The History of Pottery in Ancient Greece


Greece has been renowned for its early development in the fields of art, architecture, philosophy and others. Pottery is among the early works of art in the country. Many artifacts are still retained in the Greek museums and have significant value today. To the Greeks, these facts are a source of pride and heritage given that they were among the world’s earliest societies to develop. This is also a source of their history as this country pioneered in developing formal schooling. Pottery comprises of a large collection in the Greek archeological sites with over 10000 artifacts being held in their Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (Hopper 1986). The pottery works have been used to better understand the Greek society today and in the future. This is because there has been gradual decline in the ancient art works such as paintings (Martin 1992). However, the available pottery artifacts have been well preserved and will probably tell the history of Greece even to the future generations.

Pottery work in Greece had developed through several different periods. Evidence by archaeologists has been sufficient to suggest that there were at least five stages involved in the development of pottery in ancient Greece. The first recorded artifacts are believed to have been created approximately at the years 1050BCE. Since then other stages followed with finer and more attractive works being designed and created with the span of time. This paper will examine the five stages that archaeologists believe the ancient Greeks developed their pottery art through.

Protogeometric Period

Protogeometric stage of pottery development marked a re-emergence of the Greek society after their Dark Ages (Martin 1992). This stage was important in the social setting since it provided some sense of representation to the fallen culture of Mycenae Palace. This form of pottery is among the few art work that remains from the ancient Greece, apart from jewelry. There have been no other art works such as mural painting, sculpture or even monumental architecture, which are known to us today, that can be rooted to this period (Richard 1985).

Protogeometric styles of pottery are believed to have developed in Greek as a result of the settlements inhabited then. Their lives had fully become social and the majority of people lived in villages. As a result, different professions were developed and protogeometric pottery was among them. These styles were characterized by the use of different shapes depicted on the earthenware produced (Sparkes 1991). Such shapes included circles, triangles, arcs, and wavy lines. From the perfect circular drawings specialists determined that the Greeks were employing compasses and various brushes in the development of the earthenware (Papadopoulos, Vedder & Schreiber 520).

The earthenware from this first stage of pottery development, after the Dark Ages of Greek, have been recorded in Corinth, Boetia and Ionanian colonies that are situated in the Eastern part of Aegean. The main source of artifacts today is Lefkandi, where many artifacts from graves have been recovered. They suggest that protogeometric pottery style was in existence until during the early days of the 8th century (Richard 1985).

The Geometric Period (900 BCE)

This period is believed to have lasted since the years 900 to 700 BCE (Sparkes 1991). One may notice certain differences between the themes in the works from this period and the preceding protogeometric period’s artifacts. Unlike the predominantly used circles in the protogeometric style, this period applies many other geometric figures such as triangles, meanders and many others (Martin 1992). This prompted the derivation of the term ‘geometric period’. There remain art works that were recovered from the graves due to which archeologists can determine where exactly this style was developed. Archeologists have been able to differentiate artifacts from the Attic, island and mainland earthenware.

During the early stages of this period there have been records of significant black varnish usage. This was later followed by animal drawings that were identical and drawn in the form of a band. These animals included goats, geese and horses (Martin 1992). These new form of drawings led to the increased complications is drawings and patterns in the artworks. As the artists increased the drawings on the artifacts, there were spaces that were left blank and the artist filled them with swastikas or, at times, meandering patterns (Richard 1985). Later during the period, there were other figures introduced; these included human drawings. The widely known exhibit of this style is found in the cemetery of Athens in the form of a vase. It depicts the procession of people who seems to be going to a funeral, or people accompanying a chariot. There later appeared a theme of myths the Greeks believed in, depicting the events from Homer’s works and dealing with the Trojan cycle and Odyssey. There are drawings showing warrior confrontations, which could signify the Homeric duel, while other drawings depict shipwrecks, which could mean the ordeals of Odysseus.

Vases were exclusively produced in Athens while other areas, such as Cree and Corinth, followed the Attic style (Martin 1992). Each of the regions produced their own style of pottery. Argos, for instance, depicted figurative scenes, such as confrontations, while Cree was known to portray abstractive figures. In the course of time, schools to teach the people the art of pottery were developed in the different areas of Greece (Richard 1985). As every area specialized in a certain design, so did the schools that were founded within those area; this, consequently, greatly influenced the style of regional artifacts.

