Social changes and production response

August 13th, 2017


This section addresses two questions in relation the the studies presented earlier: firstly, were social changes responsible for technological advances in the ceramic production sequence (chaîne opératoire) of Attic Geometric and Orientalising finewares? And secondly, what was the potters’ response to these social changes?

When did social changes occur in Early Iron Age Attica

Defining what consists of social transformation in Early Iron Age Attica and when this took place is not an easy and straight-forward task. There has been a lot of discussion by a number of scholars who do not necessarily agree on this issue, and their arguments have pointed out different types of social transformations occurring in different phases of the Geometric and Orientalising eras. In order to answer the above questions, it is important to summarise the points presented by each scholar.

Anthony Snodgrass (1977, 11) was the first to argue that towards the middle of the 8th century BC Greece faced a significant demographic expansion. In Attica in particular, the steep rise in the numbers of burials at Kerameikos and other peripheral cemeteries suggest that c.760 BC society faced a population growth, which probably led to the territorial unification (synoikismos) and rise of the Athenian polis. This period of social change (LGIa) coincided with the time of the Dipylon-master workshop and the increasing popularity of figurative style decoration.

In his Burial and Ancient Society, Ian Morris (1987, 216) noted three periods of social change according to the fluctuations from primary cremation to inhumation:
(a) The end of the Middle Geometric period (c.760 BC or MGII-LGIa).
(b) The beginning of the Orientalising period (c.700 BC or LGIIb-EPA).
(c) The end of the Archaic era (c.600 BC).
Morris (1987) agreed with Snodgrass (1977; 1980) that LGIa was a period of important social change, also followed by a second one during the transition between LGIIb and EPA. However, he argued that both were not the result of population expansion, but political struggle between the nobles (agathoi) and the non-elites (kakoi) (Morris 1987, 94-6). In his opinion, the non-elites were responsible for the rise of visible burials noted by Snodgrass (1977, 11) during LGI, as before that time their dead were disposed in ways that did not leave trace in the archaeological record. Furthermore, towards the turning of the 7th century BC he saw a reaction by the elites, who re-asserted the social order that existed in Athens prior to LGIa, leading to a new reduction in the number of visible burials (Morris 1987, 22-6).

Morris (1987, 22-6) saw that the reaction of the elites against the non-elites during the beginning of the 7th century BC was a step backwards from the political developments that were meant to follow a century later, leading to the rise of the Athenian democracy. Similarly, Osborne (1989) noted a strong sense of conservatism in the Protoattic style, which could justify the existence of a plethora of social groups in Athens during the early 7th century BC (Osborne 1989, 320-1).

By contrast to Morris (1987), in his Style and Society in Dark Age Greece Whitley (1991) suggested five different periods of social change between Protogeometric and Late Geometric times. These changes did not relate to political struggles but to age, gender and social status distinctions projected through Attic funerary rites:

  1. The Sub-Mycenaean era, characterised by lack of distinct demarcation among person-types (Whitley 1991, 181).
  2. The Protogeometric period, during which the choice of artefacts placed in burials and also the painted motifs on pottery underlined and emphasised sex distinctions (Whitley 1991, 115, 182).
  3. The 9th century BC (from EGI until MGI), where artefacts and ceramic styles showed selectivity and exclusivity in relation to sex and wealth of the dead (Whitley 1991, 136, 182).
  4. The early 8th century BC (between MGII and LGI), where the same pattern continued; however, by the end of this period (around the middle of the 8th century BC) there appeared dissolution. The complexity of ceramic decoration and variability of painted motifs stopped being gender specific and aimed to symbolise wealth and social status (Whitley 1991, 157-61).
  5. The late 8th century BC (during LGII), which marked the complete breakdown of aristocratic order. During that time burials became uniform and there was less exclusivity in the consumption of exotica and ceramic forms. Pottery production became regulated by increasing elite demands and person distinctions followed a new pattern: instead of diversifying between males and females (based on sex), burials aimed to mark differences among adults and infants (based on age) (Whitley 1991, 177-80, 182-3).

