Saturday 31 August 2019

Going To Pot

I had never before realised the importance of the humble Greek pot. Nor, in fact, had I realised that, on occasion, the humble Greek pot is not as humble as the term might indicate. While a colleague of mine, who has undertaken research in classical Greek archaeology has, occasionally, waxed lyrical about Greek pottery; its actual importance has rather eluded me until now.

As I dare say you can deduce from the introductory paragraph, I have been reading again, this time a book on the Greek influence and spread beyond Greece proper (one can hardly say ‘mainland Greece’, after all):

Boardman, J., The Greeks Overseas: Their Colonies and Trade (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

As this is the fourth edition of a textbook type work, I think it is reasonably safe to say that at least, to the date of publication, it was reasonably up to date and comprehensive.

I confess I bought and read the tome under something of a misapprehension, thinking that its coverage might extend into the classical era, but in fact, it stops, quite reasonably, with the Persian Wars and the emergence of Greece into the historical written record. While Herodotus does provide a certain quantity of dating and chronology for the period before Marathon, the historian becomes more heavily dependent on archaeology to show where peoples, or at least their influences were found.

And so we come to the importance of pots. In terms of merchant activity, of course, pots of various sorts were important. Liquids were, after all, transported in pots, and so were some other commodities. Furthermore, the Greeks made a lot of pots and were merchants and colonisers in the pre-classical era. Not only that but pots are one of the few things that has a reasonable chance of survival in quantity in the archaeological record, and which can be reasonably securely dated.

Things get even more complicated when we realise that the Greeks were a fairly disparate crew and each city had its own style of pot. Add to this the fact that different cities dominated both fashionable pot making and the overseas trade at different times, and you have a reasonable chance of working out which merchants from which city were involved in trade to somewhere overseas, and correlating this with whatever comments might have been made by the early historians regarding trade and colonisation.

Of course, not everything was to do with pots. Other artefacts are found, but the fact is that a pot is something quite likely not to have been rescued or repaired when it was dropped. There is not a lot we can do today about dropped pots except sweep it up and put it in the rubbish. Something of more value, such as a religious icon or a statue, or jewellery, might well be rescued and repaired.

Boardman’s book gives a sweeping account of the archaeology of the Mediterranean basin as it pertains to the Greeks. The fact is that however much wargamers (and others) might like to think that the influences on the Greeks were limited, this is untrue. Eastern empires had a big sway over the eastern Mediterranean, at least, and, while for the most part Greek cities were not under particular political oppression, at least down to the revolt of the Ionian cities, eastern art and tastes did influence Greek design. It is fairly clear, for example, that if you wanted to sell into the Syrian market you had to present your wares in a way acceptable to the Syrian consumer; that is, in a pot which the Syrian consumer would not mind displaying in their house.

The Greeks, as you probably already know, did get around a bit. I was a bit surprised as to how far they had got before the Persian wars – pretty well all around the Mediterranean, founding colonies from the Black Sea to Sicily and Spain. Greek wares have been found, admittedly in fairly small numbers, in central France and Germany. The former presumably were traded along river routes from the south, the latter, from the context, were probably the property of Scythian tribespeople moving from the east, having obtained the goods from the Black Sea area.

One of the problems with all this is, of course, dubious and uncertain chronology. In some cases the fit to the written record is reasonable – pots are found which roughly correlate with the declared date of the founding of the trading post or colony. Sometimes the dates do not match; sometimes the historical record records no Greek activity there. Often the written record is much later and origins are hidden in myth and poetic licence. For example, there is interesting stuff in the Odyssey, but how it relates to the archaeology is a bit obscure, to say the least.

As I mentioned before, one of the key ideas here is that the Mediterranean is a sea, and therefore needs boats to traverse it. The Greeks, of course, had boats and were seagoing merchants. They founded colonies where it seemed fit to them so to do, mostly to command sea routes; hence we get some of the cities in Sicily and the boot of Italy. The point is, again, that serious wargamers really should not be quite so quick to dismiss warfare at sea and its many dimensions.

The book, therefore, is another one which has no direct bearing on the conduct of wargamers, military history or scenarios. It is, however, fascinating and a useful read. There might be some possibilities for “Dark Ages” Greek warfare incorporated. It is by no means obvious, for example, that Greek colonies were always welcomed by the indigenous populations. Sometimes ‘native’ sites seem to have been cleared to allow the construction of a Greek polis. Whether this was by agreement with the locals and their rulers or by force is not usually discernible in the archaeological record.

Archaeology, of course, has limitations as well as opportunities for wargamers. Boardman’s book is a good introduction to both, in my view, and also, for me, a stimulus to have Alexander IV exploring some of the outer reaches of the Greek overseas world.

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