THE BIOGRAPHY OF A CYCLADIC BOWL FROM ELEON

By Matthew Skalik

This past semester in GRS 482A, I had the opportunity to research a rim fragment from a marble bowl found within the Blue Stone Structure at ancient Eleon (Figure 1). The fact that the vessel was made from a non-local stone, that only a fragment survived, and that this fragment was found within a funerary structure, although not within a grave, all posed important questions regarding the provenance, lifespan and dating of the artifact. By examining evidence for marble imports into Boeotia and the island of Keos, or the lack thereof, and analyzing the findspot of the bowl fragment from Eleon, I concluded that the marble bowl from which the fragment came was not a recent import, but rather of much older Cycladic origins. Contrary to my initial expectations, the imported vessel had been broken and discarded long before it was unintentionally deposited as fill to cover the graves of the Blue Stone Structure (BSS). In this blog post, I will sketch out a plausible biography of this artifact from its Cycladic origins to its endpoint at Eleon and add some reflections on working with material culture.

Figure 1: Fragment of a marble bowl rim from the Blue Stone Structure at Eleon (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

The use of marble in the Cyclades is well-attested by the 3rd millennium BCE, during the Early Bronze Age, when the famous Cycladic figurines, but also various types of marble bowls and vessels were produced (Figure 2). Cycladic material culture was widely traded throughout the Aegean during the Early Bronze Age, including to inland Boeotia where Cycladic or Cycladic-influenced items such as metal daggers, ceramic ‘frying pans’ and marble artifacts have been excavated. Early Cycladic marble bowls have been found at Lithares, Eutresis, Thebes, and elsewhere in Boeotia, however, all these attestations pre-date the Blue Stone Structure in Eleon by several hundred years. In fact, from the Early Helladic III period onwards, there is a scarcity of Cycladic marbles in Boeotia that suggests a decline in marble imports beginning around the Middle Bronze Age.

Figure 2: Early Cycladic II marble bowls from the prehistoric cemetery in the quarry near Phira, Museum of Prehistoric Thera inv. nos. 1163 & 1345 (Zde/Wikimedia Commons), CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

I looked to the island of Keos to examine whether the Eleon marble fragment might be a rare example of a Middle or Late Bronze Age marble bowl, closer to when the Blue Stone Structure was active (approximately 1700–1600 BCE), or was imported in the Early Bronze Age and maintained as an heirloom for hundreds of years.  As the first major island one encounters when sailing from Boeotia towards the Cyclades via the Euboean Gulf, Keos is well-situated for trade between the Cyclades, Minoan Crete and the Greek Mainland. Throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Age, Keos grew in wealth and prosperity due to its role in these trade networks as demonstrated by the settlement of Ayia Irini.  Despite a significant amount of excavation at the site, Cycladic marbles were rare at Ayia Irini also after the Early Bronze Age and produced no good parallels for the fragment from Eleon. 

If the Cycladic marble vessel at Eleon originated in the Early Bronze Age, it is possible that it was kept as a rare antique or prestigious object.  Such a phenomenon may be observed at Ayia Irini where some marble figurines from the Early Bronze Age appeared in later destruction levels indicating an extended lifespan for such objects. This possibility for the provenance and usage of the marble vessel, however, does not explain how it ended up in the BSS, for it was not intentionally placed in a tomb and only a small fragment was recovered.

The marble rim fragment was found within the BSS (Figure 3), sandwiched between the layers of earth and mudbrick overlying the capstones for the graves, but below the cobblestone layer that sealed off the funerary structure. Assorted mendable drinking vessels were found amidst the same layers of earth and mudbrick indicating a ritual drinking custom performed by the community over the tombs. As far as we know, Cycladic bowls were not involved in drinking rituals but rather, since pigment is often found inside, they seem to have been used to store or grind pigments which would decorate the human body. While the bowl could have been repurposed by the local inhabitants, its rim would not have made a very convenient drinking vessel and its shallow bowl counld not hold much liquid.

Figure 3: The interior of the Blue Stone Structure at Eleon showing grave stelai, cobble surface, and thick fill covering the graves (Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

Given the small fragment that survives, it seems more likely that the marble bowl was accidentally introduced as fill when the layers of brick and earth containing the drinking vessels were laid over the graves. The earth may have been taken from an area designated for abandoned household objects, as evidenced by a spindle whorl and a loom weight fragment found near the marble fragment – two objects which also have no obvious relation to drinking. In reconstructing the life of the marble fragment, one can imagine that, after some time, the bowl broke and was discarded outside where, later, a fragment was inadvertently gathered up as part of the earthen fill or perhaps even incorporated into a large mud brick that was then used to cover the graves of the BSS.

Over the course of this project, I found just how exciting it can be to reconstruct the life of an artifact and critically think about its production and usage. For the first time as an undergraduate student, I was able to work directly with excavation material and develop skills in interpreting excavation reports and journals for a project. What started as simply trying to determine the exact findspot and the context of the fragment quickly evolved into attempting to piece together how and when the fragment got there, which was followed by broader questions regarding the prevalence of marble after the Early Bronze Age, the nature of interregional exchange between Boeotia and the Cyclades, and the potential significance of the artifact to the ancient inhabitants of Eleon. But, perhaps the best part of working with material from Eleon was that I truly had to ask my own questions to conduct research rather than re-examining already published artifacts. By independently studying the material record from Eleon and relating it to the broader archaeological record in Bronze Age Greece, I know that I gained a lot of knowledge myself and, hopefully, I also contributed a little to the study of Eleon while doing so.