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UC professor researches Athenian pottery for clues to ancient cultures

Getty Scholar Fellow Kathleen Lynch: 'The pottery becomes a marker for a message'

For University of Cincinnati professor Kathleen Lynch, archaeology has always been a fascination.

And when she took a Greek archaeology class as an undergraduate elective, it became a full-blown passion.

“I fell in love with it,” said Lynch, a professor of Classics in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. “Not only did I find the questions and approaches intellectually stimulating, but the passion and enthusiasm of the professors inspired me.”

This may be why it came not as a surprise but a delight, when Lynch became the first UC professor to receive a Getty Scholar Fellowship to dig deeper into her research on ancient Greek pottery made in Athens from ca. 600-300 B.C.

Now midway through the fellowship at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California, Lynch says her current research is an extension of her long-held interest in not just the delicate Athenian pottery, with its deep oranges and intricate figures, but the people who used it every day.

“I wanted to know more about average people, what their lives were like. That’s how I became interested in ancient pottery — ancient dishes and cups — that provide a window into the everyday lives of people whom the ancient texts rarely mention," she said. "Through the study of pottery, we can tell what they ate and how they socialized with food and drink.”

Lynch's research is helping us understand ancient eastern markets, which stretched from modern Turkey to Egypt and beyond to Armenia. The imported Athenian pottery seemed out of place in the Persian culture of the region at the time, Lynch says, prompting her to ask: Why they were in such high demand? For what were they used? What did they say about the ancient peoples who owned them?

Sample of ancient pottery from Athens, Greece.

“I find these questions fascinating, because the pottery becomes a marker for a message, just as our mismatched, souvenir coffee mugs do,” Lynch said. “I have some of those Starbucks mugs from around the world. They send a message about travel and the worldliness that implies. But you may have a ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ mug, which conveys information about a role that is meaningful to you.

“These are choices we make, and there is a conscious (or unconscious) meaning to the choice. By studying the cupboards of ancient people, we can also learn about their worldview and what mattered to them. And we recover information about an otherwise mute population.” 

Lynch spoke about the fellowship, her work at the Getty Research Institute and why it matters.

Set the stage for us: what is the basis for your research?

Lynch: From about 600 B.C. to 300 B.C. the potters of ancient Athens, Greece, produced exceptional ceramics. Athens possessed excellent clay, which allowed the potters to form delicate but elaborate shapes. They decorated them with figures, often illustrating a myth or activity from daily life, such as exercising in the gymnasium or drinking wine.

People around the Mediterranean desired this pottery, so the Athenian potters exported their wares to the west and east. But here’s where it gets interesting: many of the customers were not Greek. A large quantity of Athenian pottery comes from tombs of ancient Italian cultures including the Etruscans. What did these indigenous cultures do with pots designed for a peculiarly Greek activity?

While scholarship has focused on the western markets for Athenian pottery, less work has been done on the eastern markets, and this is where my Getty Scholar project comes in. I have been studying pottery from a site in central Turkey, Gordion, which received a large quantity of very fine Athenian pottery. My project at the Getty is to understand how eastern customers used Athenian pottery and what they thought about it.

What is especially interesting about the eastern market is that the sites that imported Athenian pottery were under Persian rule. The Persians controlled a vast empire from the Mediterranean to the Indus River to North Africa, a huge expanse populated by numerous cultures. Their imperial policy allowed these local cultures to continue autonomously without much imposition from above, as long as they paid their taxes, of course.

Nevertheless, we see local elites adopt elements of Persian style — in dress, imagery and habits. The Athenian pottery, however, is not part of this elite alignment with imperial Persian culture. My preliminary idea is that the people using the Athenian pottery, with its fine quality and distinctive figural decoration, made a statement about maintaining their traditions over generations as a subtle counter to the Persians.

Why would you say this research is important?

Lynch: Much scholarship in the field of figured Athenian pottery has focused on the imagery on vases without much attention to who used the vases and on what occasions. In all of my research, I emphasize that it makes a difference whether a Greek used the object or someone with very different cultural values and knowledge. The objects transform in these new situations, and new uses and meanings arise.  

My project, along with those of other colleagues, places the Athenian pottery into its original use context to consider how a non-Athenian audience would have used the pottery, and what its imagery might have meant to them. In export contexts, the Athenian pottery becomes a prestige good and symbol of a connection with a distant world. But at Persian Empire sites, Athenian ceramics were not the most prestigious objects (Persian metal cups won that prize), so studying this pottery from Persian empire contexts provides insight into a mid-level use of objects that send a specific message about the possessor's self-identity.

Why is it important to advance scholarship in this area?

Lynch: Scholars have asked similar questions about the western markets, but have paid less attention to the eastern markets. Much of what we do in archaeology involves comparison. If the eastern market for Athenian pottery is much different from the western, then that tells us about the marketing strategies of the Athenian potters. We will learn about both Athenians and the eastern users of these objects. Publication of Athenian pottery from individual excavations exists, but there is no synthetic study of its cultural role during the period of Persian rule.

How has the experience been so far?

Lynch: The Getty is simply heaven. The Getty Scholars program has gone out of its way to make everyone feel welcome. My research office is at the Getty Villa, which is a reproduction of an ancient Roman country villa, down to the mosaics and marble clad walls. I am grateful to the Getty Foundation for this amazing opportunity and to my fellow scholars for the wonderful and thoughtful conversations, which add great value to this experience.

Featured image at top: UC Classics Professor Kathleen Lynch outside the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, where she is researching the uses and trade of ancient Athenian pottery as part of a Getty scholar-in-residence fellowship.