Greek pottery is both a major art form and a great source of information about the ancient world. Here are some important points:
• The Greeks had recognizable types of pottery designed for specific purposes. The shapes of the vessels tell us something about the ways they were used, which in turn sheds light on day-to-day life in the Greek world (which included not just Greece but also parts of Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean).
• Greek pottery offers clues about the interactions among cultures. We can see Near Eastern influence on Greek pots during the early Archaic period (900-700 BCE). Then in later centuries, the Greeks made vases not just for domestic use but also for trade with other peoples, such as the Romans and Etruscans. The prevalence of pottery imported from Greece, as well Italian pottery that imitated Greek styles, shows how much the Etruscans and Romans admired the Greeks.
• Pottery from the ancient world provides us with all our examples of Greek painting. Ceramics were the Greeks’ only durable painting surface. We know that they also painted on walls and panels, but none of that work has survived.
• Stylistic changes in the decoration on Greek pottery reflect developments in Greek culture.
• Narrative paintings on later Greek pots give us insights into Greek mythology as well and Greek life.
Types of Greek Pottery, by Shape
Uses: Storing and moving large quantities of wine, food, or oil. Special amphoras were given as athletic prizes.
Characteristics: Two handles, neck (often a long neck) that is narrower than the body, cylindrical or egg-shaped body
Literal meaning: a vessel with handles on both sides
Variations and subtypes: Neck amphora, where a cylindrical attached to the body at an angle; One-piece amphora, where the body and neck together form one graceful curve
Greek Attic Amphora Geometric fourth quarter of 8th century BCE
“Today we give cash bonuses to athletes. We film them endorsing their favorite products. But in early Greece, victors in the Pan-Athenic games were awarded oil…and the oil was stored in large ceramic vessels called amphoras.”–Greek Vases: An Assignment with a Twist
Uses: Fetching water from fountains or wells; receiving ballots during legislative votes; burial of human remains
Characteristics: Three handles, narrow neck
The hydria on top is from the Mycenaean civilization, c. 1300 BCE The one on the bottom is from the Greco-Roman city of Paestum, c. 360-350 BCE–almost a thousand years later.
Uses: For mixing water and wine. The Greeks almost never drank wine without diluting it with water. Getting drunk in public was a party foul.
Characteristics: Wide neck and body, two handles
Column Krater–Named for the handles, which often stand straight like columns.
Calyx Krater–Flared cylindrical shape. Named for the handles, which sit low on the pot, the way the calyx (the green base) sits low on a flower.
Volute Krater–Those swirly shoulders are called volutes
Bell Krater–So named because the body is in the shape of an upside-down bowl. This is the latest form to be developed, so late that it is always in the Red Figure style, which replaced other styles in the decades after its invention c. 530 BCE.
Uses: Drinking cup for drinking while reclining at a drinking party (symposium); used for the drinking game kottabos whose point was not to get you to drink more but to show you could handle your wine.
Characteristics: wide, shallow bowl, one foot, two handles, entertaining image in the center
• Holding perfume and olive oil, particularly for religious ceremonies
• Tall, thin body, often cylindrical
• Slender neck with a flared opening
• One vertical handle
One type of lekythos, used especially for burials, features simple outline paintings done on a white ground.
• Pouring wine into cups
• One gracefully looping handle
• Trefoil mouth for easier pouring
“Miniature versions [of the oinochoe] are often found in children’s graves, invariably decorated with scenes involving young children. They were probably used in Athens during the Anthesteria. On the second day of the festival, named Choes, the newly-opened wine was drunk.”–Classical Art Research Centre
Learn to recognize the forms above for future tests. The distinctions between types of vessels–for example between an amphora, a hydria, and an oinochoe–not always clear cut, so don’t feel like you have to force a decision about whether a pot is one or the other. If you are unsure, though, be able to explain why you can’t determine exactly what kind of vessel you’re looking at.
Some other types of Greek Pottery
Uses: Holding perfume or scented oil
Characteristics: Long, narrow body, rounded bottom
Uses: Holding perfume or scented oil, often carried by athletes for person hygiene after exertion
Characteristics: spherical body, narrow neck
Characteristics: Deep cup with high handles.
The Greek god Dionysus often portrayed carrying a magical kantharos that never ran out of wine.
Pithos; plural: pithoi
Uses: Storage for very large quantities of oil or grain. Burial of human remains.
Characteristics: BIG–like, big enough to crawl into if you didn’t have a place to sleep.
Advantages: Efficient use of storage space, large surface for painting and decorations
Disadvantage: Your enemies can easily tip over your pithos and set your oil on fire.
Uses: Storing cosmetics and other personal possessions
Characteristics: A round (short, cylindrical) box with a lid.
