Ancient Greek pottery provides us with some of the most dazzling and informative images and representation of Greek life, including cultural beliefs and everyday and ritualistic practices, giving us an invaluable insight as to how they lived their lives. As well as this they are beautiful items in their own right, and display a number of different but equally captivating artistic techniques. Covering a period of over two thousand years, from the Minoans and Myceneans of the Bronze Age to the incorporation of Greece as a Roman province in the second century BC, we find many forms, styles and uses for Greek pottery ranging from those used for daily life to those used for funerary practices.
The most common of the different Greek pottery shapes is the Amphora and was used as a vessel for the storage of liquids. Amphorae were used throughout the Mediterranean during antiquity in vast numbers and come in a number of different neck shapes. Some of the richest examples of Greek pottery painting are to be found on Amphorae and can display the whole history of decorative styles, from the Late Geometric (mid-8th – early-7th cent. BC), the Black Figure (7th – 5th cent. BC), and the Red Figure (6th – 3rd cent. BC). Oversized Amphorae with rich decoration were often used as grave markers and sometimes even contained the ashes of the dead. By the Roman period the finely painted vases had been almost entirely replaces by utilitarian vases and the practice of vase painting had largely died out.
In Ancient Greece, Alabastra were used as flasks to contain oil that was often perfumed. Named for the alabaster rock from which it was formerly made in Egypt, the Greek versions were made from both pottery and glass. The city of Corinth was one of the largest producers of Alabastra, their popularity extending from the late seventh down to the mid sixth century BC.
The hydria was a vessel whose main use was the storage of water, with two horizontal handles for carrying, and a third vertical for pouring. Other applications included it being used an urn for the ashes of the deceased, or even as a ballot box during elections. The majority of hyriai that have survived depict scenes from Greek mythology, but can also shoe images of everyday life.
Similar to the Alabastron, Lekythoi were used as flasks to contain oils and perfumes. They are often associated with the White Ground Technique of vase painting as it was too delicate for the other larger vases that were in regular use. Due to this fragility the Lekythoi were also made for funerary and ritual use and as such are commonly found in tombs. Prior to marriage a Lekythos was used to apply perfume to the bride and were placed in tombs of unmarried women so that the same could be done when they married in the afterlife. As the oil that filled the flasks was very expensive, a false, inner compartment was developed so that the vessel would appear full while only containing a small amount of the oil.
Frequently appearing in the hands of the wine god Dionysos himself, the Kantharos was a high handled drinking vessel used to hold wine for drinking, for ritualistic use, or for offerings. The Kantharos is most commonly characterised by a deep bowl, high slung handles, and sometimes, but not always, a tall pedestal foot.
The krater is another of the larger varieties of Greek pottery and was used to mix wine before it was consumed. The Greeks almost never drank their wine neat and thus used a krater to dilute it with water. They were often placed in the middle of the room during a symposium (drinking party) from which the servants would refill the cups of the revellers. At the outset of each Symposium, the symposiarch (master of the symposium) would decide the exact dilution of the wine and the rate at which the cups were to be refilled from the krater. With this came the responsibility to make sure that the symposium continued in a lively manner but without any drunken excess.
The Kylix, or cup, was a shallow vessel most popularly used at drinking parties known as the Symposium. It was the favoured drinking vessel from the late sixth century down to the fourth century BC when the Kantharos eclipsed it in popularity. Compared to the Kantharos, the Kylix has a much shallower bowl and handles that extended in a more horizontal fashion. The interior of the cup is often painted to reflect the Dionysian activities in which it was used but could also depict mythical scenes of gods and heroes.