- Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora by Susan I. Rotroff
In Industrial Religion, Susan Rotroff has engaged with a long-standing archaeological problem. From the 1930s on, excavators of the area around the Athenian Agora began to report findings of small deposits each consisting of a shallow pit containing bone fragments, ash, and charcoal and fairly consistent groups of pots of particular shapes, including miniatures. These were located under flooring layers in buildings: commercial and industrial structures as well as houses (which may also have been used as workplaces or were workplaces while under construction). Particularly characteristic were sets of small, shallow dishes: the eponymous saucers. For some 70 years, these saucer pyres were a puzzle; diverse interpretations were suggested: cremation of infants, purificatory offerings, rituals associated with burial, or rites associated with the construction or remodelling of the building or with a change of tenancy. None of these proposals gained widespread acceptance because none accounted for all of the evidence. [End Page 460]
In 2003, Rotroff began an exacting analysis of all of the accumulated evidence that would take 10 years to come to fruition in the present exemplary study. Drawing comprehensively on excavation records, the examination of artefacts, and new analyses of bones and charcoal, she is able to reject infant cremation (as the bones were all from animals), and she identifies key inconsistencies in the locations and frequency of the deposits that militated against any regular ritual practice responding either to funerary custom or to building construction or renovation. Through a meticulous comparative analysis of every kind of information variously recorded for each of the 70 saucer pyre deposits around the Agora, and with additional consideration of recorded deposits resembling saucer pyres from other sites, she then proceeds to develop a persuasive theory of the function and intent of the practices represented by the pyres.
As seems appropriate to the solving of a long-standing puzzle, Rotroff ably constructs and presents her analysis after the fashion of a mystery thriller. Throughout the chapters, the itemized consideration of each kind of evidence in turn lays the basis, and at intervals she offers interim conclusions drawn from her detailed analysis of each category, building her case point by point and constantly tempting the reader into trying to anticipate possible explanations along the way. Indeed, as one draws closer to the conclusion, it is hard to resist the temptation to peek at the final pages!
The study falls into two main sections of approximately equal length: an initial series of five discursive chapters (1–93) followed by a very detailed catalogue of all 70 instances of saucer pyres around the Athenian Agora (95–182). The first section opens with Chapter 1, “Introduction,” in which Rotroff sets out the parameters of the study. In the absence of textual documentation of any activity that could relate to the deposits, interpretation must be based on close observation of the archaeological phenomena themselves. Recent instances excavated in light of the current methods in the construction process of the Acropolis Metro station and the new Acropolis Museum provided additional information that was the stimulus for Rotroff’s undertaking.
In Chapter 2, “The Agora Pyres: The Data,” Rotroff presents an analytical account of the evidence in general, studded with references to the specific instances by catalogue number. The subtitles are indicative: spatial distribution, modes of deposition, and then the actual offerings arranged in categories. These typically include miniatures evocative of the preparation and presentation of a ritual meal (cooking pots in the form of chytrai and lopades, and covered bowls, lekanides) as well as the saucers for serving the food and also a limited range of full-size vessels: plates, drinking cups, lamps, and covered bowls. Some deposits have additional vessels of other forms, occasionally alabastra (with funerary associations), coins, clay balls, loom weights, and metal (mainly lead), and there is recently reported evidence of textiles. Analysis of the organic matter has identified animal bones (mainly...