BMCR 1995.08.08

1995.08.08, Vickers and Gill, Artful Crafts

, , Artful crafts : ancient Greek silverware and pottery. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994. xii, 254 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780198132264 $65.00.

In 1982 Michael Vickers presented a radical new view of Greek painted pottery to a group of scholars assembled at Rouen (Vickers 1983): he argued that the Attic painted pots that enjoy such high status in the contemporary scholarly and commercial world were nothing more than slavish copies of originals in precious metals. An amplified and more widely read version appeared in print a few years later, as “Artful Crafts: The Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery,” (Vickers 1985) and Vickers has since reiterated and defended his thesis repeatedly. David Gill’s work on the relationship between silverware and Attic black glaze and the mechanics of the ancient pottery trade began to appear a couple of years later. These two scholars now join forces to produce an integrated summary of their work.

Chapter 1 sets the scene with a discussion of the origins of the modern notion that painted pottery was a valuable commodity prized and used by the elite, arguing that this inflated valuation is rooted in the marketing of Greek painted pottery and the contemporary vessels it inspired in the 18th century. In Chapter 2 the authors tackle the thorny problem of modern equivalents for ancient prices, offering a complicated formula that gives a sum in British pounds, based on the value of silver corrected to its ancient relation to gold. This preserves consistency throughout the book, but when a drachma (here and everywhere cited as the daily wage for a skilled worker in the 5th century) translates as £1.80, one realizes that the equivalents have little to do with modern earning and buying power. V and G investigate the financial standing of the Athenian elite and argue that precious vessels were a common sight on their tables. They also discuss the use of gold- and silverware as reserves of wealth, facilitated by the practice of making vessels in multiples of standard units of weight. “The Fate of Plate” occupies Chapter 3, a fascinating excursus on the looting, capture, and recasting of precious objects as documented in the literary and epigraphical sources. V and G’s point—that surviving vessels represent a very tiny percentage of the wealth of ancient Greece—emerges clearly.

The real heart of the controversy that has revolved around Vickers’ work in particular is to be found in Chapters 4-6. This begins with an attack on the notion of “the worthy potter,” a respected artist who earned enough to make lavish dedications on the Acropolis, and argues against the contention that figured pottery was a valuable commodity and an economically significant item of trade. V and G can only be applauded for combating a market-driven overvaluation of Greek painted pottery, but they are unable to produce a clear picture of just how much that pottery was “worth” to its contemporaries. What is lacking here is a model of the social and economic structure of Athenian society as a whole. Are we talking about two classes: the rich with their silver and gold, and everyone else? If so, where was the dividing line? Was there a “middle class”? Was there a gradual gradation from rich to poor? How steep was the pyramid? Just how typical was that famous skilled workman who earned one drachma a day? Without answers to these questions it is impossible to assess the place of ceramics in ancient Athenian economy and society. The work of V and G reminds us, though, that these unanswered questions must remain behind every inquiry into Greek pottery and every use of ceramics for the investigation of ancient Greek life. The model they put forward is a beginning, although it is overly simplistic: gold and silver for the rich, silver and bronze for the hoplite class; figured pottery for the “urban proletariat” (is such a phrase meaningful in an ancient setting?), wood for the very poor (is wood necessarily cheaper than clay in a deforested environment?). The evidence of excavation. which V and G rarely consult, demonstrates that ceramics were in fact present at all levels of society; a more thoughtful exploration of that evidence might have contributed to a more sophisticated model.

Chapter 5 presents the now famous vision of Greek pottery as a direct reflection of work in precious materials. Black glaze replicates silver, red-figure reflects gold-figures applied to a silver background, black-figure imitates silver figures on a bronze or gold ground. Purple translates as copper, white as ivory. The egraphsen and epoiesen inscriptions traditionally regarded as signatures of painter and potter are read as the names those who designed and made the precious originals that the clay pots copy (Chapter 6). V and G do not leave the Athenian potters’ quarter in disarray, for they “are fully prepared to concur with the bulk of Beazley’s attributions” (161). But they do remove the creative act from the world of the potter to that of the metalsmith, a bitter pill for those who give the Berlin painter and his colleagues the status of ancient Michelangelos. The authors extend their model here in space and time—to China and the Islamic world, and to the Hellenistic period. In the latter there is a tendency to play fast and loose with chronology. The moldmade pottery that they describe as replacing red-figure originated ca. 225, not 320 BC as they would have it. What really replaced red-figure as table ware was West Slope, a ceramic development from a 4th-century gold-decorated ware that adhered closely to metal models. V and G relate the introduction of “immense quantities of orangey-red tableware” in unspecified “wealthier centers elsewhere in the Hellenistic world” (perhaps they are thinking of Pergamon?) to a change from silver and silver gilt to solid gold dedications in temple inventories “after the third quarter of the fourth century” (178). But as they know, red gloss is a development of the 2nd century, not the late 4th, so it is hard to see how the two phenomena can be connected.

