Greek Pottery

Although we all usually associate ceramic only with amphorae and drinking bowls, the Greek culture is much richer in form and ornament than we normally think. And the development takes place over a much longer period than just the classical or Hellenistic period.


There are an almost uncanny number of standardized forms which are commonly divided into various classes. The vessels are divided into those for drink, mix, transport and storage, for ointments and oils, as grave gifts and for special occasions etc. In this article, of course, not all possible designs can be described and so we consider only the most common forms.


The nomenclature for the structure of a vessel is analogous to the human anatomy. A vessel stands on its foot, has a belly, a shoulder, and a neck, and possibly ends in a lip.

Transportation Vessels

Perhaps most famously is the Amphora. It did not necessarily have a foot, but it was often stacked, buried or held by a frame. The most common types were the abdomen and the neck amphora. While the first bulges very far at the, the handles of the second go far beyond the shoulder. The neck is as narrow as the lip, so that the vessel can be closed with cork or a lead seal. The hydria was used for transportation. This particular design has two horizontal handles and a vertical so that you could carry them, but also use it for pouring. Neck and shoulders are clearly separated. This is different with the Pelike. It looks at first glance like an amphora, but has a more rounded belly and no clear shoulder.

Wine was not poured directly from the storage vessels, but diluted with water. Mixing vessels were used for his task. These include craters, which are aptly named after their respective shape. The so called Kolonettcrater is distinguished by its straight handles reaching from the shoulder to the lip. The ringed handles give the volute crater its name, while chalice crater and bell crater look very similar to their respective namesakes when placed on the lip. The Lebes refers to another form that requires no handle, except In its special form the Lebes Gamikos, which was a wedding pot. All mixing vessels share the wide opening to allow mixing and scooping in them. The wine was then served from a con, the Oinochoe.

There was also a wide variety of drinking vessels. The Kylix, a drinking bowl, Kyathos ,a single handle cup, or its big brother, the kantharos could be used just like a real cup that had two handles as previously mentioned, but not perpendicular (Kantharos), but were mounted horizontally instead. Such a cup is called Skyphos. Particularly outstanding forms are the Masto, which is formed after a female breast, and a Rhyton, a drinking horn that was modeled after animal heads and often had a small hole through which the drinks flowed out again. The Phiale plays an intermediary role between consecration and drinking vessel. In most cases these where shells. The term ointment vessel refers to a number of smaller vessels, where oils and ointments were stored and distributed. These include the Aryballos, Askos, Lekythe and Exaleiptron.

The vase painting

By no means were all vases painted. But those that were painted give us an insight today as to how the vase was produced, and sometimes even where. It started with figurative representation in the so-called Late Geometric period. These black painted silhouettes were hard to decipher, but you could figure out what was meant. In the Archaic period the so called black-figure vase painting emerges. The figures were carved into the pottery and then painted with a black tone color, which can be used to paint and nuances like the hair or clothing by means of dilution. During the 6th century, the plain representation, where the figures of a scene act only in a plane and the eyes are always painted in a frontal perspective, changes to a more realistic depiction of mainly mythological scenes. Also at the end of the 6th century, in the 30's, a new way of painting emerges. The red-figure painting reverses the previously used technique to paint all of the characters and uses only fine lines around the contours of the clothes. For a while, caused by the use of both techniques blingue vases, where both types are used on one vessel, usually on either side of a single piece. But in the 5th century, the red-figure painting pushes through and leaves black-figure vases only in the inferior region and as rewards in the Panathenaic contests. With the end of the 3rd century this phase of art ends and the vases become more colorful. Special forms in the classical period are the grave vessels, which are often designed white-figured.

The technique of firing

The technique for firing and painting used in the Archaic and Classical period is based on tone colors. The black color, called varnish also consists of clay that could vary in intensity by addition of water. To preserve the colors the way it should be ultimately, each vase had to be burned three times. The first, the so-called oxidative fire caused a red coloration of the entire ceramics. In the second, the reducing fire, this effect is reversed and everything becomes black. Only by the third, the deoxidizing fire, everything not painted with varnish is colored red again. The whole thing happened in certain kilns. They had a fire bearing cellar, which was connected by a perforated floor with the actual burning chamber. A deduction made sure for supply and flue, while side openings were opened in the last burn phase to supply oxygen again.