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Nathan T. Arrington: Athens at the Margins. Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2021, X + 328 S., zahlr. Abb., ISBN 978-0-691-175201, GBP 35,00
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Rezension von:
Conor Trainor
University of Warwick
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Matthias Haake
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Conor Trainor: Rezension von: Nathan T. Arrington: Athens at the Margins. Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2021, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 1 [15.01.2024], URL:

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Nathan T. Arrington: Athens at the Margins

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The Protoattic style of pottery is marginal. It is often presented as either a poorer version of the more widely distributed Protocorinthian pottery, or as a precursor to the more easily contextualised, and later, Attic black-figure pottery. It does not fit easily into traditional evolutionary narratives that bridge the preceding Early Iron Age and the succeeding Classical period, nor does it quite fit into an orientalising framework as traditionally defined either. The lack of a neat and tidy story around this style of ancient Greek pottery is precisely what makes Arrington's Athens at the Margins. Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World both fascinating and ground-breaking. This book sets out to contextualise the seventh century BC Protoattic style of vase-painting within its spatial, social, economic and cultural contexts, while calling into serious question many of the current interpretative frameworks utilised to consider this class of pottery.

At its core, this work is a study of a critical point in the history of Athens, the period just prior to its emergence as a leading Greek state. Methodologically, this book matters because it connects strands of art history, archaeology, ancient history and theoretical models to reconsider what we know about seventh century BC Athens and the Protoattic style of vases that are most associated with it.

Chapter 1 presents what the author means by margins, a critical theme in the book. It emphasizes the need to adopt a regional approach to considering Archaic Greece in order to identify and explore cultural nuances within individual areas. [1] Chapter 2 is a discussion about the scholarship of, and historiography around, Protoattic pottery and seventh century BC Attica in general. This is a thorough chapter that is helpful for situating the rest of the book. The key finding in chapter 2 is that it illustrates exactly how traditional interpretations of Protoattic pottery have been influenced by sweeping historical and stylistic assumptions, rather than being interpreted through a regionally contextualised framework.

Chapter 3 calls into question the accuracy of the term Orientalising with reference to this type of pottery. Arrington rallies a broad range of evidence from across the eastern and central Mediterranean region to present a model of stylistic diffusion that locates Athens/Attica just outside the main exchange networks that connected the eastern and western Mediterranean during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. He explores the role that states such as Corinth and Aegina played in these networks and places a particular emphasis on the role of the Italian peninsula and Sicily as hubs and nodes of cultural interaction during this period. One particularly important argument is the role of Attic (and Euboean) SOS amphorae. This class of pottery was quite widely distributed around the Mediterranean and would have been used as containers for the transport of foodstuffs. [2] SOS amphorae were broadly contemporary with Protoattic pottery, but their distribution patterns stand in stark contrast, as the latter was not widely distributed at all. The critical argument here is that Athenian/Attic commodities were moving around the Mediterranean in these SOS vessels quite widely, but the lack of other Athenian products accompanying them, such as fine pottery, might indicate that this distribution was being conducted by non-Attic sailors/merchants. Citing Corinth as a likely transhipment point for Athenian goods, Arrington suggests that the "Orientalising" umbrella-term used with reference to Protoattic might be more accurately described as "Corinthianising", as stylistic motifs more likely arrived at Athens via Corinth, rather than from the east (or west) directly. Including SOS amphorae is an extremely important part of this chapter. However, as the intended audience is not primarily composed of pottery specialists (15), I felt that some more descriptions of these vessels would be helpful for a non-specialist audience. They are briefly introduced in a sentence (18) but could have been discussed in a little more detail in order to help underline the importance of including these in the study.

Chapter 4 explores the users and the functions that we can associate with Protoattic pottery. Arrington also considers central aspects of Ian Morris' research on burials and social meaning in Attica during the Early Iron Age and presents a critique of the elite-focused interpretation of burials containing decorated pottery. [3] To support his arguments, Arrington has impressively gathered a catalogue of all the known burials that contain Protoattic pottery. These data (listed in Table 1) underpin the chapter and have enabled the author to draw out some extremely interesting patterns. In particular, the archaeological sites with the most recorded evidence for this type of pottery are the Karemeikos in Athens and the harbour of Athens prior to Piraeus, Phaleron.

