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To the godfather of Greek art studies

A review

Few scholars can claim to be legendary within their field. However, within the discipline of Greek art studies, Sir John Boardman is most certainly that. This is a review of a Festschrift offered to him for his 90th birthday.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

In May of 2017, a veritable army of scholars descended on Lisbon for the conference “Greek Art in Motion.” This was meant as a tribute for Sir John Boardman, who many readers will know as a major figure in Greek archaeology.

Boardman’s books on Greek painted pottery remain standard references decades after their original publication, and works such as his The Greeks Overseas have been so well received that they’ve seen multiple editions. No matter if you’re interested in Athenian red figure pottery or the expansion of the Greek world in the archaic period, Boardman has had a major impact on what you study.

The essays contained in the volume under review reflect this wide-ranging influence. Greek Art in Motion: Studies in Honour of Sir John Boardman on the Occasion of His 90th Birthday (2019) is a spectacular book published by Archaeopress as a refined proceedings of the conference mentioned above. Its editors – Rui Morais, Delfim Leão, Diana Rodríguez Pérez, and Daniela Ferreira – have done a wonderful job of turning what was undoubtedly an invigorating and exciting conference into an equally scintillating book.

It is, however, a challenging book to review. 45 papers made it into the volume, meaning that no single review can discuss all of them. So, this particular book review may look a bit different than others here on Ancient World Magazine. I will be focusing on those chapters which most closely align with my research specialism, however a complete list of chapters and their authors can be found on Archaeopress’ website.

A vignette

In this review, I will provide a pin-hole view of this wonderful volume. Much like looking at a solar eclipse, trying to stare directly at this book is quite dangerous. You will find yourself falling down tunnels of Greek sculpture, painted vases, and even Roman numismatics (much like Boardman’s own publication record!). To avoid sending our readers down these many paths, though all very interesting, I will concentrate on papers having to do with the Greeks outside of Hellas proper.

The first chapter I am looking at is Gocha R. Tsetskhaldze’s “Some Recent Developments in the Study of Greeks Overseas” (pp. 59-65). The title is a clear reference to one of Sir John’s books, The Greeks Overseas, originally published in 1964. In this chapter, Tsetskhaldze gives a rather brief overview of the “state of the field” when it comes to the study of Greek overseas settlement. As he points out right at the beginning, one of the most discussed issues at the moment is what we call this vast movement of people. The term “Greek colonization” has fallen out of favor, and is generally not a good fit (Osborne 1998).

He emphasizes that this has largely been a phenomenon of Anglophone scholarship, describing it as a “terminology war” (p. 59) While I generally agree that this is a less important issue than some colleagues make it out to be, I don’t think it should be simply dismissed as a English-language phenomenon. There is no doubt that terminology has the ability to guide the discussion of a topic, and in this case it creates an image of Greek settlers (an equally problematic term, rightly noted by Dr. Tsetskhaldze) seizing land from native peoples.

This is not an accurate representation of this phenomenon, to which the rest of this chapter is dedicated to discussing. The author emphasizes that early Greek ventures overseas were, more often than not, successful because of the cooperation of local peoples and a partnership between all groups involved. This is observable in both the literary and archaeological records, both in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea littorals. Thus, while very brief, this paper provides a useful overview that casual readers – and scholars outside of this particular research area – will likely find new and challenging. My only major point of contention is the role of piracy in all of this, which Tsetskhaldze attributes to a period “much later than” his focus, which is the archaic period.

We move on to the next chapter about the Greeks overseas, which takes us specifically to the Euxine. Chiara Tarditi’s paper, “Beyond Trade: The Presence of Archaic and Classical Greek Bronze Vessels in the Northern Black Sea Area,” (pp. 139-149) looks at a series of beautiful and well-preserved bronze vessels found in regions connected to the Black Sea. The stylistic analysis of expertly conducted, and supported by evidence in the form of beautifully reproduced color images.

Tarditi clearly and convincingly argues for the Athenian manufacture of these. This is linked to wider events which we know about, such as the sixth-century conquest of the Chersonese and the expansion of Athenian interest in the Black Sea in the fifth century. Still, some of these pieces – especially older ones found in later contexts – should not be thought of as only coming through contemporary trading routes, but easily could have “passed from hand to hand, in regions more and more distant from the production area” (p. 148). It would be unfair for me to try and repeat the interesting arguments of this chapter, so readers will just have to seek it out for themselves if they want more details!

