To Index Home Page

Ceramic Web Page Tutorials

Ancient Greek Ceramics

by Victor Bryant
Last checked 19th September 2002


If you just want to see the ceramics or make a quick survey of the images:

  1. Scroll down through this main text page, click on the thumbnail images that interest you; a larger image will appear in the left frame.
  2. Click on the icon below to see all the larger images in sequence in the left frame.

Click for Large Images Page

6. Ancient Greek Ceramics

The Greek City States - Classical Greece

The Eastern Mediterranean001 Quick Find Topic List The maps should help you with the sites and geography. Most reliable historical information can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. For an outline of the main sequence of events, I have provided you with a "Quick Find" Button (002)

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.

The background above was made using images painted on a 5th Century BC funeral oil flask.
A dead woman(left) gazing on herself now a Muse in the Afterlife.

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 stylised scene of warriors and a chariot amidst stylised 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 emphasise 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 chequer 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 coloured 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 centre 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 organisation 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 colour.

011 A Geometric Pyxis(lidded box) Athens ca.850-800BC.BM
The lid of this pot has an elaborate and finely modelled handle. It was a container used to keep some valuable jewellery 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, particulatly the meander, chequer 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 feedingThis 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 metres 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 Centre 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 chequer 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 honour.
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 importantance.
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 emphasised 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 Eygptians too bought Greek pots. Apart from any food and spices that came back to Greece from these eastern cities, fine jewellery, 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 colour: dull, dry,grape purple. The Corinthian Potters were to exploit this colour combination and make it their own. Animals, birds and mythical monsters on Syrian and Egyptian metal work and jewellery 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 jewellery, 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 colour 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 centre 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 colour 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.

The Greek Myths:
Figure Painting of Gods and Heroes

Pottery painters in Attica were the first to paint narrative scenes from popular myths about their Gods and Heroes; episodes from Homer's Epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, featuring such gods as Apollo or Dionysos and heroes such as Achilles or Herakles and his Twelve Labours or Exploits.

Unlike the strange deities of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Persians, the Greek Gods and Heroes were believed to be human in form though larger, more powerful and physically perfect etc. Images or paintings of Gods or Heroes could therefore be based on human models.

This is the key to why figure drawing, painting and sculpture in Greece improved so dramatically during the 6th and 5th centuries. The realism, life-like and three-dimensional qualities achieved were beyond that of any other civilization hitherto.

Competition between artists to achieve the most natural representation of a God or a Hero reached fever pitch by the early 5th century.

Proto-Attic Pottery

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.

030 ProtoAttic Amphora from a Grave at Eleusis(Attica).Ht:1.42M ca.670BC.
Although there are a variety of figures and animals represented here, the most recognisable scene is around the neck. An incident from the Odyssey: The Blinding of the One-Eyed Giant Polyphemus by Odysseus and his companions.
Click for detail030a Detail of Polyphemus.
The drawing technique is now a few steps away from the earlier stick-like Geometric figures. The bodies look a little more human. Ears, eyes, beards - and cup are all better observed. This well-known incident is well portrayed with its essential images clearly drawn: The sitting or dozing giant holding the cup of drugged wine, Odysseus and a companion hurling a spear into his single eye.

031 Athenian Jar:Grave in Attica ca.670BC. Herakles and Nessus; Gorgons.
Painted in black slip on the body are the Gorgons - winged female monsters. However, these are not now very clear to see in detail. But, on the neck, a well-known Greek legend is illustrated; the Hero Herakles is about to kill a troublesome Centaur (man-horse)called Nessus with a stab of his sword. Looking at this drawing we can see that Attic figure painting has greatly improved by the early sixth century BC. Potter-painters are adapting the Corinthian black-figure technique to their own figure painting.
Click for detail031a Detail Herakles and Nessus.
In the detail these bodies appear more fleshy and muscular. The half-horse Centaur is believable at both ends and his hair, beard, nose and fingers are recognisable details. Although the arms are fixed a bit oddly, this decoration shows an enormous advance towards naturalism in figure painting. The two black figures are given much of their detail, form and life by the subtle fine lines drawn, or scratched, into the solid black slip silhouettes.

