Jug markings provide clues to ancient world Grecian vessels intrigue UMBC researcher

August 30, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

TC Carolyn Koehler's work is a joy. A tedious joy.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County professor has spent much of the past 22 years exploring the mysteries of

ancient Greek amphoras -- the oblong pottery jugs used to haul everything from olive oil to pickled fish around the Mediterranean world.

Dr. Koehler, 45, has not worked on the front lines, digging up artifacts. Instead she has been in the back room figuring out what the shards of pottery reveal about the ancient world.

The focus of her study is the amphoras' two handles, where ancient craftsmen imprinted identifying stamps.

The stamps can reveal where and when the amphoras were made. The information, in turn, has given hundreds of archaeologists an important tool for dating their discoveries.

Nailing down that information, though, involves hours upon hours of studying and comparing small pieces of ancient pottery.

"If I may say, it takes the patience of Job," she says, as her voice trails off in laughter. Next month, Dr. Koehler leaves for a yearlong sabbatical to work on the project in Athens.

"It's minutiae. It can be incredibly tedious, at least I think it would be tedious to most people anyway. Except I don't mind."

Despite teaching five courses a year, Dr. Koehler has managed to develop an internationally known niche in her field.

Her fascination with the research does not surprise her colleagues.

"As a young person you get tuned into a certain area of research," says Rudy Storch, chairman of the UMBC ancient studies department. "Once you get involved with it, you can see that there are rewards. The fact that it's tedious now doesn't matter. It's what you chose a long time ago. Carolyn's doing a very valuable job."

Dr. Koehler -- her last name rhymes with sailor -- chooses her words deliberately. Her manner is warm and gracious.

"To most people, at least, it is inexplainable, the fascination of these jars," she says one day in her windowless, book-filled office on the Catonsville campus. "It does somehow become a passion, and some of that in turn comes from my being able to be so absorbed in figuring these things out."

Dr. Koehler got involved with the amphoras as a first-year graduate student in Greece.

Yet even after 22 years, she is still a rookie compared to Virginia R. Grace, the 91-year-old researcher in Athens who has overseen the cataloging of the stamps from some 150,000 amphoras.

In 1986, Dr. Koehler and a Canadian colleague began computerizing the records. Some 85,000 have been stored in a computer in Athens, but it may take until the end of the century to complete the task.

In all there are several hundred thousand handles stored in various museums, which is not surprising since the vessels were the primary shipping container for some 3,000 years.

One of the two stamps imprinted on the handles usually identified the craftsman -- essentially an early corporate logo.

The other identified the name of the magistrate of the area where the jug was made. There are few written records of the magistrates' reigns. But by piecing together all the evidence, the researchers have compiled a reliable chronology from which they can date the vessels.

In some cases, Dr. Koehler and her associates can date the amphora handles to a particular year in the third century B.C., for example, or at most to a period of some 20 years.

Dr. Koehler admires the utilitarian elegance of the vessels, which usually had two curved handles and a narrow, tapered bottom for ease of pouring.

Handle stamps from the Greek island of Rhodes were often highlighted by a distinctive rose or the head of the sun god Helios. Others were less artistic.

The amphoras have shed light on the thriving international trade that spanned the Mediterranean world from North Africa to what is now Spain and everything east to the Black Sea.

Dr. Koehler, who has taught at UMBC since 1978, calls the past few months the "lost semester." Late last year, the University of Maryland system's Board of Regents tentatively voted to close down UMBC's ancient studies department, calling it superfluous the campus' main goals.

Dr. Koehler and her four departmental colleagues faced the possible loss of their jobs. But, for her, it was just as disturbing that some people didn't appreciate ancient studies.

"All of a sudden you're declared redundant. You begin to wonder," she says.

Facing an outcry from UMBC officials, the regents reversed themselves and spared the department. Dr. Koehler said the reprieve has given her "a renewed dedication and a renewed clarity of vision."

In the classroom, she tries to share her passion for ancient things with her students, whether it's about small shards of pottery or the breathtaking serenity of Rome's Pantheon.

It is, she says, a structure "that is the expression of a human vision that's impossible to describe.

NB "It makes me feel at the same time very small and very large."

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