Arrington presents a fascinating possible bottom-up social model for the diffusion of the Protoattic pottery style toward the end of the chapter. He hypothesises that the style perhaps first emerged around the harbour area of Phaleron before eventually being adopted and refined by a wealthier population who lived around the Agora and the Kerameikos in central Athens. The idea of the bottom-up stylistic influence from Phaleron is extremely interesting, and it certainly appears to be a plausible hypothesis. It would be very interesting to see this hypothesis tested; one way to do this would be through ceramic fabric analysis. Geologically, it should be possible to differentiate clays from Phaleron from those sourced around the Kerameikos. Ceramic fabric analysis (even of a non-destructive type) could hold the potential to offer another interpretative dimension to this study (especially in Chapters 4 and 5). This type of analysis could aid in the identification of production centres, would be useful for exploring technological choices, and has the potential to enable tracing the diffusion of decorative techniques.

Chapter 5 focuses on artists and artistic hands that can be associated with Protoattic pottery and considers these within their social context. This discussion considers the relationship between painters, potters and even the range of functions of pottery kilns. Approaching Protoattic pottery from this perspective is important for thinking about the framework within which production and consumption took place, and presents a more holistic, and engaging, way of thinking about pottery and pots than is typical for studies of painted pottery.

Chapter 6 delves into users and the use-contexts for Protoattic pottery, focusing in particular on symposia and sanctuary settings and drawing in aspects of drinking, conviviality, community-building and the roles of elites and subelites. This chapter is an important attempt to further contextualise Protoattic pottery. Arrington acknowledges the potential problems with trying to identify symposia during the seventh century BC, noting the lack of evidence for an andron during this period (183), but nonetheless presents this as a framework for at least thinking about Protoattic pottery. I understand both the approach and the aim here, but I found myself wondering if viewing Protoattic pottery through a later institution (as the symposium would appear to be) might not risk a similar interpretative issue as the one Arrington astutely highlights in relation to seventh century Attica/Protoattic pottery being framed as a step on the path toward another later institution, Attic democracy (226). The section that includes writing on pots is extremely interesting, but I noted that most of the featured pots with the clearest inscriptions are not decorated in the same rich style as most other pots discussed in the book. At this point, I found myself wondering about Protoattic vessels with little or no decoration, and whether these should also have been considered more widely in earlier sections of the book. I understand that the evidence dictates the selection here with specific reference to writing on pots, but it raised questions in my mind about the roles that more plainly decorated pottery played in the Protoattic corpus - did it account for a significant percentage, as would be the case for undecorated pottery during other periods of Greek history?

Chapter 7 presents a summary of the key arguments/take-aways from this study and expresses the author's concern about the state of the major ancient cemetery at Phaleron and the enormous potential for learning more about Athens during the seventh century BC that this site holds.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is an intelligent, very well written, and well-presented book that is largely free from minor errors (locating Pithekoussai on Sicily [187] is a rare exception). It is a very impressive study which will bring an important, yet under-studied and often misunderstood period of history and class of pottery to the wider audience that it deserves. I have no doubt that Arrington's Athens and the Margins will long be referenced as an extremely important source by archaeologists and historians with interests in the history and archaeology of Archaic Greece and Athens, specifically.


[1] Similar approaches to later periods of Greek history have proven to be highly effective for reconsidering how we approach individual in ancient Greece. I.e. Hans Beck: Localism and the Ancient Greek City-State, Chicago 2020.

[2] Catherine E. Pratt: The 'SOS' Amphorae: An Update, in: ABSA 110 (2015), 213-245.

[3] I.e. Ian Morris: Burial and Ancient Society. The Rise of the Greek City-State, Cambridge 1987.

Conor Trainor