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Dossier : Des vases pour les Athéniens

Dossier : Des vases pour les Athéniens (vie-ive siècles avant notre ère)


Towards an understanding of the choices made by the producers and consumers of Attic pottery

Robin Osborne

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  • 1 The conventional practice is well illustrated by Cook [1960]/1996, Boardman 1974, 1975, 1989, 1998 (...)

1It is a mark of the success that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars had in turning Greek pots into works of art, that accounts of Greek vase painting put neither the circumstances of pot production nor the relationship between production and consumption at the centre of their story. Although the technical processes of pot production, and in particular of the red- and black-figure techniques, are generally explained, and although some remarks about workshops may be made to explicate problems of attribution, none of the standard textbooks regards how pots were produced, or how they were marketed, as playing any significant part in explaining what got painted, in what ways, at what time. The debates about whether pots were cheap or expensive, and whether or not they took more than passing inspiration from work in silver and gold, have proved simply distractions which have, if anything, reinforced and confirmed the narrow focus of the conventional narrative.1

  • 2 Cohen 2006, Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, Stissi 2012.

2Of course, there has been a lot of very significant recent work that should have an impact on this story. One thinks, for instance, of the painstaking work on ‘special techniques’ by Beth Cohen and others, the ‘potter’s wheel to museum-case’ account of Greek pottery in Le vase grec et ses destins, and Vladimir Stissi’s concern to give the potter’s quarter a context.2 But while art historians of more recent periods have sometimes turned themselves into social and economic historians almost at the expense of all aesthetic discussions, we still await any attempt to offer a detailed economic and social history of Greek painted pottery.

3The material discussed in these papers surely shows the way forward. Despite their very different approaches, the papers between them reveal very clearly not only what we need to cover in any economic and social history of painted pottery at Athens, but also what the structure of such an account would necessarily look like. They do so because they make clearer than any previous work has done the potential discriminations that might apply between different markets, and the ways in which individual workshops or painters might be doing a range of quite different things, aimed at different social groups, at different geographical markets, and at different sorts of pot use.

4If we ask what determined what a pottery workshop produced, it is clear that many factors are involved. We have always imagined that certain potters and certain painters had a predilection for particular shapes of pot. After all, the techniques used to throw a kylix were quite different from the techniques used to make a lekythos, and the sorts of scene that might be painted on a kylix were very different – both because of the field to be decorated and because of the different context of viewing – from the sorts of scene that might be painted on a lekythos. Nothing that is revealed by the papers here undermines that idea, but what they make clear is that personal predilections were only one factor among several.

5The kiln contents so revealingly discussed by Norbert Eschbach prompt many questions. As this whole find highlights, large kilns bring large risks. If something goes wrong in a large kiln during the firing process, the number of pieces of pottery ruined all at once is very great indeed. But if the risks involved with large kilns were great, this must mean that the advantages were also significant. But what were the advantages? On the face of it, the economies of scale in having a large kiln seem relatively small: large kilns may not demand quite so many kilojoules per cubic meter to heat, but it is hard to think that the differences were dramatic. It may be easier to secure a uniform heat and atmosphere in a bigger kiln than a smaller, which is likely to have ‘hot spots’, and the circulation of air may also be better – but one would have expected these advantages to be marginal. But this may be precisely what this kiln shows: that even marginal advantages were worth securing, even if they came at increased risk of loss. That is, large kilns like this would develop only if the market in pottery was sufficiently keen that the relatively minor expectations of greater quality-control and small savings on charcoal were worth making.

6But if big kilns brought such marginal advantages, they clearly made significant demands. Making efficient use of a large kiln depended on being able to fill it. Efficiently to fill it meant sending not just a large number of pots to be fired, but a large number of pots of various shapes and sizes. The pots must already have been thrown with half an eye on when and how they were going to be fired. It is clear that some of the pots ruined in this kiln disaster had been specially ordered, or were part of a batch that had to be made for a given date (the up-coming Panathenaia). Others were surely part of general stock. When orders were taken for particular pots, one consequence will have been to create a need to produce other pots in order efficiently to fill the kiln in which the pots that had been ordered would be fired. And the larger the pot that was ordered, the more it will have determined what else would be fired at the same time.

