• Katherine Fortnum

Pottery of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek pottery, due to its relative durability, comprises a large part of the archaeological record of ancient Greece, and since there is so much of it, it has exerted a disproportionately large influence on our understanding of Greek society. The shards of pots discarded or buried in the 1st millennium BC are still the best guide available to understand the customary life and mind of the ancient Greeks.


Greek artists gradually solved the many problems of representing three-dimensional objects and figures on a flat or curved surface. The large number of surviving examples the result of a strong reliance on pottery vessels in a period when other materials were expensive or unknown.


The Greeks used pottery vessels primarily to store, transport, and drink such liquids as wine and water. Smaller pots were used as containers for perfumes and unguents.

Greek pottery styles developed and changed over time.


Geometric pottery

The earliest stylistic period is the Geometric, lasting from about 1000 to 700 BCE, there was a gradual appearance of animal and finally human figures. The figures were portrayed from the side and they had angular silhouettes and arranged symmetrically, usually in strips around the pot.


The pots made at this time were the earliest in Greek art to show narrative scenes from popular myths, particularly those about Heracles.


Asian motifs found their way onto all makes of Greek pots during the late 8th and early 7th centuries through a growing Eastern influence on Greek pottery painters. At this time new subjects appear including the sphinx, siren, griffin, gorgon, and chimera, as well as such exotic animals as the lion.


Black figure pottery

Athenian painters adopted the black-figure pottery style around 630 BCE but emphasised human figures rather than Oriental animal motifs as pictorial themes. It was during this period that the practice of signing of pots by potters and painters first became common.

Athenian pottery of the 6th century BCE often features narrative scenes composed of black figures painted on a light inset background panel, while the surrounding vase surface is a deep, lustrous black.

Red figure pottery

Red figure pottery is a style of Greek vase painting that was invented in Athens around 530 BCE. The style is characterised by drawn red figures and a painted black background.


Red-Figure pottery grew in popularity, and by the early 5th century BCE it had all but replaced black figure pottery as the predominant pottery type in Athens.



The figures were created in the original red-orange of the clay. This allowed for greater detail than in black-figure pottery, for lines could be drawn onto the figures rather than carved out. This made the painted scenes both more detailed and more realistic, and allowed red-figure painters the opportunity to work with greater perspective.


In black-figure painting, figures were almost always shown in profile, but red-figure allowed for frontal, back and three-quarter views, therefore creating a third dimension to the painting.


Like black-figure pottery, red-figure pottery was created in a variety of shapes for specific uses.

Did you know???

The Greeks believed that the goddess Athena invented the potter's wheel

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