This web page discusses the shapes of Greek pottery and
Table of Contents
Introduction to Ancient Greek
Clay was a very important part of ancient Greek culture. Back then
they did not have glass or plastic to make containers out of. Luckily
clay was easy to find in Greece. Once clay is fired it is almost indestructible (unless broken) and also fairly waterproof. These features made clay
a perfect material to make containers out of. It was
used for big storage containers, buckets, cups, perfume bottles, wine bottles,
jewelry boxes, and any other type of container for storing things in. All
of these uses made the potters in ancient Greece very busy. Their skills
became so refined that they were just as important as the clay itself, although
they were often poor people or even slaves.
Clay is rock that has been weathered and crumbled into dust. When clay is found in its original place it is called 'primary' clay. In the Mediterranean,
where Greece is, primary clay is not usually found. Most of it has been
moved around by glaciers or just plain erosion. Along the way the clay picks
up impurities that color it. This kind of clay is called 'secondary'
clay. Different clays with different impurities fire into different colors. For
instance, iron in clay makes it turn red when it is fired.
This makes it easy for us to figure out where the clay comes from.
Some Facts About Clay
Let's follow a potter through the process of making a pot and firing
it. The first thing a potter needs is clay. When clay is first dug
out of the ground it is full of rocks and shells and other stuff that needs
to be removed. To do this the potter mixes the clay with water and lets
all the impurities sink to the bottom. This is called levigation or
elutriation. This process can be done many times. The more times this
is done the smoother clay becomes after it is fired.
Making Pottery in Ancient Greece
The clay is then kneaded by the potter and placed on a
wheel. A wheel is a machine that the potter uses to spin the clay and form it
into shapes. Once the clay is on the wheel the potter can shape it into
any of the many shapes shown below or anything else he desires. The pots
were usually made in sections such as the body and feet and spout. Even
the body, if it were larger than 30 centimeters, might be made in separate
sections and glued together later with a thin watery clay called slip.
After the pot is made then the potter paints it with a very pure black
slip (made from the same clay) and a brush. To learn more about the different styles of painting click
Greek pottery, unlike today's pottery, was only fired once, but that
firing had three stages. After the pottery is stacked inside the kiln our
potter can start the first stage. He heats the kiln up to around 800°C
with all the vents on the sides open to let air in. This turns the
pottery and the paint red all over. Once the kiln reaches 800°C the
vents are closed and the temperature is raised to 950°C and then
allowed to drop back to 900°C. This turns the pottery and the paint all
black. The potter then starts the third and final phase by opening the
vents and allowing the kiln to cool all the way down. This last phase leaves the
slip black but turns the pottery back to red. This happens because when
the clay is given air it turns red, but when the black slip is heated
to 950°C it no longer allows air in. So the slipped area stays black
while the bare areas stay red.
Most Greek pottery was shaped for a particular function or a number
of functions. They were used around the house, or for ceremonies, or even
entertainment. This web page discusses the shapes of Greek pottery and
their uses. If you click on the pictures you will get a more detailed image
of the pot.
The Greeks thought of the pots as if they were people, too. They used
human terms to describe parts of the pots. For example - handles were called
ears and bases were called feet. Today we continue to use some of the terms
like mouth, lip, neck, shoulder, and body. The mouth is the opening at
the top. The lip is the edge of the pot right around the mouth. Below the
lip is the neck. The shoulder is where the neck expands to the size of
the body and the body is the main part of the pot.
This is an index of all the styles of pots on this page. Click on one
to jump to it or just scroll down to browse them all. The red arrows bring
you back to this index. Note: The pictures on this page are not photographs
of real Greek pottery, they are drawings to help describe what the shape of
the pot looks like.
Note again: Not all of these terms correspond to the ones the Greeks actually
used, but they are the words used by modern art historians.
Pot Styles and Descriptions
This is a small vase for perfume or oil. It had a broad flat
mouth, a narrow neck, and a thinly made body. A dipstick was
used to get the contents out.
Meaning to carry on both sides. They always have two
vertical handles, a wide body, and a narrow neck. They come
in all sizes and some even have lids. They were used to store
and transport liquids, like water and wine, and solids, like
grain and olives.
This type of pot was used by athletes to hold oil. Each
athlete most likely had his personal Aryballos. It was
typically drawn suspended from the athlete's wrist. It is
ball shaped and has one or two handles. Some are shaped like
a head, an animal, or a bird.
The name Hydria is from the word hydor or 'water'. A
hydria was used to fetch water. They usually have oval
bodies, two horizontal handles, and one vertical handle.
The name Krater is taken from a word meaning 'mix'. The pot
was a large bowl used for mixing water and wine. Wine was
then ladled into cups from the Krater. This type of pot was
probably common at drinking parties.
A Kylix is a large wine cup with a shallow bowl. It has two
horizontal handles. Attaching the bowl to the foot is a high
This is an oil bottle. The name Lekythos is used
conventionally to describe a pot that has a tall and squat
shape, a foot, a single vertical handle, a narrow neck, and
a small mouth.
This pot's name means 'wine-pourer'. This jug was used to
pour wine. It usually had one handle along its side.
These boxes are round like a cylinder. They usually have
lids. They where used to store toiletries such as
cosmetics, powder, or even jewelry.
This name is usually used to describe a pot that is used for
storing and mixing. It has two small horizontal handles on
its side. The body is rather round and it has a short neck.
Pottery and Time
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Page design: Darin Glatt