7These demands made by the preferences built into the firing process gave potters a choice. They could themselves choose to produce a diverse range of shapes and sizes of pot, or they could collaborate. There are enough motifs common to the various shapes of black-glaze pottery from Eschbach’s kiln strongly to suggest that we are dealing with a single workshop of origin for these pieces, if not a single potter. But it is less certain that the red-figure pottery and the Panathenaic amphoras were also potted by the same individual or workshop. We may see collaboration here, or we may see diversity within a single workshop.

  • 3 Monaco 2000, p. 211 – 3; Baziotopoulou-Valavani 1994, p. 47.

8The same thing may be true of the deposit of material found in 1967 at 2 Odos Marathonos. This deposit includes kiln debris, but whether the pottery painted by the hands of different painters, and the range of items found, which include red-figure and black-figure cups and skyphoi, black-glazed pottery and some unglazed pottery, lamps and lekythoi, all come from one workshop, or whether what we have here includes material from a kiln misfiring where the kiln contained pottery from a number of different workshops, has not been established. Once more, we are either seeing here the way in which efficient kiln use encouraged a wide range of pottery to be produced in a single workshop, or the way in which the same factor encouraged workshop collaboration.3

9Eschbach’s kiln’s contents alert us to another aspect of our ignorance of pottery production, and this is the way in which our knowledge of what was produced has been distorted. Because so much of the Athenian pottery that is best known has been excavated from Etruscan graves, Etruscan preferences for particular shapes and kinds of pottery have strongly impressed themselves on the record. This distorts our sense of what shapes were produced, and distorts our sense of what sizes of pot were produced. The large black-glaze basins, previously unparalleled, that are so striking a part of the Eschbach kiln-contents are only the most obvious example of this. The occurrence in that kiln of some exceptionally large plates reminds us that we may underestimate ranges of size as well as of vessel types. We have been very much too confident that surviving pottery gives us a representative sample of everything that was produced.

10Awareness of just how distorted an impression we may have both of the overall production of the Athenian Kerameikos and of the production of an individual workshop comes out of Cécile Jubier-Galinier’s paper, revealing more of her work on the Sappho Painter. Here is a painter whose exports are dominated by a single shape, the lekythos, but who emerges from his ‘home produce’ as a painter specializing in ritual vases but vases for sanctuaries as well as vases for graves. There seem to be some signs that this is a painter whose best work is not to be found among the exports, with even the lekythoi that remained in Attica showing a more original and more ambitious iconography.

11Eschbach’s kiln offers some hints at why surviving pottery so illrepresents what was originally produced. The persistent parallels between the red-figure pelikai misfired in that kiln and pelikai from Rethymnon suggest that there were particular workshops with particular connections to particular (foreign) markets; from this point of view it is equally interesting that there are not precise parallels for these pelikai from the Black Sea, despite the general presence of Group G pottery there. We are still a long way from understanding local preferences and how shape, style, and subject-matter interacted to encourage or discourage purchase in any particular place.

12That said, not the least value of the papers here is to highlight some particular patterns. Take the vases with relief decoration, discussed by Violaine Jeanmet. Jeanmet uncovers both a marked local preference for this material in the Sanctuary of Nymphe on the south slope of the Acropolis, and hints at patterns elsewhere, with vases with appliqués appealing in Kertch, and terracotta figurines in Boeotia. Victoria Sabetai notes that lebetes do not get exported to Etruria, but then she also notes that although they seem to have been made in pairs they rarely occur in pairs in graves – suggesting that unlike loutrophoroi, they are never made for deposit in graves

13This contrast with loutrophoroi is particularly striking because it does not seem to be a matter of the scenes painted on lebetes, since the Etruscans were quite happy to buy hydriai with wedding iconography. The distribution of loutrophoroi and lebetes across Athenian sanctuaries proves fascinating, both because of the apparent specialization that can be observed and because it leads us to greater sensitivity about exactly what part of a woman’s life a sanctuary was interested in – with the loutrophoros-dominated and lebes-free Nymphe sanctuary emerging as particularly engaged with girls immediately before marriage.

  • 4 For this figure see Wagner 2003, p. 54.

