The Amphorae of the Kerameikos Cemetery at Athens from the Submycenaean to the Protogeometric Period

Simona Dalsoglio, The Amphorae of the Kerameikos Cemetery at Athens from the Submycenaean to the Protogeometric Period, BAR International Series 3014 (Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2020). 9781407315676.

Reviewed by Hannah L. Ringheim, ETH Zürich,

As a study of one of the most important cemeteries in Early Iron Age Greece, this reassessment of the Submycenaean and Protogeometric amphorae from the Kerameikos is indeed a timely and essential analysis. In addition to a thorough typological re-examination and documentation of the amphorae, Dr. Dalsoglio incorporates the material evidence from the burials and their contexts and offers a fresh outlook on the emergence of the cremation rite as a significant transition by the Protogeometric period. The volume presents a new approach to the ceramic typology, including the “envelope method,” which emphasizes the importance of the body profile of the vessel alongside other conventional ceramic characteristics. The reconsideration of past typologies highlights points of discrepancy and ultimately provides clarity for the chronology and interpretation of the vases. Her work overall recapitulates old data from the Kerameikos with new methods and presentation, making it more accessible and offering an original approach to the typology of the Kerameikos amphorae, which is significant for all scholars of Early Iron Age Greece.

Dalsoglio organizes the research into four main sections (Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5). The first part of the discussion (Chapter 2) begins with a brief overview of the history of research and excavation of the Kerameikos cemetery, with appropriate references to early scholarship. The synopsis further defines the types of tombs dating to the Submycenaean to Protogeometric periods and includes quantifiable data for comparing the use of inhumation burials and cremations. The chapter finishes with a literature review on the sequence of the graves and outlines the three main funerary areas of the necropolis with updated maps detailing the spatial distribution of the graves (pls. 1–6).

Chapter 3 encompasses the bulk of the analytical research and focuses on the contexts and ceramic analysis of the amphorae. The multifunctional use of amphorae as trade and storage containers in domestic contexts and as part of death rituals testifies to their significance as everyday materials in early Greece. In this particular context, it is interesting to see how the amphorae are predominantly used as grave equipment for cremation rites. Following the analysis of the amphorae characteristics, Dalsoglio concludes that certain connections made in past scholarship in fact show limited consistency in the material record, such as using shape typologies to define the gender of the deceased—including the assignment of the neck-handled amphora to male burials and the belly-handled amphora to females, which is not a fixed rule in this case. The analytical approach in this third chapter includes the proposal for a new typology by revisiting past data; the analysis presents the decorative motifs and the fabric characterization, which are then connected to the vase types (for example, belly-handled versus neck-handled). By using the “envelope method,” it is more feasible to compare the drawings of the body profiles to one another (19). The ceramic analysis overall establishes some noteworthy observations, such as the presence of greater variability in amphorae characterization during the Submycenaean and Transitional phase, in comparison to the standardization of the amphorae during the Protogeometric phase. As a result, there is a correlation between the number of standardized amphorae and the spread of the rite of cremation as there is a greater demand for using amphorae as urns (27). Furthermore, other characteristics, such as decorative motifs, reveal that there is no fixed relation between vessel types and decoration. The chapter concludes with an extensive catalogue of the amphorae, including descriptions, contexts, and accompanying drawings and photographs.

Chapter 4 discusses other aspects of the grave and its ritual deposits, such as the spatial distribution of the objects in the grave and the reconstruction of the funerary ritual from the available evidence (81–82). Quantifiable tables exhibit the material types and amounts deposited in the graves, such as pins, fibulae, rings, and spearheads, among many others (pl. 40). Some notable observations emerge from the organization of the material finds, such as that from material-based gender indicators, as female burials generally had a higher quantity of deposited ritual objects. Additionally, from the osteological data that is briefly mentioned, it is clear that cremations were reserved in this case for adult women and men and not children (83). The chapter ultimately determines that from the variability of grave objects, despite using statistical cluster analysis (84) and osteological results, there is no identifiable pattern in the selection of grave goods.

The final discussion in Chapter 5 elaborates on the cremation rite and its debatable origins, with brief references to evidence for cremation in the literature, relying exclusively on Homer. There are useful comparisons to contemporaneous necropoleis at Perati and Salamis and it is suggested that there is likely a connection between these three localities, given their similar timely introduction of cremation.

Several significant conclusions emerge from the book that are worth mentioning (Chapter 6). Firstly, the typological re-examination reiterates that the changes in amphorae testify to the transition from inhumation to cremation during the Submycenaean to Protogeometric periods in Athens. The new methodological approach reveals that, due to changing demands and organization of production processes, the amphorae types became standardized by the Protogeometric period. Finally, in regard to the characterization of the vases, it is clear that the clay composition remained rather homogeneous throughout this time frame and no links can be derived between the preferred vase type, motifs, or fabrics. Likewise, Dalsoglio argues that the variety and combination of grave goods do not reveal fixed associations for social aspects, such as gender, age, or status (118).

As a ceramics volume, the main strength that materializes from this research is the typological analysis of the amphorae. The meticulous, thorough drawings and photographs of the amphorae under study are clear and easy for users to read and will undoubtedly be an excellent resource for parallels and future ceramic studies. It is an accessible review of materials that were first published in the early twentieth century and, given how unique and seminal the Kerameikos is for studies on early Greek necropoleis, this site certainly warrants an updated analysis. As an additional strategy for ceramicists, the approach to overlaying profiles bestows useful insight, especially since the focus remains usually on other diagnostic features.

In addition to the book’s strengths, there are a few shortcomings as well. For instance, the text reads more like a doctoral thesis and less as a book, with some awkward phrasing, grammatical issues, and a lack of readability at parts, especially when recounting observations from past scholarship. A better use of language and narrative would make this publication a stronger, more accessible tool for future research. Additionally, although there were a few brief Homeric references made to cremation burials (notably in Chapter 4, 81–83), the discussion of how the ancients interpreted burning their dead and the ritual warrants a more in-depth look into the literary sources on death ritual. Such a discussion would have contributed to a more holistic analysis of the cremation rite alongside the archaeological evidence.

Finally, a point for further consideration and research comes from the passing references made to kinship-based elite groups in the conclusion (118), which is indeed an important factor in the Early Iron Age. Since there is such a comprehensive analysis on the grave goods (Chapter 4), including valuable statistical data (84), it would be advantageous to draw connections between the object distribution and preferences, and indications about social status, wealth consumption, and community organization. As the work concentrates greatly on quantifiable data, it is certainly imperative to connect this information to the wider narrative on kinship and community organization in Athens, especially when such observations have been made at parallel sites elsewhere, such as Perati.

Ultimately Dalsoglio tackles a hefty corpus that was in clear need of revision and she confronts this corpus methodically, resulting in a well-organized publication of the amphorae and their contexts that will be an extremely useful resource for future research, especially for ceramicists and archaeologists researching burial practices in Early Iron Age Greece.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1–2)
2. The Kerameikos Early Cemetery (3–12)
3. The Amphorae (13–80)
4. Graves with Amphorae (81–108))
5. Burning the Dead (109–14)
5. A Literary Map of Turkey, Lisa Maria Teichmann and Franz-Benjamin Mocnik (113–39)
6. Conclusions (115–28)

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