Classical Greek Pottery Most ancient Greek pottery forms were made primarily for local use and are found almost exclusively near where they were produced. Local coarse wares, used primarily in the household, are ubiquitous. A few fine wares, such as Corinthian and Attic, were widely distributed in the Mediterranean at different times and are exceptions. The Etruscans, in particular, were fond of painted Attic pottery for their graves. The provenances of vases sent abroad provide valuable evidence for trade routes. Transport amphorae, the most important of the undecorated vases, are often found in shipwrecks and provide the most useful information.
Practical, sharply defined, and well-proportioned shapes are another characteristic of Greek pottery. Although the details changed over time and varied in different areas, most of the same forms were used for centuries, and some are still with us today. The more important are large containers (amphorai, hydriai, and pelikai), small containers primarily for oil and perfume (alabastra, aryballoi, and lekythoi) or for small objects (lekanides and pyxides), drinking vessels (cups, kantharoi, and skyphoi), mixing vessels (dinoi, kraters, and stamnoi), jugs (oinochoai), storage vessels (pithoi), plates (pinakes), and ritual vessels (loutrophoroi and phialai). The potting is so distinctive and fine in some cases that individual potters have been identified. Some of the shapes, and perhaps many, are derived from metal prototypes, while a few are adaptations of foreign shapes or of vessels made from other materials such as wood, stone, and leather.
Figured decoration in a central band around the pot is a characteristic of most Greek fine wares. Stick figures, first animal and later human, appear in the eighth century B.C. during the later half of the Geometric Period (ca. 900–700 B.C.), so-called after the neat and balanced rows of geometric patterns decorating parts of the vase. Although pottery in the Geometric style was produced in many regions of the mainland, islands, Italy, and the western coast of Turkey, the Athenians were the leaders in the development of figured scenes.
In the succeeding Orientalizing Period (ca. 700–600 B.C.), the stick figures flesh out, the geometric patterns disappear, and Orientalizing motifs, such as rosettes, pepper the background of the scenes that often include various Oriental beasts. A variety of drawing techniques are developed, including outline, polychrome, incision, and black figure, and mythological pictures start in earnest. Corinth is the leader, and Proto-Corinthian pottery (ca. 720–630 B.C.) with its lively animated scenes is the forerunner of full Corinthian (ca. 620–550 B.C.), which is characterized by the “animal style,” that is, stacked friezes with rows of animals—lions, panthers, goats, Sphinxes, and Sirens, among others. Corinthian vases were the most widely exported ware in the seventh century B.C., and they are found throughout the Mediterranean also during the first half of the Archaic Period (600–480 B.C.).
In the sixth century B.C., Attic black-figure pottery became the predominant fabric, replacing Corinthian by mid-century. It is characterized by figures painted black on the red-orange background of Attic clay with incision and added white and purplish red for details. Early on, the Corinthian animal style is often imitated, but later it and the Orientalizing fillers disappear, and mythological and everyday life scenes are the norm. Other regions developed their own black-figure pottery, the most important being Laconian, Boeotian, and Chalcidian. The latter is now believed to have been made in southern Italy. There are also several important eastern Greek painted wares, such as Wild Goat and Fikellura.
Around 530 B.C. the red-figure technique is invented in Athens. It is the photonegative of the black-figure technique in that the figures are left in the red-orange color of the...