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7. Pre-Roman Europe & Etruscan Ceramics
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The Early European Tribes
001 Rounded pot with human figure in relief. ca 4000 BC ht:25cm Bavaria, Germany PSM.
002 Clay female figurine ca.3400 BC. ht:15cm Moravia,Slovakia. MMS.
Neolithic Pottery in Europe
007 Late Bronze Age globular coiled vessel BM.
Although the top part of this coiled hand-built pot is missing, the form is strong and decorated with bold curving linear patterns well fitted to the shape. Thin ridge-marked rings are made using worms of rolled clay. The boss-like swellings and the smaller lumps are raised by careful pressing from the inside. This incised line decoration may imitate similar patterns on a beaten copper or gold metal vessel. It was a grave offering, so probably contained food or drink.
008 Horned animal-shaped pottery vessel. ht:13cm Hrub-cice, Czechoslovakia. ca.1100 BC Urnfield culture OC.
Few pottery vessels in the shape of animals or humans have been found from Bronze Age Europe. The function of this pot is probably to drink from or to pour from; perhaps for pouring out a consecrated liquid.
009 Jar of smooth surfaced clay with small ring handles and pushed out bosses. ca.1400-1100 BC Lusatian culture Bronze Age. Spreewald E. Germany BM.
This extraordinary jar once again demonstrates the striking effects achieved by these early European potters with only simple tools at their disposal. A range of more elaborate pottery styles began to emerge in central and northern Europe. Like this one, pots are now generally dark gray or black, often with a shiny finish. We don't know the reason for this change; potters may have been trying to imitate the appearance of metal objects. By 1000 BC trade in metals and other goods across Europe had increased and was still growing.
010 Large scratch-decorated dish, part blackened with graphite. ca.700 BC Hallstatt culture BM.
This dish and the following two examples show similar decorative techniques. The body is made from a common red clay. Incised lines produce the simple geometric decoration, heightened by the contrasting areas: red and black. The red colour is the clay body itself; the black areas were produced by rubbing in graphite and then polishing. The patterns are triangles and a star shape around the boss in the centre. It is quite possible that all these dishes imitate more valuable objects in beaten copper or bronze. The basic dish shapes suggest that they were made by press moulding in a metal, baked clay or a wooden mould. Graphite(used as a lubricant and in pencils today), can still be found in ancient metal ore mining areas of Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany.
011 An impress-decorated dish with concentric steps. ca.8-7th century BC Hallstatt culture. BM.
The impressed decoration was probably made with wooden sticks or hollow plant stems. The form and patterns still simple and geometric, but the border, with its large outlined diamond shapes filled with impressed dotted circles, produces a rich, dense effect and contrasts well with the inner rings of black graphite and dotted circles on the steps towards the centre.
012 Large cone-shaped pot with outward turned lip. Incised and impressed ornamentation, parts blackened with graphite. ht:26cm ca.700 BC Hallstatt culture.Baden-Württemburg, Germany. WLS.
This large coiled pot has immediate impact because of both its lively swelling form and the bold contrasts in the decoration. The band of circle pattern repeats, under the neck, strengthens the outward flare of the graphite blackened rim. Around the belly of the pot are deeply cut and lined diamond shapes. These frame clusters of tiny nested circle patterns. The final touch, after firing, was to apply bold brush strokes of the black powdered graphite. When polished the graphite would have a metallic quality dramatically enriching the whole shape and the patterns.
013 Shiny black pottery jug, incised decoration filled with white slip. ht:10cm Hallstatt ca.700 BC. Bavaria, Germany PSM.
A simple but effective decorating technique. When the shape was finished and the handle applied and the pot still damp, lines, circle and triangle marks were repeated incised or impressed in prearranged and marked areas. A white clay slip (with a butter-like consistency) was then carefully applied to fill all these indented patterns. After allowing the pot to dry slowly until somwhat firmer, but not dry, the pot would have been carefully scraped to reveal the crisp contrast of clays. The final touch, after firing, was a careful application of graphite powder to the darker clay body, with a fine brush, followed by polishing to produce the dense black metallic effect contrasted with the white slip.
