artistic accomplishment. The course of development of style was therefore intimately connected with social changes and there was a social logic behind its development (Whitley 1991, 11-12).

With regard to 7th century BC finewares, Whitley (1994b) argued that the Orientalising style in Attica was rationed and used in high-status contexts and to liminal occasions (e.g. burial ceremonies). This use reflected a conservative and rather suspicious to the exotic society, but at the same time this society appeared attracted by and caught up in the Orientalising world (Whitley 1994b, 65). Prior to this study, Osborne (1988; 1989) had argued that the consumption of Orientalising finewares in Athens and Corinth differed due to the distinct social and political structures of the two poleis. Coldstream (1996) expanded this argument and noted further complexity in the patterns of fineware consumption through the study of Attic Geometric imports found in burials at Knossos and Lefkandi. All studies pointed out that fineware consumption during the Early Iron Age was subject to the different social notions that circulated among Greek regions.

Whitley (2000, 223) suggested a different perception of gender in the Athenian society during the 9th century BC. This distinct perception was expressed through the deposition of elaborate and highly symbolic artefacts in adult female graves, similar to those offered in adult male graves. In a re-evaluation of this phenomenon, Whitley (2015) added that this perception did not exist in any other places of the Greek Early Iron Age world, despite that characteristically Athenian artefacts used in such burials (e.g. belly-handed amphorae) were already exported in other regions such as Argos and Knossos. Attic rich female burials gradually disappeared during the late 8th century BC and by the beginning of the Archaic period, gender divisions complied with the general pattern noted in the rest of the Greek world: that between adult males and children (Whitley 2000, 229-30). Pappi & Triantaphyllou (2011, 721) noted similarities between Argive and Athenian Late Geometric burials, particularly related to the increase of subadults and neonates. They suggested an increase of social status and interest in the social identity of children, connected to the decrease of female burials in both regions (Pappi & Triantaphyllou 2011, 722).

Whitley (2000, 230) also argued that the disappearance of rich Athenian female burials in the late 8th century BC was not due to the rise of a collective male hoplite identity related to the first formation of the polis. As previously demonstrated by Osborne (1989) and Whitley (1994b), Athens was by no means a normal or progressive city during the 7th century BC. Instead, he suggested that this disappearance must be treated as a paradox (Whitley 2000, 230-1). By contrast, Langdon (2008, 242-4) argued that Late Geometric iconography implied the masculinisation and manhood ideology of the Athenian society during the middle of the 8th century BC in relation of the rise of the polis. This resulted to the establishment of male-defined social roles for females, projected through pictorial arts.

In relation to political structures and social power, Lemos (2006, 516) argued that Late Helladic IIIC and Submycenaean burials demonstrate that Early Iron Age Athens did not have an urban centre. Instead, it was divided in small villages, made up by members of the same lineage, each with a small amount of equal-in-status leaders. This fragmentation of the political landscape did not encourage funerary display to the same extent that this occurred in Lefkandi. The dependency on local resources in Athens led to a formalisation of funerary rites, by contrast to Lefkandi, where local competition and internal conflict occurred between power groups who tried to gain control of the entire region (Lemos 2006, 526-7).

At this point special mention needs to be made to the Greek Archaeological Services, which intensified their work during rescue excavations conducted from 1992 onwards, either for the construction of Athens’ Metro and Tram network, or in relation to the preparations of the 2004 Olympic Games. Such excavations produced new assemblages of Attic Early Iron Age pottery, coming from graves and other deposits at central Athens (3), the Athenian suburbs and the broader region of Attica (4). The material produced from such excavations offered evidence that challenged previous views on Attic Geometric society (Alexandridou, forthcoming), and particularly in relation to the isonomia that supposed to have existed in Attica towards the end of LGII, as this was originally supported by Morris (1987, 205).

