The Invention of 'Tarentine' Red-Figure

By Thorn, Jed M. | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Invention of 'Tarentine' Red-Figure

Thorn, Jed M., Antiquity


The production centre of Apulian red-figure pottery is a subject on which the archaeological record is largely mute. The first century of this pottery's production has left no trace in the dozens of kilns and kiln dumps that have been excavated in South Italy over the past 150 years. In spite of this gap, the consensus opinion today is that the pottery was produced exclusively at the Greek colony of Taras up until the final few decades of its existence. This consensus is in no way supported by archaeological finds, which tend to tell a rather different story. Its foundation has been a suite of 'hunches and preconceptions' that often reveal more about the pottery's investigators than they do about the pottery itself (Carpenter 2003: 5-6).

This article illustrates a prominent (though under-explored) example of how colonialist, core-privileging assumptions can impact on the interpretation of archaeological material. In the case of Apulian red-figure pottery, a frustrating paucity of evidence has facilitated a forum of discussion in which opinions have tended to dominate in the absence of real data. In many cases, it can be shown that these opinions have been deeply rooted in the historical and geopolitical contexts in which they were formulated.

Colonial past, colonialist present

Thanks to the efforts of A.D. Trendall, Apulian red-figure is today one of the most thoroughly classified groups of ancient Mediterranean pottery. Strongly influenced by the work of J.D. Beazley and his pupil Noel Moon, Trendall cultivated an interest for South Italian vase-painting while pursuing postgraduate work at Trinity College, Cambridge (McPhee 1998). Beazley had been pioneering the study of Attic figured vase-painting according to artistic hands and workshop relationships, and Moon had made the first serious attempt to apply this methodology to South Italian red-figure. But aside from scattershot publications of individual finds and collections, the vast and heterogeneous body of South Italian red-figure had never been studied in a systematic manner. Trendall made this daunting task his life's work. With Alexander Cambitoglou, he was able to attribute, seriate and catalogue thousands of vessels and fragments in The red-figured vases of Apulia and its supplements. The exhaustiveness of Trendall's research was owed in large part to his indefatigable interest in travelling across the globe to see vases in person. However, the question of where these thousands of vases were actually produced was one that could not be resolved by autopsy. As had other leading authorities before Trendall, he felt compelled to weigh in on this question, and he did so in favour of Taras:

'There cannot be much doubt that at a very early stage the main centre of production was located at Taranto, the largest city in Apulia, with convenient access to extensive beds of clay, which are still in use. It would be an obvious place in which to develop a pottery industry, especially as it must have had wide trade connexions with neighbouring Greek towns and native settlements, the inhabitants of which could have bartered local produce (wool, grain, wine, etc.)for Tarentine luxury goods, among which pottery would find a place' (Trendall & Cambitoglou 1978: 3).

Though Trendall's opinions on the production of Lucanian red-figure would be shaped and modified by important finds made during his lifetime, he remained steadfast in his attribution of Apulian red-figure production to Taras. He also expressed the belief that the establishment of 'branch workshops' outside Taras would have been a late phenomenon, if it had happened at all; according to his model, if Apulian red-figure had ever been produced in Italic towns like Ruvo or Canosa, it was only as a result of Tarantine craftsmen moving to those sites after c. 340 BC (Trendall 1989: 94, 170). All earlier Apulian vases were, according to Trendall, produced exclusively by Tarantine workshops.

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