Book Review: Potters at Work in Ancient Corinth: Industry, Religion, and the Penteskouphia Pinakes

Charles C. Kolb, Honorary Associate Editor for Archaeological Ceramic

Potters at Work in Ancient Corinth: Industry, Religion, and the Penteskouphia Pinakes. Eleni Hasaki, with a contribution by Ioulia Tzonou and James A. Herbst. Hesperia Supplement Volume 51. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2021. xxii + 418 pp., 234 b/w figs., 8 col figs, 13 tables, 639 footnotes, and a bibliography of 615 (mostly with English-language citations). ISBN: 9780876615539. £45.00 / $75.00 (paperback).

Eleni Hasaki is Professor of Anthropology and Classics at the University of Arizona and the co- director of the Laboratory for Traditional Technology. She received her B.A. from the University of Athens, Greece (summa cum laude), an M.A. in Classics and Classical Archaeology, University of Cincinnati, and her Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Cincinnati. Martin Bentz and Hasaki co-edited Reconstructing Scales of Production in the Ancient Greek World: Producers, Processes, Products, People. Panel Proceedings in the XIX Conference of Classical Archaeology, Bonn Archaeology and Economy in the Ancient World, Heidelberg: Propylaeum ebooks, 2020 She has published on craft technologies, ceramic production, craft apprenticeship, the spatial organization of workshops, and social network analysis of communities of practice in the Classical world. Hasaki’s research agenda in the lab, excavations, experimental and ethnoarchaeological projects, as well as Digital Humanities, aims to enrich our understanding of industrial quarters and their connectivity.

She directs The WebAtlas of Ceramic Kilns in Ancient Greece: A Research Gateway to the Study of Hellenistic Ceramic Workshops (see Stella Drougou (ed.), Pottery Workshops, Craftsmen and Workshops, Athens: Archaeological Resources Fund, Publications Department, pp. 280-312 [with parallel Greek translation as Ο διαδικτυακός άτλας των κεραμικών κλιβάνων της αρχαίας Ελλάδας. Ενα εργαλείο έρευνας για τα ελληνιστικά κεραμικά εργαστήρια]). Hasaki also directs the NEH-funded [National Endowment for the Humanities] NAP: Social Networks of Athenian Potters. She has excavated pottery workshops in Greece and directs the ethnoarchaeological project Communities of Practice in Transition on the relocation of a potters’ quarter in Moknine (Tunisia). In addition, she recently authored The Web Atlas of Ceramic Kilns in Ancient Greece: A Research Gateway to Hellenistic Ceramic Workshop at the University of Arizona, She is scheduled as a presenter, with Marco Serino (University of Turin/University of Arizona), of “Mobilities of Potters and Pot Painters in the Ancient Mediterranean. The Test Cases of Athens and South Italy,” at the 35th Ceramic Ecology symposium to be held at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in November 2022.

Hasaki’s Potters at Work in Ancient Corinth long awaited monograph has been published after numerous delays by the press1 and some revisions to the narrative as seen in changes in pagination and number of illustrations listed in earlier press releases of the Table of Contents compared to the in print version. I am particularly interested in her monograph because of the depictions of potters at work with illustrations ranging from of clay preparation through kiln firing on 1,023 Archaic black-figure ceramic plaques (represented by more than 1,200 fragments) recovered at the site of Penteskouphia near Corinth more than a century ago. The assemblage was recovered by a farmer and followed by early archaeologists employing inappropriate excavation techniques and recording systems. The plaques depicted gods, warriors, animals, and the potters themselves, providing a uniquely rich source of information about Greek art, technology, and society. In this volume, the findspot of the plaques is identified in a contribution by Ioulia Tzonou-Herbst and James Herbst, and the assemblage as a whole is contextualized within the Archaic world. Then, by focusing specifically on the images of potters at work, the author illuminates the relationship between Corinthian and Athenian art, the technology used in ancient pottery production, and religious anxiety in the 6th century B.C. The first comprehensive register of all known Penteskouphia plaques complements the well- illustrated discussion.

The monograph includes the traditional “Acknowledgments” (pp. xix-xxii), eight chapters, seven appendices, “References” (pp. 381-399), and three indices: General Index (pp. 401-411), Index of Museums (pp. 413-415), and Index of Ancient Sources, (pp. 417-418). There are 234 illustrations, 8 color figures, 12 tables, and 639 footnotes. Hasaki’s narratives are highly detailed and filled with information, citations and other references. I next review the content of the individual chapters and appendices, paying particular attention to information about the production processes that benefit archaeologists and archaeometrists.

