ProtoCorinthian Pottery of Ancient Greece

In the 7th Century BC, there were two main hubs of pottery making in Ancient Greece - Corinth, and Attica (the area surrounding Athens). Other city-states made pottery too but not of the same quality, and during this century, the Corinthians were miles ahead of the Athenians in the quality of their pots (Athens of course catches up and supercedes Corinth in the 6th and 5th centuries BC).

There were two main differences between Corinthian and Athenian pottery of this time - the Athenians favored gigantic pots, they thought the larger the better, and most of their pot-making in the 7th century BC was for funerary pots (where the ashes of the deceased were placed in the pot, and the pot was then buried). The Corinthians by contrast were miniaturists. They made exquisite items for the household, and such was the quality of ProtoCorinthian pottery, it was exported far and wide - examples have turned up in Spain and in North Africa. Part of the reason for this is because the Corinthians founded many of the Greek colonies in the Mediterranean, and the new states traded a lot with the mother city, but a lot of the pottery is found in places with no Greek presence, like Mesopotamia, indicating a vigorous export market.

The other difference between Corinthian and Athenian pots is the color of the clay. Attica is iron-rich and all Athenian pots had a red look to them because of the red clay. Corinthian clay by contrast was creamy, almost white. As a result their pots had a cream look, which had the effect of showing color painting to advantage. So while Athenian pots are red and black (red pot, black glazed figures), with some use of white paint for accents, the ProtoCorinthian pottery is painted with a full range of colors.

The jug shown above dates back to 650BC, and is currently in the British Museum. It is small, and each of the animals depicted on it are no more than an inch high - the painter was producing incredible detail in miniature.

ProtoCorinthian Perfume Bottles

The perfume bottles shown above are just three inches high (in other words, they are much smaller than the picture). The bottle on the left shows the characteristic "dot rosette" that is found so often on ProtoCorinthian pottery (if you look closely, the jug at the top of this page also shows these dot rosettes in the background).

These perfume bottles were found in the graves of their owners (the Greeks tended to bury people with their most treasured possessions, and for many women of the time, this was their perfume bottle. Perfumes in ancient Greece were mainly flower essences preserved in olive oil.

The Chigi Vase

The Chigi Vase is so-called because it was found in 1881, in an Etruscan tomb on the property of Prince Mario Chigi. The Etruscans were the early inhabitants of Italy, occupying what is now Tuscany, and clearly the Corinthians traded with them.

The Chigi vase is unusual, because rather than depict fora and flora, it depicts four scenes which could be taken to be the stages in a young man's life.

The first scene at the bottom of the jug shows a group of unarmed young boys chasing rabbits with the help of their dogs. These are clearly boys trying to learn to hunt small animals with just their enthusiasm and swift legs, they are too young to be allowed weapons by their parents.

The next scene shows a procession of young men riding bareback on horses, but each man also controls a second riderless horse. The third scene shows three youths in a lion hunt, rescuing a fourth youth who is being attacked by the lion. Now Greece didn't have lions, but at this early period in their history (7th century BC) all the civilizations around them depict lions, so they do too (and this practice is echoed in modern times by the Queen of England's arms showing lions too, despite the fact that Britain doesn't have any lions either - the idea that he who controls lions is brave has now been absorbed into most of the world's civilizations, though it originated in Egypt).

The fourth scene (shown in the detail in the image above), shows two groups of warriors facing each other, with a flute player on the left.

The vase is about maleness in ancient Greece, with boys graduating from chasing rabbits, to defending themselves from wild animals, to going to war. 

The Chigi vase is important because it's one of the earliest instances of Greeks starting to use pots to tell stories, rather than just depict random images and decoration on them.

Early Corithian Pottery and Corinthian Pottery

As the 7th century BC draws to a close, ProtoCorinthian pottery gives way to Early Corinthian Pottery (late 7th C BC) and Corinthian Pottery (6th century BC) - the names have been given by archaeologists to mark a timeline, with Proto-Corinthian being the earliest pottery made in Corinth.

Sadly, the Early Corinthian and Corinthian pottery just isn't of the same quality as Proto-Corinthian pottery. The later generations of Corinthian potters get lazy and sloppy. Where the ProtoCorinthian potters would carefully paint dozens of images, all to scale, on their tiny jugs, the Early Corinthians stretch out their images to fill the pot, to save themselves from extra work in doing extra drawings.

It culminates in the type of perfume bottles seen above, where instead of perfectly scaled figures, the artist has produced one bloated weird figure that covers the pot, simply because he wants to save himself the trouble of sketching more than one image on the bottle. The delicate dot rosettes are replaced with coarser "blob rosettes" simply because they are easier to fill the space. 

But while the Corinthian potters are declining in quality, across the straits of Corinth the city state of Athens is stepping up a gear, and will go on to dominate high quality pottery in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.


Anonymous on said:
I would like to use some of this information in an essay I am writing. Would you please let me know the source of this material or how I may source this information. Thank you.
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Rose on said:
My source is my old university notes plus one of my old university textbooks by Wiliam Samuel Hart who wrote "The Relationship of Proto-Corinthian to Proto-Attic Pottery" I think it's out of print now though, but you might be able to find it in a library. I've added a link in the article above to a book on Amazon which might help you - "Greek Painted Pottery" by R M Cook - it's pretty comprehensive and covers pottery styles from all over ancient Greece from the earliest periods, (proto geometric), including Proto Corinthian, and onto 5th C BC black figure and red-figure pottery from Attica, Boetia and Etruria. Hope this helps!

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