Olive oil routes in the Aegean during the Mycenaean period (14th-12th c. BC):
Production and the mobility of transport stirrup jars

Vassilis Petrakis

TRANSPORT STIRRUP JARS

The stirrup (or false-necked) jar (Modern Greek: ψευδόστομος or ετερόστομος αμφορέας; French: vase à étrier; German: Bügelkanne) is a pottery shape particular to the Late Bronze Age Aegean (second half of the 2nd millennium BC). It owes its name to its basic diagnostic feature: a cylindrical solid stem atop its body, which resembles a stirrup, as well as a neck. However, this ‘neck’ is closed with a clay disk (hence the ‘false-necked’ or ψευδόστομος names). Two (or three in some early examples) small vertical handles are attached to this stem. The true spout is quite narrow and is always placed on the side of the stirrup, either parallel to the vertical axis of the vessel or forming an angle. The shape of its body varies from nearly globular to ovoid or piriform (Figure 1).

While stirrup jars are generally variable in size, fabric quality and decoration, our attention here is focused on the so-called ‘transport’ variety. Transport stirrup-jars (hereafter TSJs) are also referred to as FS 164 (FS standing for ‘Furumark Shape’ referring to the classificatory typology devised by Swedish archaeologist Arne Furumark). TSJs are approximately 0,40 m high and their average capacity is 12-14 lt.

TSJs are produced of coarse fabric and bear simple painted decoration (mostly horizontal or wavy lines), which occurs either in dark-on-light (DoL) or light-on-dark (LoD) styles (the latter is quite scarce in other categories of Aegean pottery during the 14th-12th centuries BC). Except for the LoD decoration (which might be talc, caoline or lime silicate), dark tones (reddish or brownish to black) are achieved by application of a fine clay slip enriched with iron on the body of the vessel; during firing within the kiln, oxidization results in reddish hues, while a three stage alteration between oxidizing, reducing oxygen and re-oxidizing could produce even darker colors. Besides painted decoration, certain TSJs bear inscriptions in the Linear B script in both DoL and LoD techniques (see infra).

TSJs occur frequently in residential contexts (especially in areas identified as storage basements), as well as cargoes of contemporary shipwrecks, such as those in Point Iria, Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun; their occurrence in funerary contexts is much more scarce (unlike smaller and finer stirrup jars that were frequently deposited as gravegoods). TSJs also occur beyond the Aegean, in sites of the East or Central Mediterranean.

While the stirrup jar seems to be a Minoan invention of the closing of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700-1600 BC), TSJs are a feature of the mature phases of the Late Bronze Age. The earliest TSJs appear during the 14th century BC. They seem to reach their apogee in the later 14th and throughout the 13th centuries BC, while their traffic seems reduced by the end of the 13th and throughout the 12th centuries BC. Most TSJs seem to have been produced in Crete.

It is likely that the development of the TSJ is associated with the intensification of seaborne trade during the 14th century BC. Stirrup jars in general were a practical shape facilitating the relatively secure transport of liquids, mostly olive-oil, but also perhaps wine; their narrow spout could be easily closed with a lump of raw clay (a stopper or plug), which was occasionally sealed. Once dried, these stoppers had to be broken in order to access the liquid content. Moreover, the location of the spout on the shoulder of the vessel made the pouring of the content easier. There is considerable evidence that TSJs had a long use or successive re-uses; they could be easily utilized for many different transportations of the same or different liquids.

We are fortunate enough to know the Mycenaean Greek name of the vessel: on Pylos tablet Fr 1184 and on Knossos tablet K 778 we have the Nominative Plural ka-ra-re-we, which may render the type *χλαρῆϝες (Nominative Singular *χλαρεὺς)· the term is probably a Minoan loanword, while the Hesychian gloss of χλαρόν as ἐλαιηρὸς κώθων (‘oil-container’) may be etymologically related.

WHAT CAN WE KNOW ABOUT TRANSPORT STIRRUP JARS?

The coarse fabric of TSJs with its abundant mineral inclusions is particularly susceptible to the combination of two basic techniques of ceramic provenance analysis used today: chemical analysis and petrographic inspection. Both techniques, based on reference clay databases and detailed geological surveys, aim at identifying the chemical composition of the clay used, as well as at the identification of the geological material within the clay respectively. The combination of both methods allows us to infer in most cases relatively safe conclusions regarding the provenance of the fabric of the vases and, consequently, the approximate location of the manufacture of the vessel.

The actual significance of such attempts lies in the association between the geographic assignment suggested in each case with other features or aspects of the TSJs. For instance, it has been highly intriguing that all inscribed stirrup jars (hereafter ISJs) with secured provenance were found to be of Cretan clay, although contemporary Mainland administrations were also literate, utilizing the same Linear B script.

Moreover, current research may also make use of the typological characteristics of TSJs (some of which can be firmly associated with specific regions). Their evaluation is ultimately dependent, of course, on the identification (chemical and/or petrographic) of certain safe examples, but it nonetheless constitutes a wholly independent set of criteria that can be used to draw some conclusions on different workshops, preferences or traditions among the different regions where these jars were produced.

Unlike their provenance, we have made little progress in the identification of the liquid contents of TSJs. Organic residue analysis could aid significantly towards this important goal, although results could be complicated by the long use of these jars for different successive products.