“Chapter 1: Introduction” (pp. 1-22, 15 illustrations, 1 table, 51 notes) provides contextual background. Corinth was a major producer of ceramics with multiple workshops during the Archaic period (700-400 BC). Penteskouphia was an obscure site located west of Corinth where 1,023 rectilinear terracotta pinakes (plaques) painted in black figure technique in ca. 1,200 fragments of various dimensions (averaging H 7.2 x W 10.0, x Th 0.7 cm) depict potters at worksuch as digging for clay, forming pottery vessels and decorating them on the wheel, and firing kilns. The plaques were decorated on one of two sides and sometimes had personal names or painter’s signatures that date to the first half of the sixth century BC. The plaques were not mentioned in ancient sources and archaeological evidence is scant. Details as to site location and the history of excavations (1879 ff.) by a farmer, illicit collecting, early scientific excavations, and collections in museums reported; the museums in Berlin and Paris have complete pinakes, Corinth does not. Other plaques have been found in localized contexts in Corintha, notably the PottersQuarter at Corinth (n = 38 specimens), and fewer at Corinth Gotsi, Isthmia/Rache, and Perachora dating 5000-2200 BC. No Archaic period pottery workshops have been excavated at Corinth, hence, the pottery making subject matter at Penteskouphia is unique. Hasaki outlines the subsequent chapters which concern archaeological context, iconography, technological and organizational content, and religious ideology.

“Chapter 2: Excavation Site of the Penteskouphia Pinakes” by Ioulia Tzonou and James A. Herbst (pp. 23-44, 13 illustrations, 86 notes) notes a paucity of primary evidence but summarizes art historical material from the nineteenth century. The illicit discovery was followed by an excavation by Oliver Washburn August 21-23, 1905 (alas, surface and excavated pottery were stored together) and a dozen other scholars, and a site map was created by Bert Hill only in 1916. The “find spot” at Penteskouphia can be reached by two possible routes from Corinth: the “main road” or the “beaten path.” The discovery site is 200 meters west of the former, but later construction by Hadrian’s Aqueduct in the Roman era changed the original landscape. By carefully examining the evidence, the authors conclude that the plaques were deposited near the end of the sixth century BC along a route connecting Corinth with cemetery and sanctuary sites further south; in addition, previous excavators had failed to retrieve the entire deposit which was a waste or ritual site.

“Chapter 3: Manufacture, Function, Iconography, Epigraphy, and Chronology” (pp. 45-81, 37 illustrations, 4 tables, 124 notes) provides a panoramic overview of the entire corpus of Penteskouphia pinakes; the stages of making and decorating are documented and comparanda reviewed. Of the 1,023 plaques studied, 656 are one-sided and 367 two-sided with a total of 1,390 scenes depicted. Hasaki notes that Corinthian column kraters are a hallmark shape and determines that the plaques are also made using two distinctive types of clay: yellowish Corinthian clay with large limestone inclusions and reddish clay with no inclusions.

Furtwängler (1885) had initially determined that there were five clay groups based on the color of the fired clay: green, greenish-yellow, warm yellow, matte, and mixed. The plaques were formed on flat wood surfaces and had two pierced holes for hanging or mounting. There were four basic size groups painted in the black figure technique with some incised details (pottery wheel, kilns and figures). Slips were applied but generally not well preserved on the recovered specimens. Two-sided plaques were generally painted by the same artist for both surfaces and the same kiln used for both. Hasaki summarized previous studies related to function and discussed the iconography on the Penteskouphia plaques and relationships with Corinthian vase painting. There were a limited number of themes depicted on the 1,390 scenes: 1) Poseidon related (n=350), 2) warriors or other figures (219), 3) equestrian (169), 4) animals 115), 5) potters at work (102), and 6) miscellaneous / mythological (57); unclear [unclassified] (378). Comparisons are made to themes on other materials (bronze, stone, and clay) and the epigraphy related to chronologies, detailed in Appendices V-VII and Table 3.4; the scenes date mostly to the Middle and Late Corinthian periods (690-630 BC). Attribution to specific painters is “difficult.”

“Chapter 4: Catalogue of Scenes of Potters at Work” (pp. 83-189, 8 color plates [between pp. 178-179], 93 illustrations, 2 notes). The catalogue includes one- and two-sided pinakes as separate groups, and further divides the corpus into the three main stages and three lesser stages of pottery manufacture as depicted on the plaques: 1) clay and fuel collection, 2) potters at the wheel, 3) kiln firing, 4) workshop related scenes, 5) ambiguous scenes (one- and two-sided), and 6) disassociated scenes. All of the scenes are illustrated by Hasaki in this chapter. Potting production scenes include typical Corinthian clays (Munsell 7.5YR 7.4 (pink) to 10YR 7/4 (very pale brown), and use of the black figure technique (dark brown to red; the orange “slipis equivalent to paint or a levigated slip. The inscriptions have been previously catalogued by Wachter (2001), and information also is integrated from previous studies by Furtwängler (1885), Pernice (1897), von Raits (1964), and Geagan (1970). The one-sided scenes (n=34) are depicted with kiln firing (n=28) the most frequent depictions, while among the two-sided (n=63), kiln firing (n=43) also have kiln firing as the most common scene.

