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Archaeometry 47, 3 (2005) 511–518.

Printed in Singapore


BlackwellArticle GREEK
of Oxford,
Publishing, J. HUGHES


Chemistry Department, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY 11973, USA
Department of Geosciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York 11790, USA

Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham TW20 0EX, UK

Chemistry Department, Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa 52001, USA

At the site of the Greek trading port of Naucratis, located on the Canopic mouth of the Nile
inland from Alexandria, Flinders Petrie and later archaeologists encountered sherds of
Classical Greek black-figure pottery. We have characterized the pastes of 14 of these
specimens, drawn from the collections of the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum
at Oxford, by neutron activation analysis and numerical taxonomy. The ceramics agree in
composition with a reference group centred on Athens. We also investigated a small number
of additional black-figure sherds from other sites. One specimen, from Ruvo di Puglia (Italy),
actually originated in or near Marseilles. There was no evidence for local manufacture of
black-figure pottery at Naucratis.


* Received
© University
Oxford, 2005
2001; accepted 13 October 2004.


The Greek trading city of Naucratis (meaning Mastery of the Sea) in the delta of the Nile
flourished through the reigns of successive Pharaohs towards the beginning of the XXVIth
Dynasty. It was founded by Psammetichus I (664–610 bc): its original Greek population was
derived from Miletus in Ionia. Amasis (or Ahmose II; 570–526 bc) bestowed remarkable
favours on Naucratis, granting it a monopoly for sea-borne commerce destined for Egypt.
A dozen different Greek cities were encouraged to trade at this emporium, but Athens was
not one of them. The story is recounted in Herodotus (1998, book 2, 178–9) and the city is
also mentioned by Plato (1998, 274d), because he thought that the story of the God Thoth (the
Egyptian God Theuth, identified by the Greeks with Hermes) originated there. In Plato’s
‘Phaedrus’, Socrates believes Naucratis to be the city where writing was invented by Thoth,
along with astronomy, geometry and dice! Phaedrus himself, in the same dialogue, suggests
however that Plato fabricated that story. When Alexander the Great descended on Egypt in

* Received 21 November 2001; accepted 13 October 2004.

© University of Oxford, 2005
512 G. Harbottle, M. J. Hughes and S. Seleem

around 332 bc Naucratis was flourishing, but Alexander wanted to build a new capital, and this
is the city we know today as Alexandria. The transfer of authority to the new capital resulted
in the inevitable decline and disappearance of Naucratis.
It is clear that Naucratis, south-east of Alexandria and 52 miles from the sea on the east
bank of the Canopic mouth of the Nile in its western delta, enjoyed a lively trade with Greek
cities just at the time that Classical Greece was in a flourishing period of ceramic innovation
and manufacture (Boardman 1980). When Naucratis was rediscovered in 1884 by Flinders
Petrie and excavated by Petrie and Ernest Gardner (1884–6) and later D. G. Hogarth (1899,
1903), Greek pottery was found that documented the commercial activity of various Greek
states, especially in the sixth century bc (Boardman 1980; Venit 1990; Hornblower and Spaw-
forth 1996). Boardman (1980) comments that ‘Recent attempts to resurrect the stratigraphy of
parts of the site have proved inconclusive.’
It is generally agreed that pottery provides the best archaeological evidence for the move-
ments of the Greeks and the distribution of their trade around the Mediterranean and Black
Sea basins. Black-figure pottery is a particularly distinctive marker of Greek culture and con-
tacts (Boardman 1985, 1989) and is datable stylistically. Earlier work at Brookhaven explored
the origins of black-figure and black-glaze pottery found at a variety of sites pertaining to the
period of Greek society and colonization around the Mediterranean, from the seventh century
bc to the end of the Hellenistic period (c. 30 bc), and evidence was found suggesting non-
Athenian origins of some black-glaze specimens (Fillieres 1978, 131). There have been sev-
eral other significant archaeometric studies of black-glaze ceramics, notably Pike and Fulford
(1983), Prag et al. (1974), Boardman and Schweizer (1973) and Wolff et al. (1986), and of
Greek and Eastern Mediterranean ceramics in general (Jones 1986; Kilikoglou et al. 1991;
Kilikoglou and Grimanis 1993; Mommsen et al. 1994; Mallory-Greenough et al. 1998; Day
et al. 1999). The use of different standards by the different research groups has rendered inter-
comparison of their results difficult.
In this study, we wish to report on the analysis by neutron activation of 25 mainly black-
figure sherds housed at the British and Ashmolean (Oxford) Museums. The majority (14 of 25) of
these sherds came from excavations at Naucratis, while from each of two other sites, Karnak
(on the Nile) and Ruvo di Puglia, a Greek-period site in Italy 21 miles inland from Bari,
a single black-figure sherd was taken. For the remaining nine sherds no provenance of excava-
tion or find-spot information was known, but since the museum accession numbers were avail-
able it was decided to include the sherds in this study, and thus, perhaps, assist some future
investigation. One of the nine sherds, MHBM03, although bearing no provenance information
in British Museum records, nonetheless had an accession number (BM GRA86, 4–1, 1164)
that fell into a group of known Naucratis sherds.


