Today in the excavation house at Isthmia, we performed a little mental exercise. Traditionally so-called “Slavic” pottery is seen as a rather unrefined type of pottery. It tends to feature thick coarse fabric with large inclusions and even larger voids. Moreover, it tends to come in simple handmade shapes or forms thrown on a slow wheel without slips or glazes and with only geometric decorations. This is not fancy stuff and long understood to be utilitarian in character.
Late Roman pottery, in contrast, can feature elaborate shapes with durable and lustrous glazes. Utilitarian vessels such as cooking pots feature thin walls, finer fabrics with smaller inclusions than the sometimes contemporary “Slavic ware,” and more delicate decorations.
This distinction has often become both a chronological one with the nicer pottery representing an earlier date (prior, one can imaging to the “Dark Age” decline of the Roman Empire) and an ethnic one, with the eponymous “Slavs” producing less culturally and technological sophisticated pots.
This argument, of course, assumes that our view of refinement and sophistication reflected some kind of ancient standard. I now wonder whether the thick walls, chunky inclusions, and simple shapes of Slavic pottery represent the culmination of the Late Roman ceramic tradition. The puffery that characterized the unnecessary decorations, fragile shapes, and frivolously levigated fabrics gave way to a rather more elegant simplicity. The rugged forms, uncomplicated shapes, and democratized technologies that undergirded “Slavic” pottery present the confluence of daily requirements, energy for production, and austere aesthetic values.
In short, the “Slavic” pot is far from being a degraded form or unrefined product and is, instead, an ideal form, fabric, and process for the needs at hand. Indeed, one might even speculate the economic profligacy, cultural decadence, and aesthetic frippery that produced the ubiquitous Late Roman vessels created the very need for the rarified “Slavic” pot. The difference between these “simple” pots and their more elaborate “Late Roman” counterparts show that after centuries of wasteful practices, the residents of southern Greece finally figured out how to produce the kind of basic utilitarian ware in ways that were both efficient and economical.
The “Slavic” pot is a triumph of form and function and it wears this victory over the superfluous vanity of Roman wares proudly!
Love love love! This is extremely interesting pottery, and a very interesting lens through which to think with it.
And don’t even get me started on the fetishized cartoons on certain Earlier Traditions of the Central Med. Late Roman items display considerable elegance of form by comparison.
Good grief, I need to get over there.