“Chapter 5: Scenes of Potters at Work: Iconographical and Epigraphical Analysis” (pp. 179-226, 29 illustrations, 7 tables, 141 notes). The detailed analyses of the Corinthian scenes presented in Chapter 4 are compared with Athenian representations. A total of 63 scenes were assessed: Poseidon related (26 scenes), equestrian (12), warrior (10), potters at work (5), animals (3), ships (3), mythology (2) and unclear (2). The pictorial evidence in this chapter should be read alongside textual, archaeological, ethnographic, and experimental data for each stage of pottery manufacture represented in Chapter 6, The clay and fuel collection (n=10), working at the wheel and pottery shapes (12), and kiln firing. Wood was collected for fuel; the wheel was used for throwing and for painting: nine counterclockwise movements show wheel forms and the potter siting on a stool, with the work done usually indoors on three forms: jug/pitcher, krater, and amphora. The kiln illustrations rendered the architecture of circular kilns, the stoking channel, combustion chamber, firing chamber, dome, and chimney, as well as activities by single or multiple attendants all males. Hasaki made comparisons between Corinthian and Athenian potters at work as depicted on red and black figured vessels, and distinctions on kiln iconographies, technical equipment, workforces, fellow craftsmen, as well as gods invoked. Athenian inscriptions depicted Athena, while Poseidon was rendered by the Corinthians on their works. Inscriptions on Corinthian plaques included 16 personal names but no identifiable potterssignatures nor geographical affiliations.

“Chapter 6: Technology, Workforce, and Organization of Ceramic Workshops” (pp. 227-278, 35 illustrations, 144 notes). Hasaki writes that “Archaeometric analyses of clays from Corinth provide a wealth of information ...” (p. 227) about the potters and their products. And that the “ethnographic record of traditional potters in Greece and Cyprus can be helpful in reconstructing past practices since the basic pottery-forming techniques have changed little over the past three millennia before the advent of electricity” (p. 227). She drew upon archaeological research at the Potters’ Quarter in ancient Corinth where one model of a kiln and eight actual kilns (dating from the Archaic to Byzantine period) were recovered. Eight sites with production debris revealed two Greek, two Roman, and four Byzantine era kilns; four were rectangular and four circular. Table 6.1 provides salient data, and is accompanied by images of kiln plans: Figures 6.2-6.14. Hasaki also pointed out that “no Penteskouphia pinakes have been subjected to petrographic or chemical analysis, but even if compositional data were available, it is doubtful that it could point to specific raw clay sources with known fingerprints” (p. 238). The proximities of the Potters’ Quarter workshops to clay sources is reported, and the distances “fit” data published by Dean Arnold (1985, 2005) and D. P. S. Peacock’s Roman era evidence (1982:31-43).

A substantial part of Chapter 6 is also devoted to the potters’ equipment, beginning with the wheel which was similar to wheels used in Athenian, Greek, and Roman times. Nonspecialized tools made in wood and clay was similar to modern counterparts. The potters’ kiln and related topics were discussed in detail, including individual kiln components with accompanying ground plans. Kiln Type Ia, an updraft circular kiln with a circular central support was known archaeologically since the Middle Bronze Age. Architectural components include the stoking channel, combustion chamber (the most commonly preserved in the archaeological record); perforated floor and its central support, pot-firing chamber, and dome. Stacking procedures and kiln furniture are also noted. The kiln’s primary fuel, depicted on the plaques as painted “blobs,” is olive wood carried into the firing area by kiln workers; olive pomace was also used. The author reports (pp. 265-273) the importance of dry fuel and notes that animal dung and charcoal were not ideal fuels, although these are prevalent in ethnographic accounts. Greek clays vitrify at 1050-1100o C, unslipped clays at 700o C, and levigated clays at 850-900o C. The three stages of firing are reviewed: oxidation, reduction, and reoxidation. Firing equipment such as stoking rods has changed little since Picolpasso (1548). Test pieces and the removal of the fired ceramics were mentioned, and there is no evidence of the use of kiln smoke hole covers. As to the workforce and scale of production in ancient Greek workshops, Hasaki reports that 77% of the kiln sites have only one kiln and that the numbers of kilns in a workshop and load capacity are closely linked with the size of the workforce and, hence, scale of production. Corinthian and Athenian plaques illustrate crews of 3-7 people, suggesting that the workshops were family- based with a division of labor. Therefore, the data suggests that a typical ceramic workshop was modest in size,run by a family-based crew which utilized one or two small kilns, and produced vessels similar in size and shape” (p. 278).

