By Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
And the 64 million drachma question is, “Did the Ancient Greeks read comic books?”
Er, I meant comic scrolls, er tablets, er…um…you know what I mean: did they read graphic novels about scantily clad heroes, whose pecs and six-packs were made for lycra; whose superhuman feats reached mythical heights; whose tales were told in rectangular registers that were read from left to right; where a limited color scheme and sharp lines defined their form; and the odd word here or there gave clarity to the story unfolding?
Well, yes, they did. But…they weren’t reading books or scrolls or tablets – they were reading vases, jugs, urns and goblets.
Black figure jug with ibex, lion and other animals. Probably Corinthian, c. 600 BC. Archaeological Museum of Syracuse.
Ancient Greek Pottery is a wonderful source of information about the periods from the 16th Century down to the 4th Century BCE. It speaks to us through the shape each complete vase takes and how that shape changed over the centuries due to numerous factors. For instance, the rise in technology allowed the invention of a faster wheel, which enabled more slender designs. Foreign influence on vases made for foreign markets affected the vase’s style as well as changing cultural needs and tastes, e.g. making a transport vase easier to carry.
It also speaks of shifts in community consciousness through evolving decorative painting. From geometric patterns to the appearances of symbolic figures in public funeral processions to the retelling of myths to depictions of everyday life, the vases depicted it all. Yup, there was even pornography. The one constant over the centuries was that each vase was made to be used in a practical way – they all held liquid or grains – or were used as bowls to mix things in e.g., wine and water.
Mycenaean pottery krater decorated with a bull and egret, 1300–1200 BC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Not all vases were illustrated: some were glazed black while others retained their natural clay coloring, as can been seen in the large transport amphoras with their pointed bases. Illustrated vases were created presumably for those who could afford them, but also as prizes. What each vase held and its specific use isn’t always clear. We rely on vase painting of vases to learn what each shape was used for. Many have been found as grave markers and others in burials… however why the deceased was buried with a vase isn’t clear. Was it ritual or a possession the deceased held dear?
These beautifully painted vases were designed to be used in ritual as well as to beautify and instruct. For the most part, they were designed and painted for men and their subject matter depicted the heroic feats of males. Women were depicted going about their daily chores, such as spinning wool, but more often seen as goddesses or gorgons or other figures from mythology.
One side of a terracotta Panathenaic prize Amphora c.530BCE, created by the Euphiletos Painter
Lastly, from the Ancient Greek Dark Ages they showcased a gradually increasing awareness of creating art, as opposed to a purely religious pictorial statement that serviced a religious rite. Compare the plethora of Geometric vases depicting anonymous figures in their funerary processions with the illustration of red figure vases, which not only name their subject matter but may include the prideful claims to superiority of the vase painter over his rival. Specific artists and workshops were praised in the literature of the day and are still celebrated today for their innovation in drawing, design or preferred choices of subject matter.
So much is known about the emerging styles, workshops and artists that vases can be dated to within 20 years of their manufacture. Styles evolved, looked to the past, trading partners and other cultures around them. This is an overview of the beautiful, sometimes quirky, other times symbolic forms of Ancient Greek pottery.
This Mycenaean Krater was found in Cyprus in an Enkomi tomb and is illustrated with two griffins on one side and two sphinxes on the other, 13th-12th C BCE Found in Tomb 43, Enkomi, Cyprus. Now held by the British Museum, GR 1897.4-1.927. BM Cat Vases C397.
There are about 30 general vase shapes that were established on mainland Greece by the Mycenaeans (c. 1600-1100 BCE.) e.g., the amphora, krater, oinochoe. These vases were well rounded and believed to have been thrown on a potter’s wheel and fired in a kiln. They can be recognized in their white backgrounds and bold decoration in earthy red tones that often depicted sea life with fluid lines and clear details. The style was highly influenced by the Minoans with whom they had close ties. These vases disappear with the onset of the Ancient Greek Dark Ages.
Geometric (1100 – 800BCE)
Pottery provides the main source of evidence for the Greek Dark Ages, that period of time when severe climate change coupled with the Dorian invasion silenced Greek written record. Mycenaean palaces were abandoned and city states slowly emerged. This time period is characterized by the Proto-Geometric Period which arose in Thessaly and spread southward (c.1100-800 BCE). These vases were decorated with geometric lines and shapes – triangles, dots, chevrons, battlements, swastikas and straight-lined meanders. In Athens around the 9th Century the vases became taller, slimmer and had less of a belly. This was perhaps due to the invention of a faster potting wheel.
When simple, almost symbolic figures began appearing they were painted in a rectangular register, referred to as a zone, which spanned the curvature of the vase between the handles. Presumably because this is where the eye must fall when picking up the vase. As time went on rectangular zones on the belly of the vase would also be filled with human figures that were two dimensional and symbolic.
The Geometric style was monochromatic with the black design painted on a neutral coloured clay background.
Amphora, geometric style, Greek-Attic, c. 770-760 BC, terracotta – Blanton Museum of Art – Austin, Texas – DSC07649.jpg In Public Domain