Published: June 14, 2018 By

Photograph of a red-figure pelike, with decoration of a woman's head in profile, facing left, from the side against a neutral gray background.Ancient Greek vases have been found in tombs, sanctuaries, and other kinds of deposits in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, the Levant, Spain, and other lands surrounding and beyond the Mediterranean Sea (1). Despite the wide distribution of findspots, however, the majority of ancient Greek vases, including some of the most famous examples, have been found in the Italian regions of Etruria, South Italy, and Sicily (2). A great many have been found in tombs belonging to an Italian peoples called the Etruscans after their homeland in Etruria. A well-known black-figure krater called the François Vase, for example, was found at Chiusi in Etruria (3). Similarly, a black-figure amphora signed by the famous 6th century B.C.E. vase painter Exekias and showing the Trojan War heroes Ajax and Achilles playing dice was found at Vulci in Etruria (4). 

Early in the 18th century, when collectors and connisseurs were just beginning to consider ancient Greek vases as objects of art worthy of serious study, scholars thought that the vases might actually have originated in Etruria, rather than Greece, because of how many were found in Etruscan tombs (5). In the late 18th century, however, scholars began to attribute the vases to Greek manufacture because of the preponderance of dipinti or inscriptions in the Greek language, which were added by the potter or the painter, and graffiti, added by someone other than the painter on many of these vases (6). The debate oscillated, tipping the scales toward Greek origin as more vases were found in Greece and toward Etruscan origin as more vases were found in Etruria (7). As late as 1905, scholars believed that pottery of Italian provenance was manufactured by Greek artists living and working in the Greek colonies in South Italy and Sicily (8). 

Anymore, scholars believe that most Greek pottery ended up in Italy through trade. It is not understood, however, who shipped the vessels and whether the vessels were considered valuable enough to be the primary cargo of a merchant's ship or were simply space fillers (9). Were the vessels made specifically for export or where they secondhand vases discarded by Greek users? Were the vessels valued more for their shape and decoration or for their contents (10)? Some vessels found in Etruscan tombs had been broken and mended with metal clamps, suggesting that the vessels themselves were valued enough to be repaired in an Etruscan context. 

Despite evidence that ceramic vessels were highly valued in the ancient world, some scholars have suggested that they were simply cheap imitations of more expensive and valuable bronze, silver, and gold vessels (12). These scholars argue that the current trend of museums paying millions of dollars for ancient Greek ceramic vessels distorts our perceptions about the ancient value of pottery and that it is unlikely that it was so highly valued in ancient Greece. Indeed, the value of ceramic vessels in antiquity, which could have been and likely was different in Greece, Italy, and other regions, is debate among modern scholars (13). 

Today, we have a better understanding of the origins of pottery based on scientific analyses of clay types, our understanding of clay sources, and studies on painting materials and techniques. Sir John Beazley (1885-1970) categorized a great quantity of pottery in the early 20th century, attributing individual vessels and painted scenes to specific potters, painters, and workshops based on style (14). Using the strong foundations that Beazley laid, scholars now examine the uses and social implications of pottery based on archaeological discoveries in tombs and sanctuaries and consider, for example, why and how it was traded so extensively overseas. 


  1. H. B. Walters, History of Ancient Pottery (London: John Murray, 1905): 32-33.
  2. An online database that contained information and images of 629 Greek vases (as of 2005) indicates that over 50% of their examples were found in Italy or Sicily. "Perseus Digital Library," Tufts University (, accessed 05 February 2019. Walters, History of Ancient Pottery: 33 indicates that, as of 1905, the majority of Greek vases came from Etruria and South Italy. 
  3. Walters, History of Ancient Pottery: 73.
  4. Brian A. Sparkes, The Red and the Black: Studies in Greek Pottery (London: Routledge, 1996): 59.
  5. Sparkes, The Red and the Black: Studies in Greek Pottery: 46-48.
  6. Sparkes, The Red and the Black: Studies in Greek Pottery​: 48.
  7. Sparkes, The Red and the Black: Studies in Greek Pottery​: 47-59.
  8. Walters, History of Ancient Pottery: 31-32.
  9. David W. J. Gill, "Pots and Trade: Spacefillers or "Objets D'art?" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 111 (1991): 29.
  10.  John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade (London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 1980): 16-17.
  11. John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Classical Period (London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 1989): 236.
  12. Michael Vickers, "Artful Crafts: The Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery," The Journal of Hellenic Studies 105 (1985): 108-128.
  13. There are many publications that debate this issue, including John Boardman, "The Athenian Pottery Trade: The Classical Period," Expedition 21/4 (Summer 1979): 33-39; and David W. J. Gill, "Pots and Trade: Spacefillers or "Objets D'art?": 29-47.
  14. D. C. Kurtz, "Beazley and the Connoisseurship of Greek Vases," Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Occasional Papers on Antiquities 3 (1983): 237-250.