Descriptions of the pottery specimens analysed, their accession numbers and available pro-
venance, as well as the BNL database numbers and the results of the taxonomic calculations,
are presented in Table 1. The information available from the museums is, after the custom of
the time, unfortunately somewhat sketchy. Investigators may, of course, examine the actual
sherds analysed in this study in the respective museum collections.
The analytical procedure routinely in use at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the late
1970s was employed (Harbottle 1976; Bishop et al. 1982). Two neutron bombardments were
made: by the first, short bombardment, sodium, potassium and manganese were determined,
Table 1 Descriptions, provenance, identification numbers and accession data of black-figure sherds analysed, and inferred place of origin ( from this study)

BNL sample Museum Museum Provenance in Origin of Description from museum records
number collection accession number museum records pottery (this work)

1 MHAM01 Ashmolean Museum G119.32 Unknown Athenian Fragment of Attic black-figure cup; sun-like and

Black-figure Greek ceramics found in Naucratis (Nile delta)

decorative symbols
2 MHAM02 Ashmolean Museum G128.4 Naucratis Athenian Fragment of black-figure cup; swan decoration
3 MHAM03 Ashmolean Museum 1966.969 Unknown Athenian Fragment of a krater handle; repetitive v-decorations
4 MHAM04 Ashmolean Museum 1966.959 Unknown Unknown Fragment of a black-figure amphora with fine elongated
5 MHAM05 Ashmolean Museum 1933.468 d Unknown Athenian Fragment of a very decorative black-figure with round
and elongated decorations
6 MHAM06 Ashmolean Museum 1912.37 Naucratis [Athenian] Fragment of a black-figure, showing the torso and legs
of a warrior
7 MHAM07 Ashmolean Museum G 593 Naucratis Athenian Fragment of a black-figure decorated with two human
8 MHAM08 Ashmolean Museum 1966.998 Ruvo di Puglia Marseilles Fragment of a black-figure showing a fine line separation
9 MHAM09 Ashmolean Museum G 128.23 Naucratis Athenian Fragment of a black-figure decorated with a bird
10 MHAM10 Ashmolean Museum 1953.644 Unknown Athenian Fragment of a black-figure showing a partial human figure
11 MHAM11 Ashmolean Museum 1924.265 Karnak (Nile) Athenian Fragment of a black-figure decorated with different
dots, circles and curved lines
12 MHAM12 Ashmolean Museum 1953.639 Unknown Athenian Fragment of a black-figure with a heavy drawn border
13 MHAM13 Ashmolean Museum G 131.28 Naucratis Athemian Fragment of a black-figure showing a human foot and a
decorative garment
14 MHAM14 Ashmolean Museum 1947.313 c Unknown [Athenian] Fragment of a black-figure decorated with a human figure
15 MHAM15 Ashmolean Museum 1947.313 d Unknown Athenian Fragment of a black-figure decorated with plant leaves
16 MHBM01 British Museum BM GRA86, 4 –1, 1190 Naucratis [Athenian] Black-figure
17 MHBM02 British Museum BM GRA86, 4 –1, 1151 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure
18 MHBM03 British Museum BM GRA86, 4 –1, 1164 Unknown [Athenian] Black-figure
19 MHBM04 British Museum BM GRA86, 4 –1, 972 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure
20 MHBM05 British Museum BM GRA88, 6 –1,570 g Naucratis [Athenian] Black-figure
21 MHBM06 British Museum BM GRA1910, 2–22, 109 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure
22 MHBM07 British Museum BM GRA1910, 2–22, 156 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure
23 MHBM08 British Museum BM GRA1910, 2–22, 215 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure
24 MHBM09 British Museum BM GRA1910, 2–22, 119 Naucratis Athenian Black-figure