Whitley (1991, 183) suggested that the increasing interest in adulthood in combination with the uniformity of LGII funerary rites reflected a form of isonomia among social groups, probably attributed to the early formation of the Athenian polis. Furthermore, Whitley (2000, 229-30) noted the decline of rich female burials after LGII and argued that this specific phenomenon should be seen as an Athenian paradox (Whitley 2000, 230; also in Osborne 1989; Whitley 1994b). He saw that during the Orientalising period women were represented on Attic finewares as mourners or monsters; however, in burials they did not exist as recognisable social types who could have played an important role in society (Whitley 2000, 230-1).

By contrast to Whitley (2000), Langdon (2006; 2008) saw that gender restructure in Attica took place right after LGI, in a time when Geometric iconography was used to define new social roles for women. In her opinion, figural art displayed ideological symbolisms in order to construct social identity and gender hierarchy within the community, during the rise of the Athenian polis (Langdon 2008, 3-11).

Laughy (2010, 49-50) argued that the increase in the number of burials in Athens and the Attic countryside during LGII indicate access to formal burial by non-aristocratic social groups (1). Such groups of low social status probably managed to earn enough wealth in order to compete with the aristocrats that reserved the right of elaborate burial in previous times (Laughy 2010, 49-53).

Alexandra Alexandridou (forthcoming) argues that recent funerary evidence suggest that Attic LGII burials do not reflect Morris’ (1987, 205) political isonomia between elites and non-elites. Instead, they reveal divisions based on age and gender that demarcate kinship groups. Still, by the early 7th century BC this funerary representation of kinship comes to an end: females become invisible and adult males are the only survivors in the archaeological record (Alexandridou, forthcoming; also noted by Whitley 1991; 2000).

Production response during the social changes of the 9th and late 8th centuries BC

After summarising the views of previous scholars on social transformations of the Geometric and Orientalising eras, it is time to move to the relationship between pottery production and social change. The first two periods under examination are the 9th century BC (between EGI and MGI) and the late 8th century BC (the period after LGII). During these two periods, Whitley (1991, 181-3; 2000, 229-30) notes important changes in relation to gender and social status.

Present macroscopic analysis shows that three of the largest vessel groups encountered in this project date in the period between EGII and MGI. More specifically, these are the largest decorated neck-handled amphorae from Kerameikos (925, 254, 2136, 2140 and 1249); the largest oinochoe from Kerameikos (2149) and the largest group of oinochoai from the Agora (P18618, P18622, P6204, P6164, P552 and P6409); and finally, the characteristic wide skyphoi with stirrup handles from Kerameikos (2143, 2144, 888 and 889). The production of all these vessels matches the period of selectivity and exclusivity in relation to sex and wealth noted by Whitley (1991, 136, 182) in 9th century BC burials, and more specifically between EGI and MGI. As noted in previous chapters, all these vessels are most likely the products of distinct workshops or potters.

Secondly, the tallest closed ceramic containers from the Athenian Agora and the British Museum collections have been produced after LGII and four of them (P4980, P32887, P4768 and P16990) come from burial deposits. Chapter 4 also suggests that amphorae of distinct conceptualisation related to experimentations (e.g. P4768, P16990 and GR1927,0411.1) and new shapes (e.g. SOS amphora 1298) date in periods after LGII. The production dates of these vessels match the collapse of social order and the rise of distinctions between adults and children suggested by Whitley (1991, 177-83; 2000, 231) towards the end of the 8th century BC.

According to this project, it appears likely that there was some sort of response in fineware production during these two periods of noted social changes. Both periods mark the manufacture of exceptionally large vessels, some of which shaped on conceptualisations that stood away from the technological traditions of the Geometric era. Still, both assemblages are exceptional and do not comply with the general tendency in fineware production.

Whitley (1991, 11-12) argues that the decoration of Attic Geometric finewares was not only an issue of technical or artistic accomplishment, but also the product of specific social demand; therefore, the development of Attic Early Iron Age styles depended upon a strong social logic. The present thesis cannot argue against the possibility of a strong social logic behind Attic Early Iron Age decoration; however, it suggests that the broader chaîne opératoire of Attic decorated finewares was subject to strong technological traditions that remained unchanged for at least two (if not three) centuries, despite the changing nature of society. Such technological traditions related to the use of specific natural resources and to the presence of distinct conceptualisations in the shaping of different fineware classes.