Attic Black-Figure Painting

032 Early Attic Black-figure jug, painted in black, purple and white on orange clay, ca. 600-575BC BM
Athenian painters copied this black-figure style from Corinth but, instead of the Oriental monsters, animals and birds motifs, preferred to develop further their own narrative style using Greek Gods, Heroes and monsters. The superior quality of their clay, pigment, and decoration and firing techniques quickly enabled the Athenian artists to overtake those of Corinth. This jug shows a rich black vitrified slip paint and also the matt grape red iron slip.
Click for detail032a Detail Head of Gorgon
This detail of the head of the Medusan Gorgon shows how these Greek artists endowed their figures with mood and character by means of scratched lines in black slip. Monotony was avoided by the use of different poses, gestures, and expressions to render emotion and clarify the narrative action.

033 Part of a black-figured amphora.
The scene on this prize amphora shows a victorious athlete offering wine, and his thanks, to the God Dionysos.
Click for detail033a Closer detail
This detail shows more clearly the painting of the hands and clothing of the god, illustrating the power of the scratched lines to provide so much naturalistic detail.

The Finest(Mature) Black-Figure Painting ca. 540-520BC.

From 600 BC on, Athens increasingly became the dominant centre for Greek pottery, eventually exporting its ware throughout the Mediterranean world. It was during this period that the practice of signing of pots by potters and painters first became common. The overall finish and high quality of Attic pots was commonplace by the later 6th century BC. The drawing on Greek ware of this period is also usually of the highest quality. Always an inexhaustible mine of information for scholars on Greek life, literature and thought, the repertoire of subjects greatly expanded to include scenes from everyday life as well as the standard heroic and mythological themes.

034 Athenian Jar from Vulci(Etruria) ca.540-530BC ht:61cm. The heavenly Twins, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux return home after some heroic exploit: hunting, fighting, carrying off women, and cattle rustling etc.There are many tales. The pot is signed by the Painter Exekias. Our particular interest is the quality of the slip painting.

Click for detail034a Closer detail: The dog greets one of his masters.
The Athenians retained the Corinthian use of animal friezes for decoration until c. 550 BC, when the great Attic painters, among them Exekias and the Amasis Painter, developed a Greek narrative scene decoration and perfected the classical black-figure style. Corinth and Athens were the most important studios producing black-figure pottery but there were others in Sparta and some of the Greece colonies.

034b The other side of the amphora above.
Achilles and Ajax,the two great heroes and warriors in the Trojan War, are seen playing at dice, both in full armour ready for battle.
Click for detail034c Closer detail:Achilles and Ajax
Inscribed on the picture, rather like the bubbles in a 20th century cartoon, are greek words, appearing from their mouths. They tell us that Achilles(left) has called 'four' and Ajax 'three'.
Click for detail034d Detail:Head of Achilles
The fine detail of the helmet and armour can be seen here. All of this produced by scratched lines in a black slip.
This could provide ideas for many slip decorators, couldn't it?

035 Attic black figured Kylix 6th c. BC.
This is a typical drinking cup or disk - the kylix. Decorated both inside and outside with a variety of scenes. The foot and hollow stem can be seen and painted around the outside of the bowl are two winged monsters and a charioteer. Of particular interest here is the introduction of white slip in attic black-figure painting. It was not easy to use. If thick it often peeled off.(see Potter's Notes later on.)

035a Inside bowl decoration of Attic black figured Kylix 6th c.BC.
Inside the bowl of this drinking cup is this beautiful piece of black-figure decoration showing the God Dionysos sailing the Seas. Climbing around the mast is a grape vine - suitably fully laden for the God of Wine. The water is filled with a school of dolphins playing. The disposition of each object within the circular form has been well considered and carefully balanced. We know the name of the painter, Exekias, living in the mid-sixth century BC.
035b Detail of centre.
Here we can see the fine detail in the figure of the God. He is shown dressed and crowned like a king. The boat, dolphins, grapevine, and sail are each superbly delineated. Technically, there is perhaps one defect; the poor fit of the matt white slip which originally covered the sail. Much has rubbed or flaked off. It appears to have been painted over the black vitreous slip. (Read potter's notes)

036 Attic Black-Figure Hydria: ca.520-500BC ht 22.5in.
A Hydria is the Greek name for a pot with three handles. Two for lifting and one for pouring. This pot was used for fetching water from the local fountain. The painting illustrates this. Under a portico, young women are filling their pots with water from these ornamental fountains. Athenian pottery of the 6th century BC often features such narrative scenes composed of black figures painted on a light red inset background panel, while the surrounding vase surface is a deep, lustrous black. As in the previous example, when white slip often tends to flake off.

