Today we present an essay by guest blogger and author Sheramy D. Bundrick, whose book Athens, Etruria, and the Many Lives of Greek Figured Pottery is featured in our series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.
Research for Athens, Etruria, and the Many Lives of Greek Figured Pottery included an unexpected foray into scholarly detective work: recapturing the long-forgotten archaeological contexts of Athenian vases collected in the nineteenth century. Preparing a chapter on vases used as Etruscan cremation urns, I mined volumes of the Bullettino dell’Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica and Notizie degli Scavi for documented examples, and I discovered four whose descriptions matched vases in American museums but which had somehow been orphaned from knowledge of their findspots. All were sold at the time by the private landowners who oversaw their excavation. One is now in the Harvard University Art Museums (Figs. 1–2): in the 1876 Bullettino, an amphora of exact description—down to the gestures, garments, and attributes of figures—is recorded as being from Tarquinia, found in a pit tomb where it served as a cinerarium. Harvard curators Susanne Ebbinghaus and Amy Brauer confirmed that this was new information and suggested I consult papers of the amphora’s donor, Henry Williamson Haynes (1831–1912), at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Archaeologist and Harvard alumnus, Haynes bequeathed his antiquities collection to the Classics Department, which passed to the art museum years later. Haynes’ travel diary and a letter to his mother state that he visited Tarquinia on 21 May 1876 and met the Marzi brothers, who owned the land where the amphora was discovered. No mention of buying it, but paired with the Bullettino, these documents permit confirmation of the amphora’s journey from Athens, to Tarquinia, to America.
Why does this matter? Historically, it didn’t: the Athenian makers and milieu of vases were believed most important, and their Etruscan ownership a blip in time. But attitudes and disciplines change, and in today’s more globalized, networked world, the purchasers of figured pottery—often far from Athens itself—earn as much scholarly attention as their producers. In my book, I argue that the symbiotic relationship between workshops and consumers literally shaped the ceramic industry; knowing the biographies of individual vases encourages a better understanding of that relationship.
Take again the Harvard amphora, attributed to an anonymous potter-painter known as the Affecter for the mannered drawing style. In her 1975 monograph, Heide Mommsen suggested dates of ca. 550–520 B.C.E. for the Affecter’s career and sorted vases into stylistic periods. Recovering the Harvard amphora’s findspot reveals that at least three amphorae in the earliest phase went to Tarquinia, all depicting gatherings of gods. Most of the Affecter’s surviving vases traveled to Etruria, raising questions whether he used information from traders to guide his choices of shapes and subjects. Some of his vases even feature the apparent logos of traders under their feet. Back in Tarquinia, knowing the Harvard amphora served as a cinerarium yields more questions. Did the pictured gods, for example—who all had Etruscan equivalents—act as protectors for the dead? If the deceased’s remains survived, they could be forensically analyzed for information about age and gender, but as was often the case in the nineteenth century, these were discarded.
Reuniting the Harvard amphora with its lost context provides a somewhat happy ending, but the overwhelming majority of vases lack known findspots, either through early discovery and rare documentation or more recent, illicit looting. The intellectual consequences are considerable: although much can be said about unprovenienced antiquities of any variety, in missing their contexts, their story remains incomplete. Writing my book, I often found myself challenged by what I could and could not discuss as a result, and I hope my work serves as a call for awareness as much as a contribution of ideas.
Figs. 1–2. Athenian amphora attributed to the Affecter, from Tarquinia, ca. 540 B.C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, transfer from the Department of the Classics, Harvard University, bequest of Henry W. Haynes, 1912, 1977.216.2244. (Photos: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
is a professor of art history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is the author of Music and Image in Classical Athens.