Moving from the Black Sea to Iberia, we come to Carmen Rueda and Ricardo Olmos’ intriguingly titled chapter, “Youth in an Enclosed Context: New Notes on the Attic Pottery from the Iberian Tútugi Necropolis (Granada, Galera)” (pp. 212-225). Unusually for one of my book reviews, I want to repeat part of their introductory paragraph:

We begin with a fundamental idea: that Attic pottery converses with its context and assumes a new meaning from the resultant conversation. As such, in the narratives related to the hereafter, Attic pottery becomes integrated and its original significance is transformed in the adoption process, contributing to the Iberian elite’s construction of the imaginary. (p. 212)

This is an unusually clear statement of purpose, that I think quite a few readers will find interesting. It underlines the complexity of discussing Greek vases; they are not simply canvases upon which are painted scenes. Their “biographies,” as James Whitley would say, are just as important (if not more so) than what was portrayed on them. But, to understand these biographies, we have to know many details, such as the find contexts, the place of manufacture, how the pots may have arrived at their deposition location, but also what was depicted in their painted scenes.

The authors’ focus is on a set of tombs connected with the ancient settlement at El Cerro del Real, in particular on the aspects of youth that are represented in them. Tomb 11 is the first case study. In it was found a bell krater of the Polygnotos Group which depicts a youthful rider on horseback meeting with the goddess Nike. The use of this vase seems very deliberate, depicting a scene from the “rite of passage” for the person buried in the grave. Riding is represented in the other grave goods in the form of horse bits, and other elements of (traditionally) male identity are included, such as a falcata. Thus, though a Greek image originally, the krater was chosen because it depicts something similar to the coming of age of the deceased individual.

The second case study is Tomb 34, another chamber tomb (the largest in the necropolis). Here, the rites of passage for the deceased female inhabitant are analyzed, with emphasis placed on another Greek krater. On this was depicted a scene of a male youth timidly holding a lyre, flanked by two women also holding instruments. This is juxtaposed with a number of locally produced vases that depict floral and faunal scenes, likely representing the earlier Iberian tradition.

The use of Attic pottery in these circumstances is quite interesting, as the authors point out, though I do wish there had been a broader look at the phenomenon. There certainly was an interpretive “assimilation and adaptation” of these vases, but more details on what this looked like would have been nice. (This is perhaps only a complaint of length, as the discussion is quite interesting, and I imagine that the authors have published a more thorough analysis of this elsewhere.)

The final chapter which I wish to discuss in detail is José Miguel Puebla Morón’s “War and Numismatics in Greek Sicily: Two Sides of the Same Coin” (pp. 259-263). He opens by looking at the coinage of the early fifth century BC, identifying a number of poleis who included military imagery on their coinage (e.g. Zancle). Moving into the latter half of the century, the author suggests that the Syracusan dekadrachms showing a panoply and generally connected with one of the wars of this period (either against Athens, the Syracusan naval expedition to the Aegean, or against Carthage).

More interestingly, though, he links the issues of Akragas in this period with continuing conflicts against Carthage and its Sicilian hegemony. In particular, he describes the depiction of Apollo-Helios and a grasshopper as a rebuke of plagues, linked to the wars against Punic armies. I am less sure of his links between Skylla and the Punic wars. The author believes that this was meant to represent the mythical monster who destroyed ships as fending off the Carthaginian forces (who came by sea).

This may make sense if Akragas had not been captured and – supposedly – sacked during the war which began in 407 BC. Though, the coins showing an eagle devouring a horse (the former a symbol of Akragas, the latter of Carthage) does seem rather clear. Perhaps if these coins had all been minted during the conflict this would all make sense, though I’m unsure we can securely date the issues to this very narrow period. Puebla Morón goes on to discuss similar appearances during the age of Timoleon on Sicily and finally the reign of Agathocles.


Although I’ve only given a brief overview of this book, I hope it shows how diverse and interesting its various chapters are. Students of the ancient world, regardless of research interest, will find something of interest. The book is perhaps too broad for many people to have in their own collection, it is something that I would recommend for all academic libraries to acquire.

Despite an overall positive reception of this volume, I do have one criticism. Many – perhaps most? – of the authors are not native English speakers. This is not an issue in itself, and I cannot praise non-Anglophone scholars enough for their efforts to publish in English and reach a wider audience than perhaps they would otherwise. However, this book needed a more careful round of copy editing. Most of the chapters are very clear, but some are laden with jargon that either is not current in modern scholarly English or is unnecessarily complex.

Additionally, some chapters contain grammar that is difficult to parse, even with years of teaching and editorial experience. For instance, this can be found in a sentence from one of the chapters “one thousand and fifty hundred under the orders of Dexipo…” But, I do not want this criticism to be levelled at the authors. Quite a few junior scholars contributed to this project and wrote great essays. I think it was up to the editors or the publisher to be a bit more rigorous in the copy editing process.

Regardless of the above complaint, this is a great book with interesting discussions that is a worthy gift to Sir John Boardman for his 90th birthday, and I am extremely impressed with its ability to elevate junior voices to an international audience.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (fourth edition, 1999).
  • R. Osborne, “Early Greek colonisation? The nature of Greek settlement in the West”, in: N. Fisher and H. van Wees (eds), Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (1998), pp. 251-270.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.