Ancient Pottery of the Aegean

1. Protogeometric pottery

The multifaceted geographical and political nature of the Aegean islands during the first millennium resulted, amongst others, in the creation of a variety of pottery styles. Very few details are known about the production of pottery in the Aegean area during the Protogeometric period (1050-900 BC). Many of the vessels from this period, both from the Eastern Aegean and from Asia Minor, show an Attic influence confirming the historical tradition that these areas were colonised by Athens. During the later Protogeometric period (950-900 BC), a main element in the Cyclades was the influence from Euboea which resulted in the production of vessels which look remarkably like those from Euboea. A dominant position amongst them is held by the skyphos with hanging thumb-holds. It would take laboratory analyses of the clay for one to decide which of these vessels were produced in the Cycladic area, which were from Euboea and which were copies produced in other areas such as Syria and Italy, where examples have been found. This particular ceramic shape spans a very long period of time and some studies have placed it at the end of the 8th century BC.

2. Geometric pottery

During the next phase, the Geometric Period (900-700 BC), the potters of the Cyclades, the Eastern Aegean and the Dodecanese maintained their interest for Attic products, mainly large funerary amphorae. Copies as well as imports were common. During the mid Geometric Period especially (850-750 BC), when a type of cultural common ground was established, the vessels of the Aegean area look very much like their Attic equivalents. An interesting group was produced in Rhodes where the favoured shape is the krater with tall stem and geometric decorations contained within a metope (meanderings, tree of life etc.). During the last phase of the geometric period (750-700 BC), one observes the intense fragmentation of rhythms throughout the Hellenic area. In the Cycladic area, the workshops of Santorini and Milos flourished especially; they produced sturdy vessels (mainly kraters and amphorae with tall stem), while on Naxos and Paros pottery workshops maintained their contact with Attica. Of Paros especially it is worth mentioning the discovery of two mass graves at Polyandrio near Parikia which contained over two hundred vessels. Two of these are decorated with vivid battle scenes and are among the earliest representational depictions with narrative context in Greek Art. In Rhodes, during the late Geometric Period, potters finally moved away from the Attic influence: one observes the powerful influx of Phoenician and Cypriot elements in the island’s pottery production resulting from its geographic positioning between the East and Greece. Vessels of this order were exported in large numbers to the West, as witnessed by the famous Nestor’s cup (kotyle) with the earliest in verse inscription in the Greek language, found in the grave of a child of Phoenician birth at the Euboean colony of Pithikoussai in Champagne. Favoured shapes are spherical phialei, kantharoe and kraters with tall stem. Further north, on Chios, they copied the so-called skyphoe with birds, products which were found in Northern Ionia, while on Samos they maintained the Attic tradition with votive scenes and geometric kraters with tall stem and geometric decorations.

3. Orientalizing Period

During the Orientalizing period (7th century BC), the Aegean island workshops flourished. In many areas such as Chios and even in the Cyclades the production of sub-geometric vessels continued, favouring mainly the kotyle with bird motifs, in which the orientalized Corinthian shape is combined with geometric decoration and stylized birds. This category of vessels was especially popular in Italy where the seafarers of the Aegean were already intensely active. Sailors from Samos, Chios and Rhodes were among the most dynamic traders and founders of colonies, as much in the West as in the Black Sea and North Africa. The dominant trend however was, by now, the elimination of geometric decorations and their substitution with motifs imported from the art of the East: curved decorative shapes (rosettes, honeysuckle patterns, etc), which were combined with linear motifs and frame large and stylized figures of animals grazing, lions and birds. Some of the groups of vessels which came from Delos were decorated with sub-geometric animals although the shapes are already greatly evolved. Worth mentioning is the linear island rhythm of the mid 7th century which was popular throughout the Cycladic area, but seems to have been produced on Santorini or Paros. One of the masterpieces of Cycladic pottery is the oenochoe from Aegina (now in the British Museum), with the head of a griffin in relief at its mouth and a scene representing a lion devouring a dear and a horse grazing on the main body. The most important orientalizing workshop of the Cycladic area was located on Paros although it is wrongly referred to as the “Milos” workshop. Characteristic were the large funerary pithamphorae with tall stem, an old-fashioned shape which was however being enriched with a technique borrowed from the Aegagron Rhythm of Militos and Klazomenes and produced notable scenes depicting chariots and battle scenes. More often however we see tableaux with beautiful representational scenes (found also on Thasos), as well as small hydrias decorated with female portraits depicted using the outlining technique. More generally in the Aegean area, one observes a polychromatic tendency which was also transported by migrating potters to Sicily and especially to Syracuse. On Chios there existed a particularly important workshop producing multicoloured vessels with a white background. Characteristic shape is the kylix: the rhythm was originally inspired by its contemporary Middle Aegagron Rhythm which later developed independently. Many vessels of this rhythm have been found at Naukratis and Aegina.

Further south, on Rhodes, potters mainly followed the traditions of neighbouring Militos. They imported vessels of the Aegagros rhythm and produced copies of a more modest style or unrefined amphorae decorated with crude animals. The most important group of vessels from Rhodes dates from the late 7th and early 6th century BC. These are the kylixes and amphorae of the Vroulian rhythm which combine the sub-geometric tradition with incised plant decorations of orientalist inspiration, filled with red and black varnish. Possibly also from Rhodes are the beautiful tableaux with representative depictions: the most notable vessel of this group is the tableau now in the British Museum which depicts a duel between Hector and Menelaus over the dead Euphorvos. Remarkable is the fact that the inscription accompanying the figures are in the Argolic alphabet, suggesting the presence of an immigrant pottery painter.

4. Archaic and Classical pottery

The 6th century forms the apex of ceramic production in the Aegean area. The booming workshops of Chios produce kylixes decorated in the multicoloured and, later, with the black-figure technique. On Rhodes we find sculptural vessels in fanciful shapes (phalluses, heads of soldiers, sandaled feet, monkeys, the Egyptian god Bes), often based on the glazing technique also known as fayentine, containing thematic and technical influences from Phoenicia and Egyptç Also from Rhodes are the so-called kadoi with black-figure mythological depictions which are based mainly on Egyptian motifs. The most important was the Samos workshop which produced miniature black-figure kylixes and double-faced sculptural kantharoe, vessels of particular artistic value which were either exported to Etruria or dedicated at the local sanctuary of Hera. During the second half of the 6th century, the limited number of imported Corinthian vessels was replaced by a much larger number of black-figure imports from Attica. This trend led to the gradual decline of island workshops. Combined with the Persian conquest and the resulting domination of Athens in the Aegean, pottery production either declined or ceased entirely in most centres throughout the 5th and 4th centuries, or was limited to the production of commercial amphorae and black-coloured vessels.

5. Hellenistic and Roman pottery

During the Hellenistic period, a distinction between the pottery workshops of the islands of the Eastern Aegean and their counterparts in Asia Minor is not always possible. Pottery on Rhodes was dominated by the Hadra rhythm, an echo of the black-figure rhythm used to decorate hydrias for funerary use. It is possible that many of these vessels were not produced locally but imported from Crete. Particularly popular in Rhodes and Chalki was a type of pyxis jug. Copies of the Attic rhythm of the Western slope (black background with decorations in white and red colour and shapes such as amphorae, kantharoe and skyphoe) were found on Delos and possibly other parts of the Aegean. During the 3rd and 2nd centuries, workshops producing the so-called “Megara skyphoe” existed throughout the Greek and Asia Minor area. In the Aegean, the production of this extremely popular type has been identified on Limnos, Samos, Amorgos and possibly on Delos and Rhodes.

The same is true for the glazed skyphoe which copied the shape and colour of bronze and silver vessels and are thought to have been produced in centres such as Mylitine and Perge in Asia Minor. Finally, during the Roman period, some of the centres of Eastern sigillata which, in general, were found in Asia Minor and Antioch, were also active in the Aegean islands.