Pithos (plural pithoi) is the ancient Greek word ("πίθος", "πίθοι") for a large storage jar of a characteristic shape. Originally used by western classical
archaeologists to mean the jars uncovered by excavation in Creteand Greece, it has now been taken into the American English language as a general word for a storage jar from any cultural horizon. [The word is to be found in "Webster's Third International Dictionary"]
Although the word is Greek, many of the pithoi if the ancient
Mediterraneanwere not produced by persons on the Greek mainland; for example, they are known from Creteand the Levantin non- Helleniccontexts. Many "pithoi" were excavated in the Palace of Knossosand the ancient shipwreck of Uluburun. The Ancient Iberianculture of El Argaralso used "pithoi" for burials in its B phase (1500-1300 BC).
The pithos is better known in its
Latinform as the "fiscus" where the funds are stored. [But not everyone accepts this derivation. For example, if the qe-to of Linear Bis pithos, then the origin is probably not from the root stated (Ventris and Chadwick note this problem in the second edition of "Documents in Mycenaean Greek"; look in the index under Pithos).] Anything could be placed in a pithos; however, they were used primarily for grains, seeds, wine, and oil. They were commonly associated with administrative and trade centers, which shipped, kept or received large quantities.
Pithoi were almost universally of
ceramic, an ideal material that kept out water, dirt, insects and rodents. Most were as tall or taller than a human being. The base was flat so that they could be placed in rows in a storage magazine or lined up along any convenient hallway or walkway, or even on the stairs. Lugs or more rarely the more breakable handles were located on the upper sides for ease in handling. Some pithoi were set into holes in the floor. They were handled with ropes. Some vases display raised decorative ropes.
The utility of a pithos for storage unfortunately was all too easily turned to the advantage of an enemy, who had only to knock over a pithos full of oil and touch a torch to it to produce a major conflagration. Most of the palaces of the
Bronze AgeAegean were burned at one time or another in just this way.
On a more positive note, the extensive surface area of a "pithos" was a tempting field for decoration. For example, pithoi recovered at
Knossosexhibit simulated rope designs. [ [http://letmespeaktothedriver.com/site/10854/knossos.html#fieldnotes C. Michael Hogan, "Knossos fieldnotes", Modern Antiquarian (2007)] ] The best decor was reserved for table and service ware, but most "pithoi" have some kind of pattern or scene, most often raised and arrayed in bands around the jar.
Like the ceramic bathtubs of some periods, the size of a "pithos" made it a most convenient coffin, especially where wood was in short supply. There is evidence of
Middle Helladicburials in Mycenaeand Cretewhere the bones of the interred have been placed in "pithoi".
Bridge spouted vessel
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.