014 Large painted pottery bowl with stepped cross-section. Impressed decoration diam:54cm Hallstatt ca.700 BC. Baden-Württenberg, Germany. WLS.
The multitude of impressed marks and painted shapes produces a rich and intricate design which suggests a valuable metal original was being copied. It is quite possible that a metal bowl was used to obtain the stepped form. The salmon coloured terracotta body is highlighted by a red iron rich slip and the dense black graphite paint.
015 Small globular bowl. Slip painted and burnished. ht:9.5cm Hallstatt ca.700 BC. Bavaria Germany PSM.
This little bowl is brush decorated with red and cream/white slip. The zig-zag and triangular patterns are not new, but brush painting is. The black colour now appears to be a clay slip which fires black rather than rubbing in graphite after the firing.
016 Clay bowl with horned handles and human feet. Bowl ht:8cm ca.700 BC Hallstatt culture. Lednice, Moravia, Czechoslovakia. MMB.
A strange little bowl which may have a religious or symbolic significance. The blackish slip (containing iron and possibly manganese or copper ore)is brushed on. This finish is a more permanent ceramic technique to imitate a metal object instead using graphite. A similar black-brown slip was used by the Mycenaeans and the Greeks for painting on their pots See T.5 & 6.
017 Lentiform clay bottle with impressed patterns and engraved animal frieze on the shoulder. ca.500 BC La Tène culture. Matzhausen, Bavaria, Germany. MV-FB
Definitely thrown vessels now. This lens-like shape is stable when filled and quite elegant. The black slip is scratched through and stamped to make the decorative frieze of animal line drawings around the upper face.The animal drawing is simple and stylised, strangely similar in style to very early Greek brush drawings some 3-600 years before. See T.5 & 6.
019 Painted Urn from Prunay, N.France Late La Tène culture 5-3rd century BC Ht:12.2cm BM.
This is made of a buff-red clay and painted with a darker slip. This magnificent design in broad lobe leaf-forms and scrolls is an example of the return of the curvilinear style favoured by some earlier cultures. It gradually becomes a characteristic of Celtic decoration in Northern Europe from the time of the late Tène culture
020 Large globular jar fine slip decoration ht:36cm Late La Tène ca.100 BC. Basel Switzerland. HMB.
An excellent example of Celtic pottery decoration before the Romans conquered Gaul. This curvilinear style of red slip painting gradually replaced the earlier black, angular, geometric style in Northern Europe towards the end of the millennium. The top half of this finely thrown globular pot is slip decorated with swirling, undulating, linear forms characteristic of this style we now describe as Celtic.
021 Villanovan Cinerary urns and other grave gifts. ca. 1000 BC. MCB.
The Early Iron Age culture in Northern Italy, is named after the village of Villanova, near Bologna, where in 1853 the first of the characteristic cemeteries was found. The Villanovan people, probably a branch of the cremating Urnfield cultures of eastern Europe, migrated over the Alps and settled in the Po valley of Northern Italy during the 10th or 9th century BC. They almost certainly formed part of the ancestry of the Etruscan culture which appeared in northern Italy a century later.
022 A Large Cinerary Urn with Helmet Lid. Villanovan Culture VJR.
Large coiled urns, with bowl shaped lids representing a warrior's helmet, were generally used for cremation remains. Often black slipped or smoked, urn pottery was sometimes incised decorated with geometric patterns and then burnished. Often there was a single handle at the fattest part of the pot.
023 A Large Cinerary Urn.ca 1000 BC. MCB.
There does seem a mix of influences in Villanovan pottery. Here an oxidised light coloured body was covered with rows of stamped patterns, mostly small circles and spirals, but there is a more complex pattern, perhaps made with something like a metal ring or broach. These are probably symbols with some religious significance. Villanovan Culture VJR.
