Blog Post #13: Grad Student Feature with Nadhira Hill

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

My name is Nadhira Hill and I’m a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology (IPCAA) at the University of Michigan. My dissertation research aims to deconstruct the traditionally Athenocentric definition of the Greek symposium, or drinking party, in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the range of drinking practices on the Classical Greek mainland.

The Greek symposium has been defined as an event with a number of specific features: it usually took place in a highly decorated, designated space of the house (the andron); it privileged drinking, not eating; guests reclined on couches; and women were excluded.  In my dissertation, I investigate the drinking practices of ancient Athens described at length in both ancient literary sources and modern scholarship, as well as ceramic evidence. I compare the Athenian practices with those at the site of Olynthos, located in the Halkidiki peninsula of northern Greece.

My project is informed by both a network approach and a community of practice framework. While few scholars of the Greek symposium have incorporated a network approach in their studies, Carl Knappett (2011) has shown the utility and potential of networks – and especially networks of objects – for considering production, distribution, and consumption practices in Bronze Age Crete. Networks are created by shared affiliation, or “communities of practice”, both through the sharing of ideas about how to make and use objects and through participating in shared consumption events (Mills 2016). I will consider Classical Athens and Olynthos using this framework in order to answer questions about agency, choice, and interaction in the context of commensality. In particular, I consider certain drinking cups as “boundary objects”, or things that link different communities that may or may not share specific practices, like the symposium.

What sources or data do you look at? 

Often when we think of the symposium, the krater, or mixing bowl in which wine and water were mixed, rather than the cups from which the wine was drunk, comes to mind. While the krater has been widely accepted to be the sympotic vessel par excellence, kraters – whole or fragmentary – are rarely found in archaeological contexts. 

One-handled cup from the Athenian Agora Excavations
Figure 1. One-handled cup from the Athenian Agora Excavations. Photo included with permission of the Agora Excavations, ASCSA.

More abundant are the fragments of various forms of drinking vessels, several of which are commonly associated with the symposium, although some shapes – such as the skyphos, a deep two-handled cup – have looser associations than others. Most secure has been the kylix, or shallow stemmed cup, which Lynch (2011) has shown would have been well suited to reclining at a symposium. However, the identification of kylikes in ritual and civic deposits around Athens, in addition to the scarcity of the shape in some non-Athenian sympotic contexts, throws the close association between the cup and the private symposium into question. 
Using Knappett’s network approach, I will show how these drinking cups – kylikes and skyphoi – in addition to one additional vessel – the one-handled cup – function as boundary objects, which serve as bridges between different communities of practice (Fig. 1). Although they bridge discreet communities of practice, there may be distinct perspectives, meaning, and values associated with boundary objects within their respective contexts of use (Mills 2016).

For example, the differences in proportions of the one-handled cup in Athens and in Olynthos suggests differences in the relative importance of the shape for commensal events at each of the two sites. In general, there has been a lack of consensus about the function of the one-handled cup in antiquity in modern scholarship: was it used for eating or for drinking? In spite of this, I included the one-handled cup in my study because it lends itself to potentially interesting conclusions about the diffusion of the symposium (or lack thereof) in the Classical period.

If we categorize it as a drinking cup, we can see a distinct preference for the one-handled cup over other shapes, like the kylix, which is popular in Athens during the same period. This might speak to regional preferences and practices, and/or to a greater familiarity on the part of potters with the shallower bowl shape of the one-handled cup than with the more intricate form of the kylix. On the other hand, if we categorize the one-handled cup as an eating vessel, its abundance in the ‘sympotic’ assemblages at Olynthos suggests a greater emphasis on eating than on drinking (Fig. 2). Alternatively, the one-handled cup may have been more versatile than we assume, and served as a drinking cup on some occasions, and as an eating vessel on others. In all cases, it is clear that choices were being made on behalf of the producers of these vessels and the local communities that used them.