25 MHBM10 British Museum BM GRA1965, 9 –30, 576 Naucratis [Athenian] Black-figure
514 G. Harbottle, M. J. Hughes and S. Seleem

while the second, long bombardment gave analytical values for the remaining 18 elements.
Standardization was by means of the ‘in-house’ Ohio Red standard (Harbottle 1980), permitting
the conversion of the gamma-ray spectroscopic intensities into analytical concentrations. In
Table 2, we report for the 25 sherds the analytical concentrations of oxides of all 21 elements,
not all of which were used, however, in the multivariate numerical taxonomic procedures.
In earlier publications (Boardman and Schweizer 1973; Prag et al. 1974; Bieber et al. 1976;
Fillieres et al. 1983; Wolff et al. 1986), it was reported that, when analysed, most black-figure
specimens excavated in Athens itself had analytical profiles that closely matched one another,
and also matched ceramics of other fabrics (i.e., not black-glaze or black-figure) found in
Athens (Agora). In the work of Fillieres et al., a tentative ‘reference group’, composed of these
similar samples, was first assembled, and then using multivariate search techniques operating
in Mahalanobis hyperspace, expanded by the addition of other black-figure from non-Athenian
sites. For example, matching black-figure sherds were found at sites in France (Gard), Israel
(Tell-el-Hesi) and Cyprus (Larnaca and Idalion). The ‘Attic-A reference group’ so assembled
contained 107 specimens. This is the reference group used as a multivariate template to test
the sherds studied in this paper. In a second publication (Harbottle 1990), the statistical prop-
erties of this group were examined as a paradigm for the estimation of error rates in multi-
variate ‘Mahalanobis’ searches. Taking, in successive runs, 15, 12 and seven variates to form
the Mahalanobis hyperspace, there were no errors in assigning samples to their appropriate group
in 10 000 trials. Even when only four (correlated) elements were taken as variables, it was
shown that new matching specimens could be discovered, and non-matching specimens
rejected, with virtually perfect confidence. These were the same tactics used in the case-by-
case examination of the 25 additional sherds that are the subject of this paper, except that 16
elements were taken as variables throughout.
One paramount question was whether any of the sherds from Naucratis could be shown to
have originated there; that is, whether the Greek trading colony also had potters who made use
of the local clays to produce ‘Greek black-figure’ pottery in the Nile delta. Fortunately, the
Brookhaven ‘Old World’ database contains a very large number of sherds from Egypt itself,
including an especially heavy sampling of material from Tell el-Dab’a (Bietak 1997; McGovern
and Bagh 2000), also located in the Nile delta. We have noted that virtually all pottery
groups associated with the Nile, from far upstream on the boundaries of Sudan down to and
including the delta, have very similar analytical profiles. Thus we were confident that the
Tell el-Dab’a local pottery was an adequately representative ‘stand-in’ for the local Naucratis
pottery composition.
In addition to the reference group from Tell el-Dab’a, we were able to compare the Naucratis
sherds with several other Egyptian compositional groups, in which the Nile alluvium had been
modified, or in which non-Nile clays were used (McGovern and Bagh 2000). Finally, because
we had found in earlier work (Fillieres 1978, 131) that in or near Marseilles in France, local
imitations of black-figure ware had been manufactured in Greek colonial times, we thought to
test that group also against the group of sherds investigated here. This led to one surprise,
which will be noted below.
Many of the sherds studied gave clear signals (high probability of group membership) as to
their origins. In cases where the probability of belonging to the Attic-A reference group was
low, we resorted to a simple Euclidean search of the database to see if there were other indi-
vidual sherds that agreed closely in overall composition (Harbottle 1976). We have indicated
the result suggested by the Euclidean search by enclosing the assigned origin in brackets in
Table 1 (column 6).
Table 2 Concentrations of element oxides in black-figure sherds

