36 Geometric period pottery and its decoration

The geometric patterns and motifs prevalent on pottery during the years from approximately 900-700 BCE give the name to the Geometric period of Greek art. Scholars subdivide the Geometric period into three basic segments: Early Geometric (900-850 BCE), Middle Geometric (850-760 BCE), and Late Geometric (760-700 BCE) (1). These are abbreviated EG, MG, and LG respectively. Because Attic Geometric pots seem to have "set the pace" for Geometric pottery (2), it is important to note that non-Attic vases from this period do not fall directly within these date classifications and therefore may be more difficult to date based on style.

Ceramics seem to have been the predominant art form during the Geometric period (3), and the vast majority of vases are found in cemeteries and other burial contexts. Archaeologists must base their analyses on material remains found in these burials, due to the fact that there are very few texts surviving from this period (4). Therefore, our knowledge of this period is restricted primarily to burial customs (5).

Vases performed several different functions in Geometric funerary practices. Some monumental amphorae and kraters acted as grave markers (6); one example of this is the so-called Dipylon amphora, which stands approximately 5 ft (1.55 m) tall. Other vases, usually amphorae, acted as incinerary urns which held the ashes of a cremated individual. Vase 2006.36.T in the CU Art Museum probably held this type of function. Still other types of vases were placed in graves as offerings (7).

Both the shapes of vases in this period and their decoration derive from an earlier period known as Protogeometric, which lasted from approximately 1050-900 BCE. The Protogeometric style is characterized by vase shapes such as the amphora, the krater, the oinochoe, and a range of cup shapes(8) and decoration including concentric circles and semicircles, checkerboard patterns, zig-zags and wavy lines, and lozenges in the form of triangles or diamonds. Minimal figural decoration adorns Protogeometric style and when it does occur it is, with few exceptions, in the form of animal motifs rather than depictions of humans.

Vases from the Geometric period tend to be largely of the same shapes as those of the Protogeometric, though they usually are taller and slimmer in form (9). However, the decoration on surviving Geometric vases suggests a substantial shift from the Protogeometric style, especially during the MG and LG periods. There appears to have been a growing interest in figural representation (10) and variation in non-figural motifs such as maeanders and new forms of lozenges (11). These motifs usually form bands, or registers, of decoration and generally cover the vases from foot to rim.

One of the most significant changes in pottery decoration during this period is new interest in depicting the human form on vases (12). These figures take on a very stylized (indeed geometric) form--that is, they are conceptual rather than representational. In earlier phases of the Geometric period, they are shown as silhouettes and in a perspective which combines both a frontal and a profile view, much like what we see in Egyptian motifs. Additionally, figural decoration on surviving Geometric vases often comes in the form of funerary scenes. Two excellent examples of these phenomena are the Dipylon amphora, which shows mourners surrounding a body lying in state in what is called prothesis , and the Hirschfeld krater, which shows a funeral procession (or ekphora ). Both of these vases were found in a cemetery near the Dipylon gate in Athens . As the period progressed, figures began exhibiting more detail and a greater sense of realism (13), though geometric elements remain prevalent in portraying the figures.

Although some argue that Geometric pottery exhibits "primitive" (14) or underdeveloped artistic characteristics, or that Geometric art is "not very complicated" (15), it is important to note that these types of value judgments can undermine the greater concepts suggested in the images and the extent to which pottery as an art form had progressed by this period.

Author: Jessika Akmenkalns


(1) Dates from William R. Biers, The Archaeology of Greece (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press 1996): 110. John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting (New York and London: Thames & Hudson 1998): 23. John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology ( Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice Hall 2002): 118-24.

(2) Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting , 23.

(3) J.N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology (London: Methuen 1968): 1.

(4) Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery , 332.

(5) J.N. Coldstream, "The Geometric style: birth of the picture," Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991): 37-56.

(6) Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 121; Biers, The Archaeology of Greece , 123; Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting , 25-6.

(7) Emily Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press 1979).

(8) Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 118.

(9) Biers, The Archaeology of Greece , 121.

(10) Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting , 24.

(11) Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 118.

(12) Biers, The Archaeology of Greece , 125.

(13) Ibid, 125.

(14) Bernhard Schweitzer, Greek Geometric Art (New York: Phaidon 1971): 16.

(15) Anna Roes, Greek Geometric Art: Its Symbolism and Its Origin (Haarlem, Netherlands: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon 1933): 9.