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Ancient Greek Pottery

Minoan, Geometric, Corinthian
Athenian, Red/Black-figure

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Type A black-figure amphora by Exekias, showing Greek leaders Achilles and Ajax playing a game during the Trojan War.
Ancient Greek Black-figure pottery vessel decorated with cryptic scene showing Greek leaders Achilles and Ajax playing a game during the Trojan War. Dated to 530 BC. Image by Jakob Badagard. (Public Domain).

Keramikos in Ancient Greece

Ancient pottery is a form of ceramics, which means objects fashioned from clay and then hardened by heat - usually in a kiln, or on an open fire.

The word 'ceramics' derives from the Greek word keramikos (or ceramicus), which was the name given to the potters' quarter in Athens.

Painted pottery was hugely important in Mesopotamia and Sumer, but in Greece it was never rated quite as highly as other arts, like painting or sculpture.

Painting was the most respected type of ancient art in Greece, followed by architecture and sculpture. Then came crafts involving gold, ivory and precious stones, such as chryselephantine decoration.

Nonetheless, ceramic pots are one of archaeology's great survivors. Paintings have faded or rotted away; buildings have collapsed, bronze sculptures have been melted down, and marble sculpture has been broken up and pillaged, but a large body of Greek pottery has survived unscathed.

These remains now dominate Greek art and help us to understand how artistic traditions evolved around the Aegean.

Greek Pottery-Making

Ancient Greece was well stocked with clay deposits. In particular, it possessed large amounts of high quality secondary clay.

Clay deposits in Athens were noted for their high content of iron oxide and calcium oxide, which produced a reddish-orange fired clay.

In Corinth, by comparison, clay had a creamy-white appearance.

Lesser quantities of specialist clays such as kaolin (kaolinite) were also available, and were reserved largely for decorative purposes.

The Greeks' characteristic black metallic glaze, for instance, was made from a clay low in calcium oxide but high in iron oxides.

After 1,450 BC, Greek pots were generally made using a potter's wheel, although handmade elements (like handles) were added to thrown pots.

Greek potters used two main methods of applying decorative detail: engraved or incised markings (graffito), and painted markings (dipinto).

Both methods were used on painted vases until about 330 BC, when the practice declined.

Types of Greek Pots

The Greek pottery we see online or in museums is the good stuff - high quality painted vessels designed primarily for the ruling classes.

By comparison, everyday pots used by ordinary people were largely undecorated and produced to much lower standards.

Nonetheless, painted vases remained affordable for a relatively wide range of the population.

They were also highly functional as well as being works of art, and several types (e.g. serving bowls, like kraters) would have served as 'conversation pieces', not unlike the genre paintings and vanitas still lifes of the Dutch Baroque.

Greek ceramicists seem to have made painted pottery for every situation. For example:

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Origins

Pottery began in the Stone Age with primitive forms of Chinese pottery emerging during the Upper Paleolithic. Examples include Xianren Cave pottery (18,000 BC) and Yuchanyan Cave pottery (16,000 BC).

How did the Greeks learn about pottery? Answer: Greece and the rest of Europe seem to have derived their knowledge of ceramic pottery from China, although anomalies persist.

For example, the hunter-gatherer encampment of Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic, was producing large quantities of ceramic figures - like the Venus of Dolní Věstonice - as early as 27,000 BC.

This type of clay-fired prehistoric sculpture (called 'terracottas', rather than pottery, though the process is the same) was also produced in the Vela Spila Cave in Croatia, around 15,500 BC, although it was only produced there for a short period before it disappeared from the archaeological record.

For other prehistoric ceramics, see: the Amur River Basin Pottery (from 14,200 BC) and Jomon Pottery (from 14,500 BC).

Neolithic Greek Pottery: 7500-3200

Pottery technology first arrived in Europe from Ancient Persia around 7,500 BC.

The first region in Europe to adopt it, was Thessaly, in central Greece, who started making pots between 7,500 and 7,000 BC.

This occurred during the pre-Sesklo culture, one of Europe's oldest and most influential neolithic cultures, named after the Thessalian settlement of Sesklo, whose culture later spread northwards and spawned the Linear Pottery culture in central Europe and the associated Hamangia culture in Romania.

During the Early Neolithic period (7,000-3,800 BC) pots were handmade, typically monochrome, and largely undecorated. Where it existed, decoration was limited to geometric shapes, either incised (Vorsesklo), or painted (Protosesklo). Shapes were also limited. Most were open bowls.

