Time Periods of Pottery From Ancient Greece

Vases Supplement the Literary Record

Studying ancient history relies on the written record, but artifacts from archaeology and art history supplement the book.

Vase painting fills many of the gaps in literary accounts of Greek myth. Pottery tell us a good deal about daily life. Instead of marble headstones, heavy, large, elaborate vases were used for funerary urns, presumably by the wealthy in an aristocratic society that favored cremation over burial. Scenes on surviving vases act like a family photo album that has survived the millennia for us distant descendants to analyze.

01
of 07

Scenes Reflect Daily Life

Gorgoneion. Attic black-figure cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri.
Gorgoneion. Attic black-figure cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri. Public Domain. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Why does a grimacing Medusa cover the base of a drinking vessel? Was it to startle the drinker when he reached the bottom? Make him laugh? There is much to recommend studying Greek vases, but before you do, there are some basic terms connected with archaeological time frames you need to know. Beyond this list of the basic periods and main styles, there will be more vocabulary you will need, like the terms for specific vessels, but first, without too many technical terms, the names for the periods of the art:

Greek, Late 8th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Greek, Late 8th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC Flickr User clairity.

c. 900-700 B.C.

Remembering there is always something earlier and change doesn't happen overnight, this phase developed out of the Proto-Geometric period of pottery with its compass-drawn figures, created from roughly 1050-873 B.C. In turn, the Proto-Geometric came after the Mycenaean or Sub-Mycenaean. You probably don't need to know this, though, because....

Discussion of Greek vase painting styles usually begins with the Geometric, rather than its predecessors in and before the Trojan War era. The Geometric Period's designs, as the name suggests, tended to shapes, like triangles or diamonds, and lines. Later, stick and sometimes more fleshed-out figures emerged.

Athens was the center of the developments. More »

03
of 07

Orientalizing Period

Protocorinthian skyphos with winged genius and animals, ca. 625–600 BC.
Protocorinthian skyphos with winged genius and animals, ca. 625–600 BC. at the Louvre. Public Domain. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

c. 700-600 B.C.

By the mid-seventh century, influence from (trade with) the East (the Orient) brought inspiration to the Greek vase painters in the form of rosettes and animals. Then Greek vase painters began to paint more fully developed narratives on the vases.

They developed polychrome, incision, and black figure techniques.

An important center for trade between Greece and the East, Corinth was the center for Orientalizing Period pottery.

Black-Figure Attic Cylix With Athena Between 2 Warriors
Black-Figure Attic Cylix With Athena Between 2 Warriors. NYPL Digital Library

Archaic Period: From c. 750/620-480 B.C.; Classic Period: From c. 480 to 300.

Black-Figure:

Beginning about 610 B.C., vase painters showed silhouettes in black slip glaze on the red surface of the clay. Like the Geometric Period, vases frequently showed bands, referred to as "friezes," depicting separated narrative scenes, representing elements from mythology and daily life. Later, painters disbanded the frieze technique and replaced it with scenes covering a full side of the vase.

Eyes on wine-drinking vessels may have looked like a face mask when the drinker held the wide cup up to drain it. Wine was the gift of the god Dionysus who was also the god for whom the great dramatic festivals were held. In order for the faces to be seen in the theaters, actors wore exaggerated masks, not unlike the exterior of some of the wine cups.

The artists incised clay that had been fired with the black or they painted it to add detail.

Although the process was initially centered in Corinth, Athens soon adopted the technique. More »

05
of 07
Greek Red Figure Triptolemus, Demeter and Persephone from c. 470 B.C.
Greek red figure mixing vessel from c. 470 B.C. showing Triptolemus in a chariot with Demeter on the left who teaches him about grain cultivation and Persephone handing him a drink. CC Flickr User The Consortium

Near the end of the 6th century, red-figure became popular. It lasted until about 300. In it, black glossing was used (instead of incision) for detail. Basic figures were left in the natural red color of the clay. Relief lines complemented the black and red.

Athens was the initial center of Red-figure. More »

06
of 07

White Ground

Black-figure white-ground lekythoi of Beldam workshop 470-460 B.C.
Black-figure white-ground lekythoi of Beldam workshop 470-460 B.C. CC Flickr User clairity

The rarest type of vase, its manufacture started about the same time as Red-Figure, and also developed in Athens, a white slip was applied to the surface of the vase. The design was originally a black glaze. Later, figures were painted in color after the firing.

The technique's invention is attributed to the Edinburgh painter ["Attic White-Ground Pyxis and Phiale, ca. 450 B.C.," by Penelope Truitt; Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol. 67, No. 348 (1969), pp. 72-92].

07
of 07

Sources

Main source:

Neil Asher Silberman, John H. Oakley, Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell, Robin Francis Rhodes "Greek Art and Architecture, Classical" The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Brian M. Fagan, ed., Oxford University Press 1996.

See also:

  • "Primitive Life and the Construction of the Sympotic past in Athenian Vase Painting," by Kathryn Topper; American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 113, No. 1 (Jan., 2009), pp. 3-26.
  • www.melbourneartjournal.unimelb.edu.au/E-MAJ/pdf/issue2/ andrew.pdf "Athenian eyecups of the Late Archaic Period," by Andrew Prentice.