Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Symposion-Idea and the Import of Luxury Pottery and Metal Vessels in the Hallstatt-Early La-Tene Period

The term ‘symposion’ is used to describe the spirited tradition in which feasting, drinking and celebration takes place. This banqueting tradition had been present in Central Europe for generations, but an influx of Greek symposion linked material introduced by the Greeks in the Sixth & Seventh century BD had a large impact.  But did the new presence of Greek culture just purely enhance the already practiced Celtic traditions, or did it bring forward a whole new banqueting and feasting format? This will be discussed throughout.

The first inhabitants of central Europe made their way into the Greek sphere beyond the Rhone Valley. This can be verified by the first unfired-brick wall from the Heuneburg, which was built around 600BC and was certainly modelled after the Greek fortifications. In the 7th century and in the first half of the 6th century the North of Italy found itself acting as a filter between the two territories, although this did not prevent a lively period of cultural exchanges between the Celtic and Mediterranean world, this contact led to a cultural blossoming (Moscati, 1991, 56). Due to this, small amounts of Mediterranean imports were present, but not on a large scale. The surge of importation from the Mediterranean began when Phoenician Greeks established a colony on the coast in Southern France, which is not modern day Marseille. Luxury goods were exchanged between these two societies, in particular vessels filled with wine, hence pottery and metal containers used to mix, serve and drink the wine followed. These new luxuries and the culture behind them spread throughout the Celtic Princely societies. Evidence for this drinking phenomenon is eminent in the graves and hill-fort sites of the Late Hallstatt to the Early La-Tene period.

These new trade links were the major cause of social and culture change within the Greek world and among the societies with whom they traded. In the Western Hallstatt area contact between Greek and Barbarian was both direct and extensive (Collis, 1984, 84). The importation of goods, primarily luxury pottery and metal vessels was most likely caused by several reasons. Firstly, the foundation of Marseilles near the mouth of the Rhone flourished, and created a perfect trade route straight to the Western Hallstatt area. Secondly, the evolution of a hierarchical society in South-West Germany and Eastern France became the recipient of this trade, exchanging goods for these imports and encouraging commerce.

Three elite sites, the Heuneburg, Asperg and Mont Lassois lie on the rivers leading away from the Rhone-Saone route and the Britzgyberg lies on the gap controlling the route from the Rhone-Doubss onto the upper Rhine. These powerful chiefdoms most probably controlled the redistribution of goods to the South (Cunliffe, 1990, 198).

Significant amounts of imported Mediterranean pottery have been found at Mont Lassois. The nearby tumulus of Vix contains a magnificent range of Mediterranean symposion-linked vessels and imports. The body in the burial is female and was buried with personal items 4 wagon wheels. The grave is accompanied by all of the equipment appropriate to the symposion. A great krater, or wine storage vessel was discovered, which is the largest ancient bronze object that has ever been found. A precious gold torque and jugs, bowls and cups, which were all imported from different parts of the classical world during the last decade of the 6th century were also found. The huge krater that weighed 205kg was unlikely to have been transported whole. The figures that run around the Frieze have Greek letters scratched on them which correspond to the letters on the body of the vessel, which were concealed when the figures were scolded on them. Greek craftsmen were most likely needed to put this vessel together, which would mean trade took place on a direct personal level. The Krater was a one-off design and would have been highly expensive to make, therefore it would have been a special order (Cook, 1979, 153), which signifies the strong trading relationship. The Vix krater and gold torque that were both found within the tumulus would have both been items of diplomatic and royal status. This shows that trade is administered at a high level of administrative centres (Collis, 1985, 84). The nearby burial site called ‘Tumulus de la Garenne’ of Sainte-Colombe also contained superb specimens of symposion artefacts. The remains of a bronze cauldron were found and also the remains of a tripod and wagon. The Bronze cauldron was a magnificent piece with gryphon protomes. According to Hopkins (1957, 335) these cauldrons which are adorned with the protome heads of animals and griffons appear as early as the 7th century from Etruria. They would have been filled with beverages and would have certainly been high prestige items. Therefore in order to invest such wealth towards the symposion signifies the importance and the desire to possess such objects.

The ‘Symposion-Culture’ and Mediterranean imports appear to perform a significant role within the burial customs. The Late Hallstatt graves were more lavishly decorated to their counterparts, in comparison much greater effort was put into the manufacture of goods in graves. The princely burials in Late Hallstatt D show extraordinary evidence for the extensive adoption of the symposion culture. Material culture within the graves reflects the inter-relations of a society and it is a medium through which the participants conceptualise their view of society and through which it is recognisable for other material culture is a contemporary means of expression and communication. Funerary practices are constitutive for the formation of the society (Diepeveen-Jansen, 2001, 86).