For more information on vessel types
Athenian Vase Painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Article from the British Museum on Greek Vase Names
Greek Pottery from the Louvre
Styles of Greek Pottery, by time period
“The Protogeometric style seems to have originated in Athens, c. 1050 BC. Lines, circles and semi-circles are inscribed on a light-colored ground and, later, on a dark background. The repertoire of motifs gradually extended to include triangles, hooks, lozenges and meanders painted in brilliant black glaze, eventually covering the entire the surface of the vase. “– Greek Pottery, The Louvre
“… Protogeometric, or first-geometric, pottery displays an advance in the technology of fabrication and in the design and execution…It also shows a very modest pattern of distribution away from the place of manufacture. These features indicate that Greece was beginning to emerge from a ‘Dark Age’ which followed the collapse of the Bronze Age civilisations of the Cretans and Myceneans.”–Protogeometric Pottery, Classical Art Research Centre
The roots of Classical Greece lie in the Geometric period of about ca. 900 to 700 B.C., a time of dramatic transformation that led to the establishment of primary Greek institutions. The Greek city-state (polis) was formed, the Greek alphabet was developed, and new opportunities for trade and colonization were realized in cities founded along the coast of Asia Minor, in southern Italy, and in Sicily.–Geometric Art in Ancient Greece, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Geometric style…introduces many patterns…Geometric also introduces human and semi-human figures, first singly, then in groups which make meaningful narratives.– Classical Art Research Centre, articles on Early, Middle, and Late Geometric pottery
“In the mid-9th c. BC, well after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, and the isolation of the following “Dark Ages”, the Greeks began to look again beyond their own lands. The re-opening of Mediterranean sea-routes and the establishment of commercial relations with the Levant and Cyprus, brought them into close contact with the great empires of the Near East, mainly the Assyrians and Persians, as well as with Egypt. Those encounters had tremendous impact on Greek society and culture.”–The “orientalizing” period in Greek Art, the Cycladic Art Museum
“…contact with the Near East opened Greek eyes to the Orient with its long tradition of floral ornaments, exotic beasts, and weird monsters. Much of the geometric austerity is abandoned, as incredible plants luxuriate in ornamental bands or even become part of the principal scene. “–Greek Pottery, yasou
” Artistic elements such as floral and animal motifs spread with the movement of people, particularly with Phoenician and Greek traders…Near Eastern ceramics were not the primary medium for the spread of Orientalizing decoration; rather, scholars turn to artifacts such as North Syrian relief sculptures, Urartian metalworking, Assyrian relief sculpture and textiles, and Phoenician ivories and bronzes to determine the artistic relationship between Greece and their Eastern neighbors .”–The Orientalizing Period, Classics Department, University of Colorado
‘The black figure style of vase painting was invented in Corinth in the years around 700 BCE. It was around this time Corinthian potters began using animal friezes and occasional mythological scenes to adorn their pots. They developed this new style of painting to show these images, one in which the figures were painted in dark slip and incised fine details to add vigor and interest to the figures.”–Black Figure Technique, Classics Department, University of Colorado
“In Athens, in the Archaic period, potters continued to make the clay pots with mythological scenes on them. Gradually the scenes grew and took over more of the pot, and the geometric decoration took up less and less. At the same time, a new painting technique developed. Instead of painting figures of people in outline, the Athenian potters began to paint people in silhouette: this is called black-figure, because the people are all black.”–Greek Pottery: Black Figure, History for Kids!
“In the earlier examples of Attic pottery from the late 8th century onwards figure painting in Attica developed out of geometric symbols. Slowly the figure painting became more naturalistic and concerned with all things Greek rather than “Oriental”. By the beginning of the 6th century the potteries of Athens were producing a range of decorated pots with increasingly complex and detailed narrative groups – funeral scenes, sea battles, dances, boxing matches, and exploits of popular heroes.”–Ancient Greek Ceramics by Victor Bryant (A tutorial aimed at potters and other artists who work in clay.
One of the most accomplished black-figure painters was Exekias, who dreamed up the scene below, which shows the warriors Achilles and Ajax playing dice during one of the many lulls in the fighting during the Trojan war.
Take a look at the exquisite detail of Exekias’s painting style.
“The technique used to decorate red figure pots is essentially the reverse of black figure ware. The background of the pot is painted with black slip and the decorative figures stand out as reserved orange-red spaces in which the details are painted in black lines.(2) Eliminating the need for the incised lines of black figure ware greatly enhanced the painter’s artistic abilities.”–Athenian Red Figure Technique, Classics Department, University of Colorado
“Around 530 BC, Athenian potters were more and more frustrated by the black-figure way of vase-painting. They wanted to paint figures that overlapped, for instance, which was very difficult to do in black figure without the whole thing looking like just a big black blob. And they wanted to be able to show the muscles better too.”–Greek Red-Figure Pottery, History for Kids!
“The black decoration on the pots in both black and red-figured ware was not a “glaze” as the term is generally understood today. In modern terms it is closer to a “slip,” “engobe” or “terra sigillata;” solutions of wet clay which can be colored with various oxides. The Greeks were so skilled at controlling their processes that their engobe, as I will refer to it, was not colored when it was made, but turned black in the firing process.”–Pots on Pots: Images of Pottery-Making Processes on Ancient Greek Vases