More specifically, the strongest technological tradition in the production of all finewares examined in this thesis relates to the use of a single fabric, which results in two similar variants that are difficult to distinguish under hand specimen examination. None of the two variants contains large-sized tempers (e.g. grog or large rock fragments), which is highly unusual, particularly for the production of thick-walled vessels such as amphorae. Furthermore, Attic Corinthianising vessels, such as skyphos P5286, are produced again from the same fabric. Microscopic analysis proves that this fabric was in use across three centuries (9th-7th centuries BC) and its variants derived from local geological formations.

The analysis of metrical features and proportions reveals that closed ceramic containers were highly standardised regardless of their period of production, and also all Late Geometric pouring vessels. Potters followed some pre-existing conceptualisations that functioned as traditional archetypes. According to the discussion, it is likely that such archetypal forms originated from similar shapes of the Submycenaean and Protogeometric period. In this project, standardisation was noted with regard to two strong technological traditions. In the first tradition, the necks of closed ceramic container were produced at roughly 30% of a vessel’s net height, and those of Late Geometric standard trefoil oinochoai and pitchers at 37.5% of a vessel’s net height. In the second technological tradition, the handles of neck-handled amphorae (banded or elaborately decorated) and hydriae were attached at a proportion of roughly 2/3 of a vessel’s net height (roughly between 67% and 69%), while the handles of all Late Geometric oinochoai -regardless of typological class- and pitchers were attached at roughly 60% and 61.5% respectively. The handles of both kantharoi and skyphoi were attached at similar heights, between 70-71% of a vessel’s net height (or at a fraction of 7/10), although the Kerameikos skyphoi assemblage could suggest that a second technological tradition existed simultaneously to the first one.

According to the above observations, the dominance of strong technological traditions over such a long period of time is likely to suggest that the social logic interwoven in fineware production was weaker compared to how Whitley (1991, 11-12) describes it. In fact, if there was a strong social logic, this was most likely confined to ceramic decoration. According to this thesis, the core aspects of fineware production were never meant to change or adjust, regardless of the changes noted in consumption demands over time.

Production response during the social changes c.760 BC

The presence of strong technological traditions in Attic Geometric and Orientalising fineware production characterised the work of potters instead of painters. As argued in previous chapters, painters probably enjoyed greater freedom in their work, particularly after the expansion of figurative style decoration circa 760 BC. If this is the case, then could it be likely that the social changes after LGIa noted by Morris (1987, 216) and Langdon (2008, 10, 63) were responsible for major changes in ceramic production? The answer is probably no.

According to the present study, the Late Geometric period is characterised by two major changes related to the decoration and external treatment of some specific fineware types: firstly, there is a decline in the use of thick external coatings for elaborately decorated amphorae and oinochoai, and secondly, there is an expansion of decorative colours used for coatings and painted motifs for the same typologies. Despite the fact that these two changes are likely to relate to the spread of figurative decoration, both patterns are not general in Late Geometric fineware production. By contrast, specific wares such as banded amphorae and pitchers were decorated in a standardised manner all along the Geometric era, with black or brown black colours applied on uncoated surfaces. Secondly, colour variability on skyphoi begins as early as MGII, while the decline of coating practices on kantharoi is noted after the end of the Late Geometric period. Finally, the imitation of metallic sheens on the external surfaces of oinochoai and the gadrooning of skyphoi appear for the first time during LGIa (2) but become stronger after LGIb. At that time coating practices are already in decline in the external treatment of other vessels.

In relation to the general patterns noted on Attic finewares, this study demonstrates that the production of the Late Geometric period is characterised by two distinct events, none of which related to decoration and external treatments: firstly, the appearance of new shapes, and secondly, the beginning of standardisation in the manufacture of pouring vessels. Again, the technological choices connected to both phenomena are highly unlikely to relate to any social changes during that time.

