Dipylon Amphora

As tall as a person, this pot is covered with geometric patterns and early figural representations.

Dipylon Amphora, c. 755-750 B.C.E., ceramic, 160 cm, Geometric period (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, looking at the “Dipylon Vase.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:09] The so-called “Dipylon Vase,” because it was found near what would later become the Dipylon Gate in Athens, in a cemetery right near there.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] This is a gigantic ceramic pot. It’s an amphora, but it would have been used as a grave marker in antiquity. It’s big. It’s 5 feet, 1 inch tall.

Dr. Harris: [0:27] It’s almost as tall as I am. It’s unusual in that we see figures, we see a narrative scene, and this is something that we see emerging more and more in the late Geometric period. Geometric is such an obvious name for the style of this vase.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] Well, look at the vase. It’s covered from its foot all the way to the lip of its mouth with sharp-edged geometric patterns. I see meanders, I see diamonds, I see triangles. This is a pot coming out of that ancient tradition, which really avoided empty space.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] We do see black bands around the base where the neck meets the body and at the very lip of the vase. We do have some black bands designating the separate parts of the vase.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] The most interesting part is the fact that we have emerging here representations of animals and even of people. As you said, we only see that at the end of the Geometric period.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] On the neck of the vase, we see deer grazing.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] Below that, we see what are either goats or gazelles perhaps, or some people have said deer as well.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] Lying down or seated.

Dr. Zucker: [1:28] Notice in both cases with the deer and with the goats, it’s really a repeated motif, so that it is a continuation of the pattern that is so much a part even of the non-figurative areas of the pot.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] It’s true that the bodies of the animals are reduced to very simple geometric shapes. Each one is exactly identical to the one before and the one after, and they’re almost easy to miss as animal figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] Because they’re so much a part of the pattern of the pot.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] Exactly.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] In the main frieze at the shoulder of the pot, almost at its widest point…

Dr. Harris: [1:58] Right, where the handles meet the body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] …we see a number of mourning figures on either side of the body of a dead woman.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] Now, we know it’s a woman because she’s wearing a skirt and different genders were identified in that way. She’s lying on a funeral bier with a shroud held above her.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] You see figures pulling at their hair. This is a symbol of mourning. Some people have even interpreted the little M-shaped patterns falling between the figures as tears.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] Look at how the artist has avoided leaving any space blank. Even between those M shapes, he’s painted little star shapes to fill in the blank spaces.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] Below the dead woman, we can see perhaps the family. We see larger figures on their knees and then we see smaller figures, perhaps the children.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] The bodies are upside-down triangles. The legs are lozenges. Everything is very reduced. The figures are all rendered as black silhouettes. The Greeks had a very specific way of firing pots to get the red ground and the black figures above it.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] This is not glaze in the modern sense. Instead, this is slipware. Slip is fine particles of clay that are suspended in water and then painted on the surface of the pot. This was very difficult, because when you painted on that slip, it was the same color as the dried clay before it was fired. Then it was the next step that was important.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] It was fired in a kiln at about 900 degrees.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] That’s Celsius.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] It was fired in a way where oxygen was withdrawn from the kiln. This causes the entire pot to turn black.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] The kiln was then allowed to cool somewhat and then oxygen was allowed back into the kiln. What happens is the parts of the vase that are not painted return to their warm red color. Only the parts that are painted remain black. You can imagine how difficult this was to control in the ancient world before thermometers.

Dr. Harris: [3:47] It really is an amazing testament to the skill of Greek potters.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] The person who actually fashioned this pot produced it on a wheel but had to produce it in sections and then fit these sections together seamlessly.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] This is a great example of late Geometric Greek pottery.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Dipylon Amphora," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed April 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/dipylon-amphora/.