Click for detail036a Closer detail: showing a few problems
This detail shows up more clearly two defects most potters are aware of: (1.)The black slip was probably too dry when the lines were scratched through - the edges cracked and the lines are rough and (2.)White slip is flaking off - probably applied too thickly (see Potter's Notes later on).

037 Tiny funeral oil flask ca.500BC ht:11.5cm
This is typical of the vast mass-produced market for small( five inches high) lekythoi, that contained the oil used in a funeral ceremony. This one has lost the funnel mouth at the neck, but is otherwise complete. From a potter's point of view it has considerable interest. The rough basic hollow shape was thrown on a potter's wheel. Unlike a more prestigious item, where more time and care would be taken, this little pot was one of many being made and decorated at speed in a day or two. This is repetition pottery.

037a Centred hole in foot
When leather-hard, it was turned horizontally on a lathe(exactly like wood turning) to the required form. Underneath the centre of the foot is a small hole made by the centre spike of the lathe. Normally you can't see this in a museum. The black slip line banding was quickly brushed on whilst still on the lathe.
Click for detail037b Detail of warrior painting.
This detail shows accidental "chattering" marks and scoring grooves from a worn turning tool or too dry a pot. Many finishing problems haven't changed over millenia!
Click for detail037c Detail showing the top of pot. diam 5.2cm.
This view of the neck and top of the pot shows the squashed base of the little handle roughly joined to the shoulder with slip and bent over to be smoothed against the neck. The broken neck shows where the cup-like funnel would have been. The various motifs in the banding patterns around the shoulder show all the signs of haste and a need to simplify; evidence of mass-production.
Click for detail037d Detail of figure painting.
This group of two horses and a rider is less than 5 cm. high. A painter with some talent and probably years of repetition produced these lively images - at speed. The brush strokes and scratched outlines were made quickly with confidence.

038 Black figured amphora(jar) Made in Athens about 520-500BC. BM.Black figured amphora(jar) with Dionysos and two satyrs. Made in Athens about 520-500BC. Attributed to the painter Psiax and signed on the rim by Andokides as the potter. The body of this pot is covered with a deep black lustrous slip glaze. The only decoration is the painting on the neck.
038a Neck detail: Dionysos and two Satyrs
The god of wine holds a drinking horn in one hand and a vine branch in the other. Either side is a drunken dancing satyr.
Click for detail038b Detail: Figure of Dionysos A closer view shows more clearly the crisp scratched patterns and lines. The small amount of purple plum colour for the beard, and decorative spots and bands gives extra life to the costume and figure. In this example, some edges of the black paint and also the delicately painted fingers of the satyr have slightly re-oxidized to red in the cooling kiln.

Potter's Notes(1) on ... 

Greek Black-figure Painting Technique

  • The Origins: A technique of using a dark brown-black slip for painting, was used by the potters of the Aegean all through the 2nd millennium BC, refined and improved over a long period by observation and trial and error. Look at the Cretan and Mycenaean examples. This Attic Geometric pot of the 8th-7th centuries BC is differently decorated but the body and the slip are little changed. But a Corinthian pot of about 600BC shows much more sophisticated black-figure ware. Building on much of this the potters of Attica carried the black-figure style to perhaps the highest state of perfection as seen on this 5th century Attic Black-Figure pot>. This superb black-figure painting is the result of a combination of even more careful selection and preparation of materials, expert decorators, efficient updraft kilns(T3) and well-controlled firings.

  • The clay bodies used were mostly locally refined red earthenware clays which fired orange or brick red at about 950°Centigrade.

  • Pots were thrown on a wheel, in pieces if necessary, then joined together with slip. Handles were moulded separately and fixed on last, before decorating

  • When leather-hard, many small pots were also turned horizontally on a lathe to refine the thickness and shape. A wash of yellow ochreous clay was then brushed on to produce a richer terracotta colour. Much can be seen in this small mass-produced funeral oil pot. The underneath of the foot is paler and has no shine. At the centre is the small hole caused when turning on a lathe.

  • The Black Vitreous Slip: This was achieved using a local red(iron rich)clay, often the same clay as the body but with added soda or potash(alkali flux) in some form.

