Ancient Greek Vases

Greek vases of antiquity are beautiful
Ancient Greek vases changed over time

Whenever I travel, I learn. In fact, for me, that is what makes travel such a worthwhile activity.

I decided to focus on ancient pottery during a visit to the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, Greece, which is one of the best in the world.

Today, we see changes in style in clothing and kitchenware. Every year some new fad or gadget changes the way we dress or cook.

In much the same way, during ancient times — before Christendom — styles were already a thing. I’m certainly no expert, so if you, my reader, are and I’ve made a mistake, please forgive and correct me. Anyway, here’s my attempt at a quick summary on ancient Greek pottery. Before we start, can you place the vases pictured above in chronological order? We’ll explain the answer here.

At the start, pottery had basic geometric decorations. Around the 8th century B.C., in Corinth, Greece, pottery began to be more finely detailed. From 720 B.C. to 630 B.C., trade in Corinthian pottery monopolized the Mediterranean markets.

Around 630 B.C., “black-figure” pottery developed around the Mediterranean as a refinement of the Corinthian style and lasted until 570 B.C. in what is called the “Early Archaic Period.” Until this time, the vases were largely the color of the clay used to make them, but during this time, vase figures started to be painted with black glaze and details were added in red or white. White was always used for flesh of women and they had almond-shaped eyes. Men’s eyes were round. Between figures, the gap was frequently ornamental, but this style (#2 above) gradually disappeared.

In what is called the “Late Archaic Period” from 530-480 B.C. (#4) the black figures were likely to be accompanied by red figures in which white and pinkish paint was applied against a black background in a technique known as “the Six technique.”

In the Early Classical period (480-450 B.C.) representations began to use what is called the Severe Style (#1), which abandoned former basic anatomy and clothing for a more grandiose figure. Some artisans in this period put their figures in different planes to achieve early renderings of depth and space.

This period was followed by the Classical Period from 450-415 B.C. (#5). During this time pottery reflected the monumental architecture being contemporaneously constructed, such as in the Parthenon, combining severity, monumentality and grandeur. The period is characterized by pottery that shows expressions of emotion and psychological expression. At the same time, vases of the Classical Period are likely to use delicate miniatures and decorative details.

By the 4th century B.C. newly developing trade markets in the Black Sea and the Iberian Peninsula led to changes in style to meet demand. Vases became slender, tall and curvier (#3). The rims were obviously turned outward and handles turned inwards. Popular shapes of vases of this period are categorized as the bell, the calyx krater and the pelike.

Meanwhile, in Corinth toward the middle of the 4th century B.C. (#6), the ability to produce fine pottery was affected by war. Pieces for everyday use became less decorative and more of a mishmash of styles, replacing distinctive styles which had been popular from elsewhere in the ancient world. So, the latter part of the 4th century B.C. sees very conservative vases with almost no use of added color, lack of daring and abandonment of different planes.

The distinction among various styles can be subtle. If you can master the basics, when you look at ancient pottery you may be able to roughly place it on a timeline based on its style. And just as you may keep some of your grandmother’s things in your home even though a bit outdated, finding a particular style of pottery in a particular place is not a guarantee that it was in use at the particular period of time indicated by its style.

What is best about this? It actually makes looking at ancient ruins fun!