14One factor to emerge strongly here is quality. However keen the Etruscans may have been during the sixth century and early in the fifth to buy the highest quality Athenian pottery and to deposit it in graves, there are some clear indications that Athenians were even keener to choose pottery of particularly top quality for dedication in sanctuaries. The high quality of much of the pottery found on the Athenian Acropolis, sadly in all too fragmentary condition, is well known (even if the individual pieces figure too little in scholarly literature). In an ensemble which ranges across pretty well the whole repertoire of pot shapes, it is quality that unites this material – quality and, as Annie Verbanck-Piérard emphasizes, a penchant for experimental techniques. These two, of course, go together, for the technical advances were generally made by the most expert potters and painters. But they may go together too if this pottery was not simply purchased for dedication, but made for dedication, as must in any case be true of plaques and probably of plates, and as, for example, the high proportion (c. 20%) of pots representing Athena and the unusual number of scenes of Erichthonios may also indicate.4 As Verbanck-Piérard suggests, is tempting to see the technical innovation as something thought particularly appropriate for dedication to Athena.

  • 5 Moore 1997.
  • 6 Moore 1997, p. 469, Strawczynski 2003, p. 59 – 60.

15Although there is some high quality pottery from the Athenian Agora, some of the finest painters are not represented, or barely represented, there.5 It is notable, for instance, that the Berlin Painter is not represented in the Agora at all, although heavily represented on the Athenian Acropolis.6 Given the variety of origins of the pottery recovered from the Agora it seems highly likely that what fine pottery there is largely comes from particular contexts. Kathleen Lynch’s paper here enables us to see what sort of quality of pottery a well-supplied household – and one perhaps rich enough to use a metal krater – would use. And the answer is that although this pottery is desirable enough, it is not the very highest quality, with much that is simply black-glaze, and no mythological scenes on the cups.

  • 7 For this tomb see Burn 1985, Hoffmann 1997, Tsingarida 2003.
  • 8 Reusser 2003, p. 164.

16We are not yet in a position to produce a map of discrimination, let alone a map of changing discrimination across time. But some broad outlines are becoming apparent, both in terms of pottery shapes and of pottery styles. The Athenians at home were in a position to acquire different items for different occasions and uses – and no doubt at different prices. They were also in a position to order pots specially for particular purposes – it would be remarkable to find an equivalent of the so-called ‘Sotades Tomb’ anywhere other than in Attica.7 Elsewhere choices were more limited – it is not surprising that Christoph Reusser found that essentially the same scenes appear on the Athenian pottery in Etruscan tombs and in Etruscan sanctuaries.8 But the fact that the poorest quality painting, such as the Pithos Painter, went west rather than east, indicates that some choices were already made by the merchants who dealt in pots, as well as by the eventual customers.

17For all the fine distinctions in pot distribution that are noticed in the papers here and in the other recent literature, the strongest impression that one gains overall is not that there were a series of local markets for pottery, but that most pottery was anything but localized in its appeal. It is worth pausing on both the economic and the social significance of this, and on the place of painted pottery in creating, as well as in reflecting, social and cultural values. For all that the Sappho Painter produces some work that may not have sold outside Attica, he produces a great many lekythoi that did. Nuptial lebetes may have been closely linked to a Athenian ritual that determined both their lidded shape and their occurrence in pairs, but even they penetrated to Smyrna and Olynthos, carrying with them at least their iconography, if not their ritual. Loutrophoroi may show increasing specialization in their imagery, but few other pots show any particular trend, attracting both more specific and more general imagery at practically any period.

  • 9 D’Agostino 1989.
  • 10 Hoffmann 1997, p. 174.
  • 11 Oakley 2004, p. 10, Romualdi 1997, p. 502.

18The widespread distribution both of particular shapes and of particular iconographies might be a product of similar lifestyles across the Mediterranean or a product of emulation – either of the lifestyle that needed the pottery, or simply of the ownership of the pottery. Emulation of this sort is well known in other areas – as d’Agostino showed in a classic paper on the Etruscan hoplite.9 Certainly, common function is not enough to explain the distribution of this pottery; some of the discoveries here (e. g. the unusual large basins) are of pots that would have served useful functions anywhere in the Mediterranean (or indeed outside it). Part of the appeal of Athenian pottery was clearly not functional: the reason why pots get exported is likely in the end to be much the same as the reason why they end up in sanctuaries – that they are desirable objects. Even without potters trying out experimental techniques or adding fancywork, Athenian black- and red-figure pottery enchanted with its technology. Different aspects of pottery caused wonder, it seems, in different places and different times: one notes the particularly heavy distribution of Sotades’ work, for instance, in Naples, Capua, Ruvo and Locri – practically only his cups, mastoi, and phialai stay in Athens, with the plastic vases all attracted abroad.10 White-ground pottery has a notoriously sporadic distribution, with white-ground lekythoi popular outside Athens only in Eretria, Delos, Marion, Gela, and a scatter of north Greek sites, but special pieces in white ground have been found isolated at a variety of Etruscan and other Italian and Greek sites.11 The attraction of the white-ground technique evidently extended further than the attraction of putting white-ground lekythoi with funerary scenes into tombs, so that at Corinth an Athenian white-ground lekythos turns up in a cult context.