Black-figure Greek ceramics found in Naucratis (Nile delta)

BNL Na2O K2O Rb2O Cs2O BaO Sc2O3 La2O3 CeO2 Eu2O3 Lu2O3 HfO2 ThO2 Ta2O5 Cr2O3 MnO Fe2O3 CoO Sb2O3 CaO Sm2O3 Yb2O3
identification (pct) (pct) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (ppm) (pct) (pct) (ppm) (ppm) (pct) (ppm) (ppm)

MHAM01 0.791 3.42 173. 13.9 662. 39.7 42.1 98.9 1.91 0.598 4.36 14.3 1.31 769. 0.132 8.67 47.0 2.04 6.34 8.43 3.60
MHAM02 1.009 3.25 175. 14.8 585. 40.1 42.2 97.1 1.77 0.593 4.49 14.3 1.32 853. 0.105 8.87 49.7 1.64 5.27 8.26 3.70
MHAM03 0.726 2.81 153. 10.5 1050. 40.6 43.9 100.0 1.95 0.597 4.19 14.2 1.35 685. 0.086 8.71 46.5 2.85 6.05 8.53 3.68
MHAM04 0.597 3.18 206. 20.1 638. 41.8 50.2 114.0 1.93 0.614 4.07 16.6 1.06 731. 0.111 8.95 47.3 1.76 5.51 9.46 3.85
MHAM05 0.675 3.39 164. 13.2 650. 37.6 41.7 94.2 1.77 0.624 4.49 13.5 1.53 748. 0.108 8.32 45.0 2.17 10.21 8.05 3.61
MHAM06 1.054 3.38 170. 13.2 635. 38.2 36.1 86.9 1.55 0.530 4.76 13.2 1.22 714 0.089 8.47 69.3 1.65 4.82 6.97 3.37
MHAM07 0.731 3.63 200. 15.8 621. 43.3 45.7 106.9 1.91 0.605 3.96 15.4 0.92 785. 0.115 9.46 52.0 2.45 4.45 8.93 3.54
MHAM08 0.863 2.58 138. 6.4 502. 23.4 39.9 87.3 1.56 0.500 4.83 12.9 1.81 149. 0.074 5.68 14.9 0.31 11.91 7.31 3.03
MHAM09 0.897 3.27 162. 12.2 608. 35.8 37.5 85.3 1.66 0.526 4.06 12.2 1.03 705. 0.091 7.83 42.9 2.00 7.98 7.21 3.05
MHAM10 0.865 3.50 185. 13.1 561. 39.5 42.8 97.9 1.94 0.570 5.05 14.0 1.83 661. 0.098 8.51 60.3 2.33 4.79 8.36 3.64
MHAM11 0.783 3.67 186. 14.0 656. 43.3 44.9 100.0 1.88 0.621 4.10 14.7 1.24 718. 0.093 9.16 47.4 2.51 6.95 8.69 3.85
