The Meanings of Standardisation: Conical Cups in the Late Bronze Age Aegean

By Berg, Ina | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Meanings of Standardisation: Conical Cups in the Late Bronze Age Aegean


Berg, Ina, Antiquity


Introduction

Standardisation of material culture is a commonly observed phenomenon. In the past, increasing standardisation has often been linked to increasing production, craft specialisation or economic competition. Recently, however, attempts have been made to also consider socio-political and technological factors. By investigating the production of conical cups at Phylakopi on Melos and Ayia Irini on Kea during the Late Bronze Age (Late Cycladic I-II), this paper attempts to illustrate that the term 'standardisation' can refer to a range of intentional strategies and unintentional factors. It will be argued that the conical cup production at Ayia Irini appears to be intentionally standardised, but at Phylakopi, while the method of manufacture and fabric were as standardised, the range in dimensions was more varied. Cultural forces are suggested as explaining the differences between the two sites.

Motives for standardisation

In our modern day society standardisation is frequently regarded as a positive goal (Schmidt & Werle 1998), as for example the imposition of standard-width train tracks to ease travel between countries in the European Union. On the other hand, some effects of standardisation are perceived as negative, such as the similar range of shops in Great Britain's city centres and (on a much larger scale) globalisation. Thus, while we can provide a definition of standardisation, the interpretation of the process or outcome remains varied, eliciting complex responses along a spectrum from ready acceptance to outright rejection.

The term standardisation is thus applied to a purposeful and intentional process, but we should not assume that standardisation in antiquity was also intentionally striven for or formed part of a longer-term strategy: there may be incidences where standardisation occurs as a coincidental result of other variables. To give an example, a homogenous pot shape may be the result of a strategic decision by the workshop owner, or optimization of the potter's motor skills over many years of practice. Although the outcome of intentional and accidental homogenisation may be identical, the underlying values and decisions attached to each may differ greatly. It is therefore imperative to look beyond the final product, the standardised object, and investigate the underlying technological, economic and socio-political causes.

Ethnoarchaeological studies have demonstrated that one of the factors influencing standardisation may be the demand of customers for a unified, recognisable product with specific dimensions or volume (Longacre 1999; Arnold & Nieves 1992). Narrow functions or aesthetic ideals, for example, may bring about changes in the production (for an example of how tourist demand can effect the production of bolas see Arnold & Nieves 1992). Specific functions or aesthetic considerations are only two possibilities out of a much wider spectrum of factors which govern demand. Other explanations invite us to consider the social dimension. Technology is not autonomous or external to a society, on the contrary, it is influenced and shaped by the societal context (Schmidt & Werle 1998: 13; Arnold 2000).

Defining standard products

Standardisation can be characterised as achieving a relative degree of homogeneity in a product or production process (Rice 1991: 268). It is relative because humans cannot produce an exact copy of an artefact without mechanical aid. Due to limitations in our visual perception, memory and motor skills we identify objects as exact replicas even though they may differ by up to 2-3 per cent in dimensions and weight (the so-called Weber's fraction) (Eerkens 2000; Eerkens & Bettinger 2001). In contrast, a random distribution can result in as much as 57.7 per cent variation (Eerkens & Bettinger 2001: 497). This means that humans, without reference to an independent scale (such as a ruler), will perceive objects as 'the same' even though they differ in size or weight by at least three per cent. …

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