A fish plate is a conventional name given to a
Greek pottery vessel which was mostly used by
Greeks of the West during the 4th century BC.
Although the form as such was invented in 5th
century BC Athens, most of the corpus of the
surviving fish plates derive from Southern Italy,
where 4th century BC Greek settlers, called
"Italiotes," manufactured and used them.
The form of the plate is generally known and
called a "pinax" or "pinakion", meaning "tablet,"
because of its flat shape. The fish plate's form
was that of a dimpled disk elevated on a
pedestal, in other words, round and flat with a
small cup in the center of plate designed to hold
oil or sauce. Its rim was turned down, and often
bears a decorative border, either spiraling waves,
Greek key and meander motifs, or a wreath of
laurel leaves. A fish plate is almost always also
elevated above table level by a pedestal foot.
Plates of this form are known since Minoan times
but they were not decorated with fish until the
end of the 5th century BC.
As mentioned above fish plates were first
produced in Athens during the late 5th century
BC. These Attic fish plates are characterized by
fish whose lower part of the body is oriented
towards the outside rim of the plate. In Athens
the palette was restricted to red clay fabric and
black gloss slip with rare uses of white
overpainting. During a later period, Italiote Greek
settlers of Southern Italy began to mass-produce
more colorful fish plates in Taranto (Greek
"Taras"), Paestum (Greek "Poseidonia"), Capua
(Etruscan "Capue"), and Cumae (Greek "Kyme").
These South Italian fish plates are characterized
by a decoration in which the fish's lower body is
oriented towards the sauce cup at the center of
The name "fish plate" derives also from the usual
decoration of these plates which includes various
fish and other marine creatures. Fishes depicted
include bream, perch, torpedo fish, tuna, flying
fish, puffer fish, scorpion fish, squid, cuttlefish,
octopus, scallop, clam, dentalia, murex, sea
snail, shrimp, crab, dolphin, hippocamp, etc.
All fish plates are red figure ware, while the body
of the vessel is largely painted in black glaze.
Then dilute glaze and white overpainting were
applied. Sometimes, in the South Italian
examples the palette is enlarged to include deep
red, pink, and yellow overpainting as well. This
polychrome technique with its chiaroscuro is
Some contend that fish plates were decorated
with pictures of the seafood they were intended
to hold. Most of them, however, have been found
in mortuary contexts, so it might be surmised
that the fish images could represent symbolic
offerings for the dead. On the other hand, these
plates could just as well be objects which were in
popular use among the living, placed in tombs
for the deceased to continue using in the
hereafter. At any rate the small size of these
plates could not realistically afford some of the
large aquatic animals represented upon them,
and the decoration must therefore be regarded
as artistic or symbolic compositions rather than
pictures of actual food items on the plates.