The House of Serenos, Part I: The Pottery

Clementina Caputo, Amheida V, The House of Serenos, Part I: The Pottery (New York: New York University Press, 2020). 9781479804658.

Reviewed by Karl Racine, Trent University, karlracine@trentu.ca

The Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP) is a conglomerate of various archaeological projects, with scientists aiming to research the ancient landscape near the Dakhla oasis in Egypt. The subject of this review consists of the work carried out at the ancient town of Trimithis, modern day Amheida, which is located in the western part of the Dakhla oasis; the closest urban center is El-Qasr to the north. Researchers of the DOP aim to systematically excavate the town in order to determine the extent to which it interacted with neighboring settlements and its environment over the course of its occupation, which dates back to the Old Kingdom. The DOP was originally sponsored by Columbia University (2001–2008), and New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World has sponsored it since 2008.

Clementina Caputo’s monograph is part of this larger study of Amheida by the DOP. The purpose of her research is to “provide a comprehensive study and classification of the ceramic assemblages recovered in House B1 and the two streets (S2 and S3) adjacent to it,” which she refers to as Area 2.1 (3). Caputo begins by describing the owner of House B1, named Serenos. She explains that Serenos was a wealthy local elite who held important civic duties in Trimithis (2). House B1 and its neighboring streets were abandoned around the year 365 CE, and most of the ceramic material dated to the fourth century CE. The pottery excavated at this site consisted of table and service wares, utility wares, cooking wares, storage and transport vessels, amphorae, and other miscellaneous wares. Most of the pottery found in the occupation phases were bowls, cooking pots, and storage jars.

Caputo’s Chapter 1 lays out the foundation for the methods used in the study of the pottery found at the House of Serenos. She explains the approaches used for the quantitative analysis, how the DOP processed the ceramics, the fabric classification for each ware, how the the ceramics were dated and, finally, the structure of the pottery catalogue.[1] For the quantitative analysis, the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) was counted, as well as the weight of each diagnostic sherd.[2] Caputo determined the chronology of each sherd using the stratigraphic sequence recorded during excavations. Finally, the catalogue’s typology was created based entirely on the most representative shapes and fabrics.

Chapter 2 consists of a description of all the functional classifications and shapes found in the occupation levels of Area 2.1 as well as the dump layers. Caputo divides each section by the class of ceramic and subdivides the classes by type. For each type of vessel, the author gives a detailed catalogue description of the vessel’s general shape, the fabric group, the estimated chronology, and a comparison of the parallels found elsewhere in Egypt. When possible, special features (such as soot or ash) and decorations found on the exterior and/or interior faces of the vessel are defined.

Chapter 3 catalogues the pottery found above and below the layers of Area 2.1. Caputo does not provide a lengthy discussion on the subject, as the purpose of her study was to contextualize the occupation levels of House B1. Instead, she offers a brief synthesis of each artefact collected, which includes the type of ware, the context in which it was found, the type of fabric, the diameter of the rim and/or other circular features, a short description of the artefact, and the parallels excavated elsewhere. Caputo also includes the most representative images for each ware that generally showcase common characteristics, such as the shape of the rim, the base, the body, and other special features.

The most significant chapter in Caputo’s monograph is Chapter 4, as it sets a precedence for her interpretations on the function of communal and private spaces in the House of Serenos in later chapters. Additionally, the excavated material presented in this chapter had the most reliable stratigraphic units, which offered a more precise chronology. The DOP dated this material between 350 and 370 CE, which is believed to be the occupation phase of Area 2.1.[3] The author also gives a room-by-room description of the ceramic assemblages and, for each ceramic type recovered per room, Caputo provides the MNI, the fabric group, and the presumed date. Where possible, she presents comparanda of similar types found elsewhere in Egypt to further bolster her chronological interpretations.

A similar methodology from Chapter 4 is applied to Chapters 5 and 6. When describing the ceramic evidence in both of these chapters, Caputo also offers the MNI, the fabric group, and the presumed date of the types retrieved. Chapter 5 consists of a discussion on the dumped ceramic evidence excavated prior to the construction of House B1,[4] whereas Chapter 6 comprises the ceramic assemblage from the private dump of the House of Serenos. The author omits tally charts and graphs of the distribution of the pottery types and functions in Chapter 5. This is most likely due to the date range of the vessels, which spans the third century BCE to the fourth century CE. Otherwise, she remains consistent in her use of representative illustrations of the most diagnostic pottery.

In the final chapter, Caputo delivers her conclusive remarks and interpretations on the excavated material. She breathes life into an otherwise intangible and forgotten aspect of daily life by successfully associating the artefacts with the possible use of the rooms. The author makes it clear that the House of Serenos should be understood as a holistic architectural unit that reflects the standards of living of the individuals occupying the residence prior to its abandonment, as well as the social status of the owner, Serenos. To do so, she explains the purpose of each room by situating the surviving vessel types excavated within their presumed functionalities.

