TRACT. TRAvelling Ceramic Technologies as markers of human mobility in the Aegean

TRACT is a project funded through Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (grant No No 753569), carried out by Bartłomiej Lis under the supervision of Evangelia Kiriatzi.

TRACT was developed in the context of increased interest in human mobility seen across many disciplines dealing with both past as well as more recent and contemporary movements of people. Archaeology, now equipped with powerful techniques such as ancient DNA or strontium isotopes’ analyses is able to tackle such issues with unprecedented precision and degree of certainty when dealing with skeletal material, which, however, is not always available or sufficiently well preserved as opposed to abundant (at least in the Mediterranean) and durable pottery. Against this backdrop, TRACT’s main objective was twofold. On the one hand, it was designed to carry out a detailed and interdisciplinary study of a particular case study of past human mobility, focused on the potters from the island of Aegina around 1200 BC. This study rested on the main premise that the technology involved in craft production has the potential to demonstrate mobility in a manner much more unequivocal than the discussion of other aspects of material culture. On the other hand, the objective was also to make this particular case study relevant for the general, inter-disciplinary interest in human mobility through the study of motivations, scale and impact of past mobility combined with investigation of potters’ movements in modern times in the same landscapes. Through an application of interdisciplinary approach, TRACT was able to confirm mobility of potters trained in a tradition characteristic for the island of Aegina and, by putting it in a broader socio-political context, explore less tangible aspects of this phenomenon, like reasons behind the movement and its various scales. Furthermore, in the specific historical context of the period around 1200 BC, craftsmen mobility provided a very good proxy for investigating the general movement of people.

Photo 1. Map showing sites included in the project

The investigation of Aeginetan potters’ mobility focused initially on the study of deposits from a number of sites along the Euboean Gulf, a water passage leading from the Saronic Gulf (with Aegina at its center) towards the central and northern parts of the Greek mainland. This has led to the identification of several examples of cooking pots that were manufactured using technology associated with the potting tradition developed on Aegina. In order to test the initial hypothesis that these pots represent products of potters trained on Aegina that moved to several locations along the Euboean Gulf, a scientific program integrating macroscopic study of manufacturing methods with analytical study of ceramic fabrics and technology was initiated. This program involved not only suspected products of migrant Aeginetan potters, but also actual imports from Aegina as well as other kinds of cooking pottery found in the same contexts and presumably produced by potters local to those areas. This way it was possible not only to better understand the reproduction of potting tradition associated with Aegina, but also to compare it against other contemporary traditions on the Greek mainland. In order to get more insights into potters’ choices and interaction with local landscapes and its resources, geological sampling was carried out around the sites included in the project.

As a result of this research program, an identical manufacturing process has been established for pottery produced on Aegina and similarly looking cooking pots identified at several sites along the Euboean Gulf and interpreted as products of potters trained in the same tradition. Furthermore, there was a clear difference between manufacturing methods used for Aeginetan-tradition cooking pottery and other contemporary cooking pots studied from the same sites and deposits, highlighting the presence of distinct potting traditions – one associated with the island of Aegina, the other with the rest of the Greek mainland.

Integration of analytical techniques – petrographic and elemental analysis – improved the understanding of both particular aspects of technology involved (like clay selection and preparation practices or firing regimes), possible production localities and interaction between various traditions. Again, additional links between the potters active on Aegina and those responsible for Aeginetan-tradition cooking pots in the Euboean Gulf could be demonstrated. Importantly, a substantial number of production localities as evidenced by a broad array of attested fabrics was revealed for the latter group. Only in a single case (Lefkandi) did the clay selection and preparation practices of Aeginetan-tradition cooking pottery showed certain overlap with choices made by other potters active in the same site/region, a fact pointing to limited interaction and the consistency of potters’ choices even when working outside of Aegina. Thanks to the geological sampling performed within TRACT, as well as the rich reference collection at the base of the project, the Fitch Laboratory, it was possible to tie some of the fabrics to particular micro-regions.

Photo 2. Thin-sections of imported Aeginetan cooking pot and Aeginetan-tradition cooking pot from Pefkakia

This part of the project provided unequivocal evidence for activity of potters trained in Aeginetan tradition along the Euboean Gulf up to the modern city of Volos. In order to accomplish the other goal of the project, and render this particular case study relevant for a broader field of mobility studies, certain aspects of mobility like its human and temporal scale, motivations and impact were studied by employing socio-political and economic context and were informed by analysis of particular case studies of modern potters’ mobility in the same geographical region.

When put within a broader context of the socio-political and economic developments on the Greek mainland around 1200 BC, the mobility of Aeginetan potters can be more fully comprehended. It appears that the beginning of their activity away from Aegina was related to seasonal itinerant potting, taking place mostly in the northern part of the studied area (region of Thessaly). This first stage was plausibly economically motivated since the last decades of the 13th century BC are characterized by the disruption of existing trade networks affecting circulation of pottery. From the 1200 BC onwards, we are dealing with a very different kind of movement – permanent resettlement to various places along the Euboean Gulf and further north. This is a result of hazardous living conditions within the area of Saronic Gulf and Aegina following the dissolution of existing power structures, most vividly showcased by the depopulation and abandonment of a number of settlements in that area. While the first stage of the mobility concerned most likely single potters and small working groups, this second stage plausibly involved larger social groups, with potters among them. It is worth pointing out that study of technology involved in production of cooking pottery conducted within TRACT provides so far the only evidence for the directions of human migration from the area of the Saronic Gulf.

Research on modern case studies of potters’ mobility was designed to see how aspects of scale, duration or motivations are shaped by known socio-political and economic factors. The main takeaway from this approach is the importance of the economic context and standing of potters, being a strong motivator both for seasonal and permanent migrations. In the latter case, political developments might provide another push factor, and lead to what can be termed as forced migration. Similar general mechanisms have been recognized also in the archaeological case study.

The results of TRACT were disseminated during a number of conference presentations and lectures aimed at the scientific community, while the wider public was reached through web-based news portals and radio. They will also be included in several publications that will be published in high-impact journals. Particular activities undertaken within TRACT were communicated through Facebook and the blog of the Fitch Laboratory.

In order to explore the potential of such interdisciplinary approach to past human mobility, TRACT was concluded with a workshop devoted to craftspeople mobility that brought together researchers representing various disciplines. As the workshop aimed at initiating the dialogue across the disciplines, its accomplishments will take their final form in the planned publication. Nevertheless, the paper presented by Bartłomiej Lis and Evangelia Kiriatzi combining results of TRACT with earlier research on potters’ mobility carried out at the hosting institution highlighted the main advances of the project beyond state of the art: a shift from proving that mobility indeed took place towards discussion of multiple aspects of mobility in prehistoric times highlighting certain regularities that can be observed in the material record and can be applied in the study of other archaeological contexts and materials. However, each case study, including that investigated by TRACT, is unique and therefore has to be studied in its own context before any generalizations are attempted.

Photo 3. Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions