Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 November 2022

pottery, Greekfree

pottery, Greekfree

  • Karim Arafat
  •  and Catherine A. Morgan


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Greek Material Culture

1. General

Pottery is a primary source of evidence thoughout the Greek period. Pervasive and almost indestructible, its generally predictable development means that it provides a framework to which other arts can be related. The presence of clay in every region fostered local styles, whence trade patterns can be detected. Factors determining origin are clay, shape, and decoration, the latter varying from none (most cookpots, coarsewares, storage amphoras) to the elaborate mythological scenes exemplified by Archaic and Classical Athenian vases (see imagery). Recent advances in clay analysis have further refined provenance studies (see pottery, scientific analysis of). Regular inscriptions give names of potters and painters and clues to workshop organization (see pottery (greek), inscriptions on) as do excavations like those in the Athenian Agora, the area of Plato (1)'s Academy, the Potters' Quarter at Corinth, or Figaretto on Corcyra. Sir John Beazley (1885–1970) adopted Renaissance attribution methods to reconstruct the careers of many Archaic and Classical Athenian vase-painters, and to gauge master–pupil relations and workshop patterns. The method has been criticized as unduly subjective, but has been extensively applied to Etruscan, S. Italian, Laconian, and Corinthian pottery (D. A. Amyx, Corinthian Vase-Painting of the Archaic Period (1988)). Recent trends have moved from attributions towards the social significance of pottery, with renewed interest in factors influencing shapes, imagery, and composition, especially wall-painting (see painting, greek). Thus metalwork has been seen as a complete model for Classical vase shapes and decoration, although surviving examples do not permit this conclusion and literary sources are late. The Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (CVA) continues publishing vase collections worldwide. Recent advances in computing have facilitated access to extensive archives of Athenian (Oxford) and Corinthian (Amsterdam) vases; computers are now being used for profile and even figure-drawing.

2. Prehistoric

During the neolithic period, handmade burnished wares were characteristic over a wide area (e.g. Cnossus, Saliagos, Thessaly). The surface is sometimes blackened or reddened and may have relief, incised or impressed decoration (sometimes with white or red paste fill); ripple (MN) and pattern (LN) burnish are especially popular on Crete. On the mainland, painted (abstract linear) designs occur from an early stage; notable are the MN Sesklo (dark-on-light) and LN Dimini (light on dark and bichrome) wares.

In the early bronze age, dark-on-light painted wares with simple geometric designs dominate. On Crete, Ag. Onouphrios and Pyrgos wares (the latter with pattern burnish) were followed by the mottled Vasiliki ware. In the Cyclades, the Pelos phase (incised ornament) was followed by Syros (stamped and incised) with its characteristic sauceboats and frying pans. Mainland styles were dominated by burnished wares (initially similar to Cycladic). During the middle bronze age (when the fast wheel came into use), matt-painted wares were popular on the Cyclades and the mainland, and dark-on-light was fashionable on Crete. Influences of metalwork are widespread (eg. in mainland grey Minyan ware). During the late bronze age, dark-on-light returned, initially with a naturalistic, Minoan-influenced style (mainly floral and marine subjects), followed by more standard linear decoration uniform over a wide area. Hand-made burnished ware appeared during late LHIIIB, and there was a brief vogue during middle LHIIIC for the elaborate Close, Granary, and Pictorial styles. Thereafter Submycenaean wares were more austerely Geometric (P. A. Mountjoy, Mycenaean Pottery (1993)).

3. Historic

After the austere geometry of Submycenaean, the Protogeometric and Geometric periods (1050–700 bce) saw the addition of new shapes and motifs (notably the meander). From restricted beginnings, decoration came to cover the whole vase in horizontal bands. This period is characterized by local schools, notably Argive and Attic; here the 8th cent. saw the development of figure scenes, including funerary subjects (prothesis and ekphora), chariot processions and battles. From the 8th cent. onwards, it is possible to identify ‘hands’ such as the Dipylon Master (J. N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery (1968)).

From the late-8th cent. the Geometric style developed into Orientalizing, with the addition of motifs including florals and animals (real and fantastic) which replaced Geometric patterns. Although silhouette continued, the black-figure technique (invented in Corinthc.720) was most innovative; here lines are incised into a silhouette, with the addition of red and white. The human figure was drawn with increasing naturalism, and mythological representations become complex. The chief 7th-cent. fabrics are Proto-Corinthian and Proto-Attic; contemporary is the peak of the island and East Greek schools (A. Lemos, Archaic Pottery of Chios (1991)). A mid-7th-cent. series of vases of various schools may reflect contemporary free-painting, using such elements as a brown paint for flesh and mass battle scenes (e.g. works of the Corinthian Chigi (MacMillan) Painter).

