Late Roman Pottery on Kythera and Middle Byzantine Pottery from Thebes and Chalkis

The most recent issue of the Annual of the British School at Athens is a treat! It contains an article on the pottery from the site of Kastri on Kythera and a chemical analysis of the “Middle Byzantine Production” pottery from the sites of Thebes and Chalcis. After the yesterday’s election, it seems appropriate to spend a little time thinking about Greece today.

Forty Years On: The Pottery from Historical Kastri Revisited” by A. Johnson, K. Slane, and J. Vroom re-examines some key depositions and assemblages at the site of Kastri on Kythera. This site was originally excavated and published by J.N. Coldstream and G.L. Huxley in the early 1970s and played a significant role in understanding the cultural and economic connections between Late Bronze Age Kythera and Crete to its east. The site of Kastri, however, continued to be occupied through the Medieval period, and the the long-running Kythera Island Project (KIP) reexamined the historic period pottery from the Kastri excavations in light of recent research. Of particular interest in this assemblage is the material from Late Roman and Medieval deposits. 

The Roman and Late Roman material was studied by Kathleen Slane. Of particular interest to me was the assemblage of African Red Slip and LRC (also known as Phocaean Red Slip) wares because these types have often served as useful indicators of regional trade networks and tastes. The presence of a remarkably robust assemblage of African Red Slip and a relatively common form of late Late Roman C ware (LRC 10c) indicate that trade networks continued to function in the Mediterranean well into the final decades of the 7th century. An earlier, but distinct Late Roman phase included a nice group of 4th and 5th century sherds. 

The later Late Roman material from this site is particularly interesting because it suggests that Kastri participated in similar economic networks as the site of Corinth, Argos, Emporio on Chios, and Saraçhane. What is absent is any evidence for Cypriot Red Slip (LRD) wares which we have come to understand continued to appear quite late (8th c?) and circulated as far as Crete and Chios as well as on the island of Cyprus, the Levant, and southern Anatolia where is was likely produced. Also absent were Cypriot produced Late Roman 1 amphoras, despite the regular contact between Cyprus and eastern Crete. Because we know that African Red Slip is not uncommon throughout Cyprus (and perhaps somewhat more common on the eastern part of the island) and even the latest LRC wares appear across the island in substantial quantities, it would seem that the distribution of LRD wares to sites on the Greek mainland and far western Aegean was rather less common. The movement of ARS west to east is not shocking, of course, but the presence of LRC wares does indicate movement of goods (at very least ceramics) east to west. The presence of some LR1 amphoras, probably from northern Syria or elsewhere in the Levant, further confirms the flow of good west even in the 7th century. The absence of LRD would seem to be a matter of taste or expense. Perhaps the ready availability of African Red Slips and some forms of LRCs drove out the Cypriot Red Slip as it would seem occurred at some sites on Cyprus itself. 

In the same volume is an article by S.Y. Waksman, N.D. Kontogiannis, S.S. Skartsis, and G. Vaxevanis on the “Middle Byzantine Production” (MBP) pottery from the city of Thebes and its port of Chalcis on Euboea. MBP is a group of pottery with green and brown glaze and sgraffito decorations largely dating to the 12th and 13th century. Before I go on, a disclaimer. I am not a ceramicist and my interest in Byzantine pottery production and circulation has largely been as a spectator. I’ve recognized the growing momentum over the last two decades to refine the current chronology of Byzantine fine wares that circulated widely in Greece and the larger Eastern Mediterranean. Waksman et al. conducted chemical analysis of fine ware of the MBP type from the 12th and 13th century context in the cities of Thebes and Chalcis. This study determined that pottery from the two cities are distinct, and, more importantly, these two groups appear to be manufactured locally based on comparisons with earlier locally made material from the region.

Identifying MBP as local to Thebes and Chalcis strengthens the growing impression that this region was an productive economic center in the Middle Byzantine period. We’ve recognized the city of Thebes as an important political center with landed wealth (visible in the so-called Cadaster of Thebes which dates a century earlier than the MBP group) and significant investment in silk and dye trade. Now it would appear that Thebes and Chalcis were deeply involved in pottery production as well. The MBP enjoyed a vast circulation with significant deposits appearing as far east as Cyprus and the Levant and as far west as Lyon and Italy. The primary market for these types, however, appears to be Aegean basin which scholars had long suspected as the production center for these types.  

The chemical difference between types associated with Thebes and those from deposits in Chalcis indicates that Chalcis was more than just an emporium for the city of Thebes, but a thriving production center in its own right. The significance of Chalcis as a production center is tied to the production chronology MBP throughout from the end of the Middle Byzantine period (with its attendant political disruptions) into the Frankish period where the Byzantine state largely ceased to function in the Aegean basin. In its place emerged new economic (as well as political) networks that leveraged existing production centers. For example, the production of ceramics at Chalcis benefited from the close relationship with that city and Venice in the Frankish period. This relationship almost certainly facilitated the distribution of MBP ceramics around the Mediterranean basin.

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