The Late Geometric or Archaic Period (750 BCE)

This stage was developed in the 8th and the 7th centuries BC. It was favored by the increased trade between the Asians and the East Europeans. The artwork of the time led to the increased use of decorations such as ivory and metal from Syria and Phoenicia. There were also increased outlets and interactions with the Egyptians; this led to the diversification of the decoration on the earthen artifacts from mere drawings and paintings to more sophisticated addition of material (Hopper 1986). There was also an intrusion of foreign cultures due to the trade interactions. The newly acquired themes in the works included the depiction of griffins, lions, and sphinxes (Sparkes 1991). All these are believed to have been obtained from the external regions. The new designs of animals were drawn on the artifacts in friezes across the wider part of the vase. During this period, there was a rare use of human beings figures on the earthenware.

At this stage, the centers of studying art spread and evolved, and even more sophisticated artifacts were designed (Martin 1992). The schools led to the increase in innovations since the artists were connected with each other and tried to develop new products of their trade. By the later stages of this period, there had already been many artifacts that were exported from one region to the rest of Greece. Corinth was among the areas that produced well acclaimed products. Their products were quickly popular within the rest of Greece and were distributed in the whole country. Their techniques were even adopted in other areas, Athens in particular.

The specific themes of the period were not as distinct as those from the geometric and protogeometric periods. The artists of this period started to repeat the themes of the previous periods, returning to chariots and processions. The only thematic difference in the works was witnessed among the creations from Crete; the earthenware products there were created with the neck in the form of a human or an animal head (Papadopoulos, Vedder & Schreiber 527). The wild goat style was introduced here and later spread throughout Europe.

The Black Figure Period (since the Early 7th Century BCE)

This pottery style was developed in Corinth in the 700 BCE. The potters from Corinth continued to apply the animal friezes that they retained from the previous period. They also carried forward the use of scenes on their earthenware, specifically on pots (Hopper 1986). Their works had very clear images and they started to include a dark slip on the artifacts. This made the works and pictures on them more detailed. After the Corinthians had discovered the style, they continued exporting their products all over Greece. In the process, the style reached Athens and the potters there adopted this black style as their own and claimed to ultimately ‘own’ it (Paul 9).

The artifacts designed during this period were of a rather interesting shape and appearance as they included a black painting on a red object. The distinction of the drawing on the artifact was, therefore, undoubted.  The drawings were in the form of silhouettes, since the outline was clear, but the rest of the drawing details were not included. Vases were the main product of the period (Martin 1992). During this phase, the earthenware was subjected to controlled heating in a kiln that involved two main stages – oxidizing and reducing (Sparkes 1991). Oxidizing heated the kiln to about 8000C and air was allowed in; the reducing stage involved heating the kiln to 9500C while the level of oxygen was reduced.

There were both animal and human figures portrayed on the artifacts. However, the usage of animal friezes gradually reduced and more human figures began to appear. The Athenians had, by now, taken full control of the style; thus, Corinthian artifacts looked like nothing more but the imitations of Athenian works. Dinos was one of the renowned vase painters during this period. The emergence of such people led to the increase in schools and scholars who sought to sharpen their skills in the art. This period was later masked by the red figure age that followed.

Red Figure Period from about 530 BCE

This period was fuelled by the Athenians after their ‘adoption’ of the Corinthian black style (Sparkes 1991). They improved the black style to produce more detailed drawings which inner details were perfectly seen and read. These drawings replaced the silhouettes through painting and not incision (Arthur 1989). At first both red and black colors were equally applied, but the usage of black color reduced with time. However, within a span of twenty years only, there was an increase in the red-figure style to an extent that the rest of the styles were forgotten and abandoned. A pioneer group led the exclusive use of the red style while the rest of the potters followed suite (Hopper 1986). The pioneers included people such as Euthymides and Euphronios. These artists competed between themselves and this led to their personal developments as well as paved way for other people to join the field. They have been termed as generational victors in pottery. The emergence of other painters, such as Darius, introduced a new element of emotions in pottery that none of his predecessors had attempted to accomplish during the earlier periods. Later pottery spread to the Greek colonies of the time such as Italy. Different regions produced artifacts that were distinctive and well differentiated from other regions.

By this time, schooling evolution had attained a high level that was recognized by every person in Greece. A formal education system had evolved and organized learning started to take course. Vases were the main items created by the potters (Paul 7). Later, around 330 BC, vase production in Athens stopped; his is mainly attributed to the invasion of Alexander into the city of Athens. When Athens stopped the production, the general pottery industry diminished and began to decay. This is because Athens had taken up the leadership positions for the production of pottery in Greece.

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