Amphora Stamps from Thasos: An Interview with Chavdar Tzochev
December 6, 2016
Amphora Stamps from Thasos (Agora XXXVII) by Chavdar Tzochev is the newest volume in our Athenian Agora series. Chavdar is an archaeologist interested in ancient Greece and Thrace and the ancient economy, especially the amphora trade. He received a PhD from Sofia University, Bulgaria and was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow and a Kress publication fellow at the ASCSA.
Ancient Thasos was renowned for its wine, which was heavily exported in ceramic amphoras across the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Once a principal market in this trade, the Athenian Agora is now home to one of the largest collections of stamped amphora fragments from the island of Thasos. This volume presents the Thasian amphora stamps of the Agora collection, contextualized in a broader discussion of their interpretation and chronology.
Q: Why are Thasian amphora stamps important?
A: Thasian amphora stamps are excellent chronological indicators: owing to the mention of an annually changing official, they offer very narrow dating. Hence many archaeologists rely on stamped Thasian handles to date their discoveries. Also, amphora stamps are an important source of information for ancient economic history because they offer a rare opportunity to quantify ancient trade. And last but not least, the stamps are the visible part of a larger system, of some form of state control over the production of amphoras and rooftiles, which is still little comprehended. Thasos introduced the earliest system of this kind in the Greek world, starting in the beginning of the 4th century B.C. It was also a very durable and complex system: it existed for more than two and a half centuries and left more than 4000 different types of stamps.
Herakles archer on a stamp from the term of Λεώδικος
Q: In this Agora volume you expand and reorganize the chronology of these Thasian amphora stamps. What evidence did you use? How is this different from the evidence that has previously been used to establish this chronology?
A: Some of the changes in the chronology that I suggest result from adding new and revising old archaeological data. But the main difference with previous studies is that I pay special attention to the dies used to stamp the amphoras and the individual style of the people who engraved them. This is a little-explored area with great potential for improving the chronologies of stamps from Thasos and elsewhere.
Q: What can these Thasian amphora stamps tell us about the economy of Athens? Of Thasos?
A: They inform us about the dynamics and orientation of the Thasian wine trade. Thasos was a major wine producer and exporter in the north Aegean. Over 12,000 stamped amphora handles found outside the island testify to this trade. During the 4th and the first half of the 3rd centuries B.C. Thasian exports were oriented mostly towards the Black Sea and Thrace. Athens was an exception: it was the only large market for Thasian wine south of Thasos itself. Literary evidence tells us that Athenians adored Thasian wine and rated it among the best wines. But Athens also played a key role in the large-scale trade with north Aegean wines as a place where traders obtained financial credit to buy cargoes of wine-amphoras and ship them into the Black Sea.
Q: You also did some work creating experimental stamping die. What was this process like? How did this play into your research?
A: I made several experimental dies based on the example of two survived prototypes, and engraved them by looking at original stamped handles. This helped me to understand the process of engraving better: what tools were used, how mistakes were corrected, how difficult it was to reproduce a stamp or the style of another engraver, etc. It turned out that it is relatively easy to engrave a die whose imprint resembles an original stamp, as well as to imitate a pictorial device; but it is difficult to reproduce the letters in detail. The lettering is the most distinctive element of the stamp, it varies significantly from person to person. That is why I focused my study of engravers’ hands on the lettering.
Experimental engraving of a stamping die
Q: What were the biggest challenges you encountered with this volume?
A: Perhaps the biggest challenge was presenting the highly specialized debates surrounding the organization of the stamping system and the chronology of the stamps to a wider audience. Research on amphora stamps has always been a small and somewhat closed scholarly domain, with relatively few participants who communicate among themselves in a very specialized language. My aim was to make Thasian stamps more comprehensible to a wider circle of scholars and to encourage future contributions. Another challenge was fitting a broad presentation of the Thasian stamps within a publication of the Agora material. I wanted to write a comprehensive review on the subject, which meant that I had to address many controversial questions and to use a lot of non-Agora evidence. This, however, had to be done in the most concise way, while keeping the focus on the Agora.
Q: What questions still remain following the publication?
A: We still know very little about the purpose of stamping and how the whole system of control over ceramic production was organized. What exactly was regulated with the stamping: was it tax revenue, quality, standardization, the use of raw materials or labor? We need more evidence in order to answer these questions. Besides, the chronological sequence of the officials named on the stamps is still very much in development. Thasian stamps have great potential to become even more precise and reliable chronological indicators and this book makes a step forward in what is a long way to go.
Resulting stamp [from above experimental engraving]
Q: Why was the Agora the best site for this project?
A: The Stoa of Attalos Research Center at the Athenian Agora holds one of the largest collections of Thasian amphora stamps found in archaeological excavations. One thing that makes this collection special is the fact that many of the stamped fragments come from well-documented deposits related to the ancient buildings and the infrastructure of the Agora. Hence my research on the chronology of the stamps greatly benefited from the information in the Agora excavation records and the works of other Agora scholars who had already studied these structures and deposits. Another great thing about the Agora amphora collection is that for many years this was the working place of Virginia Grace. Grace is a legend in amphora studies. She and her assistants did an enormous amount of work cataloguing the stamped handles and finding parallels. After Grace passed away in 1994, her card catalogues, unpublished papers and letters were made available to scholars in the Archives of the American School at the Blegen library. This is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in amphoras and amphora stamps.
Q: When did you first get involved with the ASCSA?
A: I came to the ASCSA for the first time in 2007. Back then I was working on my PhD with a scholarship from the French School at Athens, and I came to gather information from Virginia Grace’s papers in the ASCSA Archives. This was also the first time I visited the Stoa of Attalos Research Center at the Agora. I returned to the ASCSA as a senior associate member in 2009.
Q: What has your experience with the ASCSA been?
A: The ASCSA has been a wonderful place! I did most of my research in the Agora Excavation offices, the Blegen Library, and the Archives. They offer excellent resources and working atmosphere. The staff are really nice and helpful, and there is a lively scholarly community.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am studying amphora material from several excavation and survey projects in northern Greece and Bulgaria. But right now I am writing about a splendid piece of Late Classical architecture. Let’s leave this as a surprise.
Athenian Agora XXXVII: Amphora Stamps from Thasos
264 pp, 34 b/w figs, 3 tables, more than 600 cat figs
Cloth, 9" x 12"
Athenian Agora XXXVII: Amphora Stamps from Thasos can be purchased from our distribution partners: click below for information on how to order from Casemate Academic (in North America) or from Oxbow Books (outside North America).