The archaeological site of Olynthos.
Fig. 2. The archaeological site of Olynthos

Although most scholarship leads us to believe that Greek drinking practices were homogeneous – especially in opposition to non-Greek modes of drinking – my project shows that this was not the case. This is particularly true if we not only decenter the Athenocentric definition of the symposium, but also the position of the krater as indexical of all drinking behavior in the Classical Greek world.

How does your work shed light on real people in the past?

What I hope to achieve with my work is two-fold. First, it has become clear to me that although there are many studies of the Greek symposium, very few have incorporated anthropological theory despite the numerous works that have been written on consumption practices. I hope that by applying a community of practice framework to a discussion of the Greek symposium, more Mediterranean archaeologists will recognize the utility of such interdisciplinary work.

Second, I believe a community of practice approach can contribute a more nuanced understanding of the intersections between consumption, agency, and sociocultural identity to my work on the Classical Greek symposium (Fig. 3). The term ‘symposium’ is frequently and uncritically applied to contexts located outside of both the domestic sphere and the Greek mainland. This is especially the case when certain features, such as the andron or the krater, are used as indices for communal drinking (Fig. 4). Many archaeologists are trained to identify sympotic space whenever they come across these features on an archaeological site, even when certain characteristic elements (like the raised cement border for couches within the andron or a set of drinking cups) are missing.

Stone foundations (partially reconstructed) from the archaeological site of Olynthos.
Fig. 3. Stone foundations (partially reconstructed) from the archaeological site of Olynthos.
Andron with mosaic from the archaeological site of Olynthos.
Fig. 4. Andron with mosaic from the archaeological site of Olynthos.

But the symposium is just one of potentially many manifestations of drinking culture in the ancient Greek world. Several scholars have noted the static nature of the symposium and advocated for a more dynamic treatment of the institution, but have fallen short in their studies by continuing to center Athenian sources and material culture. I think that the dynamism that has been argued for in terms of the symposium should really be a dynamism of drinking practices more broadly. The symposium is a static thing, defined by a set of features collected from literary and material sources. But not every person or community in the Greek world held symposia, let alone knew exactly what a symposium entailed. And even if they did know, the many elements of the symposium were likely transmitted with varying levels of success, leading to new, locally and regionally specific modes of drinking and dining.

Further Resources

Knappett, Carl. 2011. An Archaeology of Interaction: Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society. Oxford University Press.

Lynch, Kathleen. 2011. The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Mills, Barbara. 2016. “Communities of Consumption: Cuisines as Constellated Networks of Situated Practice,” in Knowledge in Motion: Constellations of Learning Across Time and Place, eds. A.B. Stahl and A.P. Roddick. University of Arizona Press.

Nadhira Hill conducting analysis and photography of fine ware drinking cups during a field season at the site of Olynthos.
Nadhira Hill conducting analysis and photography of fine ware drinking cups during a field season at the site of Olynthos.

Nadhira Hill received her BA in Classical Studies and Archaeology from Randolph-Macon College, and is currently a PhD candidate in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan studying ancient Greek ceramic production and drinking culture. Nadhira’s research explores the intersections of ceramic production, cultural interaction, and commensal practices at the site of Olynthos, in the Chalkidiki region of northern Greece. In particular, she is interested in using network analysis and a community of practice approach to deconstruct the traditionally Athenocentric definition of the ‘symposium’ and to better understand broader questions about drinking culture on the Greek mainland during the Late Classical period. Nadhira has excavated at the Athenian Agora Excavations (2014-2015; 2017) and is a member of the pottery team for the Olynthos Project (2017-Present). She has also participated in two ceramic petrology courses at the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) at the Penn Museum (May 2018) and at the Fitch Laboratory at the British School at Athens (May 2019).

2 thoughts on “Blog Post #13: Grad Student Feature with Nadhira Hill

  1. Nadhira, this is great. I’ve worried for long time about the assumption of uniformity we impose on Greek drinking practices, and I’m not at all confident that the common “textbook” version of the symposium ever actually existed. There’s so much work still to be done on the diversity of Greek sympotic and/or drinking practices, and I’m excited to see where your research goes. My own work tends to focus more on art historical questions, but if I can ever be of help in any way, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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