More specifically, Laughy (2010, 49-53) argued that the increase and variability of LGII burials suggested that lower social classes were able to practise funerary rites that were previously restricted to the upper social classes, meaning the aristocrats. However, the existence of a class system according to the Marxist sense in Early Iron Age Athens is highly unlikely. In an older publication, Duplouy (2006) preferred the term social groups and questioned the existence of hereditary prestige among Athenian aristocratic elites. Furthermore, Laughy (2010, 49-53) argued that the LGII was characterised by an increase of social status among non-aristocratic groups, which probably gained power and wealth through various economic activities. This was more evident in the Attic countryside. In addition to this point, the analysis of ceramic evidence from the Geometric cemetery of Kiphisia by Schilardi (2011) raised considerations whether there was a form of LGII isonomia that could prove Morris (1985, 205). Based on the burial patterns, Schilardi (2011) argued that the elites of the periphery of LGII Athens probably maintained their status and power compared to those buried in central areas such as Kerameikos.

Coldstream (2011) offered a new perspective in the function of Geometric pottery in Attic burials. He argued that the enlargement of ceramic funerary vessels in Athens during the Late Geometric period was combined with the idea that the pot was meant to be the final resting place of the person associated with the grave; therefore, the pot should have been produced at a full human size. This idea continued during the Archaic period, only then, ceramic vessels were replaced by equally large marble stelae. Furthermore, during LGII there appeared an increase of large grave markers outside Athens. By contrast to the increasing economic power of peripheral elites suggested by Laughy (2010, 49-53), Coldstream (2011, 804) attributed this phenomenon to the colonisation of the Attic countryside by noble Athenians. A different ‘colonisation’ of the Attic countryside was suggested in an iconographic analysis by Vlachou (2011b), who detected a regional originality of Attic Geometric vases from Marathon. Vlachou (2011b, 822) argued that sometime between LGIb and LGIIa there was a movement of Athenian craftsmen towards the countryside, which coincided with the rise of rural elites suggested by Laughy (2010) and Schilardi (2011).

A major problem in the study of Attic Geometric finewares until nowadays is that scholars tend to connect them with burials. This produces the wrong impression that ceramic studies are useful in understanding society only in relation to its funerary practices. In fact, there is little interest in seeing whether such vessels could have related to other -more practical- commercial or social functions outside burials, which would have also added to our existing knowledge on fineware production. In a recent study, Simantoni-Bournia (2011) questioned functionality and pottery consumption in Geometric Athens, and demonstrated that potters shifted from established consumer demands to personal experimentations. This was noted with regard to the production of playful vessels such as multi-storeyed skyphoi, the function of which is still unknown. Aim of the articles of this website is to offer another perspective by examining Geometric and Orientalising finewares as technological products.


  1. Protogeometric contacts and trade were investigated again by Murray (1975).
  2. A full discussion and summary of previous work on offering trenches has recently been published by Alexandra Alexandridou (2015).
  3. Relevant publications include: Chatzipouliou (1992, 30); Orphanou (1993, 37; 1998, 68); Baziotopoulou & Drakotou (1994, 34); Eleutheratou (1997, 35); Zachariadou & Kavvadias (1998, 55); Kaza-Papageorgiou (2000, 105); Lykouri-Tolia (2001-4, 254-5); Iliopoulos (2001-4, 214-6); Tsirigoti-Drakotou (2001-4, 259); Pologiorgi (2003-9).
  4. Relevant publications include: Papangeli (1992, 36-8; 1997, 60; 1999, 87; 2004); Kyriakou-Zapheiropoulou (1993, 42; 1994, 48); Kaza-Papageorgiou (1993, 70; 2001-4, 473); Platonos-Giota (1994, 72; 1997, 90; 1999, 111; 2001-4, 404-5); Agallopoulou (1994, 76); Kakavogianni (1999, 115; 2001-4, 336, 344-5); Kakavogianni & Ntouni (2001-4, 340-1); Oikonomakou (2001-4, 375-6). Other studies on Early Iron Age Attica include the work of Muskalla (2002); Xagorari-Gleissner (2005) on the Geometric necropolis of Merenda; Vlachou (2010) and Charalambidou (2011) on wheel made finewares from Oropos; and Demetriadou (2012) on Athenian topography, cemeteries and habitation areas between the Submycenaean era and the end of the Archaic period.