Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


3 November 2012

Halford W. Haskell, Richard E. Jones, Peter M. Day & John T. Killen, 2011. Transport Stirrup Jars of the Bronze Age Aegean and East Mediterranean [Prehistory Monographs 33], Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Hardback, xxx & 192 p., 36 illustrations in the text, 30 tables, 30 graphs, 18 figures, 36 plates (30 b/w, 6 in colour), 28.5x22.5 cm, ISBN: 978-1-931954-62-8.

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis, Affiliated Researcher, Research Centre for Greek and Roman Antiquity (KERA), Institute of Historical Research, National Hellenic Research Foundation (vpetrakisrm [at]


This long awaited monograph presents the results of an extended project focusing on the production and mobility of a specific ceramic container for the transport of liquids in bulk, the coarseware transport stirrup jar (henceforth TSJ), intensely used in the Late Bronze Age III Aegean (c. 14th-12th centuries bc). The research scope is quintessentially interdisciplinary and this material lends itself easily to this kind of approach. This volume brings together the results of chemical analyses (R. Jones), petrographic inspections (P. Day), typological classifications and discussion of archaeological contexts (H. Haskell) of TSJs, along with a comprehensive discussion of those jars inscribed in Linear B (thereafter ISJs) (J. Killen).

This work is in fact the successor of a lengthy article involving two of the authors of the volume under review that had remained a standard reference for this topic for no less than thirty years (Catling et al. 1980). It is fair to say from the outset that the volume under review will fulfill the same role for many years to come. Its publication timed very appropriately with one more overview of ISJs and analyses of TSJs from Kommos and Israel sites (Duhoux 2010; Day et al. 2011; Ben-Shlomo et al. 2011).

Most of the new chemical and petrographic analyses (by Jones and Day respectively) were completed during the late 1980s and 1990s in the Fitch Laboratory at the British School at Athens and the University of Sheffield, while novel typological refinements by Haskell had been presented summarily before (Haskell 2005). The major improvements of the current publication over its 1980 ‘predecessor’ are the following:

Petrography has been added into the analytical arsenal. This had important consequences for certain previously problematic pieces which could not be confidently assigned to Central Crete or Boeotia (presented preliminarily in e.g. Day and Haskell 1995; Day 1998; Haskell 2005).

  1. A significant amount of non-inscribed TSJs of various contexts has been analysed and considered, thus correcting any probable bias that might have resulted from earlier heavy focus on ISJs. The diversity of selected contexts is very satisfactory; it should be emphasized that sampling included material from three LBA shipwrecks (Point Iria, Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun), snapshots of these (as well as other) containers on the move.
  2. TSJs from regions beyond the Aegean (notably Cyprus and Sardinia) have been included.
  3. Stoppers (plugs of raw clay used to seal the true spout of the stirrup jars) have also been analysed and the issue of the re-use of TSJs has been addressed.

Following the necessary lists of illustrations, abbreviations and acknowledgements, the core of the volume consists of ten substantial chapters and a catalogue of all vessels analysed (actually counted as Chapter 11). These are followed by Bibliography, an Appendix, two Concordance lists and two Indexes. Chapters 1 and 2 (pp.1-22) are the only parts of the book that feature in-text illustrations; with the exception of one useful tabular presentation of ISJs (pp.92-96), all tables, figures (drawings of TSJs), graphs of chemical analyses, b/w plates of TSJs and colour plates of petrographic sections are included in unnumbered pages at the end of the volume. The book is very appropriately dedicated to Hector Catling, who has lifted Nestor’s cup in this field.

Chapter 1 (Haskell, Jones and Day) is a general introduction to the scope and aims of the monograph. It includes a very apt definition of what a TSJ is, as well as technical accounts of the production of these vessels, their distribution and content. The latter is a highly important issue and it is only tackled here through Linear B evidence; undertaking organic residue analyses is expected to be the next research goal. Finally, the explanation of catalogue number formats (p.7; cf. p.xxix) should be read with care.

Chapters 2 to 7 are concerned with the identification and reconciliation of the three main kinds of TSJ groupings presented in this publication: typological, chemical and petrographic. Often these are mutually compatible, strengthening the validity of provenance assignments. Although some cases of disagreement remain, the analytical results provide solid basis for further discussion.

Chapter 2 (Haskell) is concerned with the development and typological classification of TSJs. Twenty-two Typegroups (I-XXII) are identified and these were regrouped into four broader groups (Groups A-B, D-E). Some of the groupings suggested by Raison (1968) have also been integrated. This classification has been developed independently of chemical and petrographic groups and is illustrated by Tables 2-4 and Graphs 1-2.

Chapter 3 (Jones and Day) focuses on the history of previous provenance analyses of TSJs and addresses certain important methodological issues on the development reliability of the analytical techniques (pp.25-27). The clear exposition of the aims and limitations of these analyses (pp.27-28) deserve high praise.

