Problems and critique of previous approaches on Attic decorated finewares

July 6th, 2017

The following information comes from the authors PhD thesis on Attic Geometric and Orientalising pottery. This is an isolated article that points out any problems and critiques previous approaches in the study of Attic Geometric and Orientalising finewares. I also presents an overview of our current understanding of Attic Early Iron Age society as this has been explored through ceramic studies.

Problems and critique of previous approaches on Attic decorated finewares and current understanding of Attic Early Iron Age society
The initial interest of Attic Early Iron Age archaeology in ceramic typologies and styles, which began in the late 19th century by scholars of the ‘German Tradition’ (sensu Whitley 2001, 32-6), is perhaps responsible for the broader interest in art and iconography, which flourished after World War II and continues until nowadays. The vast majority of such iconographic studies aimed in the analysis of Late Geometric and Orientalising figurative representations, which generated a gap in the archaeological understanding of periods without figural art, such as the Protogeometric, Early and Middle Geometric. Furthermore, this prevailing focus on iconography has generated confusion, as the Late Geometric period monopolises scholarly interest in the broader discussion on Geometric society. A manifestation of this problem is seen in the recent debate between Langdon (2006; 2008) and Whitley (1991; 2000): although Whitley examines social changes in relation to gender through archaeological evidence from the Protogeometric until the Orientalising period, Langdon’s critique and basic arguments are only backed up in relation to the iconography of the Late Geometric.

Iconographic studies focused on Homer (e.g. Hampe 1952; Webster 1955; Notopoulos 1957; Whitman 1958; Schweitzer 1967) created a legacy that manifests in the long lasting debate regarding ‘heroic versus mythical’ aspirations of figurative decoration. This debate is evident in the work of John Boardman (e.g. 1983; 1998) and Jeffery Hurwit (e.g. 1985; 2011), and still carries on. Again, the debate is limited in the figurative representations of the Late Geometric period and makes someone wonder how useful may that be in the broader understanding of Early Iron Age society. And how different may heroic or mythical representations be, especially if these were simultaneously used for the creation of an elite/aristocratic ideology?

The studies on the birth of Western ‘illusionism’ (e.g. Gombrich 1962; Benson 1970; Carter 1972; Hurwit 1985) and the broader view of the Late Geometric as the ‘Greek Renaissance’ (by Coldstream 1968; 1977; 2000) have generated some interesting points in relation to the broader evolution of pictorial arts in Europe. Seeing, though, that the entire discussion began right after World War II, it makes one wonder what the political parameters behind such debate. Of course, it is not the intention of this thesis to engage in such discussion, as the concept of art will not be examined in relation to ceramic technologies.

A useful and practical application of iconographic analysis in the study of Attic Early Iron Age finewares is connoisseurship. Its methodology has been applied in discussing chronology (e.g. Cook 1935) and ceramic production through the identification of Geometric and Orientalising workshops (Cook 1947; Davison 1961; Coldstream 1968; Morris 1984; Coulié 2013; 2014; 2015). No matter how useful this methodology is, there are four issues that require further attention. Firstly, that the entire discussion on workshops has been limited in the Late Geometric period while the contribution of connoisseurship in the identification of 7th century BC workshops is limited. Secondly, that the chronological sub-divisions of the Late Geometric cannot be cross-referenced with scientific methods and the dates followed by connoisseurs are stylistic. Thirdly, that the methodology of connoisseurship focuses in the identification of systems of rendering, which are supposed to relate to the identity of a specific painter. What happens, though, if after several years of apprenticeship, a painter decides to adopt the rendering systems of another painter, or consciously modify his/her own? Fourthly, that connoisseurship identifies painters and not potter; so, could workshops be defined solely on the work of painters?

The contribution of stylistic studies in establishing a chronological framework for the Geometric and Orientalising periods must not be neglected (e.g. Cook 1935; Kraiker et al. 1939; Kübler 1954). An equal amount of credit must be acknowledged to the first scholars who produced synchronisms with various contexts across the Eastern Mediterranean (e.g. Desborough 1952; 1957; Coldstream 1968); however, one must not forget that their broader chronological discussion was again stylistic. It is not always certain if ceramic styles relate to actual chronological periods; therefore, Early Iron Age chronology may worth revisiting in the future. A general problem in verifying chronologies for the Greek Early Iron Age is that scientific methods such as dendrochronology and radiocarbon (14C) are biased for two reasons: firstly, due to the problem of the Hallstatt Plateau, and secondly, due to the simultaneous existence of a high (‘biblical’) and a low (conventional) chronological system (Coldstream 2003c). For Attica in particular, the most recent study with the use of radiocarbon dating (Fantalkin 2015) verifies the conventional dates produced by Coldstream (1968, 330), but only until MGI.

