Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.13

Toby Schreiber, Athenian Vase Construction: A Potter's Analysis.   Malibu:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999.  Pp. xvi, 296.  ISBN 0-89236-465-3.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by John H. Oakley, The College of William and Mary in Virginia (
Word count: 1264 words

This splendid new book offers for the first time a professional potter's insights into the production of Athenian figured pottery. The author, a well-known California potter, has spent considerable time during the last twenty years at the J. Paul Getty Museum studying their collection of Athenian vases, with an eye to understanding how they were potted. This, supplemented with trips abroad to study and view other important collections of these vessels, along with experiments on her own part to reproduce some of them, has resulted in this truly remarkable publication, a real tour de force.

The book has two main parts; the first provides a general overview of production, the second, detailed descriptions of how the individual shapes were made. Six sections compose part one. Clay is the subject of the first, and is highlighted by an excellent description of the different major types of clay and their chemical makeup and formation, an explanation that can be clearly understand by professional and lay person alike. In fact, this is characteristic of the prose in the book as a whole.

The next section provides a general description of how the vases are thrown and formed. Photographs made by CT X-radiography effectively show air pockets that remain in already fired ancient vases, there because clay wedged by hand is never totally free of them. The potter's tool kit is described and illustrated, and, along with a general description of how a vase is thrown, there is a fine discussion of how various types of handles were made, a subject the author has published on previously. Already at this early point in the book the reader starts to realize just how integral the relationship is between the shape of the potter's fingers and the details of the vases. Particularly illuminating to the reviewer were the various degrees of "leather-hard" and what could be done to the vases at each stage.

The third section provides a short description of how one modern Athenian pottery workshop operates; the author worked in it over twenty years ago for a short period of time and revisited it again in 1994. It was not surprising, but pleasing to learn that the workshop was a small family operation and practiced a craft passed down in the family, just as we believe was the case with many Athenian pottery workshops in antiquity. For readers interested in ancient Greek pottery workshops, they should also consult the proceedings from a conference held at the École Française d'Athènes in 1987 entitled Les ateliers de potiers dans le monde grec aux époques géométrique, archaïque et classique, BCH Supplément XXIII (Paris 1992) and the article by E. Baziotopoulou-Valavani in W.D.E. Coulson et al (ed.), The Archaeology of Athens and Attica under the Democracy (Oxford 1994) 45-54 where the finds of Athenian pottery workshops are published, including kilns and buildings.

The following two sections deal with the surface treatment of the vase, gloss, and firing. Many excellent close-up photographs are used to illustrate the effects of sponging, burnishing, and miltos streaking on the vase's surface. The author's experimentation with burnishing suggests that it most likely took place only after the miltos was applied, not before and after, as others have thought. Her description of the nature of the black gloss and how it was produced by firing is straightforward, and easy to understand. For those readers interested in black gloss, they should also consult the articles by W.D. Kingery in Archeomaterials 5 (1991) 47-54 and Y. Maniatis, Eleni Aloupi, and A.D. Stalios in Archaeometry 35 (1993) 23-34.

The last section is a fascinating overview of the types of flaws and defects detectable on Athenian figured vases, replete with superb detailed photographs of various examples. These include, among others, air pockets, cracks, spalls, dents, and chattering.

The second half of the volume is devoted to the individual shapes, twenty-four major types along with various subtypes or variations. The only relatively frequently produced shapes missing are lekanides, louteria, and epinetra. Several other subtypes, such as the pointed amphora, skyphos-krater, and kantharoi of types B, C, and D might have been easily included in their respective sections.

Each of the twenty-four sections making up the second half of the book is devoted to a single shape and begins with a short description of the shape analyzed, its use, history of production, and other general information. The notes for this part generally refer the reader back to earlier books on shape, to which the reader must turn to for a proper bibliography. Several newer studies are not mentioned, such as those on mastoi, lebetes gamikoi, and loutrophoroi in the volume Athenian Potters and Painters (Oxford 1997). On occasion the information is not quite accurate. For example, we don't know for sure if the lebes gamikos was used to hold water for sprinkling and purification, as stated (p. 165), only that it had some role in the marriage ceremony; the earliest bell kraters do not have a disc foot (p. 140); and one cannot say that column- and volute-kraters are glossed on the inside (p. 129), rather a dilute gloss usually covers much of their interiors, but not the area at the top of the shoulder, which is not easily accessible to the painter, and thus left bare (e.g. p. 132, fig. 16.9).

What follows in each section is the heart of the book and its major strength, that is a careful and lucid description of how the shape being considered was made. A full series of drawings illustrating each step of the process are found on the inside margins, and numerous photographs demonstrate the various major subtypes of each shape and details of various vases and fragments that help demonstrate how they were made. Innovative is the author's use of mirrors to show parts of the vessel not normally visible to the eye. Both the coverage provided by these illustrations and their quality are superb, and they are masterfully arranged to help the reader quickly understand the text. In addition, numerous interesting observations are made. Two examples: the author notes that the Affecter paid special attention to the inside of his amphorae, by sponging them to help remove the throwing grooves and burnishing the inside of the neck and under the shoulder (pp. 82-83), and that kyathoi may have been made by potting them off the hump, "a process whereby the potter creates pieces, one after another, from the top of a large, conical lump of clay" (pp. 145-46). Striking were both the variety of ways the same shape could be made by different potters and some of the individual solutions to problems with individual vases, such, as the skyphos whose small foot was enlarged at a later stage of potting (p. 245, fig. 29.2). These remind the reader that we are dealing with humans and not machines that dryly repeat their task, and by a careful study of what they have left us that we can understand them and their work much better. Naturally, not every variation of form and detail could be noted, which the reader needs to keep in mind.

At the end of the text are five appendices, giving silhouette drawings of the individual shapes, terminology, and mouth, foot, and handle types. A useful glossary of terms follows.

This may be the finest and most important book written on Greek vases in the last twenty-five years. Impeccably produced, lavishly illustrated, and full of original insights, this volume is a must for anyone interested in ancient ceramics, and at bargain price to boot. Buy and read it! You won't be sorry.

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