Pots in the Heraklion Museum. Quiz: name the period!
Last year our Res Gerendae correspondent reported on the British School at Athens’ Epigraphy Course; this year it was the turn of the BSA’s Pottery Course, based at their site in Knossos, to receive a visit from RG. After an introductory day in which the Curator, Matthew Haysom, introduced us to ‘Trends in Pottery Studies’ and also, even more importantly, showed us how to get to the supermarket, we started the course proper: essentially, the eleven of us had just under two weeks to cover almost four thousand years’ worth of pottery, from the Late Neolithic to the Late Roman period.
Mornings were spent in the Stratigraphic Museum strewing pottery from a particular period and learning about its diagnostic features and the technological and stylistic developments which took place. There aren’t many places you can get a complete Neolithic-Late Roman pottery sequence, nor many courses where you can learn about it not just from experts but sometimes even the archaeologists who’d excavated it in the first place. Afternoons were a mixture of practical classes such as drawing techniques or fabric analysis and lectures from guest speakers (on topics ranging from Hellenistic pottery typology to using pithoi to reconstruct the socioeconomic situation of Late Minoan Crete); we also had tours of the local archaeological sites and of the Heraklion Museum (though sadly, the Bronze Age gallery had yet to re-open after its refurbishment). Finally, the last two days were dedicated to the much-dreaded Mystery Pottery Boxes Test: each group was given two boxes and had to identify its date(s) and determine what kind of a deposition and/or excavation process had produced it. Much to our own surprise, we all acquitted ourselves fairly creditably. By the way, most of what we were dealing with looked rather more like the photograph below than the one above, and even this is still the nice stuff:
Late Minoan potsherds from Priniatikos Pyrgos
It wasn’t all just looking at potsherds, though – thanks to Vassilis Politakis, a potter who specialises in recreating Minoan pottery designs and techniques, we also got to experience the whole process of producing pots, from looking for clay sources and smashing up rocks to make the clay to forming the pots (well, attaching the handles and spouts) to burnishing, painting, and finally firing them. Complete, of course, with an octopus-and-squid-barbeque over the charcoal from the kiln.
Painting my pot
Vassilis and his Minoan kiln
The finished products
Of course, we weren’t working or playing with clay the *entire* time – there were plenty of opportunities to visit the local tavernas, climb Mt Iouktas, relax on the porch with the resident cats, and watch Disney movies (tip: never watch a movie in which a lot of vases get smashed with archaeologists on a pottery course unless you want a chorus of ‘DESTRUCTION DEPOSIT’ every time it happens. Actually, never eat a meal with the aforementioned archaeologists either unless you want someone/everyone to start conducting a typological analysis of the crockery). And, handily, the palace of Knossos is only a couple of minutes’ walk away from the BSA, is free for EU students, and is more or less empty at this time of year – so after a year of studying plans of the palace I was able to spend many happy hours wandering around the real thing locating the findspots of tablet deposits.
Arthur Evans’ statue in the West Court of the Palace
Overall, it was a fantastic two weeks – I met a wonderful group of people, learned an enormous amount, and had a great time while I learned it. The course caters to a really wide range of people and interests: whether you’ve studied pottery for years and plan to do a pottery-based Ph.D., or (like me) have never looked at it before but want a grounding in pottery studies to help with interpreting archaeological reports, I’d highly recommend it – so if anyone reading this is thinking about going next year, please get in touch and I’ll happily try to answer any questions and (hopefully) persuade you to go!