024 A Large Cinerary urn. The helmet lid edge here is decorated with animal figures. Villanovan Culture AMB.
The earliest burial rites were usually with cremation; the ashes of the dead were often placed in shiny black bi-conical urns and covered with a bowl-like lid. Patterns or symbols were incised into the sides of the pots and often the handles were modelled into animal shapes.
025 Detail: The helmet lid edge with animal figures. Villanovan Culture AMB.
The lid of the urn was sometimes a pottery imitation of a helmet. Such lids are related to the helmets of eastern central Europe. The animal figures probably represent horses, which could symbolise status and wealth.
026. Cups joined with animal handle. Villanovan Culture AMB.
Probably a double vessel with a food offering for the dead. The animals forming the handle were probably of some status or religious significance like those on the helmets.
027 Small grave object with modelled ducks and two holes - for rope? Villanovan Culture AMB.
The shiny blackish finish so often seen in Hallstatt and Villanovan pots appears to me to be progressive stages or versions of the black reduced iron slip refined over centuries all over central and eastern Europe. The technique was then carried south through the Balkans to Greece by the Mycenaeans and further refined. The Greeks of the 8-6th centuries BC improved their clay slip refining and kiln firing techniques until they produced that ultimate deep shiny black slip they used in Classical Greek times.(See T.6.)
029 A Large Cinerary. Villanovan Culture VJR.
The decorative incised lines and impressed circle patterning are more distinct on this jar. The band of meander patterning is surprisingly similar to the geometric ornament and symbols used by the early Greeks.
031 Cinerary Urn with modelled figures and decoration. ca.750 BC. Monte Scudaio, Volterra. MAF.
This cremation urn is again decorated with geometric symbols reminiscent of designs on Greek geometric pottery. They are however bolder and separate symbols rather than a repeat decoration. We do know that the swastika ,the basis of the symbol seen here, was in prehistoric times often a Sun sign, but with innumerable variations in mythological and religious meaning.
032 Two-handled cup from Benacci-Caprara cemetery near Bologna. Villanovan/Etruscan ca.720B.
The earliest Etruscan pottery seems to have much in common with the so-called Villanovans but in this case perhaps Greece too. The form, the black slip and the simple scratched line decoration suggest links with contemporary Greece. However, by the eighth and seventh centuries BC many more outside influences were reaching the Italian peninsula. Examples of Assyrian, Egyptian, Cretan and Greek art successively reached Italy with the Carthaginian traders and the Greek colonists.
033 Bucchero (black-ware) Jug. Etruscan ca.600 BC
There is a fluency in the style here which suggests Greek influence. It is quite possible that Greek potters did have workshops in the prosperous Etruscan ports and cities of the late 7th and 6th century BC.
034 Etruscan cinerary Urn in "Bucchero". Black, highly polished and resembling metal. ca.700-550 BC. Chiusi, Etruria.CMB.
The black highly polished metallic surface - termed by archaeologists "bucchero" - was very similar to the shiny black slip glaze used by the Greeks. Only skilled potters could produce this quality. Such pots were expensive and became valuable funerary gifts. Notice the bird modelled on the lid, probably representing the spirit of the person whose ashes were in the urn. This may have been adopted from Greek funeral customs. The decoration on the body of the pot echoes the Greek orientalising style with its processions of real and imaginary creatures, but Etruscan potters stamped these figures onto the leather hard clay walls using stamps made of wood or fired clay. The figures here are raised in relief, not brush painted. Stamping and press-moulding are a feature of Etruscan ceramic technique. In the tombs at Chiusi faces were moulded on the pottery urns, and in time the whole head was modelled. Such figure modelling on funerary pots was essentially Etruscan, not Greek.
036 Part of a Red-figure jar from Spina ca.490 BC NMF
The painting of an angry lion is probably by a Greek Painter. Spina was founded by the Etruscans when they reached the Adriatic late in the sixth century BC. It became a centre of trade with the Aegean and many Greek traders settled here.
