Most ancient Greek pottery, including all of those decorated in the black-figure and red-figure techniques of vase painting, was produced on a potter's wheel, specifically a fast heel. Wheel-made pottery, as opposed to hand-made pottery, was found at the site of Troy, also called Hisarlik, in Asia Minor as early as 2,500 B.C.E. The ancient Greeks may have encountered the people of Troy during the Trojan War, which is recounted in an epic poem by the poet Homer and, in fact, it is in Homer's Iliad (18.599-601) that we find the first reference to the potter's wheel in Greek literature (1).
The tondo of a kylix dated to the early 5th century B.C.E. shows a potter working at a wheel. In ancient Greece, the potter's wheel was two to three feet in diameter and was usually made of wood, terracotta, or stone. A notch in the center of the wheel's underside allowed a stationary point to be inserted and the wheel would be rotated around this point by hand. The wheel's momentum was provided by hand, foot, or some other source of power.
The potter's wheel is an example of an early mechanical invention: it can be traced back to the ancient Sumerians as early as 3,250 B.C.E. (2). Early wheels were probably slow wheels; later fast wheels allowed potters to work more quickly and to create more uniform vessels. Before the invention of the potter's wheel, pottery was made by hand, primarily using the coiling method.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- J.V. Noble, The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1988): 21; J.V. Noble, "An Overview of the Technology of Greek and Related Pottery" in ed. H. A. G. Brijdger, Ancient Greek and Related Pottery: Proceedings of the International Vase Symposium in Amsterdam, 12 -15 April 1984 (Amsterdam: Allard Pierson Museum, 1984); Schreiber, Athenian Vase Construction: 12-13.
- Toby Schreiber, Athenian Vase Construction: A Potter's Analysis (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999): 12-13.