  • Characteristics of slip: Small particle size - achieved by levigation rather than grinding; sufficient alkali to cause the slip to begin to melt at about 900°Centigrade - this came from soluble soda or potash minerals, maybe from plant ash. Urine is also thought to have been used to improve the brushing quality. The slip was evaporated to concentrate the flux minerals and to produce a thick smooth slip for brush painting.

  • The firing process: This was the key to achieving a fired pot with buff to red body, smooth but somewhat porous, decorated with brush painting in a dense shiny black(vitreous)slip.

  • The Method : A red bodied pot decorated with the "red clay slip + alkali paint" is fired in a wood fired kiln. When the temperature reaches 800°C the vents are closed and probably enough different or damp fuel used to make the kiln become smoky(reduced atmosphere) and short of oxygen but allowing the temperature to still rise slowly. The red iron oxide in the body and the slip changes to the (black)iron oxide(containing less oxygen). Of course, this change cannot be seen in a red hot kiln!

    The smoky atmosphere continues until the time the temperature has gone beyond 900°C when the alkali and the black iron in the painting slip will begin to cause this clay slip to melt, producing a shiny surface.

    When about 950° reached, the temperature is then allowed to drop to below 800°C.whilst the smoky(reduced) atmosphere continues. By this time the vitreous slip will have cooled sufficiently to become an impervious glassy film.

    After dropping below 800°C. the dampers are opened to allow enough air in to clear the smoky atmosphere. Although this is still at red heat and cannot be seen, the black iron oxide present throughout the porous clay body absorbs more oxygen and returns to its original stable state of RED iron oxide. However, the black iron oxide in the vitreous slip is now trapped in a glassy film. It cannot re-absorb any oxygen, so remains as BLACK iron oxide.

    When the kiln and pots are cool the body becomes the orange-red-brown of common fired earthenware clay, but the dull brown iron slip, thickly painted on, has been transformed into a lustrous black paint(an example).

  • Practical points to bear in mind:

    1. Painting Slip. Test various red clay slips. A slow but simple way of obtaining a fine particled slip is by thinning a pourable red slip with an extra quarter or half of its volume of water. You will need to make up a small bucketful of slip to test. Allow to stand for a while when the coarser particles will have settled out, then take off a jugful of slip from the top layer and evaporate it until it becomes thick enough to be a brushable paint.

    2. Flux material. Probably the simplest alkali to add is soda ash, but you can try other soluble materials containing soda or potash. Again you will need to experiment to find the best amount to add. Try a teaspoonful of soda ash to a 1/2 pint of slip to start with. Dissolve it first in a very small amount of hot water, then add and stir the slip thoroughly.

    3. The matt purple slip:
    This dry-looking purple was produced using a slip paint made from a high iron ore mineral or clay but with no flux added. The iron ore mineral Crocus Martis is worth trying to obtain this colour.

    4. The matt white slip:
    Occasionally used. It could be any iron-free white clay. The problem of white slip flaking off , which is often seen, happens because natural clays which fire white are usually more refractory than common red clay so tend not to fit too well on red clay, especially if painted rather thickly.

    5. Re-oxidised black slip:
    Sometimes through thinness of slip application, lack of flux or by accidental flame-flashing the black slip re-oxidises; becoming RED instead of black when cold.
    [1] Ringed area showing re-oxidized "black" slip on the right side of shoulder. This change to red is especially obvious here on such a wide band of slip
    [2] Colour lost on horses legs - probably thin slip, maybe not enough flux either.
    [3] Fingers are part oxidized - probably brush stroke became very thin. Most of the edges of the black slip clothing have oxidised, presumably thin. Notice that the scratched lines cut through the inner(thicker?) area of slip are sharp, with no re-oxidised edges.

  • Victor Bryant©2001

Attic Red-Figure Painting

039 Red-figure Attic cup or Kylix by the Painter Epiktetos. The scenes include Theseus slaying the Minotaur, ca.520BC Diam 11.6in.
Red-figure pottery, invented at Athens about 530 BC, is just the reverse of the black-figure style. In the black-figure style, figures were painted in glossy black pigment as silhouettes on the orange-red surface of the vase; details were added largely by incising.

