“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
What do you see? A lot of pots or vases.
If you look more closely, there are only two shapes present: a tall and slender jug with a high neck and single handle, usually with a pronounced spout on the lip (the rim surrounding the opening on top), and a bulbous stemmed cup, reminiscent of a wine glass.
All are covered in a shiny black slip, and all bear fairly simple decoration, sometimes in the form of vertical 'ribs' (for example, on the upper belly of the jug at the bottom left), more often in that of patterns, such as zigzags, chequerboards, etc, painted in white and red onto the bellies and necks.
If you have looked at ancient pottery before, these vases (especially their shapes and that black slip) probably remind you of Classical Greek pottery, the famous ancient ceramics you may have seen in museums around the Mediterranean, but also in those great international collections one finds in places like London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, New York, Boston and so on.
What our picture shows is a display in the local archaeological museum on the island of Vis, off Croatia's Dalmatian shore.
Vis a small and remote place, an outlier even among the islands of Southern Dalmatia, sitting in the Adriatic some way to the west of its immediate neighbours, Hvar and Korčula. Its claims to fame are limited: it was the site of a major sea battle between the nascent Italian state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866, it served as a hiding place for the Yugoslav Resistance during the Second World War, it has gained a reputation as an unspoilt and laid-back resort in recent years, and it has lately served as the filming location of a movie called Mamma Mia! Here we go again. Irrespective of all that, Vis is certainly a very lovely place.
It is also the site of Issa, the earliest Greek colony in the Northern Adriatic. Long after the city-states of mainland Greece and the Aegean Islands had created offshoots in Sicily, Southern Italy, Anatolia, even France, North Africa and Spain, the sea between the Italian peninsula and the Balkans attracted their interest. Issa was founded by settlers from Syracuse, modern Siracusa on Sicily, sent during the reign of the famed tyrant Dionysios, probably around 400 BC. It was the first Greek city established in the region, later followed by Hvar/Pharos, perhaps Korčula/Korkyra Melaina, and others.
We don't have a very detailed idea of the history of Greek Issa (it retained the same name after the Romans took control of the region in the first century BC), but some archaeological work has been done and is helpful. It shows a walled city, with extensive cemeteries and some public buildings, including a theatre, a key feature of a typical Greek city. Its foundation must have been aimed at creating trade links within the area and with the adjacent parts of the Balkans, with places like Nakovana, an Illyrian local 'capital' where many imported objects from Greek Issa have been found (you can read about Nakovana here). But we don't really know who lived in Issa: was it just the descendants of the original colonists from Sicily, did they mix with the locals, and with the inhabitants of the Greek colonies on nearby islands?
What we know is their material culture: the stuff they used and valued, and also made. Pottery!
Archaeologists working in the Mediterranean are often accused of being obsessed with pottery. That is correct: we are indeed fascinated with ceramics! Pottery is the plastics of antiquity: a cheap and virtually omnipresent material (clay) that can be shaped into vessels for storage, transport, cooking, food serving and display, and a material that may break but does not otherwise deteriorate much. As shapes and decorations on pottery changed with the generations that used it, it serves archaeologists as a central tool for dating sites and for identifying economic and cultural connections. Issa is a perfect example.
The vases displayed in Vis Museum are mostly from the fourth and third centuries BC, when the young city was growing. All of them were found in graves in the city's necropolis, so they are items that were valued and deemed appropriate to accompany the deceased on their voyage to the underworld. In terms of technology and aesthetics, they all derive from the tradition of Greek pottery that developed in mainland Greece, especially Corinth and Athens, in the Archaic era, becoming major export goods at the time. High-quality pottery from Greece is found in the sanctuaries and graves of Sicily, but also of non-Greek Italy from the 700s BC onwards. By the 5th century, there were workshops in various parts of Italy imitating Greek, especially Athenian, pottery, and eventually they developed their distinctive styles. 'South Italian' is such a style and it became a major export product. As the cultural dominance of Athens faded during the fourth century BC, local production in many areas took on its own characteristics, creating a cultural milieu that Issa was part of. Greek in origin and general characteristics, but local in flavour.
At Issa/Vis, we see a range of Greek-style pottery, but essentially nothing actually from Greece. There are a great many imported vessels from Italy, all derivative from Greek pottery tradition but by then essentially independent, which would have been valuable and would have expressed the wealth of the families of the people buried. Vis is is a key place among the Adriatic sea-lanes, so the presence of such material is par for the course, a reflection of connections. And then there are locally-made vessels of high quality, derived from Italian styles but indicating that Issa had its own local demand and its own local producers. The locally-made high-quality pottery is limited to simple patterns in terms of decoration, but they decorate very well-made vessels. The range of shapes is very revealing: the locally-made Issa vessels are all wine jugs or drinking cups, reflecting the role of communal wine drinking, the symposion, that was a central expression of Greek or Greek-style urban social life. In Issa, the symposion appears to have been the only reason to make good pottery,
So, there we are: a local museum display revealing the character of an ancient city, part of a larger narrative about a region's history, and a story ranging from a few jugs to an entire civilisation. It's just a sample - on a Peter Sommer Travels cruise of the Adriatic, you'll encounter many more fascinating stories. To see Vis (and there is so much more to the place), join us on our Adriatic cruises.
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