Object: Amphoriskos

Black Figure Amphoriskos
Corinth, Greece
ca. 580 BCE
Materials: Ceramic, & clay slip

When discussing and identifying ancient pottery the most important features are: the shape of the vessel, the color(s) and style of the decoration, and the color and quality of clay used. These features provide information on what the vessel was used for, as well as when and where it was produced.

Ancient Greek pottery vessels get their names from their shape, and each shape had a relatively specific purpose. Just as today you wouldn’t serve drinks from a gas can, or soup in a wine glass, the shape of the container provides clues as to what is was used for. The names themselves are typically those used by the ancient people, passed down to us through their literature. In other cases modern scientists have had to invent names for shapes, or variations of shapes, that are not clearly identified in the historical record. An amphoriskos is similar to an amphora, but smaller in size. Both are vessels with a narrow neck and two handles which usually attach to the neck or shoulders on opposite sides of the container. Typically amphoriskos are thought to be have been used to store small quantities of costly perfumed oil, while amphorae could be used to store and transport large quantities of wine, olive oil, or other liquids.

The color(s) and style of decoration on ancient pottery helps to identify when and where the object likely came from. Certain color combinations were more popular in different regions and others were invented/discovered at later dates. Two of the most famous styles of decoration are Black Figure and Red Figure. Potters used a painted slip, a type of thin clay paint that turns black during the firing process, to produce both types of pottery. In Black Figure, the figures are painted on using the slip, while in Red Figure the background is painted and the figures are allowed to remain the color of the clay. Black figure decoration is thought to have been developed in the region in and around the city of Corinth and was common throughout Greece from the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. Meanwhile the Red figure style was developed in the area around Athens in the 5th century BCE, it also spread throughout the Greek world and continued to be used until the late 3rd century BCE.

The clay used to make the ceramic can also tell a researcher a great deal about where the object came from and what is was used for. Some of the differences in clay can be easily observed with the naked eye. For instance, clay from the area of Corinth turns a buff yellow color, like that shown in the amphoriskos above. However, clay from Athens, which has a much higher iron content, turns a bright orange color when fired. Other differences in clay have to be studied using more advanced scientific techniques. These techniques can include testing using x-ray diffractionoptical emission spectroscopy, inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy, x-ray fluorescence, and others. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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