The elite systems of the late Hallstatt period are characterised by the appearance of comparatively large quantities of Mediterranean imports found both in the major hill-forts and the Princely burials (Cunliffe, 1999, 115). During the Hallstatt period, the composition of drinking ware in the elite graves does not change. The combination usually consists of a bronze vessel in the form of a bucket or cauldron, a sieve and ladling and drinking ware. At the end of this period towards Hallstatt D3 the tradition of deposition ware in graves changes in several respects. First the drinking services were also given to women, although these are by far the minority. Secondly, indigenous products are replaced by Greek and Etruscan ware (Diepeveen-Jansen, 2001, 45).

The Hochdorf burial contains a spectacle of Mediterranean goods. There was a service set for banquets and drinking ceremonies. 9 drinking horns were hung on the walls of the chamber. On the wagin there were 9 bronze plates with 3 large platters of the same material. This implies that a funeral banquet could have been planned for 9 people. Could this perhaps suggest a feast for the afterlife, which would indicate the importance of the symposion in their everyday lives? Cunliffe (1991, 161) believes that the drinking items at Hochdorf were clearly intended to smooth the way for the deceased and his companions into the world beyond. It has been proposed (Wells, 1998, 18) that the identity of elite individuals, that consist of social leaders and providers within the communities were emphasised by the outfitting graves such as Hochdorf with equipment used in the feasting rituals. The enormous vessels like the krater at Vix would have been filled with wine. It’s immense size indicates the large scale and sumptuousness of some of these banquets. There is such an emphasis on drinking and feasting rituals within these graves that it must have been of fundamental importance within society. Arnold (2001, 215) states that it was a Celtic commonality to believe in a form of existence after death which involved feasting, drinking and differential social relationships corresponding to the world of the living.
These Mediterranean imports were only found at elite centres. The site of Rottenburg near Tubingen, dating to Hallstatt D3, is much smaller and gives an example of a burial on a more local level. It does not contain any imports at all. It has been proposed (Arnold, 2001, 216) that the princely institutions designated that only certain ideas were acceptable within society and burial customs and that burial ritual falls so clearly into an area of group expression that is explicitly public. Therefore, burial was a medium for expressing a wide range of social messages. Therefore the burial of Rottenburg is one of individual choice, not being forced to conform. However, in my opinion, the most obvious reason for this lack of symposion ware and Mediterranean imports is simply due to the fact that these smaller isolated sites cannot afford them.

Artefacts found in funerary sites however, tell us primarily about the assemblage deemed necessary and desirable within a tomb and possible for use in the after-life, it would be naive just to assume that they reflect conditions and usage in life (Diepeveen-Jansen, 2001, 351). Depositing drinking and feasting equipment in graves however, may not be purely due to the introduction of the Greek symposion. The customs of depositing drinking equipment in graves in Central Europe can be traced to a long tradition rooted in an Indo-European body of thought. Even so, by looking at the pre-Late Hallstatt graves, you can see significantly less amount of symposion-related deposits. The culturally defined reformation of these earlier ‘Celtic’ ideas and values in the late Hallstatt period is achieved under the influence of Mediterranean contacts, but it is the historically specific circumstances in the transalpine societies which determine and enable the elite to select exotic elements in their drinking services. The value of imports and their potential as prestige goods is also assessed by what they replace (Diepeveen-Jansen, 2001, 352). During the late Hallstatt to Early La-tene period, it is the material and source of the grave goods that change, the categories of material culture involved (drinking and feasting) does not (Arnold, 2001, 217).
The symposion culture present in Central Europe during the late Hallstatt period was not simply a mirror image of the Greek practice, in fact the two differed substantially. The Greeks recline on elaborate klinai, mix wine in large vessels and hired entertainers such as musicians, acrobats and prostitutes. The religious-philosophical character and it’s secure and frank environment provided a context to intellectual debate, friendly and genial association, and the uninhibited enjoyment of social pleasures (Henderson, 1). Within the Odyssey, Homer writes about social gatherings that seem to take place in the symposion format, although based a bit earlier than the Late Hallstatt D period it is a good source for comparison. For example, when the King speaks to the Phoenicians while entertaining; “Captains and Councillors of the Phoenicians, listen to me. We have eaten together and listened to the lyre that goeswith good food, to our hearts content. Let us go outside now and try skills at various sports, so that when our guest has reached his home he can tell his friends that at boxing, wrestling, jumping and running there is no one that can beat us.”  It is these Ancient authors such as Homer, along with pottery decorated with symposion scenes and the archaeological remains of symposion areas and equipment that help to illustrate the nature of the Greek symposion.

The term ‘trinkfest’ has been applied to the traditional Celtic formality of banqueting. Within the typical Celtic trinkfest men and warriors all feast outdoors in makeshift surroundings. When studying the 5th century BC, none of the accounts we have indicate a corresponding transformation of the ‘Celtic Trinkfest’ into anything resembling the sophistication of the Greek Symposion (Witt, 1997) but simply an adoption of Greek material goods to use within their own trinkfest tradition. There are other differences between these two cultures during this period. The world of the dead and the world of the living are closely situated in Hallstatt culture and in the Mediterranean they separate both widely. Cunliffe (1991, 151) argues that the Celts’ concept of life after death bore little or no relation to the Greek’s somber idea of an underworld where the souls lived on without their shadows, and from looking at the Hallstatt graves it appears that they have some kind of belief in their afterlife. These are large aspects of culture and for the Hallstatt culture not to follow suggests that beyond their choice of Symposion goods and trades, they were not trying to emulate the Greek customs and their way of life.

