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Shapes and Uses of Greek Vases.—The enormous number of painted vases now collected in museums is in itself sufficient evidence of the important part they must have played in the daily life, of the Greeks, and the care which was bestowed on their decoration shows the high estimation in which they were held. It is, however, remarkable that, with the exception of general allusions to pottery and its use in daily life, there are singularly few passages in classical literature which throw light on the purposes for which these vases were used. Where any are described at full length there is always evidence that metal vases are intended. Athenaeus and the lexicographers have indeed put on record a long list of names of shapes, but it is only in a few cases that we can be certain what forms they describe, or whether any of the typical forms of existing vases can be identified with the literary descriptions.

We have then two questions to consider in this section: firstly, the uses to which painted vases were put by the Greeks; secondly, the classical names of the various forms of plain and painted pottery which have come down to us.

As we have seen, the majority of painted vases have been discovered in tombs, which at first sight seems to suggest that they were made principally for sepulchral purposes; but that they also had their uses in daily life as much as plain pottery or earthenware cannot be doubted. They stand, in fact, in the same relation to the commoner wares of their day as china or porcelain does with us, being largely ornamental only, but used by wealthy people or on special occasions for the purposes of daily life, as for instance at banquets or in religious ceremonies.

Vases were used as measures, as in the case of a small one-handled cup in the British Museum (see fig. 15), found at Cerigo (Cythera) and inscribed with the word ἡμικοτύλιον or “half-kotyle,” equivalent to about one-fourth of a pint. Another vase found at Athens is supposed to represent the official χοῖνιξ or quart, having a capacity of 0.96 litre; it is inscribed δημόσιον or “official measure,” and bears the official stamp of the state. Conversely many names of vases, such as the amphora or the kotyle, were adopted to indicate measures of capacity for liquid or dry commodities. Earthenware vessels were used for storing both liquids and food, for the preparation of foods and liquids, and for the various uses of the table and the toilet. That the painted ware was used at banquets or on great occasions we learn from scenes depicted on the vases themselves, in which vases painted with subjects appear in use. In connexion with athletics, they were given as prizes, as in the case of the Panathenaic amphorae, a class of vases given for victories in the games held at Athens at the Panathenaic festivals, where, however, they do not represent prizes so much as marks of honour corresponding to modern racing cups. Vases were also used as toys for children, as is proved by the discovery of many diminutive specimens, chiefly jugs, in the tombs of children at Athens, on which are depicted children playing at various games. They also served a purely decorative use as domestic ornaments, being placed on columns or shelves; or, in the case of flat cups and plaques, suspended on the wall. Many of the later Greek and Italian painted vases are very carelessly decorated on the one side, which was obviously not intended to be seen.

We come now to the use of vases for religious purposes, dedicatory, sacrificial or funerary. Of all these uses, especially the last, there is ample evidence. That vases were often placed in temples or shrines as votive offerings is clear from the frequent mention in literature of the dedication of metal vases, and it can hardly be doubted that painted pottery served the same purpose for those who could only afford the humbler material. Of late years much light has been thrown upon this subject by excavations, notably on the Acropolis of Athens, at Corinth, and at Naucratis in the Egyptian delta, where numerous fragments have been found bearing inscriptions which attest their use for such purposes. It was a well-known Greek custom to clear out the temples from time to time and form rubbish-heaps (favissae) of the disused vases and statuettes, which were broken in pieces as useless, but it is to this very fact that we owe their preservation. At Naucratis many of the fragments bear incised inscriptions, such as Άπόλλωνός εἰμι, “I am Apollo’s” (possibly a memorandum of the priest’s, to mark consecrated property), or ὁ δεῖνά με ἀνέθηκε τῇ Άφροδίτῃ, “So-and-so dedicated me to Aphrodite.” Fig. 14 gives another example with a dedication to Apollo. At Penteskouphia, near Corinth, a large series of painted tablets (πίνακες), dating from 600 to 550 B.C., with representations of Poseidon and dedicatory inscriptions to that deity, were found in 1879. Votive offerings in this latter form were common at all periods, and tablets painted with figures and hung on trees or walls are often depicted on the vases, usually in connexion with scenes representing sacrifices or offerings.