From a different perspective, the study of the Linear B inscriptions on the TSJs offers a glimpse into a very special use of the script in the proto-historic Aegean, perhaps somewhat away from the realm of palatial bureaucracy sensu stricto (see infra).

The mobility of TSJs, as discernible through the assessment between the findspot and the geographic assignment of these vases, also offers the opportunity to begin a meaningful discussion on ceramic production and trade in the southern Aegean during the floruit of the Mycenaean palaces, as well as on the extent and intensity of palatial control on these very areas of economic activity.

Certain TSJs bear short inscriptions in the Linear B script. These are more frequent on the shoulders and bellies of these vessels, and far more scarce on the stirrup disk.

TSJs are by far the commonest type of Mycenaean inscribed pottery (otherwise inscriptions only occur on a few cups and bowls from Chania in west Crete, Knossos in north central Crete and Mycenae in the Argolid). ISJs have been found chiefly at Chania, Thebes in Boeotia, Mycenae and Tiryns in the Argolid, while fewer or single examples are known from Knossos, Malia in central Crete, Midea in the Argolid, Orchomenos in Boeotia, Kreusis in Phokis or Eleusis in west Attica. Pylos (Ano Englianos) in Messenia is an interesting absentee from the ISJ network (as well as the TSJ network largely).

Most inscriptions are very short and bear only one sign-group (‘word’). In most cases we may reasonably assume that this is a personal name, which might be speculatively identified as the producer of the content, the sender, or, conceivably, the potter. In any case, the presence of the same personal name on ISJs found in different sites reveals even more facets of the network that links the different Mycenaean centers.

Unlike tablets of well-kneaded clay that were not intended to be deliberately fired (but, rather, to be recycled once the document fulfilled its purpose), and, where any inscription could be easily erased or corrected, ISJs bore permanent inscriptions. Moreover, ISJs constitute the only certain case of written documents travelling between different regions in the Mycenaean world.

Among ISJs, a group from the so-called ‘House of Kadmos’ at Thebes stands out. Some jars found there bear long, inscriptions with three sign-groups (‘words’) on their bellies. The first sign-groups render invariably Nominatives of personal names, the second is the place-name wa-to (*Ϝάνθος?), perhaps a West-Cretan site, and the third term is a personal name in the Genitive. The structure of these longer inscriptions resembles certain Linear B sheep records from Knossos, where place-names again co-exist with Nominative and Genitive types. It is not impossible that these Genitives are possessive, indicating the owners of the product (e.g. of the fields where the olive-trees or vines were cultivated), while the Nominatives indicated those responsible for taking care of the package, storage and shipment of the liquid content. Even so, it remains difficult to explain why such inscriptions occur certainly so far only at Thebes.

The reference of the adjective wa-na-ka-te-ro *ϝανάκτερος i.e. ‘pertaining to the wanax/ruler’, or its abbreviation wa on a few but broadly distributed ISJs (from Thebes, Eleusis, Tiryns and Khania) is also of special interest. At first, it would seem as if the occurrence of the adjective confirms palatial interest in maritime trade between Crete and the Greek mainland. However, upon closer look, it becomes interesting that trade in general, as well as ceramic production (where the production of the inscription is contextually placed), are among those specific segments of economic life where palatial involvement is but very slightly documented. This seeming inconsistency is particularly intriguing, since it could suggest that the personal interests of the ruler could be pertinent even in areas that were not under the strict supervision of the central administration.

Virtually all ISJs (at least those with secure provenance) are Cretan products, with most of them produced in West Crete. Although Linear B literacy is clearly attested in the contemporary Greek Mainland, no ISJ seems so far to have been certainly produced in the Argolid or Boeotia. It seems that the conditions that shaped the need for ISJ production are associated with political and economic structures which were specifically Cretan.

WHAT ARE THE CONTRIBUTIONS AND IMPLICATIONS OF THEIR STUDY?

The study of TSJs constitutes a rare meeting point of different disciplines in harmonic cooperation. Chemistry, geology, archaeology, the study of ancient economies, ancient pottery technology and ‒as far as ISJs are concerned‒ the epigraphic and philological analysis have been integrated in an almost ideal manner to produce a meaningful whole, pushing forward our knowledge and understanding of the production and mobility of these vessels. The study of TSJs constitutes the most successful interdisciplinary approach so far to an Aegean Bronze Age topic.

Beyond the opportunity to exercise and refine our methodological and analytical toolkit, the study of TSJs offers a most penetrating insight into the mechanisms of trade in Aegean proto-history, enriching our knowledge about the networks of a world whose complexity we are just beginning to comprehend.

AIMS AND USE OF THE DIGITAL MAP

The digital interactive map that accompanies this short text draws on information entered in a broad database where evidence for all hitherto analyzed TSJs. The links between sites where these jars have been found and regions where their provenance is assigned reveal and highlight a composite nexus of associations that their meticulous study has just made visible (Figure 2).

Although this digital map is only supported by a fraction of the information in its associated database, it is hoped that the wealth of the data already entered will be put into use in future applications.

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van Alfen, P.G., “The Linear B inscribed stirrup jars as links in an administrative chain”, Minos 31-32 (1996-1997) 251-274.

Research directed by Vassilis Petrakis, Anna Michailidou. Collaborators: Dimitra Theodoridou. GIS Cartography: Panagiotis Stratakis
English