Kythera Island Project
 

Byzantine-Recent Pottery

Principal Investigator:
Joanita Vroom (East Anglia)

 

One of the youngest fields in Aegean pottery analysis, and also one of the fastest-growing, is that concerning the pottery of the periods following the end of the Roman Empire, pottery that in its earlier phases was long poorly understood and little studied, and in its recent phases (as we approach the present) all too often wrongly regarded as not even a worthwhile object of archaeological attention. KIP has adopted a different philosophy. It fully embraces the challenge of taking ceramic analysis right through Byzantine and Venetian Kythera, and up to the production, usage and discard patterns of 19th and 20th century communities, at which juncture two additional sources of information can be added: local potters' ancestral knowledge, and, of course, the intact pots of this date that still survive in family houses and local collections.

Byzantine pottery
Early and Middle Venetian period sgraffito ware. Photography by C. Broodbank 2001.
KIP's period nomenclature for this material is based on the main phases of political domination of the island, and it should be noted that such terms as 'Venetian' are not intended to imply anything about the actual origin or cultural tradition of the pottery concerned. In fact, following the end of the Roman period (in the early 7th century AD), KIP has found no identifiable material of the following Early Byzantine period (ca. late 7th to 10th centuries), which does appear to bear out hints in Byzantine textual sources that the island was more or less abandoned for some time. There are limited amounts of Middle Byzantine (11th-12th centuries) pottery from coastal and inland sites, mainly in the form of decorated sgraffito pottery and amphora handles, although it is hoped that gradually it will prove possible to recognise a wider range of local coarse pottery. Much the same modest pattern holds for the Early and Middle Venetian periods (respectively the 13th-14th and 15th-16th centuries, periods that partly fall within the category known as Late Byzantine elsewhere in Greece). In the Late Venetian (17th-18th centuries) and Recent (19th-20th centuries) periods, the amount of material booms in quantity, constituting a large proportion of all the sherds brought in from tract-walking - this being a combined result of a genuinely high density in the landscape, superior standard of preservation (given short surface exposure and good firing), and the quantity of diagnostics (given the propensity to decorate most pots).

Altogether, this pottery can act as an invaluable foil and accompaniment to the textual record for Byzantine, Venetian and more recent Kythera. Understanding of the earlier phases remains embryonic, but three examples from Late Venetian and Recent times illustrate the potential. The first is from the vicinity of Avlemonas, identified by early travellers as one of the island's principal ports after antiquity. Pottery can tell us when Avlemonas began to operate, what range of pottery arrived (in terms of its pan-Mediterranean origins, and also of the functions of the pots involved, e.g. storage jars, cooking pots, pithoi or eating/serving ware), and when trading activity declined. The second example involves the question of the dating of, and activities that took place at, the countless small rural structures that appeared in the Kytheran landscape during the past few centuries, and prior to the present abandonment of farming on the island. The textual and ethnographic record suggests a complex range of possibilities, such as occasional use, seasonal residence or pioneer settlement; the pottery from such locales can play a part in choosing between such options. A third example, given the ubiquity of recent pottery across a large proportion of the landscape, including remote areas, is the contribution that such material can make to the long-standing debate concerning the significance of 'off-site' data at different periods of the past, through examination of the ranges of shapes, functions and discard patterns associated with different kinds of topography, land-use and distance from habitation.

This last point prompts a final note: since there is considerable overall stability in the basic settlement pattern on Kythera through the more recent centuries, and also increasingly abundant archival and architectural evidence to be integrated into the picture, the designation of 'sites' for the post-Roman periods is still a matter of debate within KIP, and site numbers for these periods are accordingly not yet provided.

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