Pots, Trade and the Archaic Greek Economy

Article excerpt

Fine painted pottery is the archaeological trade-mark of the Greek presence overseas. Since other materials of exchange in the Classical world - soft things like grain, oil and slaves - are less archaeologically visible, a fresh look at issues in the archaic Greek economy revolves once more around patterns in the ceramics.

Central to Moses Finley's characterization of the ancient economy was his claim that Greek and Roman society 'was not organized for the satisfaction of its material wants by "an enormous conglomeration of interdependent markets"' (1985: 22). A lot is at stake in the claim that markets were not interdependent. In the world of independent markets, exchange is marginal to a fundamentally subsistence economy: local supply and demand fixes prices. In the world of the interdependent market, global demand for a particular commodity has an effect not simply on the price of that commodity but upon other commodity prices also: production and marketing decisions are affected by events far away from the place of production. In this world not all goods are produced for a market, nor is there a free market for all goods, but goods are regularly exchanged and those engaged in exchange are aware of varying demand for particular commodities in different places. Crucially the structure of exchange is not determined by the highly variably demand for staple foodstuffs.

In this paper I argue that the archaic Greek world was a world of interdependent markets. In concentrating on the archaeological evidence I inevitably concentrate on pottery, and I attempt to reveal the significance of the non-random distribution of archaic Athenian pots for the character and structure of the archaic Greek economy (cf. Webster 1972: chapter 20; Boardman 1979: 37-9; Hannestad 1989: 112-14; Robinson 1990). I am not concerned with the value of pottery, with why people bought Athenian pottery rather than local or Corinthian pottery, with the social origins and political impact of those engaged in trade (on which cf. Cartledge 1983 on Mele 1979 and Bravo 1977; also Ste Croix 1981), or with the importance of the Phoenicians as carriers of early Greek pottery into the western Mediterranean (Shefton 1982), although my claims for the volume and economic significance of trade in non-agricultural goods have implications for these issues also. The evidence I deal with is unusually subject to vagaries of excavation, identification, and publication, but the features currently apparent seem to me to justify the attempt at interpretation.

Sizing up the market

The clearest indication that the mechanisms of exchange enabled goods to be precisely targeted comes from the distribution of the products of the 'Nikosthenic' workshop at Athens, which operated during the second half of the 6th century BC. Some 96% of this workshop's pots of known archaeological provenance (find-spot) come from the Etruscan area, and it produced pots whose shapes copied the shapes of Etruscan bucchero pottery. What is more, different shapes catered for different Etruscan markets: most of the around 100 Nikosthenic amphorae known have been found at Cerveteri [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], most of the around 400 Nikosthenic small kyathoi from Vulci and Orvieto (Rasmussen 1985: 38). But the most recent discussion of these pots (Arafat & Morgan 1994: 115-16) follows a long line of ancient historians in claiming that 'the activities of the Nikosthenic workshop are by no means typical' (cf. Austin & Vidal Naquet 1977: 114).

The adoption of Etruscan shapes shows that the Nikosthenic workshop produced explicitly for a foreign market. The substantial scale of its operations - it seems to have been a particularly large concern associated with a very large number of painters, employing up to 30 persons (Eisman 1974) makes it impossible to dismiss it as an isolated experiment within a system not otherwise geared to precise marketing. A model of exchange for the 6th century must accommodate the possibility of systematic targeting of precise foreign markets by particular exporters. …