Scholar develops new system for overlooked wares of ancient Greece

January 02, 2003

Up until now, a small minority of pottery from the earliest Mycenaean civilization has gotten nearly all of the attention. Work by University of Cincinnati doctoral candidate Jeffrey L. Kramer is changing that.

In a presentation at the Archaeological Institute of America conference in New Orleans Jan. 3-6, Kramer will introduce scholars of Aegean prehistory to a classification system he is developing for the vast array of Mycenaean pottery that has been largely ignored by scholars. Instead, historians of Aegean antiquity have devoted much attention to Late Bronze Age pottery known as "Mycenaean decorated," thought to be highly influenced by Minoan influences from Crete. But Kramer, who hopes to complete his PhD in Greek archaeology by June 2003, points out that the "Mycenaean decorated" category accounts for less than 5 percent and in some excavations, zero percent, of the pottery found from that period. His presentation is scheduled for Jan. 4.

"I'd like to think in the long run these other wares will be just as well known and just as recognized," he says. His research also calls into question some of the assumptions scholars have made about Minoan influence on Mycenaean culture.

Kramer's dissertation on early Mycenaean pottery is directed by UC archaeologist Gisela Walberg. She invited him to study this type of material among her finds at the UC excavations of the Mycenaean citadel of Midea. He will publish a chapter in Walberg's forthcoming publication about the excavation.

The Late Bronze Age era that Kramer examines stretches from about 1650-1050 B.C. The height of the Mycenaean civilization occurred at about the same time as King Tut in Egypt. The Mycenaeans are perhaps best known, however, not for their rise, but for their fall, which is associated with the Trojan War stories recounted in Homer's epics. Their end began about the same time as the Exodus in the Old Testament.

Kramer compares the less common "Mycenaean decorated" pottery to Rookwood or Tiffany stained-glass, which are collected and highly regarded for aesthetic reasons. But they represent a small share of the pottery and glassware made and used in the modern world. Similarly, "Mycenaean decorated" pottery was traded and valued for its attractiveness, as well as the contents it may have contained. This pottery appeared in predominantly in three colors including pink/tan decorated with red and black or mixtures of the two, as well as green and gray decorated with black.

Up to now, the other types of pottery from this period on mainland Greece have been largely referred to as "other wares." Before all these "others" can be understood and studied in a coherent way, Kramer says a classification system is needed.

He suggests using a multi-faceted system based on shapes, colors, decorations and "fabric" - not textiles, but the clay and materials added to it to make the clay.

"The goal of any of this research is not the objects themselves, but better ways to understand the people and the civilization that existed. What I am doing is just the first step in a very long process," he says.

While it may be true that Minoans influenced various aspects of Mycenaean culture, Kramer has found that the influence on the earliest Mycenaean pottery may not be as profound as previously thought.

His research did not limit him to images he found in libraries, but took him to Greece to examine artifacts. He looked at pottery from:

  • Korakou, a site excavated by the late UC archaeologist Carl Blegen, who pioneered the study of Mycenaean pottery. His Korakou finds in 1921 included almost all the wares studied by Kramer. Blegen was the one who set up the original system for classification of Mycenaean pottery, which in turn has been revised by others and now Kramer.

  • Tsoungiza, also associated with Blegen.

  • Lerna, a 1950s excavation by the late UC archaeologist John Caskey.

  • Midea, a site excavated by Professor Walberg of UC in the 1990s.

    University of Cincinnati

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