Pottery in the Bronze Age

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Pottery in the Bronze Age

Early Developments.

Pottery first appeared in the Greek peninsula about 6000 b.c.e., introduced, perhaps, by immigrants from the Near East where pottery was made as early as 8000 b.c.e. The first pots were coarse, gray, handmade ware with simple decorations made by scratching linear designs on them, but in the mid-Neolithic period (5000–4000 b.c.e.) there is evidence of potters in southern Greece using slips, or washes of specially-prepared clay painted on the pot before firing in order to produce a lustrous finish. Pottery was still made by hand, as it would continue to be during both the Early Helladic Period (3000–2000 b.c.e.) on mainland Greece, and the Early Minoan Period which corresponds to it on Crete. Yet on Crete, a change took place once the island entered the Early Minoan Period. The quality of pottery on Crete improved. One type of pottery found on Crete during the Early Minoan period hints at connections with Egypt; the "Vasiliki-ware," so-called from the site of Vasilike on Crete where it was first discovered, apparently imitated vessels made from fine veined stone of the sort found in Egypt. Vasilikiware is decorated with patches of paint which is then fired to different shades of red, yellow, and dark brown, producing a mottled effect. Typical shapes are the goblet and a jug with a long spout. By the end of the Early Minoan period (2000 b.c.e.), however, this mottled decoration found on Vasiliki-ware had been abandoned. Contemporary ware on the mainland at the end of Early Helladic is typically plain and dark in color, though pots with patterns have also been found that feature interlocking triangles, winding lines, and chevron. The potter's wheel also made its appearance on mainland Greece before the end of the Early Helladic Period, though it was not much used there until after 1600 b.c.e. By 2000 b.c.e., when the Middle Minoan period began on Crete and Middle Helladic on the mainland, Crete and mainland Greece apparently went their separate ways.

The Protopalatial Period on Crete.

The early years of Middle Helladic on the mainland Greece were marked by a new migration into the Greek peninsula, and it is generally agreed that these new immigrants spoke Greek, and were thus the first wave of Greekspeakers to reach Greece. They brought with them a type of ware which archaeologists call "Minyan Ware," either gray or beige in color and without decoration. For the next three centuries or more, mainland Greece became a backwater. On Crete, however, the Middle Minoan period ushered in a brilliant age, the Protopalatial or Old Palace Period, when great sprawling palaces were built at a number of sites, chief of them Knossos just south of Iraklion, the capital of modern Crete; Phaestos, due south of Knossos; and Mallia on the northern coast of the island. The potter's wheel was generally used. Potters in the Old Palace Period threw their clay on the horizontal surface of a disk and molded it with their hands as the disk spun around, turned by the potter's helper. The result was a more symmetrical pot of a finer texture and the best of these can stand comparison with the best oriental porcelain.

Kamares Ware.

The most distinctive pottery of the period is "Kamares Ware" which took its name from a cave sanctuary on the slopes of Mt. Ida near the village of Kamares where the first examples of the style were found in the 1890s. Kamares Ware is egg-shell thin and polychrome, that is, it is decorated with designs in several colors: creamy white and reddish-brown against a black background is the favorite color combination. One example, from the palace at Phaistos in south-central Crete, shows a large fish and what appears to be a fish-net on the belly of the vase, and beneath it are spirals, concentric circles and wavy lines, perhaps representing the sea. The development of Kamares Ware was interrupted by a catastrophe about 1700 b.c.e. in which the palaces of the Old Palace Period were destroyed. When the palaces were rebuilt, the Kamares-type vases continued to be made, though they lacked the vivacity of the earlier examples.

Vase-Painting in the Neopalatial Period.

By 1600 b.c.e. vase-painters began to experiment with designs in dark paint on light backgrounds, the opposite of the Kamares-style where the background was dark. Vase-painters moved towards a new style, with themes taken from nature; a number of vases show illustrations of papyrus plants which the Minoans must have seen in Egypt, for no papyrus grows on Crete. Then, by 1500 b.c.e. the last Minoan pottery style before the great catastrophe of 1450 b.c.e. evolved: the so-called "Marine Style." In this style, vases were decorated with life-like paintings of sea-creatures: fish, octopods, and the mollusk with octopus-like tentacles known as "argonauts." There is nothing stiff or ornate about the Marine Style. Fish, dolphins, and cephalopods were depicted as they appear in real life, and the style betrays familiarity with marine life. Then about 1450 b.c.e. catastrophe overwhelmed all the palaces and only the Knossos palace was rebuilt and reinhabited, apparently by Mycenaean Greeks, for their language is Greek. At Knossos in this period, the last pottery style of Bronze-Age Crete emerged: the so-called "Palace Style," associated with the palace at Knossos. The cheerful spontaneity of the Marine Style disappeared, and was replaced by a style that aimed at grandeur. Formalism replaced naturalism. The taste is Mycenaean, for at Mycenae on the mainland natural motifs were stylized into symmetrical and often heraldic patterns.

Mycenaean Vases.

By the late 1400s b.c.e., Greek-speakers from mainland Greece had probably invaded Crete, and more and more in the later centuries Minoan pottery and the Mycenaean ware from the mainland converged and became standardized. From a technical point of view, Mycenaean vases are often very fine work, with clean shapes and stylized decoration that reuses motifs from Crete. For two centuries after 1400 b.c.e. Mycenaean pottery found markets all over the Mediterranean world. It has been found in Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, and Egypt. However, with the end of the Mycenaean civilization around 1200 b.c.e., the world became an unsettled place, and the change is reflected in the pottery. The last styles from the aftermath of the Mycenaean collapse—the period from 1200–1100 b.c.e. which archaeologists call Late Helladic IIIC—belong to the "Close Style" and the "Granary Style," both modern labels. The Close Style has decoration distributed in close rows of concentric half-circles, triangles, and the like over the body of the vase and sometimes there are motifs of fish and birds. One group that has been found has stylized octopods as decoration. Granary Style got its name because a cache of "Granary Style" vases were found at Mycenae in a store-room for grain inside the "Lion Gate" there, and they can be securely dated. Their decoration is simple: wavy lines and festoons on the belly and neck of the pot. "Granary Style" is recognizably sub-Mycenaean. It is the art of the dying Mycenaean civilization which still influenced potters, though the palaces where the god-kings used to rule had been destroyed and the well-to-do customers who used to buy Mycenaean pottery had vanished. Granary Style or "sub-Mycenaean" developed naturally into the Protogeometric style, whereas the Close Style did not survive the final phase of the Mycenaean world.


Philip P. Betancourt, A History of Minoan Pottery (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985).

Oliver P. T. K. Dickinson, The Aegean Bronze Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

J. Lesley Fitton, Minoans (London, England: British Museum Press, 2002).

Roland Hampe and Erika Simon, The Birth of Greek Art. From the Mycenaean to the Archaic Period (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Reynold A. Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1981).

Sinclair Hood, The Arts in Prehistoric Greece (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978).

A. D. Lacy, Greek Pottery in the Bronze Age (London, England: Methuen, 1967).

Penelope Mountjoy, Mycenaean Pottery: An Introduction (Oxford, England: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1993).