Victor Bryant is the author and editor of Ceramic
History for Potters website. Reprinted with permission.
© Victor Bryant.
The Greek City States - Classical
The maps should help you with the sites and geography. Most
reliable historical information can be found in the Encyclopedia
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
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
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.
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.
Mycenean Krater. ca.1395-1200BC BM.
On each side there is a stylized scene of warriors and a chariot
amidst stylized 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.
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.
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 emphasize 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
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
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.
An Attic Proto-Geometric shoulder-handled amphora. ca.1000BC.
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
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 checker 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
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 colored 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
Detail: Middle band of decoration.
This zone around the belly between the two handles is the center
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.
Attic Geometric Jug, late 9th century BC. BM
The subtle organization 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.
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 color.
A Geometric Pyxis(lidded box) Athens ca.850-800BC.BM
The lid of this pot has an elaborate and finely modeled handle.
It was a container used to keep some valuable jewelry or cosmetic
Detail: Intricate decoration
The simple but intricate zig-zag patterned decoration echoes
Attic Geometric Amphora Mid 8th Century BC. MSA
This is a large funeral monument. The decoration consists largely
of bands of geometric patterns, particularly the meander, checker
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.
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.
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.
Towards the Bottom: Geese feeding This 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.
Attic Geometric Amphora.Mid 8th century BC. ht:1.55m
This grave monument is huge, over one and a half meters 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.
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.
Lying-in-State Center 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 checker 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
Attic Geometric Krater. Second half of 8th century BC ht:1.23m
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
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 honor.
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
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 importance.
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 emphasized
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.
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
Detail of Charioteer, Chariot and Horse - Proto-Attic 'Lions'
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Rhodian Amphora decorated with a partridge. Rhodes ca.540BC
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 Egyptians too bought Greek pots. Apart from any food
and spices that came back to Greece from these eastern cities,
fine jewelry, 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
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.
A Stemmed plate East Greek from Camirus Rhodes, ca. 625-600BC.
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.
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.
Detail: Duck preening its feathers.
Look at the drawing of the legs and feet. Although worn, this
plate shows the use of new painting color.: dull, dry,grape
purple. The Corinthian Potters were to exploit this color. combination
and make it their own. Animals, birds and mythical monsters
on Syrian and Egyptian metal work and jewelry remain the most
common source of inspiration.
Corinthian Pottery in the 7th and
6th century BC
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.
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.
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.
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.
The middle of the flask is covered with ringed vignettes of
a variety of creatures many based on eastern motifs from decoration
on imported jewelry, ivory boxes or fabrics.
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.
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 color range, a matt
grape-purple iron slip was used - as in the reddish feathers
of the bird on this cup.
The Characteristic Mature Corinthian
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.
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 center 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.
Corinthian oil or perfume flask - Alabastron. ca.600-575BC.
BMA tiny perfume flask, just a few inches high, decorated
in the typical orientalizing style.
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.
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 color too can be seen well.
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