19We would not expect, perhaps, that the small number of studies gathered here, which cover two centuries of Athenian pot production, could provide much indication of larger patterns of pottery demand and distribution. Rather they indicate some possibilities, and raise some questions. Perhaps the most intriguing question is how far the patterns observed in these papers are fragile. That is, was the cost of Athenian pottery such that it was only marginally attractive, so that any change in price or quality or other aspect of attractiveness and it was displaced by local or other alternative products? Or were Athenian pots seen as so clearly superior that it would take major changes to make the consumers look elsewhere? Did this situation change over time?

20The data gathered here might be taken in either sense. The peculiar patterns of distribution of particular shapes and particular painters might suggest that only if from that workshop, or in that form, was an Athenian pot worth having. Or the wide range of Athenian pottery exported somewhere might suggest that the consumers, however picky they were, they would always end up with something Athenian. The key to answering my question may come not from analysis of patterns of distribution at all, but from returning to the vast kiln-load described by Eschbach. Given the risks involved, would pottery have been fired in such quantities unless it was vital to cut costs as far as possible? For all the fancy techniques revealed here as giving a significant cachet to painted pottery, particularly in the years around 500 B. C., it was simply decorated black-glaze pottery that would end up enduring when demand for other Athenian pottery dried up. Mass production outlasted this kiln disaster and it was the inexpensive that won out over the enchanting technology. We badly need some equally good earlier kiln evidence that would help us gauge whether so large a kiln was a new feature of the later fourth century. My inclination is to wonder whether what this large kiln reveals to us may be the ever-keener competition and the place of Athenian pottery slipping in the market – we have perhaps a glimpse here of the archaeology of desperation.



Baziotopoulou-Valavani 1994: Evstathia Baziotopoulou-Valavani, «Ανασκαφές σε αθηναϊκά κεραμικά εργαστήρια των αρχαϊκών και κλασικών χρόνων», in William D. E. Coulson, Olga Palagia, T. Leslie Shear, Jr., H. Alan Shapiro, Frank J. Frost (ed.), The Archaeology of Athens and Attica under the Democracy, Oxford, 1994, p. 45-54.

Boardman 1974: John Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, London, 1974

Boardman 1975: John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: the Archaic Period, London 1975.

Boardman 1989: John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: the Classical Period, London, 1989.

Boardman 1998: John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting, London, 1998.

Burn 1985: Lucilla Burn, “Honey pots: three white-ground cups by the Sotades Painter”, Antike Kunst 28, 1985, p. 93-105.

Cohen 2006: Beth Cohen (ed.), The Color of Clay. Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, Los Angeles, 2006.

Cook [1960]/1996: Robert Cook, Greek Painted Pottery, London, 1960, 3rd ed., 1996.

Cook, Dupont 1997: Robert Cook, Pierre Dupont, East Greek Pottery, London, 1997.

D’Agostino 1989: Bruno D’Agostino, “Military organization and social structure in archaic Etruria”, in Oswyn Murray, Simon Price (ed.), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford, 1989, p. 59-82.

Denoyelle, Iozzo 2009: Martine Denoyelle, Mario Iozzo, La Céramique grecque d’Italie méridionale et de Sicile. Les manuels d’art et d’archéologie antiques, Paris, 2009.

Gill 1991: David Gill, “Pots and trade: spacefillers or objets d’art?”, JHS 111, 1991, p. 29-47.

Hoffmann 1997: Herbert Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases, Oxford, 1997.

Monaco 2000: Maria Chiara Monaco, Ergasteria. Impianti artigianali ceramici ad Atene ed in Attica dal protogeometrico alle soglie dell’Ellenismo, Roma, 2000.

