Before the modern advents of trains and
automobiles, trade between civilizations
concentrated around the Mediterranean moved
foremost by sea. While many bulk commodities
such as timber and stone could be loaded
directly aboard a ship with little preparation,
other commodities such as spices, wine, and
grain needed to be packed in individual
containers for transport both at sea and on land
and to prolong their lifespan. Pottery was first
created in order to fulfill these practical needs.
Over time, the art form evolved from large,
unadorned commercial transport vessels to
refined, specialized works in elegant shapes
used to hold precious substances such as
perfume or oils.
An entire retinue of terracotta vessels dedicated
to the rites of the dinner table began to appear.
These pieces were based on the luxurious
bronze and silver vessels that could only be
afforded by the wealthy elite and were decorated
with fanciful natural motifs and painted scenes of
everyday life and celebrated myths. These wares
were of such beauty that they themselves
became prized commodities and were traded
throughout the Mediterranean world; perhaps
even for the very substances they were created
to contain. These works are individually
classified by their shapes and their form was
inherently linked to their function, be it
preparation, dispensation, or consumption.
Before the 6th Century B.C., the island of
Corinth, with their distinctive black-figure wares
that first appeared in the 7th Century,
dominated the lucrative pottery export trade.
However, by around 525 B.C., the city of Athens,
with their varied styles of vessel shapes and
painted scenes, had wrested control from the
Corinthians and established a firm monopoly in
luxury wares. Pottery production in Athens was
concentrated in the northwestern area known as
the Kerameikos. Here, artists created everything
from roof tiles and architectural decorations, to
votive figurines and fine vessels (as well as
commercial coarse-ware). The majority of the
pots were thrown on a manually driven potter’s
wheel and fired in a wood-burning kiln where
the artist could determine the color of the vessel
by controlling the oxygen flow within. While
many potters threw and painted their own works,
certain potters excelled in producing specific
shapes, and other artists specialized in painting.
At first, the Attic painters emulated the black-
figure style employed by the Corinthians. In
black-figure technique, the vase surface was
covered with a diluted wash of clay. A thicker
solution of iron-rich clay formed the "glaze"
used to paint on figures in solid silhouette.
Intricate details were then incised onto the
figures. Finally, painted red and white highlights
were added before firing.
Lekythoi had both a functional and a ritual
context for the ancient Greeks. Within daily life,
they were used as flasks to hold precious
ointments such as fragrant perfumes and
sumptuous oils. They also used in funerary rites,
specifically the white-ground varieties. These
lekythoi, often decorated with scenes of
mourning, would have been left on the grave as
offerings or used to pour libations over the
deceased. This gorgeous black-figure lekythos,
however, was likely meant for the living and not
for the dead. A painted scene depicting two
warriors in the midst of a duel decorates the
body. Armed with lances, they also each carry a
shield and wear a crested helmet. They duelers
are flanked by two youths clad in mantles
surveying the competition. Each of these youths
also holds a lance.