Since becoming part of the East Fork family, my appreciation for pottery has bloomed tenfold. My introduction to ceramics was my grandmother, who threw on the wheel as a hobby. I was very fond of accompanying her at the studio and playing with a wet chunk of clay as it spun on a wheel. But other than the tactile satisfaction of clay, I had no real knowledge of the craft, let alone it's historical significance/modern context. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Athens, Greece and visit a few museums while I was there. Being in the presence of some of the oldest remains of ancient Greek pottery was as moving as it was educational. My understanding of ceramics exploded!
I visited the Acropolis museum, which was founded in 2008 and lies at the foot of the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. In ancient times, this location was a road to the "Sacred Rock" where people would gather to worship gods. The museum was built around the archeological site (a contentious location), where many of the artifacts were found. It houses a sweeping range of objects dating from the Bronze Age up to Byzantine Greece including busts, statues, sculptures, texts and for our purposes, most importantly, incredible pottery. Before you enter the museum, you walk over a glass floor which shows the ruins of houses and streets. A beautiful architectural design and a helpful tool to imagine that these artifacts were made and enjoyed by actual folks and not just theory!
For the ancient Greek people, pottery was for everyday use. Water, oil, wine and perfume, mostly. The most striking of the pots I encountered at the museum were from the era of vases known as black-figure and red-figure pottery originating in Corinth in the amphorae style. These are basically what you think of when you think of greek vases. Long, big body, narrow neck, wider mouth and handles. If you still don’t know what i mean, see below. Or there is an emoji in your phone for reference. This style dominated the pottery scene from about 600-800 BCE. I’m still reeling over the fact that these survived centuries are a still intact!
Here is a little rundown of the basic technique they used: first they were thrown on the wheel using clay from the region, professional potters often traveled around, sharing styles. Then potash, soda and black ferrous oxide was the general glaze recipe applied before firing. The paint was done by a different artisan, not the potter, and the common fixative used was either vinegar or urine (yes, pee). They were fired multiple times at a high temp to get the right color (980 degrees celsius, still very low compared to China).
The decorative aspect of the pots was very important. Many of these pieces illustrated stories or seemed to be dedicated to myths or gods, with hand painted figures in repetition circling around the vase. Not only are these vases striking and ornate, but they have provided us with a vast understanding of ancient Greek mythology as well as the social and religious practices of the time. They function as information; they tell a story. Whether the intention was to tell to do this, honor a god, or simply express artistic vision, these vases have been fundamental in our understanding of the ancient culture.
Who knows, maybe one day in year 40,589 when robots are excavating ancient Asheville and find a soapstone charger they will put it in a holographic museum for all the other robots to consciously receive with their collective anntenae. Ok, i’m jet-lagged! Hope this brings some new meaning to your signature mug. :-)