This new influx of Mediterranean material and culture would have undoubtedly had an effect on the local development within societies. In the Hallstatt culture, social and ceremonial drinking had an important place in the elite lifestyle and they seemed to be familiar with the way in which imported ware was used. Archaeological evidence shows that Symposion-linked artefacts are mainly found at princely centres, which proves it was primarily used by members of the elite. It seems that society was becoming more complex in the Early Iron Age, which required more levels of differentiation to adjust the increasingly complex interactions between individuals and groups. Foreign imports would have been used to form an essential aspect of the identity of the individuals that used them, because it linked them with the larger cosmopolitan outside world (Wells, 1998, 19). It is commonly believed, (Wells, 1996, 4 & Collis, 1984, 94) that through the stimulation of Greek trade, the chiefs gained superior social positions than existed in the dispersed economic and social configurations of the earlier period. The personal acquisition of prestige created a social dynamic: prestige and rank were obtained by means of the importation of goods, especially for use in ceremonial feasts in which everyone would participate according to their social status (Audoze and Buchsenschutz, 1991, 171). The prestige goods model discussed by Gosden (1985, 485) proposes that power is not based directly upon the regulation and exploitation of the production of food and necessities, but rests on the controlled movement of socially important items. The most prized of which are often obtained in external trade with another group organised on different social and economic principles. In the late Hallstatt period, there luxury vessels were at the height of social importance.

The symposion phenomenon and the importation of luxury and pottery vessels would have had effects on wider contexts within settlements. This new wealth, acquired with new Mediterranean trading contacts enabled the princely cultures to trade with other indigenous societies, establish other trade links and secure the resources needed to engage in the importation of metal vessels and other valuable items that were important in local systems of prestige and politics (Harms, 1996). The economic organisation around the late Hallstatt period appears to have shifted from an economy based on the satisfaction of local needs to a centralised one based intimately on the production of surpluses for export to the Greek world (Wells, 1996, 4). Societies would have also required investment and the ability to concentrate a surplus for the preparation of locally made alcoholic drink to cater for the symposion drinks that were not imported. The symposion culture pulled in colossal amounts of expensive goods. Vast contents of these feasting and luxury items were used and disposed of in burial for dead aristocracy. This would have put huge pressure on the economy and it may not have been able to sustain such a high level of consumption. This may have been one of the causes for the disappearance of the Princely cultures around the beginning of the La-Tene period. It is also likely that the Princely cultures of the Hallstatt period would have exchanged things of high value for these imported Greek objects and wine. Wine was also considered to carry a great value of prestige. This constant exchange of goods for wine, which would then be drunk among the elite, may have also been very difficult to maintain.

There are still many questions surrounding the influence of the Greek symposion in Central Europe during the late Hallstatt to early La-Tene period. The main questions surrounding the symposion is whether or not the phenomenon was an imitation of the symposion, which then encouraged the importation of Greek vessels, or whether with the new influx of trade brought it with it the symposion culture, which then caused the symposion culture to blossom. It was in all probability a concoction of the both. The new trade routes were without a doubt the main stimulant, which let this new cultural flood surge into Central Europe. There is much evidence to show that the ceremonial culture of feasting and drinking within the ‘celtic’ world goes far back to the Indo-European influences, and this Greek influence probably just refined this practice into a more savoury light. On the other hand, it has also been noted that not only the Greek goods that appear in settlement and burial contexts are Symposion-related for aristocratic drinking customs and other Greek imports such as jewellery and weapons are a rarity, simply indicating that the ‘celts’ chose these objects purely for their use within the symposion practice. These selected goods were then acquired by the elites in order to reflect an opulent civilisation and high status within the society. The ‘celtic’ princes almost certainly learnt and grasped the tradition of the Greek symposion as a contribution towards their previously established culture and picked Mediterranean goods that appealed to their celtic taste. The adaptation towards these Mediterranean cultures is especially clear in the Early La-Tene period, the celts began to imitate and locally produce Mediterranean style vessels.

Audouze, Francois and Buchsenschutz, Olivier (1991) Towns, Villages and Countryside of Celtic Europe (BCA)
Collis, John (1984) The European Iron Age (Batsford)
Cunliffe, Barry (1979) The Celtic world (The Bodley head)
Diepveen-Jansen, Marian (2001) Peoples, Ideas and Goods (Amsterdam University Press)
Moscati, Sabatino (1991) The Celts (Thames and Hudson)
Wells, Peter.S (1984) Farms, Villages and Cities – Commerce and Urban Origins in Late Prehistoric Europe (Cornell University Press)
Arnold, Bettina (2001) The limits of agency in the analysis of elite Iron Age burials. The journal of social archaeology, volume 1, pp 210-224. 

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