Another problem is that the Orientalising period is underexplored. Stylistic and typological studies have shown that Orientalising finewares reflect the influence of Near Eastern traditions in Greek Early Archaic ceramic production, which blended together with preceding Geometric traditions (e.g. Coldstream 1977; Snodgrass 1980). Furthermore, our understanding of 7th century BC Attic society is limited in the works of Morris (1987), Whitley (1991; 1994b; 2000) and Osborne (1988; 1989). Primary focus of such scholars is the Early Protoattic period, either in relation to the transformations that occurred after the end of the Late Geometric (e.g. gender or political restructure), or in relation to the social and political ideologies that existed between Athens and other poleis (e.g. Corinth, Knossos, Argos). Morris (1984) expands this discussion in the Middle and Late Protoattic period; however, Whitley (1994b) suggests that her study is unlikely to relate to actual Athenian ceramic vessels.

In relation to the studies on elite ideology of the Geometric period (e.g. Coldstream 1977; Snodgrass 1987; Morris 1987; Whitley 1991), a major problem is that they connect the consumption of Geometric finewares with burials. Even though this is true when discussing burial contexts, it produces the wrong impression that ceramic studies can only interpret Attic Early Iron Age society in relation to its funerary practices. It remains an interesting question what the ideological concept of such vessels in relation to other -commercial or social- functions outside burials. And again, was the consumption of Attic decorated finewares restricted to the rituals of aristocratic elites? This may not have always been the case, as archaeologists cannot be entirely sure if decorated ceramic vessels were also purchased and consumed by non-elite groups. With regard to this point, Langdon (2008) makes an important contribution, suggesting that the iconography on such vessels exploited every-day themes in order to transmit social messages for the construction of gender ideologies; therefore, the social function of such vessels might not have been restricted to elite burials.

Our current understanding of Attic Early Iron Age society is constantly adapting in the light of new evidence. Snodgrass (1977, 19-20) saw that the regional uniformity of Geometric pottery in Attica could be connected with the increasing power of the Athenian polis, imposing its distinct ceramic style on its rural periphery; however, Morgan & Whitelaw (1991) proved that similar uniformity can also be noted in other regions of the Greek world. Morris (1987, 205) saw a form of isonomia expressed through Attic LGII funerary rites; however, under the light of recent funerary evidence, Laughy (2010), Schilardi (2011) and Alexandridou (forthcoming) have raised doubts that this isonomia existed, pointing to the arguments by Whitley (1991, 182-3) regarding the collapse of elite ideologies in Attica during that time. The gender debate between Whitley (1991; 2000) and Langdon (2008) suggests that either current archaeological and iconographic approaches are not compatible and cannot produce the same conclusions, or a different approach is required due to the complexity of gender distinctions in Early Iron Age Attica (e.g. in Liston & Papadopoulos 2004).

The author's own thesis is perhaps tuned in the technological approaches discussed earlier. However, such approaches are equally problematic as others. The broader problem in technological studies on Attic decorated finewares is that they have been carried out independently and they have never engaged in the archaeological debate on Early Iron Age society. With particular reference to Athens, even though archaeological studies have pointed out social changes in relation to burial customs and pottery consumption between the 9th and 7th centuries BC, the social response of the ceramic chaîne opératoire remains unknown. By contrast, pottery production and its social role has been approached though stylistic and iconographic studies, which have undermined the role of the potters as opposed to the role of the painters. Even though the distinction between the two artisans is not always possible, the prevailing focus in the ideological and symbolic role of Late Geometric figurative decoration has created two broader gaps in our current knowledge: firstly, pottery production modes during periods without figurative decoration are unclear; secondly, the behaviour and social attitude of potters is still unknown. The author's doctorate thesis aims to cover these gaps through an application of the chaîne opératoire approach in pottery analysis.