The term “Greek vase” is usually used to describe pottery produced in Greece between the 10th century BCE and the 1st century BCE. Technically it could, of course, describe any vase produced in the nation of Greece, modern or ancient. Greek pottery is a subject of great interest for many archaeologists who study Classical Greece, thanks to the huge assortment of extant pottery pieces which can be used for research and study. Pottery is a favorite artifact of archaeologists because it is so enduring, and it often provides vital cultural clues long after other artifacts have rotted away.
Styles in Greek vases evolved radically over the course of history, along with Greek culture, and they are usually broken roughly into several chronological groupings. The first is the protogeometric period, which includes vases from around the 9th to 10th centuries BCE. Vases from this period have very simple, basic designs, but they already possess the graceful and elegant forms associated with vases produced at the height of Greek culture in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Around the 8th century BCE, the Greeks began developing vases influenced by surrounding cultures, and the geometric period began. As the Greeks exchanged ideas with a widening circle of cultures, orientalizing vases emerged in the 7th century. These vases branched out from the geometric designs of antiquity, depicting things like foliage and figures.
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In the sixth century, the Greek vase underwent a cultural explosion, as the Greeks refined potting and glazing techniques. The famous black figure vases date from this period, as do the striking red figure vases which grace many museum collections. White ground vases, with a distinctive white background, also appeared in the sixth century. These vases depicted a range of themes and motifs, from athletic competitions to stories from mythology, in incredibly rich detail.
The shape of a Greek vase can take a number of forms. The amphora, a type of very large, two-handled vase, is probably the most famous, but the Greeks made at least 100 distinctive vase forms, such as the kylix, a type of shallow ceramic drinking cup, and the pyxis, a box for storing cosmetics. Greeks cooled their wine in psykters, broad-bottomed, narrow-necked vases, and held water in hydrias, large vases with four or more handles for easy carrying.
Today, any museum with a collection of classical artifacts has at least one Greek vase for visitors to admire. The Greeks used their vases for practical purposes, ceremonies, and decorative functions, and archaeologists are quite thankful that the rich culture of ancient Greece has been preserved on the sides of its vases for thousands of years. A close examination of a Greek vase can often reveal figures who seem like they could be walking down the street today, along with detailed depictions of food, inscriptions describing the scene on the vase, and a fascinating glimpse into the jewelry, ornaments, and clothing worn by the Ancient Greeks and their contemporaries.