Modes of production, labour division and the number of Attic Geometric workshops

August 13th, 2017


This section discusses Attic Early Iron Age modes of ceramic production and labour division. Furthermore, it addresses the numbers of Attic Geometric workshops in conjunction with the studies by Davison (1961) and Coldstream (1968).

The presence of nucleation in Attic Geometric fineware production

As noted in previous macroscopic studies, large ceramic containers and pouring vessels without contexts from the collections of the British Museum and the British School at Athens comply with the general patterns noted for assemblages of known contexts from the Agora and Kerameikos. This means that vessels without recorded contexts are not only Athenian, but also produced by the same workshops as every other large ceramic container and pouring vessel in this thesis. The study on pouring vessels also demonstrates that despite the homogeneity of metrical features and proportions among all LG typologies from all sites, there is one pitcher that stands out, and this is probably the product of a Phaleron workshop (GR1877,1207.10). These facts suggest that the most standardised products of Athenian workshops are likely to relate to a single production site.

Amphorae were produced with highly standardised characteristics regardless of the function they intended to cover. The most standardised of all large containers, banded-neck handled amphorae, were most likely produced for domestic consumption. The majority of such vessels have been recovered in the lower contexts of Geometric wells at the Athenian Agora. According to Shear (1993, 384-6) they were originally used to extract water but they were accidentally dropped and abandoned in these wells. By contrast, elaborately decorated amphorae found in the same contexts are likely to relate to later filling that took place during the Archaic period (Shear 1993, 384-6), or they could be production debris discarded by ceramic workshops of the Geometric period (Papadopoulos 2003, 274-6). Banded neck-handled amphorae have also been found in burials at Kerameikos, even though they comprise a small portion of the total ceramic assemblage. It is likely that Geometric amphorae were produced for distinct primary functions, in this case domestic versus ceremonial; however, secondary functions could have been mixed.

The standardisation between both typological classes of amphorae, and also their similarity with hydriae, suggests that all of them were produced during the same chaîne opératoire by a small number of specialists who communicated with each other. Such potters were most likely clustered in the same production site, matching Peacock’s (1982, 9) nucleated workshop model. Furthermore, based on the recovery contexts of such vessels, their production probably took place inside the later Classical Athenian Agora, matching the model suggested by Papadopoulos (2003, 276).

The same suggestion is also likely for the workshops that produced pouring vessels; however, their larger degree of standardisation in Late Geometric times suggests that their production was nucleated only after c.760 BC. Before that time, Early and Middle Geometric oinochoai were probably produced in more than one sites. Furthermore, the chaîne opératoire of pouring vessels shows great similarity with that of large ceramic containers, particularly in the use of the same fabric, and also the conceptualisation and assembling of both wares in at least three constituent vessel parts. Only exception is neck-less oinochoai; however, such vessels are no different compared to others in relation to their proportional characteristics. Finally, pitchers are a hybrid ceramic shape that combines the proportional characteristics of oinochoai and the partonomy of amphorae, particularly with regard to the sizes of their necks. The above evidence suggest that the potters who produced Late Geometric pouring vessels were in some sort of communication with the potters who produced large containers, if they were not the same artisans. Their workshops were probably connected and production was nucleated within the same site at the Athenian Agora.

The case of drinking vessels is distinct. The standardisation in the shaping of kantharoi suggests that some sub-typologies (e.g. small kantharoi with high handles) were produced by a small number of potters; however, it is not entirely clear if their workshops were clustered in the Agora. The production of skyphoi was standardised in a broad and rather loose sense; still, their relatively high degree of artefact variability suggests that there used to be some degree of freedom in the work of both potters and painters. This freedom could be connected to a larger number of workshops or individual artisans involved in their production. This pattern does not relate to any specific chronological period; however, the decorative features of skyphoi suggest that an increase in the numbers of painters is likely to be placed around MGII.

By contrast to the nucleated production of large containers and pouring vessels, the production of skyphoi was probably scattered across different locations, one of which supplied the buriers at Kynosarges. It appears likely that the production of skyphoi was in the hands of individual workshops, matching the model suggested by Peacock (1982, 8). Even though some of these workshops might have been located at the Agora, artefact variability of skyphoi suggests absence of nucleation in their production.

Patterns of specialisation and labour division strategies noted in the production of Geometric skyphoi

The study on drinking vessels demonstrates that skyphoi production was sub-specialised according to some specific shapes: all gadrooned LGI skyphoi and wide skyphoi with stirrup handles (EGII-MGI to MGI) were probably made by two distinct workshops or potters. Furthermore, artefact variability suggests that the total number of potters involved in skyphoi production was larger compared to those who produced other vessel classes. This paradox is hard to interpret.

A possible explanation could be that the production of skyphoi was practised independently by a number of artisans who purposely wished to be involved and specialised in this specific chaîne opératoire. The only example of similar specialisation comes from early 6th century BC Athens: Tleson and his brother Ergoteles were Athenian Black-Figure potters who produced solely Little-master cups. Their signatures referred to them as potters; however, attribution studies suggest that both of them were also the painters who decorated their vessels (Boardman 1974, 60). Tleson’s name has been found on at least 105 cups (Beazley 1956, 178-83) and his brother’s name on another 3 cups (Beazley 1956, 162). Furthermore, their father Nearchos was also a potter whose name was singed on 8 pots, the majority of which were drinking vessels (4 kantharoi, 2 cups, 1 aryballos and 1 plaque) (Beazley 1956, 82-3). Tleson and his family is a good example of artisans specialised in small vessels, which they shaped and decorated at the same time. It could be likely that similar specialisation existed in Early Iron Age Athens and began as early as the Geometric period.