Chapter 4 (Jones) presents the results of the chemical analyses, either by Optical Emission Spectroscopy or Atomic Absorption Spectrometry. The text is mostly devoted to a technical account (sampling, reference data, data treatment), while the results are presented in Table 7a (data from Catling et al. 1980 and Catling and Millett 1965 — the latter corrected by Jones — are also given as Tables 7b and 7c respectively). There is a compact commentary on them (pp.38-39), accompanied by Tables 5-16 and Graphs 3-23.

Chapter 5 (Day) presents the results of the petrographic analyses. Again, the text is mostly technical, largely consisting of the description of the twenty-four Fabric Groups identified. Thin sections of all of them (except Fabric 22 from one Gelidonya sample) are given in colour images (Plates 31-36). The very essential Table 17 summarizes the suggested geographical associations. The results have yielded significant observations about the production (fabrics used, firing) and provenance of the TSJs analysed.

Chapter 6 (Jones and Day) advances the interpretation of the chemical and fabric groupings of the previous chapters. Discussion is not integrated yet, but presented separately in different segments of the chapter. Jones commendably discusses the jars and their stoppers separately. One should pay particular attention to the definition of the intrinsically heterogeneous ‘Group X’ (p.81, comments on Table 19), as well as the revision of the α and β chemical groupings of West Cretan jars, as previously defined by Jones (Catling et al. 1980: 63, 77-78). Day’s account is a rather straightforward attempt to associate his Fabric Groups with specific geographic areas. The attributions are overall highly convincing, and it is very rewarding to be informed that “chemical and petrographic compositions are almost never in contradiction, but instead are complementary data” (p.85). It is only a pity that petrography was not used as extensively as chemistry in this project. Tables 18-26 illustrate very conveniently the correspondences between chemical and petrographic groupings (Tables 19 and 26 are arranged according to chemical provenance groups and Fabric Groups respectively).

Chapter 7 (Haskell, Jones and Day) attempts to integrate the results of all three approaches to TSJs. What is actually presented is what the authors call the “overall pattern”. This begins with the Typegroups, “as the clearest and most secure patterns emerge here” (p.88), and associates them with the results of chemical and petrographic inspections. All correspondences — with provenance suggestions — for each sampled TSJ are given very conveniently on Table 27 (extending through 26 pages). We should note that the assignments in Table 27 represent a consensus among the authors (p.109). Two more extensive tables present in summary fashion (without comments) the same data for those TSJs that were assigned to specific Typegroups (Table 28) or just in broader Groups (Table 29).

Chapter 8 (Killen) discusses ISJs and also includes a small appendix on Linear B inscriptions on pottery other than TSJs (p.105). A visually distinct Courier font (italicised) is conveniently used throughout this publication for transcriptions. This is a revised and updated version of the author’s earlier epigraphic commentary (Catling et al. 1980: 85-92). The discussion is elegant and highly enjoyable and the arguments presented are typically Killenian: thorough and compelling. This is also the only part of the book where endnotes have been applied.

Chapters 9 and 10 (both by Haskell) consider the analytical results against the archaeological framework of the TSJs examined.

Chapter 9 is concerned with the chronology of the contexts where TSJs occur (which include the contexts where they ended up) and implications thereof. Haskell is to be congratulated for his sober discussion of the Knossos problem, compact and effective, emphasising the potential independence of ISJs from the existence of functional literate administration there (p.110) (cf. Haskell 1986; 1989). The problem is tackled again on pp.120-122, where the economic and political dynamics within Crete are discussed. The mainland is also considered (including even Pylos, conspicuously absent from the TSJ networks). A complex picture is drawn and this is highly welcome: The diversity of fabrics of West Cretan jars is stressed (p.120) and the role of South Central Crete is considered to be pivotal for the TSJ business (p.121). Haskell is very careful to admit the limitations of what can be safely inferred: a West Cretan ‘dominance’ in the mobility of ISJs (and even TSJs) is not straightforwardly interpreted as demonstrating a post-Knossian economic equilibrium and easy assumptions about the relationships between regions are not made.

Chapter 10 discusses the implications of this analysis for Late Bronze Age Aegean trade, focusing on the degree and nature of a ‘palatial involvement’ in the TSJ mobility. The discussion of the Linear B evidence (pp.125-126) moves summarily across several topics, such as the involvement of the wanax or the ‘Collectors’ in the palace economy. Both gift-exchange and the involvement of semi-dependent entrepreneurship are considered. Almost all of the concluding discussion (pp.130-131) focuses on contacts with the East and Central Mediterranean.

The Catalogue (Chapter 11) is very effective, giving essential information and references for each one of the vessels included in this study. Appendix A (in fact, the only Appendix) is a list of sites (Aegean and East Mediterranean) where TSJs have been found and published. It includes basic bibliographic references and brief notifications of quantities (in parentheses). Sampled vessels are annotated, demonstrating the extensive scope of the project.

The valuable Concordances 1-2 concern inscribed pottery (Concordance 1 also includes transcriptions of the Linear B texts). The special Index of sampled TSJs (sorted by catalogue nos.) is also excellent and extremely useful.

