Bronze Age Pottery on the Greek Mainland

Although pottery was made in Greece during the Stone Age, the tradition of decorated ceramics in Greece really started in the Bronze Age, a period which began in about 3000 BCE and ended with the so-called Dark Ages in about 1100 BCE. On mainland Greece, the Bronze Age is known as the Helladic Period and is divided into three main phases: Early, Middle, and Late Helladic (also known as Mycenaean), abbreviated EH (c. 3000-2000 BCE ), MH (c. 2000-1550 BCE ), and LH (c. 1550-1100 BCE ) (1). For a chronological chart of Bronze Age periods and pottery types, click here. During the Bronze Age, Greece was divided into small kingdoms which were probably often at war with one another (2). Since we lack written records from this period in history, we must rely on archaeological finds such as pottery to reveal something of the history of Helladic Bronze Age Greece.

Early Helladic (c. 3000-2000 BCE)

The Early Helladic period brought new pottery shapes in addition to those that had been in use since the Neolithic period. The easily recognizable 'sauceboat' is one of the most common of these new shapes, plainly decorated with a glossy dark paint. The sauceboat shape may have been derived from metal prototypes or even from the shape of cut gourds (3). Most pottery from this period was either painted in solid colors or decorated with very simple designs, just as Stone Age pottery had been. Greeks at this time lived in small villages or as farmers and hunters, subsisting mainly on grains, olives, figs, and game such as deer. Women wove clothing for the family, as they would do throughout Greek history (4).

Middle Helladic (c. 2000-1550 BCE)

Two major cultural and artistic shifts occurred in the Middle Helladic period; foreign invaders known today as the "Minyans" entered Greece , and the pottery wheel came into use. The potter's wheel, which arrived in Greece in about 2000 BCE, had been invented about 2000 years earlier in Mesopotamia (5). As a result of this new technology (and possibly due to influence by the foreign invaders), a new pottery type  evolved from the simple, earlier types, possibly brought to Greece by the new arrivals evolved from the simple, earlier types; Minyan Ware was an undecorated but highly polished painted ware with a somewhat sharp-edged profile that seems to have been based on metal vessels (6). Made on the fast wheel, Minyan Ware is found in monochrome grey, black, yellow, and red, and has a distinctive soapy feel. Contemporary with Minyan Ware , but very different in almost every way, is the dark-on-light, handbuilt Matt-Painted Ware, decorated with simple geometric designs and, later, more naturalistic motifs. This ware may have been introduced by foreigners as well. In contrast to the fine fabric of Minyan ware, Matt-Painted Ware tends toward the course and chunky. Despite the innovations in pottery and arrival of the Minyans, life in Greece did not change much during the Middle Helladic period; farmers still tended their fields in the old ways and settlements remained small (7).

Late Helladic/Mycenaean (c. 1550-1100 BCE)

The Late Helladic period, also known as the Mycenaean period, was the time of the great palaces in Greece , the most famous at Mycenae. The well-known Lion Gate leading into the walled city of Mycenae anticipates future monumental relief carvings, and paintings on palace walls show an interest in the animal motifs and depictions of pattern and movement that will be seen again in vase painting. Other palaces on the Greek mainland include those at Pylos and Tiryns(8).

Along with the grand palaces, many new pottery types w ere introduced in the Mycenaean period (9). On the opposite end of the design spectrum from the monochrome and simple designs of Middle Helladic was the Pictorial Style, which featured human and animal figures. These vessels, with their real and mythological creatures, marching soldiers, and chariots, foreshadowed later developments in Greek vase painting. The Close Style was another adventurous experiment, featuring aquatic birds and delicate geometric patterns competing for attention. Despite the innovations, holdovers from the period of Matt-Painted Ware remained, especially at the beginning of the Mycenaean period when simple patterned and banded pots were common.

Later Mycenaean pottery painting was influenced by Minoan ceramics, which were exported to mainland Greece (10). The Mycenaeans simplified and abstracted the Minoan motifs, creating a more patterned and decorative ware than the more naturalistic pottery found in Crete. Common are variations on the marine style. Not all pottery was decorated, though; a plain, glossy type, known as Acropolis Burnished Ware, is an orange-tinted descendent of Minyan ware (11).

At the end of the Late Bronze Age, around 1100 BCE, Mycenaean civilization collapsed for a reason on which archaeologists have yet to agree. Whatever happened, Greece entered the so-called Dark Ages , about which little is known. Depopulation and destruction seem to have been characteristic of the period, in which the art of writing was lost along with much pottery production.

Author: Summer Trentin


(1). On the chronological divisions of the Greek mainland in the Bronze Age, see Reynold Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art (New York: Oxford University Press 1981): 65-6; John G. Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall 1993): 29-30.

(2). William R. Biers, The Archaeology of Greece (Cornell University Press 1980): 62-3.

(3). Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology , 40 : see also Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art , 67.

(4). For life in the Early Helladic period, see Emily Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age (The University of Chicago Press 1964) 36-42.

(5). Andrew A Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary-Louise Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques ( Los Angeles : The J. Paul Getty Museum 2002): 130-1.

(6). Jeremy B. Rutter, Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean ( updated 18 March 2000 , accessed 13 March 2005 ).

(7). On the Middle Helladic period, see Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age , 72-81 ; Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art , 68-70 .

(8). On the Mycenaean palaces, see George E. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age (Princeton University Press 1966): 46-88.

(9). For the Mycenaean period and its art, see George E. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age ; for further information with excellent images, see Spyridon Marinatos, Crete and Mycenae (New York: Harry N. Abrams, inc. 1960).

(10). Jack L. Davis, "Late Helladic I Pottery from Korakou." Hesperia 1979:234-263 ; on Mycenaean pottery and its influence from Crete , see also Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art, 106- 22. .

(11). Penelope A. Mountjoy, Mycenaean Athens (Jonsered, Sweden: Paul Åströms Förlag 1995): 13-4.