Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World

Review by Robin Osborne.

Thirty-three years ago, I attempted to push 7th-century BC Athens and Attica into the limelight. I managed to stimulate critical engagement from Anna-Maria D’Onofrio and James Whitley, but failed to convince the wider world that this was a topic well worth attention. In the past four years, study of 7th-century BC Athens and Attica has finally grabbed scholarly attention internationally, with Annarita Doronzio’s Athen im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Räume und Funde der frühen Polis (2018), Eirini Dimitriadou’s Early Athens: Settlements and Cemeteries in the Submycenaean, Geometric and Archaic Periods (2019), and Maximilian Rönnberg’s Athen und Attika vom 11. bis zum frühen 6. Jh. v. Chr. Siedlungsgeschichte, politische Institutionalisierungs- und gesellschaftliche Formierungsprozesse (2021). Nathan Arrington’s book (devoted, although the title does not indicate that, exclusively to the 7th century BC) complements these other works with its intensive look not at settlement archaeology, but at pottery and its uses.

Arrington does not merely want to convince us that the so-called Proto-Attic pottery production of 7th-century BC Athens is more interesting than others have realised, he wants to convince us that to understand 7th-century BC Athens and its pottery we need to look at the marginalised pottery associated with the massive cemetery at Phaleron on the coast south-west of Athens, rather than the sophisticated pottery associated with the offering trenches of the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens; at the pottery across the central Mediterranean that stems from or imitates Proto-Attic; at the organisation of painters revealed by the lowly details of how pots are painted; and at how even unpretentious pots can reveal the behavioural patterns and values of drinking parties.

Unlike the other books listed above, this is a book written for students, intended both to detail the inadequacy of earlier studies of Proto-Attic pottery and to introduce ideas as diverse (and familiar) as network theory and Peircean semiotics. Arrington is more interested in showing what can be done with the material than in arguing for a particular conclusion, and where he stands on certain big questions (such as what the political relationship between Athens and Attica was in this period, or even whether they formed a meaningful cultural unity, or what we should believe about Athenian demography) never becomes totally clear. There are things here that risk frustrating and annoying archaeologists who work on this material (some of the most interesting iconographic use of mythology is never discussed; he excludes known graves from his count because they have not been published), but with its copious fine illustrations and lucid exposition, this is an extraordinary resource for the teacher of Greek archaeology. Now, surely, 7th-century BC Athens will gain a firm place in the archaeological curriculum.

Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World, Nathan Arrington, Princeton University Press, £35 ISBN 978-0691175201.