Industrial Religion: An interview with Susan Rotroff
by Andrew Reinhard
First discovered in the 1930s by Eugene Vanderpool, the “saucer pyres” of the Athenian Agora remained a mystery for over 70 years, until Professor Susan I. Rotroff turned her attention to these deposits 10 years ago. Each deposit consisted of a shallow pit, its floor sometimes marked by heavy burning, with a votive deposit of pottery and fragments of burnt bone, ash, and charcoal. Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora (Hesperia Suppl. 47) investigates the nature of the saucer pyre sacrifices, taking into account the contents of the pyres, their spatial distribution, and their relationship to buildings around the Agora and elsewhere, arriving at a startling conclusion. Rotroff, currently on sabbatical in Israel, discussed her groundbreaking study with Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Reinhard: How do you define “industrial religion”? Is this a new concept when thinking about Greek archaeology?
Rotroff: I coined the term “industrial religion” to sum up religious practices associated with industrial and artisanal activities—that is, religious practices that are specifically intended to protect the craft process, the workplace, and the workers. There is quite a lot of evidence for these practices in the Near East, where they have been studied in some detail. The record is much poorer in Greece, but scholars are beginning to take an interest.
Reinhard: Do we know where saucer pyres were first used in the ancient world, or are these unique to Greece? What were the peak years of usage?
Rotroff: Saucer pyres first appear in the late 5th century B.C., and are restricted to Athens and Attica. That is, this particular combination of pottery shapes and burnt animal bone is not found in houses and workshops elsewhere. The closest analogy is in the northwest of Greece: deposits of miniature vessels under the lowest floors of houses in Ambracia and Leukada, but the shapes are different, and there does not seem to be any connection with craft or industry. They appear to be foundation deposits commemorating the construction of the house. That interpretation has been applied by others to the Agora pyres, but although the Agora pyres are sometimes connected with remodeling, or at least laying new floors, they are never associated with initial construction.
Reinhard: The saucers themselves are small; what kinds of animals were offered as sacrifices on them (or were other things left as sacrifices)? What was the nature of the burnt offerings?
Rotroff: The animal bone in the Agora pyres is almost exclusively sheep or goat, although bird bones have been found in pyres at the Kerameikos and in excavations at the Acropolis Metro station. The saucers are too small for any practical use, so like other miniature vessels in Greek religious practice, they have a symbolic function. Other miniatures in the pyres include two kinds of cooking pots and a covered bowl. So you have everything you need for a meal in miniature: pots to cook it in, a bowl to serve it with, and plates from which to eat it.
Reinhard: The puzzle of the saucer pyres was first uncovered by Eugene Vanderpool in 1933, but had not been resolved until now. What drew you to this problem, and what was the biggest breakthrough for you in understanding this material?
Rotroff: Several pyres were unearthed at the Agora in the 1970s, when I was excavating there as a graduate student, though I was never fortunate enough to find one myself. That piqued my interest, and I spent some time then reading the field notebook accounts of pyres that had been found earlier. In most of these the bone was very thoroughly burned—nothing more than tiny scraps survived—and the pyres had been interpreted as the cremations of infants. We were all pretty sure that this was not the case, but there wasn’t enough information to make any headway on the problem at that time.
The most significant breakthrough was zooarchaeologist Lynn Snyder’s analysis of the bone, establishing definitively that it was animal bone, and even more importantly, it represented the species and parts of the animals that were regularly used for sacrifice. That put the inquiry on a whole new footing. A second breakthrough was the realization that a large percentage of the pyres were located in buildings devoted to crafts, industry, or commerce.
Reinhard: What were your biggest challenges during the 10 years you spent on this project?
Rotroff: The greatest challenge was to find a way to understand the deposits in the absence of any direct ancient written testimony to their purpose—to accept the fact that the deposits themselves were the only “texts” available, and to figure out how to decipher them. There is a huge amount of material, and figuring out how to present it in a way that would be comprehensible but would not oversimplify was also challenging. There were also graphic challenges. For example, I wanted to publish a plan that would illustrate the distribution and chronology of the pyres. Since the Agora no longer has an architect on its staff, I was left to my own amateur devices; the experience left me with enormous admiration for the work of archaeological architects!
Reinhard: What questions still remain following the publication of Industrial Religion?
Rotroff: One question, of course, is whether future discoveries of pyres will support my hypothesis about their connection with craft and commerce or suggest other solutions to the problem. If there is a connection, I would love to know why pyres occur in some workplaces and not in others. I suspect that ethnic differences may be responsible, and that we are witnessing the varying customs of metics from different parts of Greece or the wider Mediterranean world. I’m afraid, though, that the identities of those who made these offerings are forever lost to us.
More generally, there are many questions about the religious practices of artisans, an area that has only begun to be studied in depth. Which divinities did they identify as their protectors, and why? On what occasions and why did they make offerings?
Reinhard: What are you working on now?
Rotroff: I’ve just embarked on a project to reexamine the evidence for the introduction of red-figure. Along with others, I’ve noticed a discrepancy between the generally accepted date of the earliest red-figure pottery and the contexts in which red-figure fragments first appear. This suggests either that red-figure was introduced a little bit later than is generally thought, or that it takes longer for an innovation to become visible in the archaeological record than is generally thought. My ambition is to figure out which it is.
Industrial Religion: The Saucer Pyres of the Athenian Agora (Hesperia Supplement 47)
by Susan I. Rotroff
248 pp, 126 col and b/w figs, 15 tables