Potter in Crete, Greece (Credit: Minoan pottery Konstantinos Houlakis)
Potter in Crete, Greece (Credit: Minoan pottery Konstantinos Houlakis)

Pottery: One of the most iconic elements of Greek art

Enduring symbols of the rich history, mythology, and celebration of ancient Greece

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The Greek pottery, due to its remarkable durability, is a gift of classical art that has survived to the present day, making up a substantial portion of the archaeological legacy of ancient Greece. There are more than 20,000 ancient pottery findings in the archaeological museum of Athens alone, offering a fascinating insight into one of the earliest human civilizations.

From c. 1000 to c. 400 BCE, Greek artisans crafted clay vessels primarily to store and transport wine and foodstuffs (amphorai), draw water (hydriai), drink wine or water (kantharoi or kylikes). Many of these ceramics were decorated with paintings that illustrated scenes of human figures, nature, sometimes the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks.

All Greek vase paintings began with the raw material of clay. The potter mixed the clay with water and let all the impurities sink to the bottom. Terracotta was one of the most common types of clay used in Greek pottery that varied in color depending on the mineral content of the clay when fired. The clay was then worked on a wheel by a skilled potter. This is a process that has not changed much in over 3000 years. Finally came the firing. The vases were stacked in a kiln and heated in a three-step process.

Greek Prehistory Gallery, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens, Greece (Credit: Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Greek pottery can be categorized into four main stylistic periods: Proto-geometric pottery (c. 1050 to 900 BCE), Geometric pottery (c. 900-700 B.C.E.), Black-figure pottery (developed in Corinth in roughly the 8th century BC), and Red-figure pottery  (invented around 530 BC, allowing the artist to represent scenes in greater detail and with greater realism).

By 600 BCE, Athens was established as the primary hub of pottery and saw the first instances of Greek potters signing their works. One special place was the Kerameikos (stemming from the word for potter’s clay “keramos”) west of the Athenian agora. Potters perfected their techniques and painting styles, and sold their wares throughout the Mediterranean. 

The ceramic art (or pottery)  continued to improve in Greece over the centuries so the size, shape and decorations used on pots developed and was used to decorate temples, homes and tombs.

In the modern era, there are potters who amazingly replicate the styles and pieces of this highly-skilled ancient art, adding new morphologic and technical features keeping the age-old tradition alive.

Greek ceramic artists are also creating exciting works, not just reproduction copies for museums and the art form is being championed by an ever-growing array of curators and galleries. There are also various workshops offering pottery classes throughout the country.

The more recent days of glory of Greek fine ceramics have been spent in the mainland (Macedonia, Peloponnese, Thrace, Attica) and on several islands (Thasos, Lesvos, Samos, Crete, Skyros, Aegina, Rhodes, Sifnos).  In Crete’s Thrapsano, referred as “the village of potters” tradition and art transform handmade pottery into timeless masterpieces. There is located the workshop “Minoan Pottery” reflecting the rich cultural history of the Minoan civilisation.

Ceramic art works are durable, elegant, with an array of shapes and sizes and survive the ravages of time, unlike wood and paper art. They provide a way to express creativity and reflect the skill and cultural influences of their makers. Whether you appreciate the historical significance of traditional styles or prefer the contemporary allure of modern designs, exploring the world of ceramics is a captivating journey that unveils the beauty and artistry behind these everyday objects.