The Symposium in Context (HS 46) Publishedby Andrew Reinhard
The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora (Hesperia Supplement 46) is Kathleen Lynch’s first book and takes archaeology in an exciting new direction. The book presents the first well-preserved set of sympotic pottery that served a Late Archaic house in the Athenian Agora. These vessels, combined with other household pottery in a domestic setting, allowed Lynch (University of Cincinnati) to restore a context of use for a class of objects frequently studied in isolation. I interviewed Professor Lynch about the book and her contextual approach to understanding this pottery deposit during her popular AIA lecture tour in October.
Reinhard: When did you first learn about this pottery deposit, and how did you become responsible for its formal publication?
Lynch: Believe it or not, I first heard about this deposit of pottery when I was a second- year graduate student at the University of Virginia. We had a visiting professor, Gretchen Umholtz, who had been in Athens over the summer and had seen bits of the deposit at the Agora excavations as it was coming up. When she learned that I was interested in the household use of figured pottery, she mentioned the deposit. Little did I know that several years down the road, that deposit would become the heart of my dissertation.
The second time I met the deposit was in the summer of 1997. I had just finished a year as a Regular Member at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and John Camp, the Director of the Agora Excavations, helped me secure a position as assistant to Susan Rotroff. As I helped inventory pottery from the deposit, Susan and I discussed dissertation topics, and she encouraged me to approach John Camp for permission to use it for my dissertation and subsequent publication. So you could say John gave me my first and second breaks! I stayed in Athens as an Associate Member of the School for two years, spending most of my time at the Stoa of Attalos. Those were wonderful years, and the Agora Excavation staff continue to be my “second family.” After completing my dissertation, I expanded the study to include contemporary pottery and the purpose of the symposium at Athens, and a full examination of the remaining architecture of the house.
Reinhard: In this book you take a contextual approach to interpreting the material. Can you describe what’s different about your method of interpretation as compared to more “traditional” archaeological scholarship?
Lynch: Typically, figured pottery – Athenian black-figure and red-figure – is studied for its artistic or iconographic qualities. Less attention is paid to the shape or original use of the objects. In this book, I establish that the pottery originated in an Athenian house, then I consider what the pottery tells us about how it was used by the household. It turns out that this household owned more than one set of pottery for drinking wine. Each of the sets represents a different kind of drinking or social circumstance, so there is the expected set of symposium cups (kylikes) but there is also a pair of exceptional, intentional red kylikes, which suggests a more exclusive occasion. Knowing the context of use also leads to the conclusion that Athenian homeowners chose their pottery carefully. The scenes on the pots interrelate, and they carefully avoid some subjects. For example, there are no erotic scenes and surprisingly only one mythological scene. The pattern that emerges from this and other contemporary deposits from Athenian houses is that some Athenian pottery was made for the home market, but others for the export market. We cannot assume that all Athenian-made pottery was used by Athenians.
Reinhard: What first drew you to Attic red-figure pottery and to the Athenian symposium?
Lynch: From my first undergraduate courses in Greek archaeology at Boston University I was troubled by the way Athenian pottery was presented. I wanted to know who used the vases and when, because even then I realized that an object’s meaning is context- dependent, and many of these vases were found outside of Greece. One of the first courses I took in graduate school at the University of Virginia was vase painting, and the professor, Tom Carpenter, encouraged me to develop an interest in the relationship of images and use context. Much Athenian figured pottery is made for wine-drinking activities, but I was vexed by the problem that much of it was found in non-Greek contexts. My goal was to understand how the pottery for drinking was used at home, in Athens, in order to recognize better its different uses and images in export settings.
Reinhard: What was the biggest discovery or joy for you as you were researching the pottery for your book?
Lynch: My biggest joy continues to be returning to the Stoa of Attalos headquarters of the Athenian Excavations and seeing the pottery from this deposit. The pots are old friends now, and meeting them again each summer is a kind of homecoming.
Reinhard: You’ve been an AIA lecturer this year and have been speaking on a few topics outside of symposia. What’s your next project that you are working on for your next book?
Lynch: My next book, Athenian Vases and Their Contexts, builds on the foundation of this study. Now that I have a handle on how Athenian pottery was used in Athens, I am examining how Athenian pottery was used outside of Athens. The premise of the study is that Athenian vases exported to non-Greek locales were sometimes carefully designed to appeal to their consumers. Not in every case, of course, but identifying patterns of shapes and images preferred by non-Greek municipalities, regions, or even cultures, illustrates that Athenian potters were savvy businessmen. What looks “Greekish” may have more to do with the taste of the non-Greek purchaser than with Athenians. The implication is that we need to interpret vase iconography carefully, because an Athenian meaning may not be what was originally intended.
The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora
by Kathleen M. Lynch
Hesperia Supplement 46
400 pp, 24 col and 258 bw figs, 15 tables
8.5” x 11”
Paper, ISBN: 978-0-87661-546-1
Order the book here.
Download three sample chapters here.
Publication of this book was funded in part by the Louise Taft Semple Fund and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation. Thanks also go to the Solow Foundation and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens for its student fellowships that supported the research for this book.