By 600, black-figure was fully established in Attica (J. D. Beazley, The Development of Attic Black Figure (1951/1986); J. Boardman, Athenian Black-Figure Vases (1974)), and by soon after 550 Corinth, Athens' main rival, had effectively ceased producing figured wares, continuing with the patterned ‘conventionalizing’ style. Athenian potters produced a wider range of vases, introducing such shapes as the volute- and kalyx-krater, and a range of cups, such as the Siana, lip, band, and types A and B, which are among the finest of Attic potting. Notable among painters are Sophilus, the first whose name we know (c.580–570), Nearchus (c.570–555) and his son Tleson, and the rivals Execias and the Amasis Painter (c.560–525). The regular practice of inscribing vases is of inestimable value: the words epoiesen and egrapsen probably name the potter and painter, although it is possible that the former indicates the workshop owner, often the head of an extended family.

Around 525, the red-figure technique was invented at Athens, possibly by Psiax or the Andocides Painter (perhaps the same man as the black-figure Lysippides Painter) (M. Robertson, The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (1992); J. Boardman, Athenian Red-Figured Vases: the Archaic Period (1978), Athenian Red-Figured Vases: the Classical Period (1989)). Other innovations of this period include Six's technique, coral or intentional red, and white ground. In red-figure the decoration is left in the clay colour, and the background painted black; inner details are painted with lines of varying thickness. The use of the brush rather than the engraver allowed greater fluidity of drawing. Accessory colours are used sparingly in the 6th cent., white becoming common towards its end. The first generation trained in red-figure (c.520–500) Beazley called the Pioneers (e.g. Euphronius, Phintias, Euthymides); they are characterized by adventurous anatomical depictions. Late Archaic vase-painting saw further advances by, for example, the Berlin and Cleophrades Painters (who preferred large vases), and the cup specialists Duris and the Brygus Painter. Black-figure continued in quantity until the end of the Archaic period and, for Panathenaic prize amphorae, until the 2nd cent. bce.

In the early Classical period, some vases of the Niobid Painter and others reflect the free painting recorded in literary sources as current in Athens and elsewhere in the works of such artists as Polygnotus and Micon (c.475–450). The later 5th cent. saw the ornate miniaturism of the Meidias Painter (L. Burn, The Meidias Painter (1987)) and others, often featuring boudoir scenes. There is a parallel, broader tradition exemplified by the Dinos Painter. White ground, at first mainly on cups, is used in the later 5th cent. for funerary lekythoi, often painted with delicate colours (D. C. Kurtz, Athenian White Lekythoi (1975); L. Wehgartner, Attische Weissgrundige Keramik (1983)).

4 th-cent. vases are characterized by greater use of accessory colours and gilding; red-figure ceased by c.320 but although much late work is poor, artists such as the Marsyas and Eleusinian Painters (c.350–330) gave unprecedented depth to their figures. In the late-4th cent., fineware production was restricted to cheap clay substitutes for the costly metal vessels which suited Hellenistic taste. Painted decoration was limited to floral scrolls and patterns: both light-on-dark and dark-on-light styles are found, but painted wares are secondary to the new metallic styles in which relief ornament predominates. Moulded reliefs may be added to wheelmade vases or vases may be thrown in a mould (e.g. the particularly widespread Megarian bowls). During the 3rd cent., the black ground colour inherited from Athens was modified in E. Greece into red or bronze, and thence developed terra sigillata, the standardized fine pottery of Roman times.

In Italy, painted wares imitating the contemporary Greek styles appeared from the 8th cent. bce, and by 525 native pottery was largely displaced by Greek (mainly Attic) imports and local copies. Independent schools of pottery in Apulia borrowed painted techniques from Greece, but remained local in style. Red figure production began in S. Italy about 440, perhaps introduced by immigrant Athenian potters. There are five main schools: Apulian, Lucanian, Paestan, Campanian, and Sicilian (A. D. Trendall, Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily (1989)). A considerable output of vases, often large and elaborately decorated, continued into the early 3rd cent. Their inspiration was initially Athenian, but they increasingly diverged; their iconography owes much to the theatre, especially the ‘phlyax’ vases (A. D. Trendall and T. B. L. Webster, Illustrations of Greek Drama (1971); O. P. Taplin, Comic Angels (1993); see phlyakes). In Gnathian (mid-4th to early 3rd cent.), the pot is painted black and decoration added.

In Hellenistic times, Apulia and Campania were the chief areas of production. Light-on-dark painted ware and vases with applied reliefs were most popular. Alexandria (1) was the principal source of inspiration, and Italy was long uninfluenced by E. Greek experiments in red glazes and moulded wares; after 30 bce, however, it took the lead with the appearance of Arretine ware. See amphorae.


  • R. M. Cook, Greek Painted Pottery (1972).
  • B. A. Sparkes, Greek Pottery (1991).
  • J. Y. Noble, The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery (1965/1988).