The other possible explanation for the skyphoi paradox relates to labour division and apprenticeship. A bold assumption could be that the specialisation in specific shapes in Attic Geometric fineware production was part of a broader labour division scheme among artisans. The production of small shapes was likely connected to some intermediate stages of apprenticeship for both potters and painters before they moved on to chaînes opératoires that required greater specialisation (e.g. monumental Dipylon-style amphorae). In that sense, the idea of apprenticeship in Geometric Athens was not only based on the duration of mastering the potter’s wheel (Roux & Corbetta 1989), but also on the learning transition from shaping simple forms to shaping complex vessels built from more than one constituent parts.

If this is the case, it could be likely that the entire Attic Geometric fineware production was regulated by a strong notion of hierarchy across different chaînes opératoires, interconnected as steps of a learning process that introduced the apprentice to the gradual mastering of specific shapes. Drinking vessels were probably an intermediate stage of ceramic practice. As suggested elsewhere (Langdon 2015; Smyrnaios forthcoming), the production of miniature vessels was the initial stage of apprenticeship for young potters in Late Geometric Athens and it probably depended on child labour.

The number of Attic Geometric workshops

The final issue of this discussion is the number of Attic Geometric workshops. Davison (1961) has suggested at least 35 individual artists, divided in 17 broader workshops or artisan groups, which spread between the Late Geometric and the Orientalising periods. By contrast, Coldstream (1968, 29-82) argued in favour of 21 groups, comprised of 8 individual painters, 9 large workshops and 4 affiliated artists expanding across 60 years of the Late Geometric period. Both studies paint the picture of a diverse and lively production in Late Geometric Attica, which included a relatively large number of artisans and workshops; however, the specialisation and standardisation noted in the present study shows that the numbers of ‘workshops’ suggested by Davison (1961) and Coldstream (1968) are by far too many and need to be revised.

If one accepts Coldstream’s (1968, 29-82) estimations for at least 21 artisans in Late Geometric fineware production, of which only 9 were owners of large workshops, it is difficult to explain why their numbers dropped steeply in the following years. According to J.M. Cook (1935) and Davison (1961) there are only three identified painters for the early 7th century BC, which is a paradox as fineware production increased. For Protoattic pottery, it could be likely that the lack of large Athenian workshops was due to the relocation of production from Athens to Aegina, which according to Sarah Morris (1984) took place towards the middle of the 7th century BC, and more specifically between late EPA and MPA times. Still, the situation becomes more problematic when examining the numbers given by Webster (1972, 2), who identifies at least 14 painters and painter groups for the period between 600 BC and 575 BC. These are again fewer compared to those noted by Davison (1961) and Coldstream (1968) for the Late Geometric and Orientalising periods in total. It is only between 575 BC and 550 BC when Attic fineware production picks up again: for this period Webster (1972, 2) identifies 43 painters and painter groups in total. So, why is it that Attic ceramic ‘workshops’ reduced after the end of the Late Geometric, while it took roughly 125 years for workshop practice to recover?

The answer is simple: the numbers of Attic ‘workshops’ suggested by Davison (1961) and Coldstream (1968, 29-82) refer to painters instead of potters. The potters were most likely few from the beginning of the Geometric period -if not earlier- and remained such until the middle of the 6th century BC, when Black Figure style became popular and production increased significantly. The 6th century BC also matches the rise of the large ergasteria according Peacock’s (1982, 9-10) model of ceramic production. Webster (1972, 2) notes that during the 3rd quarter of the 6th century BC there were 43 potters involved in the production of 18 wares, which were decorated by 65 painter groups, 59 of which identified as individual artists. Again, the numbers for painters are larger than those for potters, and nothing suggests that this was not the case in earlier times.

According to the analyses presented by the author in the website, the production of complex closed shapes (large containers and pouring vessels) was highly standardised, particularly after LGIa. It was practised by specialised potters who followed distinct conceptualisations based on strong technological traditions. Their workshops were most likely nucleated in a single production site in the Athenian Agora and their number was small. Changes in the production of such vessels related either to the introduction of new shapes or to the size increase of already popular shapes. Still, both changes did not cause any broadening of workshop practice or increase in the number of potters involved in it. In fact, the production of pouring vessels shows the exact opposite: even though four new shapes were introduced in ceramic production during the Late Geometric period (neck-less trefoil oinochoai, giant oinochoai, broad oinochoai and pitchers) standardisation increased and production was most likely regulated by a smaller group of specialised potters compared to earlier times.

According to the present approach, it is only the production of skyphoi that was probably in the hands of a large number of individual artisans. Furthermore, there must have been at least one major workshop involved in the production of monumental amphorae, which operated seasonally, and a separate workshop that produced SOS transport amphorae towards the end of the 8th century BC. This project cannot identify the exact number of Attic Geometric and Orientalising workshops; however, it is more than likely that the production of large and complex shapes in the Late Geometric period was controlled by fewer workshops compared to the nine ones identified by Coldstream (1968).