From Texts and Iconography to Use-Wear Analysis of Ceramic Vessels

Investigating a Mycenaean Handwashing Custom and Its Changing Social Significance


  • Bartłomiej Lis Polish Academy of Sciences
  • Trevor Van Damme University of Victoria



handwashing, Linear B, lekanes, Mycenaean Greece, use-wear analysis


While handwashing is attested in the Bronze Age cultures of the eastern Mediterranean and appears in both Linear B records and Homeric epics, the custom has not been discussed with regard to the material culture of Mycenaean Greece. On analogy with Egyptian handwashing equipment, we explore the possibility that a conical bowl made of bronze and copied in clay was introduced in Greece early in the Late Bronze Age for this specific use. We integrate epigraphic, iconographic and formal analyses to support this claim, but in order to interrogate the quotidian function of ceramic lekanes, we present the results of use-wear analysis performed on 130 examples. As use-wear develops from repeated use over a long time, it is a good indicator of normative behaviour, particularly when large datasets are amassed and contrasted with other shapes. While not conclusive, our results allow us to rule out a function as tableware for food consumption, and in combination with all other analyses support the interpretation of lekanes as handwashing basins. We then trace the development of this custom from its initial adoption by elite groups to its spread among new social classes and venues after the collapse of the palace system: at home, as part of communal feasting and sacrifice or as an element of funerary rites. The widespread distribution of handwashing equipment after 1200 bc closely mirrors the situation in our earliest surviving Greek Iron Age texts and joins a growing body of evidence pointing to strong continuity in social practices between the Postpalatial period and the early Iron Age in Greece.

Author Biographies

Bartłomiej Lis, Polish Academy of Sciences

Bartłomiej Lis is a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His main interest is in Greek Bronze Age pottery, through which he investigates issues such as social status, foodways, exchange and human mobility. This last topic was the focus of his Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Fitch Laboratory of the British School at Athens.

Trevor Van Damme, University of Victoria

Trevor Van Damme is a Sessional Instructor and Social Sciences and Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Victoria. He is particularly interested in the use of ceramics to document technological innovation and information exchange in the eastern Mediterranean. For the past 13 years, he has excavated in Greece and Italy, most recently at Methone (Pieria) and Eleon.


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How to Cite

Lis, B., & Van Damme, T. (2021). From Texts and Iconography to Use-Wear Analysis of Ceramic Vessels: Investigating a Mycenaean Handwashing Custom and Its Changing Social Significance. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 33(2), 185–210.