A final chapter announces a “new agenda for the study of Greek pottery”, V and G’s suggestions are unexceptional but sensible, and often surprisingly traditional. Most striking is the extension of the “white=ivory” formula to terracotta figurines, which are often coated with a white slip that is usually taken to be a base coat for additional painting (which is often present). This will undoubtedly bring a spirited response from students of the coroplastic art.

The works of Vickers and Gill have raised the hackles of many prominent members of the vase-painting establishment, who have already critiqued them with more learning and spirit than the present reviewer can command (Boardman 1987, Cook 1987, Robertson 1987). Few readers, I think, will be willing to swallow their thesis whole. My own feeling is that, ingenious as their model is, they push it too far; in their words, “…once one has been alerted to the possibilities of metallic inspiration, there is no point at which it is reasonable to stop” (133). That some clay vessels copy metal slavishly is undeniable, and we can be grateful to V and G for illustrating this so clearly. That does not mean, however, that a copper rivet lurks behind every purple dot or a gold treasure behind all oxidized glaze. Careful examination of pottery of any period will reveal ceramic shapes and styles that are difficult to read as skeuomorphs of metal or ivory; V and G cite Geometric pottery as an example, and it would not be hard to find others. Input from other materials comes in fits and starts. The potter begins by making more or less precise imitations but may then go off on an increasingly ceramic tangent, along which his successors continue, only to look back to metal models a generation or two later. At some points V and G seem to suggest this (e.g., in their discussion of “metallurgical shock” [109]), but elsewhere not, and in their zest to demonstrate the dependent relationship of potters to metalworkers they sometimes lose sight of the fluid dynamics of that relationship.

This is not to say, however, that their work does not contain important insights. Their project brings us closer to a clear-headed understanding of the roles painted pots really played in the ancient world, and has made substantial progress towards reconstructing the role of precious metals in ancient Athens. It is also a creative attempt to answer some of the most baffling questions posed by Greek painted ceramics:. Why did Athenian artisans expend so much time and care on objects of minimal intrinsic worth? Who used this pottery? What do egraphsen and epoiesen really mean? These issues, which ought to be at center stage, are too often glossed over in discussions of painted pottery. Vickers and Gill perform an important service in their insistence that we give them due consideration.

To many Classical archaeologists, Artful Crafts, the book, will be tediously familiar. Most of the testimonia, anecdotes, arguments, and even the phraseology have appeared before, and one may tire of these repeated recitations. For students and those outside the field, however, this volume makes these controversial ideas easily accessible, and for scholars it eliminates the necessity of referring to them as fragmented in the periodical literature. Along with the standard handbooks, Artful Crafts should be required reading for all students of Classical Archaeology; taken together, the two approaches illustrate just how slight a foundation supports our certainties about the past.

  • Boardman, J. 1987. “Silver is White,”RA, 279-295.
  • Cook, R. M. 1987. “‘Artful Crafts’: A Commentary,”JHS 107, 1987, 169-171.
  • Robertson, M. 1985. “Beazley and Attic Vase Painting,” in Beazley and Oxford, D. C. Kurtz, ed., Oxford, 19-30.
  • Vickers, M. 1983. “Les vases peintes: image ou mirage?,” in Image et ceramique grecque: Actes du colloque de Rouen 25-26 novembre 1982, F. Lissarrague and F. Thelamon, eds., Rouen, 29-42.
  • – – – 1985. “Artful Crafts: The Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery,”JHS 105, 108-128.