Gift of Athena: Olive Oil and the Making of Athens

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In this project, I take a long-term approach to the production, distribution, and consumption of Athenian olive oil. From the eighth to the beginning of the fifth century, Athens produced large, specialized ceramic transport containers (amphoras) to ship local liquid produce, such as olive oil and wine, abroad. Around 480 BCE, however, Athens stopped producing these containers and never again adopted a standardized amphora of their own. While my previous work has focused on the earliest Athenian amphoras, the so-called “SOS, the research undertaken at the CHS in 2017 focused on the ensuing sixth-century amphoras: the “á la brosse” and Panathenaic Prize. This project sought to understand whether sixth-century Athenian amphoras followed similar patterns of distribution as the previous SOS and whether the Panathenaic Prize amphora, associated with the Greater Panathenaic Games, had a secondary purpose as a more traditional “commercial” amphora. The results of my research suggests that while the á la brosse closely followed the trajectory of the SOS in both production and distribution patterns, the Panathenaic Prize amphora seemed to function within a separate network. In other words, the economic or other mechanisms and agents that produced the distribution patterns visible for the á la brosse and Panathenaic Prize amphora seem to have been extremely different. Moreover, after the á la brosse amphora was discontinued around 480 BCE, the Panathenaic amphora does not seem to fill the gap, but rather maintains similar patterns visible from the previous century. Despite their similarities in size and shape, the primary functions of á la brosse and Panathenaic prize amphoras do not seem to have overlapped at any point. While this may seem unsurprising given the cultural context of Panathenaic amphoras as prizes for athletic contests, their wide distribution around the Mediterranean created room for speculation. This project seems to make clear that during the sixth and fifth centuries, at least, the Panathenaic amphora was not used as a commercial amphora and that after 480 BCE Athens truly does not produce a standardized ceramic container used to exchange surplus agricultural products.

Project report

The overall research goal for the project undertaken at the CHS in the fall of 2017 was to understand better the complicated history of Athens’ olive oil production and exchange during the earliest phases of polis formation. From the eighth to the beginning of the fifth century, Athens produced large, specialized ceramic transport containers (amphoras) to ship local liquid produce, such as olive oil and wine, abroad. Around 480 BCE, however, Athens stopped producing these containers and never again adopted a standardized amphora of their own. The reasons behind this dramatic change have been unexplored, including the precise trends in production and exchange of Athenian amphoras up to that point. My previous work had focused on the very earliest Athenian amphoras, the so-called “SOS” amphoras, produced and exchanged from the second half of the eighth to the beginning of the sixth century BCE (Pratt 2015, 2016; Johnston and Jones 1979). It was therefore the ensuing sixth century that took center stage during my tenure at the CHS. I sought to tease out what exactly happened during and after the discontinuation of the SOS amphora—what other amphoras took its place, where did they ultimately end up, and who were the potential agents involved with their production, exchange, and consumption?

It has been a known fact that after the SOS amphora was discontinued in Athens, two amphoras were produced in the early sixth century. The first was extremely similar to its predecessor and has been called the “á la brosse” after the streaky glaze applied to the body of the pot (Lawall 1995, 2011). Unlike the SOS, which had various designs on the neck often resembling a sigma-omicron-sigma, the nick of the á la brosse amphora was left in reserve. It had relatively similar dimensions and changed shape gradually over time, allowing for the designation of “early” (ca. 600-550 BCE) and “late” (ca. 550-480 BCE) versions.

Although the many examples of á la brosse amphoras found throughout the archaic levels of Athens, including wells, has formed the primary dataset from which our knowledge of this vessel comes, an extensive look at available data from excavations around the Mediterranean demonstrates that á la brosse amphoras were not mostly confined to Athens, but rather travelled in large numbers to regions as distant as southern France and the eastern edges of the Black Sea. My research suggests that á la brosse amphoras followed a very similar pattern of distribution to their SOS predecessors. Despite the various difficulties and disparities in data preservation, recording, and publication at different sites, it is nevertheless possible to see meaningful patterns in amphora distributions over time.

Many of the over 150 sites that had SOS amphoras also have á la brosse amphoras. All of the regions of the Mediterranean are represented with some areas perhaps starting to increase in activity while others decline. For example, Iberia seems to have many fewer examples of á la brosse amphoras, but southern France increases substantially with supposedly hundreds found at Marseilles. Other regions, like Sicily and Italy, remain relatively steady in their engagement. The overall numbers of á la brosse amphoras found abroad tend to be smaller than the previous SOS (often less than ten examples), but this should not be too surprising considering that the sixth century was a time of increasing local production of both oil and wine throughout the Mediterranean regions capable of producing their own surplus (for example, Iberia, Italy, and Sicily). Overall, then, the current state of research and data collection suggests that á la brosse amphoras followed the trajectory of SOS amphoras rather closely throughout the sixth century, carrying on a tradition of surplus agricultural export that had begun in the eighth century.

At the same time, the sixth century also brought about the introduction of another type of Athenian amphora, the Panathenaic prize amphora (Bentz 1998, 2001). One hypothesis that I had sought to test was whether the Panathenaic amphora had a secondary function as a more “traditional” transport amphora in the sense that it carried surplus agricultural products outside of Attica. And, whether the Panathenaic amphora carried on, and perhaps even increased, this function into the fifth century once the á la brosse had been discontinued. I sought to test this hypothesis by comparing the diachronic distribution of Panathenaic amphoras against the contemporary á la brosse and to see whether there is a meaningful change in distribution patterns after ca. 480 BCE.

