Ancient Greek Pottery and Its History

July 29, 2021

NEW YORK – Ancient Greek pottery and its history was featured on the My Modern Met (MMM) website which promotes “a positive culture by spotlighting the best sides of humanity— from the lighthearted and fun to the thought-provoking and enlightening.”

Ancient Greek pottery “is one of the greatest archaeological survivors that offers a fascinating insight into one of the earliest human civilizations,” MMM reported, adding that from about 1000-400 BC, “Greek artisans crafted clay vessels for everyday use- think vases, cups, and plates,” and “many of these ceramics were decorated with narrative paintings that visualized stories of popular myths and early Mediterranean life.”

Examples of ancient Greek pottery may now be viewed in museums all over the world, “but these vessels aren’t only beautiful antiques,” MMM reported, noting that “they give us a glimpse into the lives, practices, and beliefs of a long-past culture.”

“Clay was widely available throughout Greece, but the most popular type was Attic clay,” MMM reported, adding that “due to high iron content, it had an orange-red color and a slight sheen when fired in a kiln.”

“Greek vessels were typically made on a potter's wheel in separate sections that were later joined together using clay slip- the body, the neck, the foot, and if necessary, the handles,” MMM reported, noting that “the potter then returned to the wheel to smooth the join marks and refine the final shape.”

The traditional pottery shapes include large storage and transport vessels, mixing vessels, jugs and cups, and vessels for oils, perfumes and cosmetics, since “Greek potters aimed to produce ceramics for practical use” and “once they found a shape that worked, it was reproduced and rarely changed,” MMM reported.

The large storage vessels included traditional styles such “the amphora, pithos, pelike, hydria, and pyxis,” while “mixing vessels were usually made in the shape of large bowls with no handles or feet” used principally for drinking parties, like “the krater and the dinos,” MMM reported.

“Jugs and cups sometimes had long handles to make them easier to pick up when lying down,” and “famous styles include the kantharos, phiale, skyphos, oinochoe, and loutrophoros,” while vases for oils, perfumes and cosmetics “usually had long necks and no handles” such as “the large lekythos, and the small aryballos, and alabastron,” MMM reported, noting that “despite the fact that Greek pottery was relatively restricted in shape, artistic freedom was achieved through decoration.”

“After the potter sculpted the vessel, it was handed to the painter to decorate it,” MMM reported, adding that “painters often worked in collective workshops under the guidance of a ‘master’ potter,” and “the majority of Greek vases are unsigned, but it’s believed that many individuals of the craft were extremely prolific.”

“In some cases, over 200 vases have been attributed to a single artist, identified through their distinct style,” MMM reported, noting that “these painters didn’t earn much, but their work was in great demand and sold throughout the Mediterranean.”

“To decorate the vessels, ancient Greeks used brushes to add black pigment that was made from a mix of alkali potash or soda, clay with silicon, and black ferrous oxide of iron,” MMM reported, adding that “the paint was affixed to the clay by using urine or vinegar which burned away in the kiln, leaving the pigment bound to the pot. In later pottery styles, details were often added with a thinned black paint which gave a yellow-brown or dark red hue after it was fired.”

The four main stylistic periods of ancient Greek pottery are: Proto-geometric, Geometric, Black-figure, and Red-figure.

“The Greek vases of the proto-geometrical period (c. 1050 to 900 BCE) borrowed their forms and decorations from the Mycenaean culture, where artisans mainly painted simple circles, triangles, wavy lines, and arcs onto earthenware,” MMM reported, noting that “each neat marking is perfectly placed to complement the curves of the vessel, leading historians to believe they were carefully rendered using a compass and brushes in different sizes.”

“From around 900 BCE, geometric art was flourishing in Greece,” and “the painted pottery style developed to include bold linear designs that are now instantly recognizable as ancient Greek motifs,” MMM reported, point out that “using black varnish, painters adorned ceramics with horizontal lines (meanders), triangles, circles, and zigzag shapes that wrapped around the entire body of the vase.”

“By the 8th century BCE, artisans began covering ceramics in stylized human figures, birds, and animals, painted in brown and black,” MMM reported, noting that “over time, the decorations became more and more ornate, and artists filled empty spaces with all kinds of motifs,” and “nearing the end of the 7th century… in Corinth… artists combined Greek motifs and representative illustrations with the curved lines of Egyptian and Assyrian pottery to produce their unique style of ceramics.”

“Black-figure pottery is perhaps the style that comes to mind when you think of Greek vessels,” MMM reported, adding that “the celebrated method was a Corinthian invention during the 7th century and spread from there to other regions, including Sparta, Boeotia, Euboea, the east Greek islands, and Athens” and “Black-figure pottery dominated the market for the next 150 years.”

“Around this time, many vase painters began signing their work,” MMM reported, noting that “many historians consider the finest work to belong to Exekias and The Amasis Painter, who are both noted for their expert painting skills and ability to tell a narrative through their art.”

“When the red-figure technique emerged, it was often seen in tandem with the black-figure style… sometimes, both techniques even appeared on the same vase,” MMM reported, noting that “by around 530 BCE, red-figure pottery took over and was the favored method that endured for the next 130 years.”


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