040 Andokides Painter. From a red-figure amphora:Herakles and the two-headed dog Cerberus. ht:58.6cm. ca.510BC
In the red-figure style, figures were first outlined in black, with the background outside the outline filled in solidly with black paint. This left the figure red; details could be then be painted in rather than incised. Occasionally some white or the dull purple paint was used as well as the glossy black slip.

The Zenith of Greek Pottery Painting

041 Attic red figure amphora c.500-480 BC. Fr. Nola - warrior by the Berlin painter
This painting is by a pottery painter known only as Berlin because of the superb quality of his painting style recognised first on amphora f2160 in the Berlin museum. It illustrates the apparently simple but in reality momentous change that occurred in Greek painting around 500BC. as artists continued to explore ways of representing figures more naturally; they discovered a new way of drawing. The closer detail of the feet in the next image shows the result of these experiments.

Click for detail041a Detail of painting
The painted view of each foot is different. The right foot is seen from the traditional side view. The left foot is seen from the front. In doing so Greek artists discovered "foreshortening" - a way of suggesting spatial distance in two dimensions. From the front of the toes to the leg and ankles is perhaps 5-6inches back. This way of suggesting depth on a flat surface was a new discovery. It was the beginning of a quite new a way of drawing or painting a figure, a believably naturalistic representation of the human body on a flat surface.

042 Attic red-figure Bell Ganymede by the Berlin Painter. ca.490-480BC LP.
Another piece of beautiful figure painting, by the same painter, which also illustrates this great achievement of Greek painting. Around 500 BC Greek artists had abandoned the convention of using only profile views and began to use three-quarter frontal poses, as well as foreshortening. Their technique of figure drawing would become the basis of the Western European style of painting.

043 Athenian red figure cup by Brygos 500-475 BC.
The conflict depicted on the outside of this drinking cup is the Sack of Troy. Whilst retaining the form of a band or frieze, the painter tries to paint the action of this scene in depth too.

Click for detail043a Detail of the painting
This detail shows the strongly delineated figures overlapping one another in a very convincing and naturalistic manner. There is a sense of rapid, often violent, movement. This new style of movement and naturalism and space in painting is now developing fast.

044 Maenad, from an amphora painted by the Painter known as Kleophrades. ht:56cm. ca.500-490BC
This new technique allowed more flexibility in the rendering of human form, movement, and, above all, expressions. It also gave a greater scope for shading and a more satisfactory kind of foreshortening and perspective.

045 Kleophrades Painter. Detail of Dionysos on a red-figured ca.500-490BC
Since most of the ornamentation on Greek pottery was narrative rather than purely decorative, such technical advantages were of utmost importance when naturalism in figure painting was becoming the prime aim.
From the late 6th to the late 4th century BC. most of the more important pieces were painted in this new style.

046 Athenian vase late red figure ware ca.460-50 BC MN NaplesThis painting of Achilles slaying the Amazon Pentesilea illustrates again the desire for strong dramatic movement. These images illustrate the zenith of Greek pottery design and also give us some idea of what was being achieved in large-scale mural painting at this time.

047 Attic red-figure amphora ca.450BC. ht:60cm.
This is a detail of the full figure of Achilles painted on this pot. The bold but calm naturalistic style of this painter has been admired and recognised on other pots that have been found. However, we know him only by the name "the Achilles Painter", who worked around 450BC. What would a coloured mural painting in this style have been like? We know they existed, they were written about, but unfortunately none have survived.

Painting on a White Slip Ground

048 Calyx Krater - figures on white slip
This last technique shows how the pottery decorators longed to have the freedom to paint like mural painters on a plaster surface. The painting on this flower-shaped vase or krater started out as a band of red figure decoration surrounded by the shiny black slip background. But the flat centre band was painted with a thin even layer of white slip. Generally this survived quite well. On this an outline drawing of the figures was painted in red or black slip and then fired. Finally a gouache type paint probably similar to that used by the mural painters produced the subtle naturalistic coloured effects seen on all the following images. Sadly time, wear and tear and damp have worn away much of the brightest colour.

049 High stemmed Kylix - black silhouettes on white slip
On the outside of this elegant drinking cup - a group of Fighting Cocks painted in black vitreous slip. Against the white ground, they stand out dramatically.

