What to Know About Ancient Greek Vases and Pottery

Ancient greek vase with black decoration

When thinking about artifacts of Ancient Greece, one of the first images that comes to mind are those of Ancient Greek vases; reddish-orange vessels and the iconic illustrations that adorn their surfaces. Essential to everyday life in Ancient Greece, vases had both artistic and functional value, bearing visual messages about religion and culture as well as carrying water, oil, and perfumes.

As wall paintings and other ephemeral forms of decoration did not stand the test of time, these utilitarian objects also serve as an important historical documentation of ancient Greek life and artistic pictorial styles of the artisans who made them. Both rich in craft and full of archaeological significance, Greek vases are important educational materials to view in museums, and serve as impressive collectors’ items that never cease to capture the imagination of audiences. Ancient Greek vases, hailing primarily from Athens, fell into four main categories:

  • Storage vessels
  • Mixing vessels
  • Cups and jugs
  • Vases for cosmetics and perfumes

Types of Greek Vases

What were ancient Greek vases used for? Function most certainly dictated the shape and size of the vessel, and there were very few deviations from the general canon. Vases for oils were called lekythos, and those for cosmetics and perfumes were much smaller and called aryballos and alabastron. Mixing vessels, which were usually wide, large, and spherical, included krater and dinos.

Types of cups and jugs include: 

  • Kylix
  • Kantharos
  • Phiale
  • Skyphos 
  • Oinochoe
  • Iotrophorus

The Greek Amphora

The best-known type of Ancient Greek vase is the storage or transport vessel called the amphora, though other types include the pithos, pelike, hydria, and pyxis. There are only a handful of variations in the basic components of the typical vessel, much like the parts of a human body: mouth, handle, lip, shoulder, neck, neck ring, body, and foot.

A Greek red-figure amphora, £3,000 – £5,000 via Bonhams (September 2015).

In order to create the distinctive Greek vase shapes, the vessels usually consisted of a couple horizontal sections which were created separately on a pottery wheel, and then attached together using a score-and-slip method. This allowed for handles to be created separate from the round body.

Archaic Vases

The making of the Greek vase in Archaic times (about 620–480 BC) was very different than the pottery-wheel-thrown vases of Classical times (about 480–300 BC). Archaic vases were created by stacking multiple thin strips or “coils” of clay, and scoring and slipping these coils together so that the coils would stick together.

The surface of the vessel would then be smoothed out after the soft coils were all stacked together to create the general shape. “Slip” is a softer, more liquid clay that acted as the glue between layers in both the thrown vases as well as the coil vases. In the throwing method, the general shape of each horizontal section is created out of one block of clay, attached together by scoring, and slipping, and then turned on the wheel to remove any superfluous material and smooth out the surface.

Greek Vase Designs and Motifs

Even more than the form, the most distinct characteristic of Greek vases are the decorations and motifs.


Between the Archaic and Classical times, Greek vase designs existed primarily in three colors: black, red, and white. The red was derived from the iron-rich reddish-orange color of the clay that was used, the white was painted on using a light-colored clay, and black was made from an adhesive alkaline paint. While these are the pigments that are most seen now, the Greeks also had other colors like purple and red that did not withstand time. The reddish-orange and black were the most durable.

Red-figure lekythos

Red-figure lekythos, attributed to the Pan Painter. Sold for $20,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2018).

Red-Figured v. Black-Figured Vases

Out of these colors, there are two distinctive methods of decoration and coloration: red figure and black figure. Red figure, adopted around 530 BC, meant that the details of the illustration on the vases were painted with black lines, and the pictorial aspects mostly remained in red. The black-figure paintings, which predated red-figure painting in 630 BC, were the opposite of this where the silhouette of figures were painted in black, and red lines were created by cutting into the black pigmented areas to show details of the figures.

An Attic Black-figured Neck Amphora

An Attic Black-figured Neck Amphora, sold for $37,500 via Sotheby’s (December 2016).

The Geometric Period

Though perhaps best known for their depictions of Greek gods and goddesses, the earliest ancient Greek vase decorations were derived from the Mycenean tradition, which consisted of geometric shapes and abstract patterns. This Geometric Period lasted from about 1000 to 700 BC, and slowly evolved to include abstracted human and animal shapes as well as decorative lines, checkers, triangles, and other linear patterns. It wasn’t until the Athenian adoption of the black-figure technique of painting that the style of decoration that emphasized more naturalist figures became in vogue. Artists then began adding dynamism to their vases by depicting heroic narratives through gestures and poses of the figures, usually with props to indicate the identity of the characters. Sometimes the images were of everyday Ancient Greek life, and otherwise these paintings depicted epic scenes of heroes and mythological creatures.

Storytelling and Narrative

Opting to exclude architectural structures or scenery, the artists of the time generally chose to avoid the depiction of space, and instead prioritized storytelling. The wide spherical vase bodies provided the perfect surface for myth-telling in a horizontal linear fashion to provide historical accounts. Often depicting well-known stories of triumph in war or tragic tales of martyrdom, the scenes prominently featured war heroes and gods, and rarely those of every day family life. Everything — from the kind of garments that the characters are wearing, to the weapons they are holding, or whether they were carrying wreaths or belts — were visual indications of the cultural customs of the people of the time. For example, Amazonian women were often carrying weapons and patterned garbs, while Heracles was sometimes given a belt to symbolize his super-human strength as obtained with the help of Theseus.

Red figure bell krater

Red figure bell krater, attributed to Python Paestum, c. 340-330 B.C. Sold for £13,500 via Lyon & Turnbull (May 2020).

Ancient Greek Vases in the Market Today

These days, though many of the most exemplary instances of Ancient Greek vases are displayed proudly in museums, there is no shortage of vases to be collected for one’s own home. They are durable, elegant, and even fragments of pottery can tell a whole story about Ancient Greek culture. Over time, larger vases were more likely to become broken and smaller ones were more likely to stay in one piece, so large vases that remain in tact are generally more valuable than smaller vessels.

Many large and small pieces also undergo heavy restoration, either to piece together parts of one vessel, or to recolor vases which have faded over time. Overall, collectors should be wary of the amount of restoration, as this could compromise the value of the piece.

Greek Amphora in the Ground near Acropolis in Athens

Greek Amphora in the Ground near Acropolis in Athens. Photo via Shutterstock.com

Though they are still considered ‘Greek’ vases, not every vase actually comes from Greece. During the Geometric period, Corinth was the epicenter for creation of these beautiful vases, and they were exported from there to locations across Greece, and even extending to parts of southern Italy. Over time, neighboring regions began learning and copying this method; even developing their own proprietary styles. Though these may not fetch the same prices as some of the classic Athenian vases in the market today, their motifs are still complex, refined, and beautiful.

Greek vases, with rich iconography and their distinctive decorative style, provide a rare look into life in Ancient Greece. Not only were they practical objects from the time, but they also offer insight into the artistic developments, religion, and political beliefs of the civilization. With an array of shapes and sizes, the opportunities for collecting are vast, and, given their rich cultural significance, certainly incredibly rewarding.

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