Just like the SOS and à la brosse, the Panathenaic amphora has a relatively standard size and style that changes only slightly over time. In general the height tends to hover around 60 cm, slightly smaller than the SOS and à la brosse, but quite close considering the typical capacity of the Panathenaic amphora is also 1 metretes. It too has standard decoration that changes slightly over time, although its decoration is certainly more complicated than either the SOS or à la brosse. At the same time, though, it is quite clear that the Panathenaic amphora’s overall shape was modeled after the contemporary à la brosse (and SOS by extension).

Despite these similarities in production, the distribution of Panathenaic amphoras is very different from that of the contemporary á la brosse. Rather than seeing a significantly even and wide spread distribution across the Mediterranean to all regions, we instead see “hot-spots” where Panathenaic prize amphoras are imported in large quantities. Almost all other sites that have Panathenaic prize amphoras have a single example. From its inception to the beginning of the Classical era, Panathenaic amphoras are concentrated primarily in Athens, Etruria, and Samos, with smaller collections in Sparta and Cyrene. Conspicuously absent are any examples from southern France and Iberia, and only a few from Sicily, where we find many contemporary á la brosse amphoras. These patterns suggest a limited, directed trade in Panathenaic prize amphoras outside the Greek world, namely, to Etruria, and then very few examples, perhaps taken home as prizes or bought on the market, within the Greek world. Based on the data currently available, it seems clear that á la brosse and Panatheanaic amphoras did not travel within the same networks.

A slightly different pattern emerges for the fifth century, after the á la brosse amphora was discontinued entirely. Yet, it is not a pattern that seeks to fill the gap left by the á la brosse. Instead, the pattern suggests an even more closed network with the Etrurian “hot-spot” gone entirely. Instead, we see continued concentration within the Greek world, especially around the Aegean itself. Not surprisingly, sites in the northern Aegean start to pick up more examples as the Macedonian kingdoms start to participate in the acquisition of southern Greek cultural capital. Again, for the Classical era, we do not see the type of distribution that we did for the archaic “commercial” transport amphoras. It is perhaps only in the fourth century that Panathenaic amphoras start to be found abroad in larger quantities.

Based on my research thus far, it seems that Athens had a very long history of surplus oil production and its exchange on a Mediterranean-wide network. The seventh century in particular was a time when Athenian olive oil dominated the Greek commodities trade (see Pratt 2015, 2016). At this point, the emphasis was perhaps placed on the economic value of Athenian olive oil as constructed on a multi-cultural commercial market. This is in contrast to the sixth century, when the value of Athenian olive oil shifts towards being constructed on a political platform within a more local network. We can see this shift through the invention of two new amphoras, the á la brosse and the Panathenaic, that coincide with two significant socio-political events within Athenian history. The first, is the Solonic reforms (e.g., Noussia-Fantuzzi 2010; Leão and Rhodes 2015), the second is the introduction of the Greater Panathenaia (e.g., Neils 1992, 1996; Shear 2001; Palagia 2007). Future research on this project will be directed towards understanding better the cultural context of the production and distribution of these amphoras and the entanglements between the socio-political, agricultural, and economic elements that produce these archaeologically visible results.

This project is the first to focus on the long term trajectory of Athenian amphoras and how patterns in their production and distribution reflect changes in the broader cultural history of Athens. The archaic period, and specifically the sixth century, was a time of dramatic political and social changes. The economic ramifications of these changes have rarely been the focus of academic scholarship. Amphoras have the potential to act as proxies for economic changes, including surplus production and export strategies, implemented by various social leaders. That one of Solon’s economic reforms of the early sixth century specifically banned the export of any agricultural surplus except olive oil is a testament to the interconnections between cultural economy and cultural history. By focusing on these connections, this project seeks to contribute to broader trends in the fields of humanities.


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Bentz, M. 1998. Panathenäische Preisamphoren :. eine athenische Vasengattung und ihre Funktion vom 6.-4. Jahrhundert v. Chr.

Johnston, A.W., and R. Jones. 1978. “The SOS amphora.” Annual of the British School at Athens 73:103–141.

Lawall, M.L. 1995. Transport Amphoras and Trademarks: Imports to Athens and Economic Diversity in the Fifth Century B.C. PhD diss., The University of Michigan.

———. 2011a. “Appendix I: Transport amphoras from well J 2:4.” In The Symposium in Context. Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora, ed. K.M. Lynch. American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Hesperia Supplement 46; Athens.

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Neils, J. 1996. Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 

Noussia-Fantuzzi, M. 2010. Solon the Athenian, the Poetic Fragments. Mnemosyne Supplements 326. Leiden: Brill.

Palagia, O., and A. Choremi-Spetsieri, eds. 2007.  The Panathenaic Games: proceedings of an international conference held at the university of Athens. Havertown: Oxbow Books.

Pratt, C.E. 2015. “The ‘SOS’ amphora: an update.” The Annual of the British School at Athens 110:213-245.

———. 2016. “Greek Commodities Moving West: Comparing Corinthian and Athenian Amphorae in the Early Archaic Period.” In Maritime Transport Containers in the Mediterranean Bronze and Iron Ages, ed Bernard Knapp and Stella Demesticha. SIMA PB 183:195-213.

Shear, J.L. 2001. Polis and Panathenaia. The History and Development of Athena’s Festival. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania.