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Ancient Greek Ceramics
by Victor Bryant

Victor Bryant is the author and editor of Ceramic History for Potters website. Reprinted with permission. © Victor Bryant.

The Greek City States - Classical Greece

The Eastern Mediterranean001 The maps should help you with the sites and geography. Most reliable historical information can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Wider Importance of Greek Pottery

The pottery of the ancient Greeks is of specific interest to us as Potters. We can study its stylistic origins and development of forms, slip decoration and technical expertise in making, decoration and firing. Almost all of their techniques are worth checking out as possibly relevant and useful in your work.

However, in the wider field of History of Art, Greek Pottery is also of considerable value for the light it sheds on the development of Greek pictorial art, which is in effect the beginning of European Drawing and Painting.

Painted Pottery is Main Source of Information

Because fired clay pottery is highly durable - and few or no Greek works in wood, textile, or wall painting have survived - the painted decoration of this pottery has become the main source of information about the process whereby Greek artists gradually solved the many problems of representing three dimensional objects and figures on a flat or curved surface.

Many Greek Pots Have Survived

The large number of surviving examples is also the result of a much wider reliance on pottery vessels in a period when other materials were expensive or unknown. The Greeks used pottery vessels for storage, transport or drinking. Smaller pots were used as drinking cups and very small ones made for perfumes and ointments.

003 Click to see full painting on this pot.

The Origins of the Greeks, their Pottery & Figure Painting

From at least 1700BC the many Hellenic tribes had migrated southwards through what we now call Greece. They gradually came to dominate the Aegean region, led by the kings of Mycenae under a loose confederacy of lesser chieftains.

004 Mycenean Krater. ca.1395-1200BC BM.
On each side there is a stylized scene of warriors and a chariot amidst stylized flowers and marine motifs. It was found in a tomb in Kourion in Greece. Pots with warlike scenes like this were popular and often made for export.
Click for Detail004a Detail: Chariot.
This shows the simplistic style and the need to fill empty spaces with dotted or diamond shaped patterns

During this early period these Greek tribes derived much of their culture from the Minoans on Crete, but in 1400BC they overthrew the Minoan kingdom. A common Mycenaean-Minoan culture spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. But still more Hellenic people continued to press down from the North. The powerful Dorians were the last Greek tribe to sweep down the peninsula in the eleventh century BC.

005 Late Helladic III bowl with stylized drawings of a bull and a bird ca.1395-1200BC BM.
A well-made and slip decorated bowl. The striking qualities of these designs are the silhouette outlines of the two creatures which are then filled with inventive pattern designs. Notice the decorative technique used to emphasize eyes.

Epic Myths based on Actual Events

The Trojan War, celebrated in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, was probably an embroidered episode in this expansion or invasion by the Greeks into the islands and Asia Minor, probably about 1200-1150BC. But, about 1100BC, the Mycenean Kings were in turn overwhelmed by a final wave of tribal invaders from the north - the Dorians - formidable Greek warriors with superior swords made of iron. These Dorians slowly blotted out the old Minoan-Mycenaean-Helladic civilization of the Aegean.

The succession of wars and the turmoil which followed kept a once-flourishing civilization practically in caves. For at least half a century or more the pottery production in much of the mainland was reduced to rough, shoddily-made pottery. However, by the second half of the 11th century, improvements in pottery making suggest that life in some areas seems to have become more settled again. Pot makers gradually grew into artists once again. Eventually, a new Iron-Age farming culture began to evolve in Greece; a culture with a common language. The Greek nation was born, and gradually a style of art and architecture developed.

In the 9th and 8th centuries, before written accounts, ballad singers wove the facts and legends of their early history into the Mythic Epic Stories of Gods and Heroes. Later they were written down or drawn as images on pots to become part of the foundation of Greek (or Hellenic) culture. The Art and architecture created was to inspire artists and designers for ages to come.

The Decorated Pottery of the Greeks

006 Early Geometric barrel jug ca.11th-10th century BC.
The existence of pots like this shows that the basic making, throwing and firing techniques recovered quickly after the turmoil. Simple geometric shapes and symbols soon began to reappear but often rearranged into a distinctly new style. Clearly the potter's wheel and probably a compass were needed to produce such regular banded lines and the perfect circles.

Early (or Proto) Geometric Pottery

This first Greek style of pottery decoration has been called the Geometric Style because the earliest examples show designs based on circles, arcs, triangles, and wavy lines. The earliest stage of simple geometric patterns is often called Early or "Proto"-Geometric and signals the reawakening of technical proficiency and a spirit of creativity amongst the Hellenic communities.

007 An Attic Proto-Geometric shoulder-handled amphora. ca.1000BC. ht:40cm BM.
The design elements are carefully placed in horizontal bands on significant parts of the vase, mainly at the shoulder or belly. The concentric circles were perhaps painted using a compass and multiple brushes. The lower portion of the jar was usually either left plain or painted in a solid black slip inherited from Bronze Age artists. (Notice that, by accident, part of the black band of slip has turned red(See Potters Notes, later on). Such pottery was now becoming better made, there is a new ability to discipline hand and eye. A new art is developing out of a ruined civilization.
Large Storage Jars of this amphora shape, with handles attached to the neck, were also used for the cremated remains of men and boys.

008 Attic Proto-geometric amphora. ca.950-900BC.Ht:41.5cm.
On this somewhat later pot there is more black slip and more decoration. There is a checker band on the shoulder, zig-zag lines and then a broad wavy line lower down. As yet the patterns are quite abstract and simple. Other devices such as the meander(key pattern), triangle, herringbone, and swastika will soon begin to appear. Notice that this pot also shows the accidental change from black to red of a broad band of slip(See Potters Notes).

Large Jars of this shape, with the handles attached to the belly, were also used for the cremated remains of women and girls.

Geometric Style

009 Large Attic Geometric Amphora ht:69.5cm 9th century BC. NAM.
By about 900BC the Geometric style of decoration had become much more refined. The shapes are now more slender and the contours taut. Black bands increasingly dominate the surface but also frame alternate buff colored areas crowded with rich and carefully drawn linear patterns. These patterns and motifs are more complex than the Proto-Geometric style and the overall effect is now much richer.
Click for Detail009a Detail: Middle band of decoration.
This zone around the belly between the two handles is the center of attention; divided into rectangular shapes and embellished with a variety of patterns. The simple circles have been replaced with much more complex forms, plus the zigzag, cross-hatched triangles and some new elements, the meander and swastika. These sharply linear patterns in dark paint upon light ground suggest designs beaten into copper or gold, but their origins are more closely akin to basketry. This impressive jar would have been a grave monument.

010 Attic Geometric Jug, late 9th century BC. BM
The subtle organization of the pattern on this large jug is superb. No new patterns, but the scale is varied in each of the rows or registers, with larger blocks of pattern used to draw attention to and define the cylinder and bowl shapes. This gives structure and added interest to the object.
Click for detail010a This Detail: Pattern decoration.
Notice the shading to give solidity to some patterns. The overall effect would have been less subtle if these large patterns had been filled with solid color.

011 A Geometric Pyxis(lidded box) Athens ca.850-800BC.BM
The lid of this pot has an elaborate and finely modeled handle. It was a container used to keep some valuable jewelry or cosmetic materials.
Click for detail011a Detail: Intricate decoration
The simple but intricate zig-zag patterned decoration echoes basketwork.

012 Attic Geometric Amphora Mid 8th Century BC. MSA
This is a large funeral monument. The decoration consists largely of bands of geometric patterns, particularly the meander, checker and triangles. With increasing trade with towns on the Palestine coast and Egypt, Greek potters looked eastward for new decorative ideas and here we can see a radical new idea in the Geometric style which enriches the bands of abstract pattern: bands of animals and birds probably inspired by the impressed ornament on Syrian metalware jugs and other vessels, but now lines of brush painted images full of character. Each row placed in a well-considered position to provide a point of emphasis.

012a Above the handles: Deer grazing
Painted just underneath the heavy rim, this row of gently grazing deer provides a lively contrast to the thick band of dark slip above and the regular meander pattern below.

012b Below the Handles: Deer grooming themselves
Positioned just alongside the root of the handles: This row provides a fluid, undulating rhythm along a line of deer grooming themselves. A very pleasant contrast to the patterns either side. The tiny filler pattern of double triangles adds to the charm; they are like butterflies.

012c Towards the Bottom: Geese feeding This time the the pattern break is a rolling line of dark curved shapes: slowly moving geese, some feeding some squawking. The row is placed to mark the beginning of dark slip bands which give this tall jar a feeling of stability.

013 Attic Geometric Amphora.Mid 8th century BC. ht:1.55m
This grave monument is huge, over one and a half meters high. The animal friezes are now confined to the marginal zone of the very long neck. However, amongst the many dense rows of geometric patterns covering the body of this vessel, there is a new idea painted in a prime position: an impressive pictorial scene illustrating the grand theme of lamentation for the dead.

013a Lying-in-State Panel
The scene is placed at the jar's widest point, alongside the handles. It depicts the Lying-in-State of an important person flanked on either side by a row of mourners. All the figures are seen as the sum of geometrized parts - upper bodies becoming triangular, arms becoming straight or bent lines. Figures were invariably portrayed from the side, i.e., in profile, but front or side views used (whichever was the simplest or most characteristic) to complete the overall image.

013b Lying-in-State Center of Panel
In this closer detail of the lying-in-state it is somewhat easier to follow the scene of mourning. The dead man is laid out on a funeral couch set on tall legs; the pall is of checker pattern; on either side stand the mourners with upraised arms: beneath the couch are four figures, two kneeling and two seated on stools. A small figure on the right, perhaps a wife or child, stands in a pose of misery alongside the bier. Empty spaces continue to be filled with strips of zig-zag pattern, stars, circles or dots.

014 Attic Geometric Krater. Second half of 8th century BC ht:1.23m MMNY.
Gradually the pottery painters soften the angular figures of humans and animals. By the late 8th century BC the figure painting is beginning to become as or more important than the patterns and banding. Here figure painting dominates, framed and made more impressive by the intricate meander or key pattern around the rim above and the bold black banding and zigzag patterns below.

014a Detail of middle of bowl.
One's eye is drawn to the painting around the middle of the bowl: the top register depicts the funeral of the dead man. The lower register is a chariot procession - most likely "Funeral Games",in his honor.
Click for detail 014b Detail of Funeral Pyre.
This closer detail shows the schematic way each of the figures was portrayed: the dead man, the mourners(tearing their hair as a sign of grief), the widow and child(shown twice), and sacrificial ducks and goats ready to be burned. Though all are still angular silhouettes arranged symmetrically around the funeral table, compared with the previous example these figures are now more naturalistic.
Click for detail 014c Detail of Dead Man on Bier.
They drew what they believed was most important, not what they actually saw from a particular position. A simple profile view of the head; only nose and eye "dot". To us, the body appears to lie on the edge of the table, but they did not "read" the scene as naturalistically as we do now. In all the figures the complex joining and rounded shape of hips and thighs is glossed over in order to arrive at two legs which can march in the same direction! As a general rule, in this early Hellenic style, the size of the figure usually denotes its importance.
Click for detail 014d Detail of Mourners etc.
(2)The drawing of the chair and stool is brilliant, such a difficult idea to represent without a knowledge of perspective and foreshortening. The wife and child are shown twice, this may indicate different functions. Their lesser importance in the scene is emphasized by their smaller size. Traditional ways of representing things did change when the situation demanded it. Although of lesser importance still, the row of mourners needed, for design reasons, to be big enough to fill the height of the panel.(see full image) A row of tiny figures would not have seemed correct. As yet all these images are perhaps symbols rather than images. But changes were on the way. Notice the decorators still feel the need to fill empty spaces with various patterns and motifs. Sometimes called the "horror of the vacuum", this is common in many early cultures.

015 Proto-Attic 'Lions' Krater 700-675BC Diam:10.25in
In addition to the row of lions and a great deal of filler patterns there is a chariot procession in the row above. Although still very schematic, the figures and horses have more detail than before.
Click for detail015a Detail of Charioteer, Chariot and Horse - Proto-Attic 'Lions' Krater 700-675BC
In this detail, we can see the man's great big eyes, an outline nose and a beard too. The horse's head and legs have been more carefully observed and drawn. So have the reins. But the chariot proved a more difficult challenge and is outlines only.

016 Protoattic Loutrophorus: Procession of dancers chariots and sphinxca. Analatos Painter. ht:80cm 700-680 BC. LP.
Such a vessel was often placed on the tomb of an unmarried person. We know the name of the painter - Analatos. This tells us that the painting is becoming important. On the neck is a scene of couples dancing to the double-flute; above these, winged sphinxes. On the body of the vessel is the Funeral Parade of Chariots. This decoration shows how the new pictorial style is developing; there is a lightness of touch and the picture friezes and pattern zones are spreading out.

017 Proto-attic amphora 700-680 BC.BM.
The painting on this funeral amphora shows a more open style with much more sketchy pattern, but, greater attention to the details, in the procession of chariots around the belly of the pot.

017a Detail: Procession of chariots.
Yet more careful observation of details is evident in these drawings. Notice particularly the naturalistic curve of the horse's tail, the hooves, chariot wheel spoke shapes, baton or riding whip and the way both shoulders, arms and elbows are portrayed. The pace of change is increasing.

Rhodes & East Greek Pottery (A Minoan Legacy)

The Eastern Mediterranean001a
Looking now across to the Eastern Seaboard of the Mediterranean and the islands nearby. During the turmoil of the previous centuries, many Cretan and Greek refugees had found sanctuary along this coast or on islands like Rhodes. As stability returned to the region, normal life and trading became possible. Colonies became established and pottery exports grew. The decoration on these "East Greek" pots shows the lasting influence of the Minoans.

018 A large storage jar(pithos). Probably made in Rhodes ca. 700-650BC.BM.
Pithoi were mainly used for storing agricultural produce such as olive oil, wine, olives, raisins or grain. In Rhodes, large pithoi like this one have been found in graves, serving as coffins for children and young adults. Such large jars as this must have been made in several sections and joined together before firing.
Click for detail018a Detail: repeated scroll patterns.
The repeated scroll patterns made by rolling cylinder stamps around the soft clay surface. This type of pattern owes much to the Minoan-Mycenean heritage which survived here on the far side of the Aegean.

019 Rhodian Amphora 6th century BC.
Although the techniques of making pottery are similar all over the Greek world, on the eastern side of the Aegean world the pottery decoration was based more on the spirals, curvilinear patterns and lively drawing of the Minoans than the more regimented geometric style developing in mainland Greece.

020 Rhodian Amphora decorated with a partridge. Rhodes ca.540BC BM.
During the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC the Greeks found a growing market for their useful pottery in the coastal cities of Syria and Palestine and even into the interior of Western Asia. The Egyptians too bought Greek pots. Apart from any food and spices that came back to Greece from these eastern cities, fine jewelry, decorated metal vessels, ivory carvings and woven fabrics also were traded in return. The images of birds and animals on these Greek pots made in Rhodes were probably based on Syrian and Egyptian designs.

Trading and the "Orientalizing" Style of Decorating

021 This Jug is from Aegina, one of the Cycladic Islands, made during the first half of 7th century. It is 16in. high
This monstrous beak spout is based on Syrian metalwork jug designs. Much of the decoration is derived from Minoan and Egyptian decoration. Greek trade with the older cultures - coastal cities in Syria, Palestine and Egypt - was now considerable. They were quickly adapting their simple geometric patterns on their export pottery to the very different Eastern designs. This soon led to a growing Eastern influence on Greek pottery design and painting.
022 A Stemmed plate East Greek from Camirus Rhodes, ca. 625-600BC. BM
The decoration of this dish or plate stand is a mix of simple geometric motifs with the more sophisticated bird and flower shapes and patterns placed in the segments of concentric circles.
Click for detail022a Detail: birds and patterns.
In the middle is a rosette motif very popular in much of Western Asia. The ducks feeding or preening their feathers are drawn with an eye to naturalistic detail.
022b Detail: Duck preening its feathers.
Look at the drawing of the legs and feet. Although worn, this plate shows the use of new painting color.: dull, dry,grape purple. The Corinthian Potters were to exploit this color. combination and make it their own. Animals, birds and mythical monsters on Syrian and Egyptian metal work and jewelry remain the most common source of inspiration.

Corinthian Pottery in the 7th and 6th century BC

The Eastern Mediterranean001a
This "Orientalizing" phase is taken up on the Mainland of Greece by the great trading city of Corinth during the early part of the 7th century BC. Quality decorated pottery was highly valued abroad and, with their eyes on this export market, the Corinthians manufactured very small decorated pots that were suitable for shipment in large quantities. Shipped to the new colonies in Italy, Greece and Asia Minor, as tiny bottles(aryballoi), they were used for oil, perfume or ointments.

023 An early Corinthian small bottle (aryballos) for pefumed oil ca.640 ht 6.8cm BM
Corinthian artists fell under the spell of these strange eastern decorative styles and were soon painting weird curling shapes and exotic animals, birds and flowers in the fashionable orientalizing style. This tiny bottle has a very un-Greek quality.
023a Detail: Lion head
The Lion-like head and the wavy line patterns suggesting a mane are new to Greek Art. Oil or scent would be poured from the fierce creature's mouth. Just beneath the neck is a band of decoration which has the curvilinear style characteristic of the earlier Minoan Age. These free, flamboyant designs, so different from the precise, geometric patterns, were still being used in the Eastern side of the Aegean.
023b Detail: Bottom
The foot has a ring of spiky forms imitating an Egyptian representation of a lotus flower. Above that a row of leaping animals, then a row of galloping horsemen in a fluid style.
023c Detail: Middle
The middle of the flask is covered with ringed vignettes of a variety of creatures many based on eastern motifs from decoration on imported jewelry, ivory boxes or fabrics.

024 Proto-Corinthian, an amphora ca.650-570BC. BM
During the 7th century oriental motifs eventually found their way onto all makes of Greek pots. Curvilinear and spiky patterns, supplant the older, rectilinear ones. New subjects appear, especially such monsters as the sphinx, siren, griffin, gorgon, and chimaera, as well as such exotic animals as the lion.

025 Corinthian cup; ca.625-600BC ht.3.5in.
The local Corinthian clay was buff rather than red. Potters refined the existing dark slip painting technique using a local earthenware clay to produce a superior black slip glaze to paint the birds, lions, monsters, etc. They then enhanced these silhouette designs by cutting fine incised lines through to expose the lighter body. This scratched line technique to show detail became very sophisticated. Often to increase the color range, a matt grape-purple iron slip was used - as in the reddish feathers of the bird on this cup.

The Characteristic Mature Corinthian Pottery

026 Pyxis(cosmetic box) Middle Corinthian ca.600-575BC. BM
These illustrations show the quality of decoration and finish achieved by Corinthian potters by the end of the 7th century BC. This little pot has friezes of animals including lions, panthers and bulls painted in shiny black or matt purple with lines of detail scratched through to the buff body.

027 Corinthian Amphora with lid 625-575 BC. Old Corinth Mus.This amphora is unusual in having a lid preserved. The two facing cockerels and the large center motif and the rosettes are all Western Asian in origin. The spiky ring, marking the foot, comes from the shape of the Egyptian Lotus flower. The design could easily have been based on repoussé decoration on a metal jug exported from Palestine.

028 Corinthian oil or perfume flask - Alabastron. ca.600-575BC. BMA tiny perfume flask, just a few inches high, decorated in the typical orientalizing style.

028a Detail : Figure painting Here you can see the considerable detail added to the painting on this little perfume flask. Very fine lines were scratched through the black slip to the lighter clay of the body.

029 A perfume flask. Detail:Figure painting ca.600-575BC. BM
A detail from another perfume flask - showing a double bodied monster. This detail shows quite well the body and slip textures. The lustrous shine of the black slip is shown at the top right. The matt texture of the grape purple color too can be seen well.

Click for detail029a More Detail of Corinthian oil or perfume flask - Alabastron. showing painting. ca.600-575BC. BM
This even closer detail makes it possible to see the scraping effect of the needle-like scratches into the leather-hard clay. For example, notice the simple and effective way of defining the petals of the rosette. You can also see how the sharp scratch lines went on just a little bit beyond the edges of the rosette shapes.

Next > The Greek Myths: Figure Painting of Gods and Heroes

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