The monograph by no means proposes an avant-garde method of analyzing pottery, but instead, offers a solid and consistent report on the pottery excavated in the House of Serenos and the adjacent streets, S2 and S3. The most impressive aspect of Caputo’s work lies in her systematic assessment of the ceramic evidence recovered by the DOP. Caputo provides an exhaustive catalogue of illustrated ceramics ranging from table wares to amphorae,[5] along with their respectively determined chronologies, associated fabric groups, and presumed functions. One fascinating point that emerges from her study is that there is a noticeable change over time in the fabric groups pulled from the different chronological layers of Area 2.1 (204). For example, the author notices that fabric A11, a locally sourced kaolinite clay from the Dakhla oasis classified as refractory brittle fabric, appears in contexts beginning in the fourth century CE (206). Caputo could have further developed on the greater implications of this point in her conclusive arguments because prior to the appearance of fabric A11, most of the vessels found in Area 2.1 consisted of local ferruginous and limestone clays.

Another important element brought forth by Caputo is that ancient potters at Amheida produced most of the ceramic assemblage locally. Caputo makes it clear that the majority of the fabrics are local ferruginous and limestone clays (206), a product of the region. For the most part, the ceramics were either produced in the ancient town or were locally imported from other nearby villages. One issue with her analysis is that she does not discuss the outlying vessels (presumably imported from other regions of the Empire) in depth. While the purpose of this monograph was not to address the imports at Amheida, the outlying pottery is deserving of a dialogue. For example, the DOP found the base and body of a spatheion, a well-known product of North Africa. Caputo fails to provide an explanation regarding the greater implications for the presence of this type of transport vessel or the potential motives behind its deliberate importation. Additionally, while Caputo does provide consistent general classifications and illustrations for the Egyptian fabric groups, she does not do the same for the outliers. The fabric of the spatheion and other outliers could be used to identify their provenience in future studies.

Overall, Caputo’s monograph offers a preliminary and replicable documentation of the ceramic evidence recovered during the DOP’s excavations of the House of Serenos and the adjoining streets but leaves the reader with a thirst for more of her interpretations.[6] Anyone willing to gain a better appreciation of the state of ceramic studies in Egypt will benefit from this monograph, particularly as the illustrations complement Caputo’s work. It provides an excellent foundation and summarizes the current state of research related to ceramic production and distribution in an Egyptian household. Future research should build upon the wealth of information given by Caputo and the DOP to study the larger socio-economic implications related to trade and distribution of the ceramic assemblage.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements (v–vi)
List of Figures, Table, and Plates (vii–ix)
Foreword (P. Ballet) (xi–xiii)
Introduction (1–4)
1: Methodological Approaches (5–18)
2: Functional Classification and Shapes in Area 2.1: Typo-Chronological Study (19–42)
3: Pottery Catalogue of Area 2.1 (above and below B1, S2, S3) (43–114)
4: Pottery from Occupation Levels (B1, S2, S3) (115–64)
5: Pottery Before B1: Dumped Material in Area 2.1 (165–82)
6: The Private Dump of Serenos’ House (183–202)
Conclusions (203–10)
Bibliography (211–20)
Figures (221–44)

Notes

[1] The entire database of ceramics can be found on www.amheida.net.

[2] The rims, bases, and handles were counted separately from the body sherds. Caputo refers to body sherds as “chinking sherds” in her monograph.

[3] The dates were obtained via the Greek ostraca and coins contemporary to the pottery.

[4] Caputo explains that the dumped material most likely originated from one or more dumps carried to Area 2.1. The dumped pottery was spread out to prepare for another construction and included types dating between the third century BCE and the beginning of the fourth century CE.

[5] While not intentional, Caputo’s number of illustrations per type is reminiscent of the late S. Keay’s 1984 work on the Catalan evidence, where he provides an extraordinary number of images showing the morphological variation of African amphorae. See Simon Keay, Late Roman Amphorae in the Western Mediterranean: A Typology and Economic Study: the Catalan Evidence (Oxford: Bar International Series 196, 1984).

[6] There is a strong possibility that Caputo’s arguments will be further developed in future volumes, as this report is a catalogue of the ceramics uncovered.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    It should be noted that the Columbia-NYU work at Amheida started as only one of the activities of the Dakhleh Oasis Project, which was begun by Tony Mills and continued by numerous contributors from many countries and working both in survey and at many other sites. Amheida is not in itself the DOP. – Roger Bagnall

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s