Moore 1997: Mary Moore, “Attic red-figure painters from the Athenian Agora”, in Oakley, Coulson, Palagia 1997, p. 469-472.

Noble [1966]/1988: Joseph V. Noble, The Techniques of Attic Painted Pottery, London, 1966, 2nd ed., 1988.

Noble 1982: Joseph V. Noble, “The techniques of painted South Italian Pottery”, in Margaret Mayo, Kenneth Hamma (ed.), The Art of South Italy: Vases from Magna Graecia, Richmond, Virginia, 1992, p. 37-47.

Oakley 2004: John Oakley, Picturing Death in Classical Athens: the evidence of the white lekythoi, Cambridge, 2004.

Oakley, Coulson, Palagia 1997: John Oakley, William Coulson, Olga Palagia (ed.), Athenian Potters and Painters, Oxford, 1997.

Reusser 2003: Christoph Reusser, « La céramique attique dans les sanctuaires étrusques », in Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, p. 161-165.

Robertson 1992: Martin Robertson, The Art of vase-painting in Classical Athens, Cambridge, 1992.

Romualdi 1997: Antonella Romualdi, “Ceramica attica a fondo bianco da Populonia”, in Oakley, Coulson, Palagia 1997, p. 501-507.

Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003: Pierre Rouillard, Annie Verbanck-Piérard, Le vase grec et ses destins, München, 2003.

Scheibler 1983: Ingeborg Scheibler, Griechische Töpferkunst: Herstellung, Handel und Gebrauch antiken Tongefässe, München, 1983.

Sparkes 1991: Brian Sparkes, Greek Pottery: an Introduction, Manchester, 1991.

Sparkes 1996: Brian Sparkes, The Red and the Black: Studies in Greek Pottery, London, 1996.

Stissi 2012: Vladimir Stissi, “Giving the Kerameikos a context. Ancient Greek potters’ quarters as part of the polis space, economy and society”, in A. Esposito, G. Sanidas (ed.), « Quartiers » artisanaux en Grèce ancienne. Une perspective méditerranéenne, Villeneuve d’Ascq, 2012, p. 201-230.

Strawczynski 2003: Nina Strawczynski, « Peindre pour Athéna ? La place des vases de l’Acropole dans la production de quelques peintres attiques », in Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, p. 57-61.

Trendall 1989: Arthur Dale Trendall, Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily, London, 1989.

Tsingarida 2003: Athéna Tsingarida, « Des offrandes pour l’éternité: les vases de la ‘Tombe Sotades’ à Athènes », in Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, p. 67-74.

Vickers 1985: Michael Vickers, “Artful crafts: the influence of metalwork on Athenian painted pottery”, JHS 105, 1985, p. 108-128.

Vickers, Gill 1994: Michael Vickers, David Gill, Artful Crafts: ancient Greek silverware and pottery. Oxford, 1994.

Wagner 2003: Claudia Wagner, « Des vases pour Athéna: quelques réflexion sur l’Acropole d’Athènes comme contexte », in Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, p. 49-56.


1 The conventional practice is well illustrated by Cook [1960]/1996, Boardman 1974, 1975, 1989, 1998, Robertson 1992, Trendall 1989, Denoyelle, Iozzo 2009. Readers are invariably sent to Noble [1966]/1988, 1982 for further detail, but Noble is exclusively concerned with techniques. Scheibler 1983 and Sparkes 1991 offer a welcome alternative (and see also Cook, Dupont 1997), and Sparkes 1996 usefully contextualizes current practice. For the debates about trade see Gill 1991, for those about gold and silver see Vickers 1985, Vickers, Gill 1994.

2 Cohen 2006, Rouillard, Verbanck-Piérard 2003, Stissi 2012.

3 Monaco 2000, p. 211 – 3; Baziotopoulou-Valavani 1994, p. 47.

4 For this figure see Wagner 2003, p. 54.

5 Moore 1997.

6 Moore 1997, p. 469, Strawczynski 2003, p. 59 – 60.

7 For this tomb see Burn 1985, Hoffmann 1997, Tsingarida 2003.

8 Reusser 2003, p. 164.

9 D’Agostino 1989.

10 Hoffmann 1997, p. 174.

11 Oakley 2004, p. 10, Romualdi 1997, p. 502.

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