Middle Neolithic ware (5,800-5,300 BC) consisted mainly of painted pottery - red paint over the lighter clay base, or vice versa.

Decorative motifs included zigzag lines, a flame pattern and linear markings. In addition, the period witnessed a "scraped" form of decoration exemplified by vessels from Lianokladi in Phthiotis, in southeastern Thessaly.

During the Late Neolithic or Dimini Culture (5,300-4,500 BC), Greek pottery went through several different phases of decoration. Listed in chronological order, they include: grey (Tsangli), black and burnished (Larisa), multicolour (Arapi), white on red (Otzaki), black on red (Agia Sophia) and black on white (Classical Dimini).

Greek pottery of the Final Neolithic period (4500-3300 BC), is noted for the horn-like lugs instead of handles, on its monochrome vessels, and for its use of a thick paste, rather than a paint, on its coloured vessels.

Mesopotamian Pottery

Pottery was an important art form throughout Mesopotamia, from 7000 BC onwards. For details of the differing cultures and styles, see:

Aegean Culture

From about 3,200 BC, as ceramic technology came under the influence of metalworking, the centre of Greek pottery shifted from Thessaly on the mainland, to the Aegean civilization.

This consisted of three separate civilizations, each of which made a different contribution to the evolution of Bronze Age pottery.

The finest Aegean ceramic ware is Late Minoan pottery.

Other notable types of the period include Melian and 'frying pan' pots from the Cycladic Islands; Minyan ware (Orchomenos ware), and Mycenaean pottery - both from the Peloponnese.

Late Mycenaean pottery leads into the Proto-geometric style - the real beginning of Ancient Greek pottery.

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Cycladic Pottery: 3200-1100

The Cyclades are a group of islands in the southern Aegean Sea, that includes: Naxos, Paros, Melos, Santorini and others.

Minoan Pottery: 3000-1400

Minoan culture - named after the legendary King Minos - emerged on the island of Crete around 3,500 BC and was thoroughly documented by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.

It was based on agriculture and marine trade, and by 2,100 BC, it had developed into a more complex urban society after the construction of several palaces at Knossos, Phaestus, Akrotiri, Kato Zakros and Mallia.

Having achieved its zenith around 1,600 BC, Minoan civilization collapsed about 1,450 BC, in the aftermath of the catastrophic volcanic eruption on Santorini, after which it was overrun by Mycenaean forces from the Peloponnese.

The finest Minoan pottery coincides with the onset of urban expansion in the Late Minoan period, and begins with Kamares Ware (2,000 BC-1,700 BC). After this comes the all-over patterns of the Marine Style and Floral Style (1,600-1,450 BC).

These ceramic styles were exported throughout the Aegean and represent the aesthetic highlights of the Minoan pottery tradition.

Early Minoan: 3000-2000

One of the earliest types of Minoan pottery is Incised Ware, characterized by incised patterns of parallel lines.

A contemporary style is Aghios Onouphrios Ware, which features patterns of diagonal lines painted in dark red or black on jugs and bowls.

Another Early Minoan style of pottery is Vasilike Ware, noted for the spotted surfaces of its vessels which were created by new methods of firing, and was designed to lend its vessels a more expensive stone-like appearance. meant to approximate more substantial and expensive stone vessels.

Kamares Ware: 2000-1700

Pottery during the Protopalatial or Old Palace Period, was transformed by the introduction of the fast potter's wheel. This led to thinner vessels and finer decoration.

The first beneficiary was multi-coloured Kamares ware. This style is characterized by red and white abstract designs, often on a black background.

The most common motifs are curvilinear and spiral patterns, but others include palms, rosettes, dots, circles, ribbons, stripes and interlace.

Another variant is light-on-dark polychrome, sometimes involving animal or other figurative imagery rather than abstract patterns.

Similar patterns are found on a much thinner type of pottery, known as Eggshell Ware (c.1,850 BC) due to its extreme delicacy and incredibly thin walls. It is exemplified by a range of small drinking vessels, as seen especially in the Royal Pottery Stores of the palace at Knossos.

Late Minoan: 1600-1450

During the Protopalatial or Old Palace Period (1,750-1,500 BC), pottery forms and designs were expanded further by faster potter's wheels, and kilns with higher temperatures.

The predominant idiom was dark-on-light (brown to dark red, on yellows), a reversal of the earlier light-on-dark wares.

Inspired by palace frescoes, plants and marine life became the most popular motifs, but abstract and quasi-religious imagery was alao seen. Three styles stand out during this time:

New Palace Style: 1450-1200

The New Palace Style of pottery appeared after the collapse of Minoan culture.

The earlier exuberant imagery of plants, flowers, and marine life is replaced by more formal patterns of stylized motifs. Papyrus and octopuses become less lifelike and more abstract. Helmets and shields appear for the first time.

Palace style vases become more elaborate and showy, but delicacy and ceramic harmony are lost. All these changes signalled the growing influence of Mycenaean Greeks from the Peleponnese, whom archaeologists think invaded Crete around this time.

The invasion led to the destruction of the Minoan palaces, after which the Greek Peleponnese became the centre of ceramic pottery in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Minyan Ware: 2,000-1800

Minyan ware (Orchomenos ware), named after Orchomenus the mythical home of King Minyas, was developed originally by the Tiryns culture (2,200-2,000 BC), an Early Bronze Age culture from the southern Greek mainland, which preceded the Mycenaean civilization.

Minyan ware is a type of monochrome burnished pottery made from fine clay. Varieties of Minyan Ware include Black (or Argive), Grey, Red, and Yellow. Among the most common shapes are goblets and kantharoi (two-handled wine cups).

Mycenaean: 1450-1100

Despite Crete's military and economic collapse, Minoan ceramic wares continued to influence Mycenaean pottery (1,550-1,050 BC) very much like Greek art continued to influence Roman art, even after the final Greek defeat at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC.

Mycenaean ceramicists did their best to copy the free-flowing imagery of the Minoans, but their efforts were more stilted and less life-like than the originals. Indeed, Early Mycenaean pottery has been described as 'provincial Cretan' which conveys the fact that the pottery lacked the finesse of Minoan centres such as Knossos and Phaistos.

Nonetheless, Mycenaean pottery succeeded in creating its own distinctive decorative style.

As well as creating stylized representations of marine and plant life, coupled with minimalistic linear designs, Mycenaean potters also favoured hunting scenes and pictorial arrangements of riders in chariots with birds and animals drawn in outline.

And if Mycenaean decoration failed to match the natural elan of Minoan potters, Mycenaean pottery was superior in terms of materials used.

This is because most Mycenaean ware was made from old Yellow Minyan Clay and fired at higher temperatures than Cretan pottery.

This enabled the creation of a wonderful red to black, lustrous, iron-based clay slip which was as good as anything in the Minoan repertoire.

Mycenaean maritime and military power ensured that its pottery was exported throughout the region. In fact, pottery is the most important marker we have, of the political domination of the Mycenaean culture across the Aegean.

Greek Dark Ages: 1100-750

The term 'Greek Dark Ages' describes the period of Greek history from the end of Mycenaean palatial civilization, around 1,100 BC, to the beginning of the Archaic Age, around 750 BC.

During this time, Greece and the islands were overrun by Dorians - primitive tribes from Northern Greece - whose domination over the next two centuries caused a collapse of Greek arts and crafts.

Because Athens occupied a more secure setting, it became the new Greek centre for ceramic innovation and development. Alas, Athenian pottery consisted mostly of recycled Mycenaean styles (called Sub-Mycenaean ware), followed by a more orderly style known as protogeometric.

Protogeometric pottery is associated with the amphora, the krater, the oinochoe, and a range of cups.

Decorations on Protogeometric vessels include: concentric circles and semi-circles, chessboard patterns, zigzags, serpentine lines, plus rhomboids in the form of triangles or diamonds.

There are very few figurative motifs; those that are used are animal motifs rather than human figures.

Protogeometric styles had a strong influence on potters throughout the region.

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Geometric Style: 900-700

The Geometric Style lasted from roughly 900 to 700 BC. First appearing in Athens, it is named after the geometrical imagery that was commonly used to decorate pottery at this time.

Archaeologists classify the Geometric Period into three main phases: Early Geometric (900-850 BC), Middle Geometric (850-760 BC), and Late Geometric (760-700 BC).

The Geometric Style spread throughout Ancient Greece and the islands. Although other centres of pottery production emerged - notably Corinth - the Attic school led by Athens remained predominant.

See also: Iron Age Art in Europe (1200-200 BC).

Orientalizing Period

The renewal of trade links between Corinth and the Levant - notably the city-states of Asian Minor in modern day Turkey - had a major influence on Greek ceramic design and resulted in what is known as the Orientalizing Period.

The Orientalizing period in Greece, usually dated to the seventh century BC (700-600 BC), is characterized by the assimilation of a large number of ideas, myths and motifs of Near Eastern or Egyptian origin.

'Orientalizing' motifs include: the palmette (the 'tree of life'), rosettes, lotuses, and many others, all of which came from the Levant - that is, modern Syria, Israel, Lebanon and most of Turkey - and Egypt.

Animals were a particular favourite. Greek ceramic ware began featuring displays of lions, panthers, cattle, boars, goats, water fowl, and hens. Mythical creatures, such as griffins, sirens, and sphinxes, were also featured.

Proto-Corinthian: 700-545

The new 'Orientalizing' idiom was first embraced by potters in Corinth around 700 BC. As a result, the Orientalizing Period is associated with the Proto-Corinthian style of pottery, which replaced the rigid Geometric style patterns with exciting curvilinear designs featuring real and fantastic animals, typically arranged in friezes across the width of the vase, along with mythological scenes as well as curvaceous motifs of plants and flowers.

In order to depict these details on their famous miniature aryballos jars, Corinthian potters developed the black-figure technique of vase painting: that is, figurative silhouettes drawn in black and filled in with details incised with a sharp tool.

The Athenians, by contrast - in their 'orientalizing' style, known as Proto-Attic - outlined their figures on vessels as they would have painted them on walls.

The success of the Proto-Corinthian style established Corinth as the dominant centre of pottery in Ancient Greece. For most of the 7th and 6th centuries, the city-state led the Greek world in the production and export of fine pottery.

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Black-Figure Pottery:
700-530 BC

As mentioned above, the black-figure technique of vase painting first appeared in the city of Corinth about 700 BC. Figures were drawn in silhouette on the surfaces of vases using black slip. Details were then engraved with a sharp tool.

Although first introduced by the Corinthians, the Athenians also adopted the black-figure technique, and by about 545 BC had mastered it so completely that they overcame the dominance of Corinth.

As the name suggests, this style is characterized by black figures set against the red-orange colour of the clay beneath. Production of black-figure vessels was a lengthy and uncertain process whose success remained in doubt until the very end.

To begin with, the clay was levigated until pure and then thrown on the potter's wheel. Most vessels were made in sections, with spouts and handles added after the vessel had dried.

Once a vessel was dry, it could be burnished and decorated. It was burnished by rubbing it with a smooth object, made of leather, wood, or stone. A light coating of red ochre might be applied and the pot re-burnished, for extra shine.

A sketch of the decorative subject (silhouetted figures) was then drawn in charcoal on the surface of the pot.

The potter then 'painted' the relevant areas with black slip or glaze using a brush-like implement. Note: the slip was not 'paint' in the normal sense, since the slip was made from the same clay material as the body of the pot itself.

The internal details were then cut or engraved into the slip, allowing the underlying clay to reveal itself.

During the firing process the slip turned black and glossy, while the so-called 'reserved' clay areas (the untouched background) turned a red-orange colour.

Once the initial decoration was complete, the vase painter or potter could add additional colours. However, only reds, yellows and whites could be used, due to the intense heat of the kiln.

After decoration, the pot then underwent a three-step firing process. This involved a chemical process of oxidation, reduction, and re-oxidation, within the pottery kiln, in order to produce the lustrous metallic black gloss of the figures and the red-orange background.

Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game

One of the most famous examples of black-figure painting is a Greek terracotta amphora by Exekias, depicting 'Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game' during a lull in the Trojan War. (See image at top of page.)

The two Greek warriors are presented in silhouette against the light ground. All the details within the figures, notably the cloak and armour of Achilles are delicately engraved.

They are shown dressed in finely patterned cloaks and armour embellished with spiral designs.

As both figures bend forward in deep concentration over the board, the outline of their backs reflects the curve of the amphora.

At the same time, the spears carried by each man are pointed upward, leading the eye up to the upper edge of the scene and the vessels's two large handles, which are decorated with geometric patterns.

As with most examples of Greek art, it contains a thoughtful narrative, which is confirmed by other vase paintings.

Achilles and Ajax are wasting valuable time playing a board game while the Trojans enter the Greek camp.

The board game - a game of chance - may also be interpreted as metaphor for destiny. Both Achilles and Ajax perished at Troy.

Red-figure Pottery: 530-320

Red-figure vase painting was invented in Athens about 530 BC. Within a few decades it superceded black-figure pottery as the dominant style.

In essence, red-figure pottery is the reverse of black-figure. In red-figure pottery, the surface background is painted with slip, not the figurative silhouettes of the subjects.

The latter are left to stand out in reserve, in the red-orange hues of the clay body. Lastly, unlike the black-figure process, details within the figures are also painted on with slip (which turns black during firing), instead of being incised.