050 Funeral lekythoi. BM
A Museum Case of Funeral Lekythoi: figure painting on a white ground. Understandably, this more naturalistic style of decoration became very popular. Many of these offerings have survived; the drawings usually include portraits, probably idealized, of the dead person.

051 Lekythos painted by the Achilles Painter, ca.450-440BC.
A painting of the dead woman in the Afterlife. It was this artist who painted the figure of Achilles seen earlier in a detail. This is a quiet, introspective style of figure painting with marvellous detail.

Click for detail051a Detail: Showing more clearly the sensitive line drawing by this Achilles Painter- ca.450-440BC.
The outline drawing and some dark detail such as the hair were painted in the black slip. Some of the lighter brown, and dull purple slip colours were also used for part of the costume and hair. After being fired, any non-ceramic colour paint would then have been used. This delicately drawn image of a girl playing a lyre forms the right-hand side of the whole picture around the pot.

051b The whole painting around this lekythos
In this reconstruction, I have joined together both views of the painting on this pot; it is the complete scene. On the left, the dead woman gazes across at her own shade, now a Muse, or Goddess of Music and Poetry, in the Afterworld. Her spirit is indicated by the bird. It is difficult not to be affected by the mood of gentle sadness which the Achilles Painter created sometime around 450BC.

052 Athenian Lekythos late 5th c. BC.NAM
Athenian Lekythos late 5th c. BC. This shows a man, a dead warrior, seated outside his tomb. He stretches up his arm to grasp his spear, his shield rests nearby. Naturalism in figure painting has been achieved. The relaxed, languid, even sad, figure, is completely convincing. A mourner stands on the left. Although in poor condition, sufficient has survived to see the quality of the drawing and the remains of the post-firing colour that was added. The blue colour is probably the same finely ground blue frit that the Cretans used for wall painting. Look at the details next.

052a Detail:Seated man outside his tomb.
This detail shows a sensitive fluid line drawing that captures the important details and presents us with a three dimensional image in the form of a seated young man. Such drawing is the work of an accomplished artist.

052b Detail: Head of man
Detail of the man's head. We don't expect to see such dynamic line drawing until perhaps the 15th century in Europe during the Italian Renaissance. Since no easel paintings or wall murals have survived from classical Greece, contemporary ceramic decoration gives us a glimpse of what Greek wall painting must have been like in the 5th century BC. This is why Greek pottery has such a special place in the history of Art - and European painting in particular.

Potter's Notes(2) on ... 

The Absence of Coloured Glazes

Some Thoughts: It perhaps comes as a surprise to realise that, having become so proficient in the complex process of making and firing the shiny black vitreous slip, Greek potters were never interested in using coloured glazes on their pots.

No interest in Persian Glazes or Frit Paste Colours: As inveterate travellers they must have been well aware of the colourful ceramic products in contemporary Egypt and Persia.

Alkaline Glazes were probably thought brash and foreign; and certainly not easy to control: The sharp refined lines of Greek drawing would probably not have been possible using any contemporary frits and "glazes" then available.

The Greek Ceramic Style: Classical Greek terracotta pottery and ceramic painting had by the fifth century BC. developed as far as it could. The spurt of invention and experiment in Greek ceramics had run its course for the time being. They had perfected a ceramic painting system using buffs, browns, dull purples and white slip plus a lustrous vitreous black slip on the terracotta or buff coloured clay. Coloured glazes and other developments would have to wait for later pottery inovators.

The last intriguing questions: Perhaps they simply didn't choose to develop coloured glazes in ceramics. It is possible they were considered un-Greek. No wall paintings have survived so we cannot really know how softly - or richly - coloured were their wall-paintings compared with their ceramics!

Victor Bryant©2001

The Decline of Greek Pottery
- in the mid-5th century BC.

From a potter's point of view the story and interest in Greek pottery is now practically over. The decline began surprisingly early, well before the end of the 5th century BC. and there are probably many causes. The inherent limitations of the curving pot surface and the limited colours, meant that pottery painters could no longer compete with the rapid strides toward naturalism taken by painters of larger works such as wall paintings. The following images illustrate this decline. The most inventive artists no longer wanted to design or decorate terracotta pottery; they preferred the colour and breadth of wall painting or other crafts.