More specifically, during LGIa there is the first appearance of shapes such as monumental Dipylon-style amphorae, giant oinochoai, pitchers, broad and neck-less trefoil oinochoai. Galanakis (2013, 37) notes that the first three were “invented” by the Dipylon Master. According to the chaîne opératoire theory, however, ceramic shapes are not invented but conceptualised (sensu Van der Leeuw 1994, 136-7); therefore, such shapes are products of innovative conceptualisation.

The introduction and manufacture of innovative shapes c.760 BC could have reflected the consumption demands of competing elites in Late Geometric burial rites as these have been suggested by Morris (1987, 97-104) and Whitley (1991, 177, 182-3). Boardman (1998, 25) suggests that the only shapes connected solely to elite consumption were monumental amphorae and this study demonstrates that their production required a completely different chaîne opératoire compared to any other fineware. Even though shapes such as neck-less trefoil oinochoai, giant oinochoai and pitchers were newly introduced during LGIa, the chaîne opératoire that produced them was not. Furthermore, pots of district sizes and innovative conceptualisation were also produced during periods before and after 760 BC, and more specifically during EGII-MGI and after LGII. In general, the introduction of new shapes during LGIa cannot be seen as the result of social transformations, with exception perhaps of monumental amphorae.

Monumental Dipylon-style vessels were the distinct products of a chaîne opératoire based on combined techniques such as hand-building, wheel-finishing and possibly moulding (see below); therefore, it is not entirely correct to categorise such vessels as ‘wheel-made finewares’. They resembled typical amphorae as their constituent parts could have been formed on a wheel; however, their assembling procedure was probably not. The only sample examined in this thesis, neck fragment P22435 (Burr 1933, 570-1), weights c.14 Kg in fired state (3). If the neck of an amphora is roughly 25% of a vessels weight, then the total weight of the entire vessel would have been c.56 Kg in fired state. If one adds another 25% of maximum water weight-loss after drying and firing (Rice 2005, 65), then the gross weight of the pot at the end of its forming process would have been c.70 Kg. It is highly unlikely that an average Geometric potter’s wheel could have supported such weight without collapsing, not to mention the amount of kinetic energy that would have been required to spin such weight on the wheel; therefore, it is more likely that the assembling of monumental amphorae was executed on a low-speed turntable.

Hasaki (2002, 224) notes that Dipylon-style amphorae did not fit inside an average Geometric kiln; thus, such vessels were probably fired on their own. If this is indeed the case, then their production could have been seasonal following the model suggested by Arafat & Morgan (1989). According to Coldstream (1968, 42-6; also Knigge 1988, 20-4), the production of such vessels began during LGIa but declined sometime in LGII; therefore, it reflects a chronologically distinct trend. It could be likely that the production of monumental amphorae was not only seasonal and specific to burial customs, but also destined to satisfy a short-lived consumption demand.

In relation to their manufactural complexity, monumental Dipylon-style vessels could have been produced with the use of moulding techniques, similar to those employed in tile production (4). The presence of a vertical crack on P22435 could explain a vertical joint on the edges of parallel slabs, resembling flat rectangular tiles. Even though there are no excavated tiles coming from Geometric Athens, the earliest known samples from the Old Temple of Apollo at Corinth date in the beginning of the 7th century BC (Weinberg 1939, 595; Roebuck 1955, 156-7; Winter 1994, 12-16). Production techniques are likely to date earlier than that time: tiles were used during Middle Helladic II at Lerna (Wiencke 2000) and Protocorinthian tiles have been characterised as a post-Mycenaean re-invention (Williams 1980, 346; Robinson 1984, 55-7). After Corinth, tile production expanded during the late 7th and 6th centuries BC in the rest of the Peloponnese, Attica and Asia Minor (Wikander 1990). The earliest antefixes from the Acropolis suggest that tile-making was known in Athens during the early 7th century (Wikander 1990, 285); however, it is not entirely sure if tile production techniques were known to Athenian craftsmen during the 8th century BC.