“Chapter 7: Industrial Religion and Potters’ Anxieties” (pp. 279-300, 11 illustrations, 85 notes). Studies of links to industrial and religious contexts suggest that iconography is rare but the Penteskouphia pinakes have no links to the Poseidon cult. Chronologically, through the first half of the sixth century BC, there was a dramatic decline in Corinthian figural pottery trade due at least in part to competition from Athenian potters, resulting financial stress, and a decline in east and west sea route trade. The impending commercial collapse is seen in Corinth’s Potters’ Quarters. The Potters’ Quarter maintained a shrine as did other craftsmen, such as marble workers, and these craftsmen also established sanctuaries, sacred groves as well as shrines.

“Chapter 8: Conclusions” (pp. 301-312, 1 illustration, 6 notes). Hasaki writes that “The scenes of potters at work on Penteskouphia pinakes are crucial for our understanding of the craft and technology of Greek pottery....” (p. 301). She summarizes that the corpus consist of a minimum of 1,023 plaques assembles for 1,200 fragments dispersed to museums in Greece, Germany, and France. Potters at work comprise nine percent of the total plaques (102 scenes on 97 pinakes) Her study focused on: 1) archaeological context, 2) their unusual images, and 3) their spectrum of practical and ritual uses within the workshop and outside of it. This research provides a view of the economic reality of Corinthian decorated pottery trade during the Middle and Late Corinthian periods. The reconstruction of the archaeological context of the plaques is hampered because of not knowing the precise site location of the recovered plaques. She states that the plaques were likely used as clay sketchpads to create dedications at or near sacred places or near the potters’ workshops. She argues that the plaques are not technical manuals although the depictions are generally accurate and related to small-scale, family-run ancient workshops. The emphasis on kiln depictions is a reminder of how much of the ancient potters’ workshops, equipment, and tool kits have been lost to us. She has assembled many types of evidence: archaeological, iconographical, and technological (Appendices I-VII) but reminds the reader that no Archaic period kilns are known; however, the Greek Tile Works had been excavated before 1939 but not published until 2006. Lastly, no petrographic or chemical analysis of the plaques has ever been undertaken. She also notes that future studies may refine, confirm, or refute ideas presented in her monograph.

The appendices include:
“Appendix I: List of Penteskouphia Pinakes in Ancient Corinth, Berlin, and Paris” (pp. 313-350) “Appendix II: Distribution of Themes on One- and Two-Sided Penteskouphia Pinakes” (pp. 351- 357).
“Appendix III: Combination of Themes on Two-Sided Penteskouphia Pinakes” (pp. 359-363). “Appendix IV: Concordance of Inventory and Catalogue Numbers” (pp. 365-367).
“Appendix V: Concordance of Inscribes Catalogued Penteskouphia Pinakes with Epigraphical Corpora” (pp. 369-370).
“Appendix VI: Concordance of Inventory Numbers with Epigraphical Corpora” (pp. 371-375). “Appendix VII: Concordance of IG IV Entries and Inventory Numbers” (pp. 377-380).

This unique, thoughtful monograph provides a comprehensive register, analysis, and interpretation of the entire corpus of plaques recovered more than a century ago, which depict the potters, their workshops, warriors, animals, and deities, informing us of the technology used in pottery production in the later 6th century BC in Corinth. I don’t believe that there is any similar ancient pictorial document that deals with the subject of pottery-making which had been studied and evaluated in such a comprehensive manner. There is much to learn from the illustrations and from the traditional assessment that Hasaki presents. The illustrations are splendid and the text especially detailed and informative, particularly on the activities associated with wheel-made pottery and the kiln firing.

I, too, lament that fact that petrographic and archaeometric studies have not been undertaken and that the actual “find spot” was illusive. Archaeometric studies can add much more than just provenance to the analysis.

1 This monograph was listed by its publisher, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, as being published and available on initially on 05/09/2019, then 01/03/2020, 04/03/2020, 5/--/2020, 11/2020, July 31, 2021, 8/7/2021 = August 7, 2021, September 30, 2021, October 7, 2021, November 30, 2021, December 31, 2021, and finally on January 31, 2022. I received my preordered personal copy on March 16, 2022. The volume carries a 2021 publication date. It was worth the wait.