053 A late 5th century BC. Attic Krater: preparations for a theatrical performance.
Various attempts to introduce spatial depth into their designs by the selective grouping of figures were not very successful. This 5th century attic krater shows a crowded scene; the preparations for a theatrical performance. The different levels destroy any attempt at reality. To build such scenes at different levels, you need to understand the principles of linear or geometric perspective and, as far as we can tell, the Greeks never did discover this.

054 Detail of florid style painting on a hydria made ca.410BC. After 430 BC pottery painting was increasingly trivialized in conception and sentimental in emotional tone. Drawing became over-refined and careless, and groups of figures were crowded together without meaning or interest. Basically this is a Red-Figure painting by the Meidias Painter. Painted in a florid stylised manner it is also embelished here and there with gold leaf. The scene is from a tale about Phaon, a grizzled old boatman, who the Gods transformed into a handsome youth irresistible to women... The painting is filled with nymphs frolicking hither and thither. The restraint of the earlier Classical part of the 5th century has gone, replaced by boisterous, sometimes wild, extravagances in taste. The coming 4th century BC will be a Greek Baroque Age.

055 Late Attic black-figure amphora ca.400BC ht:67cm. BM.
The ugly shape of this amphora, the fashionable, stylised manner of drawing, all illustrate the progressive decline into a manneristic style where exaggeration and distortion of the human form became commonplace.

055a Attic red-figure Pelike ca.350BC ht:42.5cm. BM.
Pelike, a jar for oil or wine. Shapes become less refined, even clumsy. The standards of pottery making and decorating fall dramatically by the end of the 5th century BC.

056 Faliscan ca.340BC. RVG
The restrained naturalism of the late 6th and early 5th centuries was gradually replaced by exaggerated poses, sentimental scenes and excessive ornament. Athens began the 5th century wealthy and proud; by the end of the century its power had vanished. Social unrest and wider political problems led to war between the city states. Trade and commerce became badly affected. Pottery design and decoration had blossomed into flower during the course of the early fifth century BC by the beginning of the next century it had lost much of its creativity.

057 Apulian Mid 4th century BC Lipari.
The vases characteristic of this later period are gaudier, with details added in white and sometimes in yellow-brown, gold, and blue. The subjects and treatment are often trivial and sentimental; and attempts at naturalism and depth perspective were always at odds with the pottery shapes. By the 4th century, the figured decoration of pottery had become a degenerate art, and it had died out in Athens by 320 BC.

Greek Pottery
Classical Shapes and Sizes

Greek pottery was manufactured in a variety of different shapes and sizes according to the use to which a particular vessel would be put. Below are line drawings illustrating many common types: alabastron; amphora; hydria; krater; kylix; lekythos; oinochoe; etc. Click on a shape to see an actual example from my tutorial. Most, but not every type is illustrated by an example.

Amphora Pelike Volute Krater Loutrophorus Calyx Krater Column Krater Bell Krater Stamnos Psykter Hydria Lebes Gamikos Lebes Lekythos Squat Lekythos Oinochoe Kantharos Kylix Stemless Kylix Skyphos Aryballos Alabastron Pyxis

Terracotta Sculptures and Figurines

058 An oil or perfume flask ca.540-530BC ht:10in. AMA
in the form of a kneeling boy binding a victory ribbon around his head - originally there was a gold or silver wreath. The head and body are hollow-moulded, the arms and legs solid. It is generally regarded as the finest Greek pottery figurine known; counterplay between naturalism and firm stylization, between the soft flesh and suggested bone.

059 Terracotta sculpture Zeus and Ganymede 500-475 BC. AMOThis fired clay ¾ life size sculpture depicts a story about Zeus,the father of the Gods, snatching up the boy Ganymede and carrying him off to become a cupbearer to the Gods on Mount Olympus.
Click for detail059a Detail: Head of Zeus
Relatively few large Greek terracotta pieces like this have survived. Even today the various modelling, moulding and joining of such large hollow pieces would be considerable. Further problems follow with such big pieces: drying, shrinkage and firing. It is probable that stone, particularly white marble, became the preferred alternative to terracotta, in Greece of the late 5th century onwards. Marble would certainly pose fewer problems to make and finish! In the next tutorial T7 you can see more examples of similar life-size terracotta sculptures made, from the 6th century BC onwards, by the Etruscans in Italy.