Overall, this volume is a remarkable contribution to Aegean prehistory from a variety of perspectives. A basic outline of the main conclusions had already been presented at the Ariadne’s Threads conference in April 2003 (Haskell 2005), but the amount of data presented here will amply feed further discussions of Aegean ceramic production and trade mechanisms; the TSJ production/mobility patterns suggested here will have seminal implications for LBA economic and political geography and trade. The value of the ‘holistic’ approach demonstrated here is obvious, as the TSJ project pioneered the systematic combination of chemical and petrographic analyses — almost a standard currently — in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However, a few complaints in the manner of presentation can be substantiated. The user-friendliness of this monograph would have been greatly enhanced with more cross-references throughout the book. More references to specific catalogue numbers in pp.88-89 or 125-131, marking explicitly which sampled TSJs support each statement or argument, would have been particularly desirable.

More significant might be a relative ‘analytical asymmetry’. Nearly all sampled TSJs have been analysed chemically, but disproportionately few of them have been analysed petrographically. This lacuna affects even entire sites (e.g. Tiryns), while it has not been possible to re-test in any way a distinctly problematic piece, such as the Eleusis ISJ (Catling et al. 1980: 78), or have petrographic inspections of certain jars of uncertain provenance, although the contribution of petrography in resolving the notoriously problematic ‘Central Crete/ Boeotia’ assignments has been well advertised. Many readers would also have wished to have a more rigorous and extensive discussion on the role of South Central Crete in the TSJ business (cf. p.121), addressing specific chemical and petrographic data (discussion after Haskell 2005).

Prospective readers should also caution that this is actually a work by four authors, not a chief author and three lesser contributors. Co-authored chapters and their respective Tables reflect a shared consensus, and the independent limitations and potential of the different analytical techniques used must be constantly kept in mind. Realisation of these should affect how the volume is used: On p.83, Jones and Day state that Fabric Group 5 (also chemically consistent and exclusively associated with Type group XVIII) is “very distinctive” but “we cannot give a precise provenance for these vessels at present”. On p.89, Jones, Day and Haskell now opt for a Mainland provenance in typological terms for Typegroup XVIII. These statements are not contradictory: they rather reflect how adding typology into the equation supports the Mainland association of these jars more confidently than just chemistry and petrography alone would suggest. It would, however, be helpful if the authors were more explicit about why such ‘differences’ occur and what they (might) reflect in each case.

These observations cannot obscure this reviewer’s opinion that this volume deserves to be, at the very least, a must-read for everyone even peripherally interested in the LBA III Aegean economy and trade. The progress in knowledge and approach it represents and the amount and quality of effort that have gone into the inception, design and publication of this project are more than sufficient to justify considering this monograph as the new major step in the ISJ (or indeed Aegean inscribed pottery) scholarship, as well as the first substantial step in our understanding of what the TSJ business as a whole was actually about. It was definitely well worth the wait.

For a sample of the book (including the Table of Contents) press here.


Ben-Shlomo, D., E. Nodarou and J.B. Rutter 2011. ‘Transport stirrup jars from the Southern Levant: New light on commodity exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean’, AJA 115: 329–353.

Catling, H.W. & A. Millett 1965. ‘A study of the inscribed stirrup-jars from Thebes’, Archaeometry 8: 3–85.

Catling, H.W., J.F. Cherry, R.E. Jones & J.T. Killen 1980. ‘The Linear B inscribed stirrup-jars and West Crete’, ABSA 75, 49–113.

Day, P.M., P.S. Quinn, J.B. Rutter & V. Kilikoglou 2011. ‘A World of Goods: Transport jars and commodity exchange at the Late Bronze Age harbor of Kommos, Crete’, Hesperia 80: 511–558.

Day, P.M. & H.W. Haskell 1995. ‘Transport stirrup jars from Thebes as evidence for trade in Late Bronze Age III’, in C. Gillis, C. Rispberg & B. Sjöberg (eds), Trade and Production in Premonetary Greece: Aspects of Trade. Proceedings of the Third International Workshop, Athens 1993 (SIMA Pocket-Book 134), Jonsered: 87–110.

Day, P.M. 1998. ‘Coarseware stirrup jars and Central Crete: New light on production and exchange in the Late Bronze Age’, BICS 42: 209.

Duhoux, Y. 2010. ‘La fonction des vases à étrier inscrits en Linéaire B’, Kadmos 49: 47–92.

Haskell, H.W. 1986. ‘Were LM IIIB inscribed stirrup jars palatial?’ Kadmos 25: 85–86.

Haskell, H.W. 1989. ‘LM III Knossos: Evidence beyond the palace’, Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 27: 81–113.

Haskell, H.W. 2005. ‘Region to region export of transport stirrup jars from LM IIIA2/B Crete’, in A.-L. D’Agata & J. Moody with E. Williams (eds), Ariadne’s Threads. Connections Between Crete and the Greek Mainland in Late Minoan III (LM IIIA2 to LM IIIC). Proceedings of the International Workshop held at Athens Scuola Archeologica Italiana, 56 April 2003 (Tripodes 3), Athens: 203–221 (response by A. Kanta in pp.223-234; discussion in pp.235–241).

Raison, J. 1968. Les Vases à Inscriptions Peintes de l’Âge Mycénien et leur Contexte Archéologique (Incunabula Graeca 19), Roma.


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