It is also likely that monumental Dipylon-style vessels were assembled in cylinders instead of slabs, following techniques that matched the production of pithoi. If this is the case, then the vertical crack on P22435 could be due to a post-depositional accident. Even though there have not been any pithoi recovered in Early Iron Age Athens, there are many 8th century BC vessels from Zagora in Andros (5), and strong traditions in the production of such shapes also existed in Late Geometric and Orientalising Cyclades, Crete and Rhodes (Ebbinghaus 2005). Particularly at Knossos, such shapes date back to the Subminoan-Early Protogeometric period (Catling & Coldstream 1996). Papadopoulos (1998) argues that shapes with Cretan influence were already known in Athens since MGI: krater P6163 from the Agora was originally conceptualised as a hydria; however, the potter decided to cut the vessel in half before firing it and produced a bucket-shape that resembled Cretan Early Iron Age storage vessels.

Future X-Ray analysis of monumental Dipylon-style amphorae is likely to reveal the secrets of their chaîne opératoire; whatever the case though, this chaîne opératoire was significantly different compared to typical Athenian wheel-made amphorae of regular sizes. Both vessel classes resembled in their fine fabric, while the painters who decorated them were certainly the same artisans as those involved in the production of every other fineware class. In conclusion, the chaîne opératoire of monumental vessels must be viewed as a mixture of innovative conceptualisation and employment of traditional technologies. Such vessels served specific elite consumption demands during LGI times and cannot be treated as regular finewares.

The second important change noted in pottery production c.760 BC relates to the increasing standardisation of pouring vessels. The shapes of trefoil oinochoai of the Early and Middle Geometric periods were more diverse compared to those produced after LGIa. During the Late Geometric production moved towards greater standardisation and artefact variability declined. Even though pitchers and neck-less trefoil oinochoai were definitely new shapes, their conceptualisation was equally standardised and their proportional features similar to those of standard trefoil oinochoai. Furthermore, the chaîne opératoire of neck-less pouring vessels was simpler compared to any other shape. Such pots did not have ring bases and necks, and they were produced during fewer episodes on the potter’s wheel that allowed production to move faster.

A possible explanation of this standardisation and faster production of pouring vessels could relate to increasing consumption demands during Late Geometric times. Instead of opening new workshops or allowing more potters to be involved in the manufacture of oinochoai and pitchers, Athenian craftsmen decided to meet these demands with specialisation in ceramic production (sensu Rice 1987, 189). This led to a decrease in the number of artisans and workshops, and the conceptualisation of pouring vessels became more standardised compared to the earlier phases of the Geometric era. It is interesting that this response did not occur in the production of large ceramic containers and small drinking vessels.

The increasing consumption demands for specific finewares circa 760 BC may not necessarily relate to social changes connected to political or gender restructure. In fact, they are more likely related to a population increase similar to the one suggested by Snodgrass (1977, 1980): a demographic expansion at the beginning of the Late Geometric would have naturally resulted to an expansion of the consumer community. Again, the relationship between demographic expansion and increasing fineware consumption is indirect and this study cannot suggest any clearer patterns.

Production response during the social changes c.700 BC

Moving to the final period of social change, Morris (1987, 216-7), Osborne (1989) and Whitley (1994b; 2000) suggest that the Athenian society reverted to a form of social conservatism circa 700 BC, which also affected the production of Early Protoattic pottery. Unfortunately, the material used in the current project is not adequate to address the response of ceramic production of the early 7th century BC.

Based on the amphora material analysed above, the conceptualisation of large ceramic containers during LGIIb-EPA does not differ at all compared to the rest of the 8th century BC. The analysis of drinking vessels offers evidence that the production of undecorated kantharoi was an entirely Protoattic phenomenon. Still, the lack of adequate 7th century BC samples in this project makes it difficult to see the broader response of ceramic production during that time, and therefore, the project needs to expand in this direction in the future.

Despite its small sample size, the assemblage for the microscopic pilot study explains some basic aspects of Orientalising ceramic production. As noted earlier, all Geometric and Orientalising finewares were produced from the same exact fabric, which came in two variants of similar geological composition. It is almost certain that Orientalising fabrication practices were the same as those of the Geometric period. Only exception might have been vessels of the Subgeometric style. Comparisons between present and previous analytical results (see Fillieres et al. 1983, 61) show that SG clays were deliberately chosen from highly calcareous geological formations and were different compared to those used in the production of typical Geometric and Orientalising decorated finewares.

