First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – The Greek urn.
The Greek Urn – Introduction to Item 88
A few years ago we were lucky enough to be invited to a Greek wedding. The setting was a tiny town over the mountains from Thessaloniki, called Stomio. The guests added almost 50% to the local population. We spent five days on the beach, drinking cocktails, eating good food and celebrating.
We managed to have one day in Athens too, on the way home. That wasn’t long enough to see everything, but we did get to visit the Acropolis and wander around some ancient buildings. As a lifelong fan of the Greek myths and legends, it whetted my appetite for a longer trip. This tiny urn was bought as a souvenir to remind me to go back to Greece, and also to reread the mythology.
The History of the Greek Urn
Calling it an ‘urn’ feels a bit reductive. Vessels had different purposes, and would have been named accordingly. We know, for instance, that the Etruscans, who came before the Romans and were heavily influenced by the Greeks, were renowned for their beautiful pottery.
The Etruscan amphorae were often highly decorated and were placed in tombs to demonstrate the wealth of the deceased. The pottery was either covered with images from nature, or of bold deeds such as chariot racing. The Greeks put larger ones outside tombs to serve as markers.
What we would call an urn is an amphora, used for storage and transporting all manner of things. There were also jugs and cups, containers to mix things in, vases for cosmetics, perfumes and oils, for holding ashes, and sometimes they were modelled to resemble heads. Painted, they were given as gifts or awarded as prizes.
The amphora has two handles and a narrow neck. In the Geometric period, which was around 900BC, the neck and the body meet at an angle, and from the 7th century they were curved. The tiniest versions were known as amphoriskoi, and while there were very large ones, the average size was 45 centimetres.
A remarkable number of these vessels have survived, intact or in fragments, allowing us to date them to a specific time and region. We can see how both the craftsmanship and the styles changed over time, from the glazes and colours, the addition and shape of the foot of the urn, the handle/s and the lip and rim.
Black Figure and Red Figure Pottery
Ancient Greek vases and pottery is often easily identifiable by the striking, detailed painting of figures across the surface, which show scenes of domesticity, of battles or of the gods and goddesses. There are actually two distinct styles, now categorised as black figure and red figure.
Black figure came first, and was at its most popular between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, and vases in this style came mostly from Corinth and Athens. They were especially prized by the Etruscans, who were one the major exporters of the pottery; to the extent that the Greeks developed a particular style for goods sent to Etruria.
The backgrounds of the vessels were usually a sandy colour, against which the black silhouettes stood out clearly. The vases were painted and dried before the black figures were drawn on and details could be picked out in red and white. The potters were highly-respected business owners, and they created products that matched the fashions of the time. Sometimes they were also the painters, and other times they employed craftsmen or slaves to add the decoration.
It’s worth noting that the black colour is not actually paint as we know it, but clay (the same as the pots were made from), which turned a glossy black after firing. Firing was done in three stages, involving extremely high temperatures in the kiln and opening and closing vents to bring out the colours.
The black figure style was replaced by red figure, which effectively reversed the colours of the backgrounds and the images. It began in Athens in approximately 520 BC and was the dominant style until the end of the 3rd century BC. It was even more popular than its predecessor, and was shipped around the world.
The Etruscans mastered the techniques and were one of the major manufacturers of red figure pottery outside of Athens. Historians are able to identify which particular school a piece came from, and in some cases can even pinpoint the artists.
As with black figure, each item was fired three times, and the figures were etched onto the vase before the outlines were gone over with a fine brush. On some examples, the faint score marks can still be seen where the artist has decided to change the images slightly at a subsequent firing or decorating.
At one point, vases were produced with black figures on one side and red on the other, although this died out quite quickly. A group of artists described as ‘the pioneers’ began experimenting with foreshortening or painting the figures from the back or front, not just from the side.
As time went on, potters introduced different sizes and shapes, and there was a preference for fewer figures per vase, which led to a greater variety of scenes being shown. Eventually, the mythological heroes also fell out of fashion, with representations of real-life events preferred.
The History of Pottery
Pottery is older even than the Greeks, with regular production dating back at least to the Neolithic period (about 11,000 years ago) when people began to live in settlements. Clay was easy to find and work with, so our early ancestors chose it to make pots.
The purpose of these early vessels was simply to transport liquids, so they were roughly made – rings of clay were stacked one on top of the other, smoothed a bit and then fired under a bonfire. Once they had been used (often so farmers could irrigate their crops) they were discarded.
It’s possible that pottery may have come about by accident, with clay deposits in the soil hardening under bonfires, and this would explain why evidence of early pots has been found in different locations around the globe.
Fragments of pottery have been found in both Japan and China, dating to somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago, with the earliest example thought to be almost 20,000 years old, was discovered in the Xianrendong Cave in China. A nude figure of Venue has been found in the Czech Republic dating to between 29,000–25,000 BC.
It’s interesting that while pottery was first used for practical purposes, such as storage and transportation, it was also used almost simultaneously as art (as in the figurine example) and also as weaponry – arrowheads were also made out of clay.
Very early on in China, pottery was also used to make plates and serving dishes, as well as in religious ceremonies, so they mastered techniques to produce high-quality, decorative pieces. In Europe, the upper classes used metal platters, with porcelain only appearing after the Renaissance.