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Pottery

The art of making pottery was first developed in the Neolithic Period. Coils of clay were used to build up the body of the vase. The artisan would dig up the material from clay beds and get rid of impurities. This was done by a process called levigation- mixing the clay with water so that heavier particles sink to the bottom and lighter materials float on top. The clay might have to be washed several times before there was a sufficient quantity of suitable clay that could then be kneaded by the artisan into ropes suitable for coiling.

Around 1800 B.C. the potter’s wheel was introduced. As the wheel spun, the clay would be pulled up by the fingers into the required shape. Large pots were done in several sections and the sections joined together by slip (a mixture of clay and water). The joins on the outside of the vessel are usually not noticeable but they can often be seen on the inside of the pot. The foot, the spout and the handles were also produced separately. Like the body sections, the clay was allowed to dry until it had achieved the consistency of leather at which point they were joined with the slip. The parts are so well integrated in a quality Greek vase that nothing appears to be simply “stuck on”. If the vase was to be decorated (and common or coarse wares were not), it was done at this point.

There are dozens of types and shapes of pottery vessels ranging in size from small perfume flasks to containers which served as large tubs and coffins. Depending on the era and location of production the pottery exhibits a wide range of decoration.

Some shapes of Greek vases

Loutrophoros
Calyx Krater
Amphora
Loutrophoros
Calyx Krater
Amphora
Kylix
Oinochoe
Pyxis
Kylix
Oinochoe
Pyxis
Lekythos
Hydria
Volute Krater
Lekythos
Hydria
Volute Krater

The chronology of Greek pottery has been well-established. Even to the untrained eye, there is a very distinctive difference between a proto-geometric vase from Athens produced in the 10 th century B.C. and one produced in the same location in the 5 th century B.C. Here we will just deal with the Black-Figure and Red-Figure pottery for which Athens became justly famous, even in antiquity.

Black-Figure

Early in the 7 th century B.C. it was Corinth which was the political and commercial powerhouse of ancient Greece. Their leader was the tyrant Cypselus and under his leadership Corinth became the pottery export center of the Mediterranean. Corinthian potters invented a new technique of “painting” the vases which became known as “Black-Figure pottery”. It was a widely-sought commodity and in response to demand Corinth stepped up production. In the process, however, the quality fell and buyers clamoured for a better product. It was not long before the potters of Athens had mastered the Corinthian techniques. They also had the advantage of having ample clay beds with superior-quality clay which, when fired, turned an attractive pinkish-red. Soon their wares were being distributed all over the Aegean and even into North Africa, Asia, France, Spain and Crimea. The export of vases enabled Greece, a country with few exports, to be able to pay for the importation of badly-needed goods.

As was the case with Greek architecture and Greek sculpture, the Athenians excelled in attaining high standards for their ceramics. Functionality, guided by aesthetics and coupled with a penchant for quality control was the key. But it was the decoration that made Athenian pottery so renowned.

It is only in modern times that scholars have solved the mystery of what the black material is, in Black-Figure pottery. It comes from a highly purified clay containing iron oxides which, when fired in a particular three-step sequence, turns black. (In the first firing stage air is provided, in the second stage access to air is reduced and smoke is added and in the third stage air is one again allowed into the kiln.) Teachers and students who are interested in the ancient Greek techniques of pottery production and who want to compare examples might wish to access the following sites:

Red-Figure

Towards the end of the 6 th century B.C. the black-figure decorative approach was reversed. Previously the artist positioned his figures in black silhouette against the red clay colour of the pot. That meant that if he wanted to show details within the black figure the artist had to incise those i.e. scratch the design details into the black. Now, in the red-figure scheme, the figures are left in the natural colours of the clay. The artist then has the options f painting, doing a line drawing or incising. That enabled a much greater level of detail, allowed figures to be shown in the course of normal movements and permitted better efforts at achieving perspective. During the transition period from black-figure to red-figure, a number of vases were painting using both techniques to illustrate the same scene. Some of these have survived and clearly demonstrate the advantages of the red-figure technique although black-figure paintings by masters such as Exekias remain superb examples of Greek imagery at its finest.

White-ground vases

The majority of Greek vases shown in museums today are black-figure or red-figure but, in ancient times, there was significant production of all-black pots, devoid of any kind of figuring. There was also white-ground pottery where a slip of white clay was applied to a vase to act as a background for a line drawing. The white ground was fragile however and unsuitable for wares that were going to be handled a lot. It was however suitable for pottery, particularly the lekythos, used to hold ointments and oils intended for the use of the dead. These would be deposited in graves and so weren’t subjected to the handling of other kinds of pots. Scenes of mourning women seated at a tomb were typical for this kind of pottery.