MHAM12 0.968 3.59 188. 13.9 573. 36.1 39.3 91.4 1.64 0.611 4.03 13.1 – 726. 0.136 8.11 45.8 2.76 5.43 7.33 3.44
MHAM13 0.902 3.59 176. 14.5 726. 42.5 44.7 108.9 1.94 0.586 4.28 15.6 1.44 818. 0.122 9.42 49.8 1.94 6.25 8.65 3.54
MHAM14 0.787 3.78 178. 13.0 553. 38.5 41.2 94.6 1.82 0.618 3.21 13.1 0.60 745. 0.101 8.38 45.3 1.95 7.18 7.93 3.57
MHAM15 0.640 3.94 185. 15.6 619. 42.8 42.7 98.2 1.95 0.587 3.96 15.0 0.88 752. 0.100 9.16 48.8 1.82 4.54 8.17 3.62
MHBM01 0.861 3.10 184. 13.9 662. 43.3 40.1 93.8 1.94 0.565 3.56 13.9 0.80 731. 0.090 9.14 48.6 2.24 5.48 7.89 3.51
MHBM02 0.824 3.38 168. 14.5 594. 37.7 39.8 90.4 1.69 0.520 3.87 13.1 1.21 824. 0.131 8.26 48.2 1.75 8.20 7.73 3.44
MHBM03 0.891 3.54 178. 14.4 589. 39.7 40.7 95.7 1.98 0.542 3.49 14.6 0.97 787. 0.106 8.71 46.0 3.25 4.67 8.09 3.68
MHBM04 0.908 3.33 182. 13.5 955. 38.4 40.3 92.5 1.65 0.562 4.49 13.8 1.14 735. 0.087 8.41 45.0 1.85 5.64 7.71 3.39
MHBM05 1.009 3.03 158. 15.0 622. 38.4 40.1 90.4 1.77 0.562 4.51 13.5 1.16 592. 0.114 8.09 35.6 2.06 9.29 7.59 3.37
MHBM06 0.966 3.56 167. 10.6 551. 41.9 41.9 94.6 1.87 0.574 3.74 14.0 1.34 655. 0.124 8.87 44.5 1.89 7.36 8.07 3.68
MHBM07 1.009 3.16 157. 12.8 533. 37.8 40.2 92.9 1.72 0.571 4.81 13.1 1.16 647. 0.123 8.02 44.2 2.05 7.67 7.59 3.48
MHBM08 0.912 3.70 183. 14.7 614. 40.4 42.2 95.3 1.92 0.611 4.31 14.6 1.39 745. 0.100 8.71 46.5 1.67 4.78 8.18 3.67
MHBM09 1.047 3.69 174. 13.7 701. 38.6 41.2 99.3 1.86 0.581 3.85 13.8 – 745. 0.109 8.43 44.9 1.93 4.85 7.98 3.61
MHBM10 0.885 3.03 158. 11.3 589. 40.3 39.7 89.7 1.79 0.560 3.90 13.1 1.25 637. 0.149 8.53 43.7 2.17 7.82 7.59 3.24