037 A Bell-shaped cup from Spina, fourth century BC.NMF
Pottery made by local craftsmen has been discovered at Spina together with Greek imports. This local pottery often carries painted sketches of women's faces. The design on this pot is bold and attractive though it could appear crudely provincial after seeing Greek vases.
038 Another local Etruscan (Adriatic type) jug, fourth-third centuries BC NMF
Once again one sees the different approach from the Greek style in these locally made pots. It has a pleasing sturdy shape and lively decoration, An outline sketch of a woman's head is made in a swift free line with a brush .
039 A small perfume jar 4th century BC Southern Italy. CMSOT
A little jar decorated more in the late Greek style except for the large drawing of a woman's head. There is considerable detail here; gold or silver earrings, perhaps a pearl necklace and a very elaborate hair style. Such a drawing shows the elements of a portrait style which was to be adopted by the Romans.
040 A cinerary urn with a lid in the form of the dead man's head. from Cetona 550-500 BC MAF
We have already seen examples of Etruscan pottery with faces. Here we see a cremation urn which becomes a simple representation of the dead man in clay: the lid becomes a head and the handles arms - even hands and fingers. In the 6th century BC the craft of modelled and moulded pottery and sculpture evolved rapidly as Etruscan cities grew wealthy with trade.
041 Terracotta Sarcophagus from Tomb at Cerveteri ht:100cm ca.530 BC. Cerveteri, Etruria, Italy. VBR.
Often called the sarcophagus of the husband and wife. This magnificent piece of ceramic figure sculpture is nearly life-sized. Such pieces would be a considerable technical undertaking. Even today the making and firing of such pieces would be a major work. It was made in two pieces. All of this indicates the talents and expertise of these Etruscan craftsmen in the 6th century BC, when this civilisation was at its peak.
042 Detail of the two heads: Terracotta Sarcophagus from Tomb at Cerveteri ht:100cm ca.530 BC. Cerveteri, Etruria, Italy. VBR.
The figures are probably portraits of real people, who are shown happy and united in death. They recline on the lid of the sarcophagus as though on a couch at a banquet. They would have held drinking cups in their hands. The strong modelling of the eyes, the gently smiling lips and other details show the sculptural influence of early classical Greece.
043 A back view of the Terracotta Sarcophagus.
This back view shows the work was conceived as fully three-dimensional. A married couple lying on a soft couch - propped up with cushions when dining. Great care has been taken to portray details; the costume folds, the woman's shoes, the man's feet.
044 Detail of the back of the figures: Terracotta Sarcophagus. VBR.
This detail shows more clearly the braided hair, the woman's fitted cap, the soft cushion, folds etc. A truly superb piece of ceramic figure sculpture.
045 Painted ceramic head of a girl from the eaves of an Etruscan temple roof. One of a series of ornaments used to hide the joint between the tiles. From a temple or shrine at Caere ca.530 BC BM.
Made about the same time as the previous sculpture. Apart from the fired black slip, such figures were also brightly painted with water-glue based pigments after firing. In many the colour has faded or peeled off, but this example has retained some.
046 A small model of an Etruscan temple found in a tomb ht:20cm. VGR.
The influence of Greek temple architecture is clear. However, the "engaged" columns built into the sides of the walls are not Greek. Other details of Etruscan temples differ from the Greek and many of these were later adopted by the Romans. A brick and wood structure with terracotta figures and press-moulded architectural details are common Etruscan materials in architecture. Generally, marble stone was not the material of choice. For more, see Background: Temples.
048 Antefix from 6th-5th c. BC temple of Juno at Lanuvium. ht:38cm
These decorative terracotta objects were originally painted in bright colours and used at the edges of the temple roof to mask the ends of the wooden beams. Very little remains of the wood and brick temples, but excavations have brought to light some of the terracotta ornament which covered the entablature. We do not know the symbolism of the figures.