Furthermore, the work of potters and painters might have diversified in relation to the technologies they employed right after c.700 BC. This assumption is based on the microscopic analysis of a single Protoattic sherd (AS1821). Even though the chemical composition of paints and pastes of all Geometric finewares was similar, the paint of AS1821 could have been produced from different clay (or through different levigation) as opposed to the vessel’s paste. If some of the painters who decorated PA pots were different artisans compared to the potters who shaped them, it would be interesting to see if the chemical composition of their favourite paint matches non-Athenian clay sources.

Sarah Morris (1984) has already argued that early 7th century BC ‘Athenian’ production was once in the hands of Aeginetan workshops. Whitley (1994b, 66), however, has argued against her point that the most characteristic Athenian Orientalising shapes were unknown to Aegina and the most typical Aeginetan shapes have not been encountered in Athenian contexts; therefore, Aeginetan and Attic Orientalising fineware productions must be treated separately. As Morris’ (1984) analysis was based on ceramic decoration and connoisseurship, her suggestion probably meant that early 7th century BC ‘Athenian’ decoration was once in the hands of Aeginetan painters. AS1821 could be the product of such artistic complication: although its potter used typically Athenian clay to shape the pot, its painter used a paint that one cannot be entirely sure of its Athenian provenance. Microscopic analysis on a larger assemblage of decorated Protoattic samples is necessary to test this hypothesis in the future. Still, AS1821 definitely shows that its potter and painter -if they were indeed two separate artisans- collaborated for the production of this pot; therefore, an analysis targeting the involvement of different craftsmen in Athenian Orientalising fineware production may not necessarily prove the drastic takeover by Aeginetans suggested by Morris (1984).

Final conclusion

The first section of this article demonstrates that despite some exceptional patterns in Athenian fineware production during two periods coinciding with Whitley’s (1991, 181-3) social changes of the 9th and late 8th century BC, the broader Geometric chaîne opératoire was highly standardised and practised by specialised potters. The only real adaptation in consumption demands was noted in the production of pouring vessels after LGIa, which became more standardised compared to earlier periods. This standardisation was most likely due to increasing consumption demands for this specific vessel class. By contrast, the production of large containers was never subject to significant changes and the production of drinking vessels was characterised by freedom in the work both painters and potters all along the Geometric era.

Whatever the relationship between the spread of the figurative style after c.760 BC and the social changes noted by Morris (1987, 216) and Langdon (2008, 10-11, 63), these events affected neither the technological properties of ceramic decoration nor the broader production sequence of Attic Geometric finewares. Monumental Dipylon-style amphorae were the only newly introduced vessels that could relate to the social changes of LGIa; however, their chaîne opératoire was significantly different to any other vessel class and such products cannot be examined together with ordinary wheel-made finewares. Finally, this project suggests that standardisation in Attic fineware production continued during the 7th century BC, although a separate project on Protoattic and Subgeometric vessels is required to prove this.


  1. Laughy (2010, 49-50) defines these groups as low social classes, also referenced as such by Alexandridou (2015); however, the presence of class distinctions in Early Iron Age Athens according to the typical Marxist sense is highly unlikely. Duplouy (2006) carefully avoids any discussion on social class and defines such social groups based on their aristocratic prestige. This could have been hereditary or also constructed. In this thesis the term social group is considered more appropriate compared to the term social class.
  2. Pottery imitating metallic prototypes is thought to have related to status display; however, Vickers and Gill (1994) doubt whether such pots demonstrate aristocratic consumption.
  3. In its present condition, P22435 weights c.16.5 Kg after excessive restoration. This includes the adjustment of three short iron bars vertically under the neck joint on the vessel’s broken shoulders, which allow the sherd to stand straight. The weight of the neck sherd without the three iron bars is estimated c.14 Kg.
  4. For the chaîne opératoire of Protocorinthian tiles see Sapirstein (2009).
  5. For the chaîne opératoire of the Zagora pithoi see McLoughlin (2011).