Otherwise, broadly speaking, the overall production method and 3-step firing process, is the same as for black figure vessels.

The main attraction of the new technique was the fact that all figurative detail was 'painted' onto the vessel with a brush, instead of being incised.

This meant that much more detail could be added to the figures - like muscles and other anatomical details - which made red-figure compositions more lively and natural than the earlier black-figure scenes.

Unfortunately, the black background on red-figure vessels prevented the depiction of spatial depth. On the other hand, the black background made the lighter figures stand out better and allowed potters to add a sense of volume.

The first group of Athenian vase painters were known as the 'Pioneers', of whom the most famous was Euphronios (active 520–470 BC) and his rival, Euthymides (active 515-500 BC).

For a couple of decades, vase painters continued to produce black-figure pots alongside the new red-figure models. Thereafter, almost all ceramicists worked exclusively in the red-figure idiom.

Eventually, however, production in Athens began to dwindle, and by about 350 BC had virtually ceased, though it continued to flourish in southern Italy, until the 3rd century BC.

The Euphronios Krater

One of the most famous examples of red-figure vase painting is a terracotta calyx-krater, a vessel used as a wine serving bowl.

Known as the 'Euphronios Krater' (or the 'Sarpedon Krater'), the vessel was signed by both Euthymides (as potter), and Euphronios (as painter). It is seen as one of the great masterpieces of Ancient Greek pottery.

The vessel is decorated with painted scenes, on two sides.

One side shows a quasi-mythological scene from the Trojan War as recounted in Homer's Iliad. It shows the slain Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Laodamia being carried off the battlefield for burial, following his death at the hands of Patroclus.

On the other side, is a more contemporary scene showing young Greeks donning armour and preparing themselves for battle.

The figures in both scenes are depicted in a naturalistic style with great anatomical detail although, curiously, one foot seems to belong to no one!

However, while the mythological composition is more stylized, the scene of the Greek youths is calmer, more naturalistic, and displays similar painterly techniques including foreshortening, and modelling.

The krater itself, being a particularly exquisite vessel, would have served as the focal point and conversation piece at banquets or exclusive all-male drinking parties, where the mythological scene of Sarpedon's demise would have been perfectly familiar to most of the drinkers.

It relates to the moment in Book 16 of the Iliad when Zeus ponders the fact that Sarpedon (a great Trojan warrior) is 'destined to die', and wonders whether to save him by snatching him out of the battle.

The scene raises several talking points about the relationship between freedom and destiny, and between life and death. For example:

By juxtaposing the death of Sarpedon with the arming of Greek youths, these questions are further sharpened. The young men do not look like heroes, but who knows their destiny? Or are they destined to die a coward's death? If so, can their free will overcome their destiny?

Classical Period: 500-330

This period saw a progressive decline in fine pottery for no obvious reason other than a general lack of innovation, giving rise to a sense of ennui. One exception was the White Ground Technique (500-400 BC).

In white-ground pottery, the vessel is coated with a light slip of kaolinite. This technique may have been devised to make vessels resemble marble or ivory, thus raising their value, although vessels were rarely if ever covered all-over in slip.

Another theory, is that the technique was designed to emulate wall painting - the highest of all art forms in Ancient Greece.

As it happened, white-ground painting proved to be less durable than black-figure or red-figure. As a result, white-ground vases were used mainly in ritual and funerary functions, as votive offerings and grave markers. Indeed, the idiom is exemplified by the funerary flasks, or lekythoi, of the late 5th century.

Except for white-ground ceramic ware, Greek pottery declined in both artistic merit and quality of production, although it endured into the 3rd century in the Greek colonies of southern Italy, where a group of regional styles emerged: including Apulian, Campanian, Lucanian, Paestan and Sicilian.

Hellenistic Pottery: 330-30

The Hellenistic period is noted for at least two styles of pottery.

To appreciate how painted pottery fits into the evolution of decorative art, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Sparkes, Brian (1991). Greek Pottery: An Introduction. ISBN 978-0-7190-2936-3.
(2) 'Sesklo'. Wikipedia 2023.
(3) John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting (New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).
(4) John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, 2002).
(5) Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Los Angeles: J. (5) Paul Getty Museum, 2002): 74.
(6) Gisela M. A. Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art (London: Phaidon, 2006).
(7) Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BCE (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).
(8) Cohen, Beth. The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques In Athenian Vases. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
(9) Robertson, Martin. The Art of Vase-Painting In Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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