049 Part of a nearly lifesize figure group of terracotta figures which stood on the tympanum shelf (triangular gable roof platform) of a temple at Pyrgi. ca.460 BC VGR.
The scene illustrates a battle between mythical heroes with the Gods, Athena and Zeus, looking on. It must have been a complex ceramic undertaking both making and firing. Making such architectural ceramics was a large industry.
050 A near complete lifesize ceramic figure of Apollo made by Vulca and from Veii. ca.500 BC. VGR
This tall striding figure stood high up on the tympanum shelf of the temple together with a figure of Herakles and a stag. All were modelled and moulded in clay to become lifesize hollow ceramic figures. They would have been painted or perhaps gilded.
051 Two terracotta winged horses from a temple in Tarquinia. 4th century BC NMT.
These beautifully modelled and moulded horses were part of the decoration of the main beam which forms a shelf (tympanum) at the gable end of a temple. The "Ara della Regina" temple, Tarqinia, built in the second half of 4th century BC.
052 Life-size Head of the God Hermes from Veii. ca.500 BC VGR.
Part of a full statue which stood on the temple roof. The enigmatic smile reminds one of Archaic Greek statues, but the resemblance is only on the surface, for the two cultures are worlds apart.
053 Part of a sculpted ceramic head, probably Zeus .Traces of paint showing. ca. 520-480 BC. VGR.
Following the Greeks, the Etruscans adopt their ideal figure naturalism. More natural looking eyes, full lips and beard of a senior God.
054 Terracotta head of a male god from the Belvedere temple in Orvieto ht:27cm ca. 450-400 BC.
Another patrician figure. Moulded in pieces and joined together. Traces of paint show that it was coloured after firing.
055 Part of the head and torso of a near lifesize ceramic figure of a young god. ca.3rd century BC. VGR.
Broken pieces of a ceramic figure showing the hollow structure and expertise of the ceramic sculptors.
056 Head and torso of Apollo. Part of a sculpture showing the young god driving a chariot. From a 3rd century BC Etruscan temple at Civita Castellana. VGR.
This fragment of a figure, like the last, illustrates the high technical quality of this work. The problems they needed to solve whilst making such large figures in baked clay would have been considerable. On a public level the figure style follows the Greek development closely; an idealised form of naturalism.
057 Ceramic Figure reclining on sarcophagus lid
By this time merchants and artisans were also able to afford elaborate tombs. Much of the work was now mass-produced copies from the same press-moulds. Details, like the face, might be individually modelled. The quality and finish tends to suffer, though technically the press moulding, drying and firing techniques are still a ceramic achievement.
058 Terracotta funerary burial urn ca.150 BC
Complex press moulding involved here, but this is the kind of urn often used by slaves, freed men and artisans, as can be seen if you can read the inscriptions. They were made from moulds and produced in large quantities. Fragments of the bright water-glue colours, painted on after firing, can still be seen. Most of them are surprisingly small in size!
059 Terracotta death mask of a man ca 300-200 BC. BM.
The actual face of a real person at death - a death-mask. Etruscan portraiture had a realism that we do not see in Greece. Unlike the Greeks the Etruscans preferred their portraits made as Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have wished, "Warts and all!". Actual death masks of the face made in plaster were often used to produce a mould which could be used as the basis a realistic ceramic portrait of the dead person. After press-moulding the face in clay from the death mask, the rest of the head could be less critically modelled to make a portrait like this one. When fired it would probably have been painted naturalistically with water-glue paint.
060 Terracotta head of old man. ca.30 BC ht:25cm VGR
This portrait of and old man is probably made, in part, from a face death mask. The hair line is sharp and less naturalistic than the lined drawn face.
Realism in ceramic figure sculpture and painting was an Etruscan contribution to Roman portraiture. However the most famous image and structure that the Romans adopted from the Etruscans, then developed and made their own, was the Brick Arch.
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.
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.
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
For latest revision date see top of page
Victor Bryant ©1994,2003