516 G. Harbottle, M. J. Hughes and S. Seleem


Of 14 sherds known to have come from Naucratis excavations, 10 had high probabilities of
having been made in Athens; that is, they agreed closely with the Attic-A reference group,
many of whose members came from the Athenian Agora excavations of Princeton University
(Talcott 1935; Thompson 1937; Sparkes and Talcott 1970), including some found in potters’
shops. This raises the interesting question of how goods originating in Athens found their way
to the emporium of Naucratis in Egypt, considering that Athens was not one of the dozen
Greek cities involved there in trade (see ‘Conclusions’, below).
On testing by the method of Euclidean search, a further four sherds showed that they resem-
bled members of Attic-A more nearly than anything else in the database. In fact, there was no
other material in the database to which they had any resemblance: by this we mean that they
had vanishingly small probabilities of group membership in any other (i.e., non-Athenian)
group, and also large Euclidean distances from all other individual sherds in the database. To
this must be added the observation that they appeared typologically to be good ‘black-figure’.
The small probabilities of group membership shown by these four sherds may be taken to
mean that if they belonged to the Attic-A group they lay far out on the edge of the multivariate
cluster: we have often observed this kind of distant fit and have usually taken it to mean that
the original reference group was drawn into too tight a hypersphere and should perhaps be
expanded. Most of the sherds of unknown provenance also came from Athens.
It is worth noting that the method of multivariate analysis applied to identification of the
provenance of sherds cannot, of course, tell us if the pottery was not made locally, in Naucratis,
of imported clay. The discovery, in careful excavation of the site, of clay in overfired wasters
or in a potter’s workshop, matching Athenian pottery, would, of course, support the idea of
clay imports. Unfortunately, Petrie supplies us with no such material to analyse.
No sherds from Naucratis had any probability of belonging to a Nile deltaic clay composition,
represented by Tell el-Dab’a, nor, as mentioned above, did they resemble any other sherds
from around the Eastern Mediterranean (Crete, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan etc.)
in our database. None of the Naucratis sherds agreed with any of our other Egyptian groups.
One sherd from Karnak (Ashmolean Museum 1924.265) also was clearly an Attic composition.
One of our most interesting findings was that a lone black-figure sherd from a Greek colonial
site in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy, was in fact made not in Greece but in Marseilles, agreeing in
composition with a high probability. This was despite the fact that geographically Ruvo, only
21 miles inland from Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic coast, was far closer to Greece than to Marseilles.
Of course, one cannot draw conclusions from a single analysis: it does, however, raise some
interesting questions on trade structures, which might be further explored. In this connection,
Rotunno et al. (1997) have reported on the analysis of sherds found at sites near Canosa, also
in the Puglia of Italy. Although most of their samples (of Greek-period remains) were of local
origin, two sherds were identified as Ionian. They further mention that ‘Five sherds (V1–V5), dating
back to the fourth century bc, belonged to the Greek-inspired black-painted wares . . .’ and were
not of local origin. Results such as these suggest the complexity of the problem of unravelling
ancient trade routes, and the need for comprehensive databases of ceramic compositions.


Our research has shown that the black-figure sherds that were excavated in Naucratis and analysed
by us were all either demonstrably fabricated in Athens from clay having the most characteristic
Black-figure Greek ceramics found in Naucratis (Nile delta) 517

composition of the period from the Classical down to the Hellenistic, or were of a composition
consistent with that assignment. There were no black-figure sherds in our small sample, other
than a single sherd from Ruvo in Italy, that could be convincingly demonstrated to have come
from anywhere other than Athens. We particularly exclude a Nile deltaic composition as being
a source of any of the Naucratis sherds.
Our research emphasizes the idea that the trade and cultural relations involving Greece and
its colonies and neighbours in the Mediterranean and Black Sea can indeed be profitably stud-
ied by the application of modern provenance-determination techniques based on the physical
sciences. For example, Boardman (1980), writing of Naucratis, raises many interesting points
concerning the origins of ‘East Greek’ pottery found there, pottery suggesting provenances of
Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Miletus, Lesbos, Sparta and several other cities as well as Athens. He
suggests that the Athenian (and Corinthian) vases may have come through Aegina, to explain
their appearance ‘in quantity at Naucratis some time before they appear in comparable num-
bers on any other overseas market’. We feel that our results are consistent with this possible
trade route. Boardman also states that ‘It would be satisfactory if we could assign the classes
of pottery found at Naucratis to the various states known to have dealings there. This can be
done to a limited extent.’ We close by pointing out that archaeometric methods of pottery analysis
by neutron activation analysis could play a significant role in this task.


Research was carried out at Brookhaven National Laboratory under contract DE-AC02-
98CH10886 with the United States Department of Energy. We are very grateful for provision
of sherd material for analysis from the British Museum by Dr Dyfri Williams, Keeper of Greek
and Roman Antiquities, and Dr Sheridan Bowman of the Department of Scientific Research,
and staff of the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Finally, we
express sincere appreciation to the unnamed referee who pointed out so many important errors
and oversights, while making concrete suggestions that materially strengthened our paper.


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