060 A terracotta head of the Goddess Athena ca.490BC AMO
This is all that remains of what was almost certainly an almost life-size statue of the Goddess. It would probably have been richly painted and placed in a shrine or temple. The style of sculpture and painting at the beginning of the 5th century BC. was approaching naturalism. The techniques for representing the eyes, the mouth and the facial muscles were as yet not quite resolved. The facial expression is often called "the Archaic Smile". Ten or twenty years later the Greek artists achieved a style of "ideal naturalism" which has been admired down the ages.

The Post Classical Hellenistic Age
Ceramic Masks and Figurines

061 Terracotta theatrical Mask 3rd c BC. Agora Mus Athens.
Clay masks both comic and tragic were used in the dramas performed on the stages of the outdoor theatres. Vast numbers of masks were made and usually painted with water-glue based colours which have now worn off.

062 Figurine of young woman. Tanagra. ht:24cm. End of the 4th century BC BSM AAG
This small terracotta figure still bears the traces of its original vivid watercolour paint. Its exaggerated height and sinuous and sentimental quality produce an extraordinary resemblance to mass-produced statuettes of the Virgin Mary produced two thousand years later all over Catholic Europe.

063 Tanagra type Terracotta, from Myrina 2nd c. BC. BM.
A pressmoulded and modelled small figurine of two women chatting. Such painted terracottas of domestic or sentimental subjects were popular judging by the numbers found. Bought to be used as decorative ornaments in the comfortable homes of the wealthy. They occupy the same niches as did the later 18th century porcelain figures or the less costly slipcast earthenware groups of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Potters and Potteries in Ancient Greece

The Smooth Shiny Finish
Classical Greek potters made the next significant advance in large scale pottery production since the invention of the wheel. They produced a wide range of purpose-made practical shapes, expertly made by throwing or moulding and smoothly finished by lathe-turning to give bold, often metal-like, forms. These were then decorated with a repertoire of attractive patterns and naturalistic images. Finally they were expertly fired in carefully controlled wood-fired kilns to produce the dominant characteristic colour scheme of Terracotta red and shiny black.

By the beginning of the 5th century BC. pottery-making in Greece was a mass-production business with a pottery-owner employing many workmen. Usually each clay worker had a specific and limited area of work; be it digging or refining clay. For potters there were more skilled jobs concerned with throwing, moulding, decorating and firing pottery. Ancient Greek pottery factories did not have coal, gas or electricity, nor the slip-casting possibilities using plaster of Paris, but I suspect they had a lot in common with much later early industrial potteries in Europe.

Later Comparisons
Potters in 5th century BC Athens or 18th century Stoke-on-Trent, England were both producing ware for large domestic and export markets. They shared many similar requirements and would have had many similar problems though over two millennia apart. Both needed to produce a range of repeatable shapes, high standards of finish and attractive, repeatable decoration. If we compare 5th century BC Greek Pottery and 18th century AD Staffordshire Pottery, using these criteria, each appears to have a lot in common.

Factory Conditions
It's sad to realise that Greek potteries were probably as dirty and dangerous as the 18th century ones in England. The pottery quarter of a town was almost a ghetto for potters. The lives of the potters would have been hard in both places.

In Greece many potters were almost certainly slaves. The pottery shape-designers and the painter-decoraters were treated with respect,some even achieved national fame; their working conditions and status were the highest in the industry. In Greece, some large, well finished and superbly decorated pots often had the names of both potter and decorator written on the side of the pot for all to see.

Victor Bryant©2001

    A Few Books of Interest:

  • The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History: Colin McEvedy.

  • Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art: Edited by Rene Huyghe.

  • Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient and Medieval History: Edited by Marcel Dunan.

  • Greek Pottery: Arthur Lane: Faber & Faber.

  • The Classical World: Donald E Strong: Landmarks of the World's Art series: Paul Hamlyn.

  • The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery: J M Noble: Faber & Faber.

In the next tutorial
Tutorial No.7. Etruscan Ceramics
we examine
pottery in Pre-Roman Europe including
the sculptural and architectural ceramics
of the Etruscans.

Adapted from the original versions which were written for my series of weekly illustrated lectures to ceramic students including those on the Harrow Studio Pottery Degree Course, Westminster University and The Central School of Art & Design, London UK from 1973 - 1994

Latest Revision for Web Page 19th September 2002
Victor Bryant ©1994,2002

Click to make a comment
or ask a question.

To Index Home Page