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Archaeologist, Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity, University of Vienna; Author, The Artificial Ape

Why the Greeks Painted Red People On Black Pots

An explanation of something that seems not to need explaining is good. If it leads to further explanations of things that didn't seem to need explaining, that is better. If it makes a massive stink, as academic vested interests attempt to preserve the status quo in the face of far reaching implications, it is one of the best. I have chosen Michael Vickers' simple and immensely influential explanation of why the ancient Greeks painted little red figures on their pots.

The 'red figure vase' is an icon of antiquity. The phrase is frequently seen on museum labels, and the question of why the figures were not white, yellow, purple or black—other colours the Greeks could and did produce in pottery slips and glazes—does not seem important. Practically speaking, Greek pottery buyers could mix and match without fear of clashing styles, and the basic scheme allowed the potters to focus on their real passion: narrative story telling. The black background and red silhouettes make complex scenes—mythological, martial, industrial, domestic, sporting and ambitiously sexual—graphically crisp. Anyone can understand what is going on (for which reason museums often keep their straight, gay, lesbian, group, bestial, and olisbos [dildo-themed] stuff out of public view, in study collections). So clearly there is enough about Greek vases to catch the eye without thinking about the colour scheme.

Michael's brilliance was to take an idea well known to the scholar Vitruvius in the first century BC and apply it in a fresh context. Vitruvius noted that many features of Greek temples that seemed merely decorative were a hangover from earlier practical considerations: little rows of carefully masoned cubes and gaps just under the roof line were in fact a skeuomorph or formal echo of the beam ends and rafters that had projected at that point when the structures were made of wood. Michael argued that Greek pottery was skeuomorphic too, being the cheap substitute for aristocratic precious metal. He argued that the red figures on black imitated gilded figures on silver, while the shapes of the pots, with their sharp carinations and thin, strap-like handles, so easily broken in clay, were direct translations of the silversmith’s craft.

This still seems implausible to many. But to those of us, like myself, working in the wilds of Eastern European Iron Age archaeology, with its ostentatious barbarian grave mounds packed with precious metal luxuries, it made perfect sense. Ancient silver appears black on discovery, and the golden figuration is a strongly contrasting reddish gold. Museums typically used to 'conserve' such vessels, not realising that (as we now know) the sulfidized burnish to the gold was deliberate, and that no Greek would have been seen dead with shiny silver (a style choice of the hated Persians, who flaunted their access to the exotic lemons with which they cleaned it).

For me, an enthusiast from the start, the killer moment was when Michael photographed a set of lekythoi, elegant little cylindrical oil or perfume jars, laid down end to end in decreasing order in an elegant curve. He demonstrated thereby that no lekythos (the only type of major pottery with a white background, and black only for base and lid) had a diameter larger than the largest lamellar cylinder that could be obtained from an elephant tusk. These vessels, he explained, were skeuomorphs of silver-mounted ivory originals.

The implications are not yet settled, but the reputation of ancient Greece as a philosophically-oriented,  art-for-art's sake culture can now be contrasted with an image of a world where everyone wanted desperately to emulate the wealthy owners of slave-powered silver mines with their fleets of trade galleys (in my view, the scale of the ancient economy in every dimension—slavery, trade, population levels, social stratification—has been systematically underestimated, and with it the impact of colonialism and emergent social complexity in prehistoric Eurasia).

The irony for the modern art world is that the red figure vases that change hands for vast sums today are not what the Greeks themselves actually valued. Indeed, it is now clear that the illusion that these intrinsically cheap antiquities were the real McCoy was deliberately fostered, through highly selective use of Greek texts by nineteenth century auction houses intent on creating a market.