Rarely Exhibited Greek Pottery: Archaic-Hellenistic (550–30 BCE)
2021, Text by Benton Kidd, Curator of Ancient Art and Stephen Czujko, Doctoral Student Department of Ancient Mediterranean Studies
Black-Figure and Red-Figure Pottery of the Archaic and Classical Periods
For over two centuries, black-figure and red-figure techniques dominated the decoration of fine Greek pottery. The black-figure technique was invented and popularized by the Corinthians in the seventh century BCE, but it was their Athenian neighbors who perfected it in the following century. In black-figure technique, silhouettes of figures, objects, and decorative motifs were created using iron-rich clay slip (liquefied clay), which turned black during firing by manipulating the kiln’s oxygen levels. Before firing, details were added with a sharp instrument used to scratch through the slip to the surface of the vessel. In the last quarter of the sixth century BCE, some potters began to experiment with painting the background with slip and keeping the figures the natural color of the clay. In redfigure technique, details had to be painted with fine brushes rather than rendering them by incision. Ultimately, the red-figure technique became the favored of the two, and black-figure disappeared. By the end of the fourth century BCE, red-figure style also went out of fashion, giving way to plainer ornamentation, often on glossy black wares.
By the fourth century BCE, Greeks had already colonized portions of Asia, North Africa, and Western Europe but Alexander’s campaigns brought Greek culture as far as Central Asia and Northern India. The Hellenistic period thus denotes the spread of Greek culture more widely than any previous colonization. Many scholars begin the period with Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, but Greek culture had been spreading for several centuries by that time.
Red-figure pottery lingered as late as 300 BCE, particularly in the Greek colonies of southern Italy. That pottery is usually referred to as “South Italian,” but it was made by Greeks working in Italy or by natives of Greek cities in Italy. Locals such as Calenians and Daunians added their own flare to the period’s repertoire of pottery, but wares now labeled “Calenian” or “Daunian” still show heavy Greek influence. In terms of geography, “South Italian” should be understood as characterizing Greek pottery from the regions now known as Campania, Basilicata (ancient Lucania), Apulia, and Sicily, all of which were home to numerous Greek cities in antiquity. So large was this concentration of Greeks that Romans would call it “Magna Graecia” or “Greater Greece.”
In addition to red-figure pottery, glossy black ware with less decoration continued, while figural decoration became more commonly represented in relief (raised on the surface rather than painted two-dimensionally). By the first century BCE, sigillata (stamped) wares were being produced on the Levantine coast. Sigillata ware demonstrates improved ceramic technology and thus finer pottery.