There is no doubt that vases (though not necessarily painted ones) must have played a considerable part in the religious ceremonies of the Greeks. We read of them in connexion with the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria, and that of the gardens of Adonis. They were also used in sacrifices, as shown on an early black-figured cup in the British Museum and on a vase at Naples with a sacrifice to Dionysus. In scenes of libation the use of the jug and bowl (phiale) is invariable.

EB1911 Ceramics Fig. 14.—Part of vase from Naucratis with dedication to Apollo.jpg
Fig. 14.—Part of vase from Naucratis with dedication to Apollo.

But their most important use, and that to which their preservation is mainly due, was in connexion with funeral ceremonies. They were not only employed at the burial, but were placed both outside the tombs to receive offerings, and inside them either to hold the ashes of the dead or as “tomb-furniture,” in accordance with Greek religious beliefs in regard to the future life. Several classes of vases are marked out by their subjects as exclusively devoted to this purpose, such as the large jars found in the Dipylon cemetery at Athens, which were placed outside the tombs, the white Athenian lekythoi of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., and the large krateres and other vases of the 4th century B.C. found in the tombs of Apulia and other parts of southern Italy. Their use as cinerary urns was perhaps more restricted, at all events as regards the painted vases, though the custom is well known and is referred to in literature from Homer downwards. In “Mycenaean” times coffers (λάρνακες) of clay were used for this purpose, especially in Crete, where fine painted examples have been found; but of Greek pottery of the best periods there are but isolated instances.

The diagrams in fig. 15 show the principal shapes characteristic of Greek pottery in all but the earliest periods, when the variety of form was as yet too great to permit of more than the vaguest nomenclature; each form has its conventional name appended. These shapes may be classified under the following heads: (1) Vases in which food or liquids were preserved; (2) vases in which liquids were mixed or food cooked; (3) those by means of which liquids were poured out or food distributed; (4) drinking-cups; (5) other vases for the use of the table or toilet. Thus we have the pithos and amphora for storing wine, the krater for mixing it, the psykter for cooling it, the kyathos for ladling it out, and the oinochoe or prochoos for pouring it out; the hydria was used for fetching water from the well. The names and forms of drinking-cups are innumerable, the principal being the kylix, kotyle, kantharos, rhyton (drinking-horn) and phiale (libation bowl). The pyxis was used by women at their toilet, and the lekythos, alabastron and askos for oil and unguents.

Technical Processes.—Though the Greeks succeeded in making pottery of a very high order from the point of view of form and decoration, the technical processes remained throughout of the most elementary—for glaze was not used at all, the colour was of the simplest, and the temperature at which the ware was fired was not high enough to introduce any serious difficulties. As we should expect, it is possible to trace a gradual improvement in the technical processes in the direction of greater precision and refinement, for no vase-painter of the best period could have achieved his decorative triumphs on wares so coarse in substance and so rough in finish as those that satisfied his predecessors. As in every other case technical and artistic refinement went hand in hand. In the earliest times the clay was used with very little preparation; at all events before the introduction of the potter’s wheel the finish is not to be compared with that of the early races in Egypt. As the practice developed no doubt, specially good clays were found in certain districts, and these became centres of manufacture or the clays were carried to other established centres. The primitive wares usually exhibit the natural buff, yellow, grey or brownish colours of other elementary pottery, and the surface is somewhat rough and possesses no gloss. Thenceforward it becomes appreciably warmer in tone as it becomes finer in texture, until it reaches its perfection in the glowing orange, inclining to red, of the best Attic vases of the 5th century B.C. In the vases of the later Italian centres the colour again reverts to a paler hue.

The clay for the potter was doubtless prepared by a system of sedimentation, so as to get rid of all coarse particles. It was mixed with water and decanted into a series of vats so that ultimately fine clay of two or three grades was obtained. Both red and whitish clays were used, and the best potters gradually discovered that mixtures of different clays gave the best results. The clay for the Athenian vases was obtained from Cape Kolias in Attica; and as it did not burn to a very warm tone, ruddle or red ochre (rubrica) was added to it to produce the lovely deep orange glow that distinguishes the best vases. Corinth, Cnidus, Samos and other places were also famous for their clays, and at the first named tablets have