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Classical Greek World 540-320 BC

Case 6: Greek Vases

Making and Decorating Greek Vases

Almost all these vases were made on a potter’s wheel, but a few were wholly or partially mould-made. The striking colour contrast of black and red was produced by a chemical reaction during the process of firing. The iron-rich clay was naturally orange-red. Once the vase had been shaped, the glossy black areas were painted with a dilute mixture (‘slip’) of the same clay the vase was made from. A three-stage firing process then turned the ‘slipped’ areas black. The same basic technique could produce vases with a red background and black figures (‘black-figure’) or vases with a black background and red figures (‘red-figure’).

Phase 1: with plenty of air in the kiln, oxygen combines with the iron in the clay to turn the whole vase red.

Phase 2: the oxygen supply is cut off. The whole vase turns black and the kiln is heated sufficiently to seal or ‘sinter’ the thin layer of slip, producing the glossy surface.

Phase 3: air is allowed back into the kiln. The slipped areas stay black while the rest of the vase turns red again.

As an alternative to black- or red-figure, some vases were coated in a white slip, made from clay rich in kaolin. The decoration of 'white-ground' vases developed over time. At first the black-figure technique was applied over the white slip, but from about 470 BC onwards, figures were generally outlined in either dilute clay slip or matt colour, and after about 440 BC extra colours were added after firing.

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Making mistakes: Misfired Vases

Firing pots in the kiln was a risky business: 'misfired' pots show what could go wrong. Some misfired piecees were probably destroyed, but these examples were thought good enough to be kept, sold and used. The fragment GR.345.1899, for example, was dedicated to a god or goddess in one of the sanctuaries at Naukratis in Egypt.

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Looking at Greek Vases I: painters and connoisseurs

Looking at a vase raises many questions. Who painted it and when? Sometimes ancient craftsmen signed their work, but most painted pottery is unsigned. In the early twentieth century Sir John Beazley pioneered the practise of classifying vases by using stylistic indicators in the painted image to group together vases painted by the same person. If the craftsman had not signed his work, Beazley would name the painter after a particular vase or scene. Identifying these ancient craftsmen helped scholars understand how ancient pottery workshops functioned and related to each other. For other examples of attributed vases see case 4

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Looking at Greek Vases II: restoration

Looking at an ancient vase raises many questions, such as how much of it is ancient, and how much has been altered by later restorers and conservators? The choices made during restoration can affect how we understand the form and subject matter of a pot. Here are some of the results of different restoration decisions.

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