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Uses in Life

The different shapes of Greek vases were developed to best suit their purpose. We can tell something about how the different vases were used by looking at the shapes themselves, and from scraps of description in ancient literature, but the best evidence for how they were used comes from images on vases showing the different shapes in use. This does not mean that there was just one way to use a vase. They could be re-used during the owner’s lifetime and would take on a different type of use after the owner’s death.

Drinking cup (kylix) c. 480 BC,  showing a symposium scene.  Loan Ant.103.18. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, CambridgeVases for use at a party

Many of the vases which survive were originally made to serve or drink wine. The best known venue for this was at Classical Athenian symposia, which were drinking parties where adult citizen men met to listen to music, tell stories and make contacts. Plato, the Greek 4th century BC philosopher, sets one of his works, The Symposium, at just such a party.

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Oil BottlesMarble grave marker made in  Athens c. 375-350 BC, showing the  dead youth, Sostratus, holding a  strigil, while his slave carries an  aryballos and cloak. Metropolitan  Museum of Art, New York, Rogers  Fund, 1908, 08.258.41. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  Source

Some of the most unusual and distinctive shapes in Greek pottery were designed to hold oil, often perfumed. In the Greek world perfumed oil was an expensive luxury, which was probably imported from Egypt.

The surviving images and references in ancient literature are from classical Athens of the 5th century BC, and they show that these vases were used by men, not women, to hold oil for cleaning themselves after exercise.

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Shapes for special occasionsPicture of Athena on one side of a  Panathenaic amphora painted by the Kleophrades Painter around 500 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New  York, Rogers Fund, 1916,  Accession Number 16.71. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art Source

Certain pottery shapes were made for particular occasions.

One example is the Panathenaic amphora, a distinctive shape of amphora which contained the olive oil awarded as prizes to victors of the Panathenaic Games held in Athens. From the 6th century BC these amphoras were decorated in the black-figure technique with an image of the armed goddess Athena flanked by columns, usually supporting cockerels, on one side. On the other side were athletic events from the Panathenaic Games. The shape was soon became imitated for other uses, but true Panathenaic prize amphoras are identified by the words “from the games at Athens” painted beside one of the columns flanking Athena.

These Panathenaic amphoras were made in the same style for several centuries. Although they would have looked old-fashioned, the signatures of vase-painters show that they were made by some of the most popular craftsmen of the day. In the 4th century BC the name an Athenian magistrate (archon) began to be painted on the vases, and the dates of the archons are known. The vases with both the name of the archon and of the vase-painter, help to establish an accurate chronology for other vases. Panathenaic amphoras have also been used to work out the approximate proportion of ancient vases that survive today. Based on an estimate of how many amphoras of oil were awarded at each Games, and the number that have been found, it has been discovered that far fewer than 1% of the Panathenaic amphoras once produced have survived.

Other examples of special-use vases are two shapes which were particularly associated with the wedding ceremony. The loutrophoros was a tall container which held the water for the bridal bath, and the lebes gamikos, was a lidded bowl on a stand was also used by the bride in preparation for the wedding. These vases are often decorated with scenes showing the seated bride and her attendants preparing for the wedding ceremonies. However, the images on some of these vases, particularly loutrophoroi, indicate that they were also a common type of funerary vase.


Uses in DeathPicture of Athena on one side of a  Panathenaic amphora painted by the Kleophrades Painter around 500 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New  York, Rogers Fund, 1916,  Accession Number 16.71. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art Source

Many loutrophoroi show mourning women surrounding the body of a youth or young girl. Just as they were specifically made for unmarried maidens to use while preparing for the wedding ceremony, they were an appropriate funerary gift for boys and girls who died before they were married. The pottery vases would be set up over the grave as a gift and to receive liquid offerings to the dead. Large marble versions of the same shape were also set up in cemeteries as grave markers.

The tradition of using a large vase as a grave marker dates back to at least the 8th century BC in Athens. Custom-made pots, over a metre tall, were decorated with scenes of the funeral ceremony, and were set up over the grave.

Another type of vase that was a particularly appropriate offering to the dead was the white-ground decorated lekythos.

As well as being erected above ground to mark the grave, pottery was also buried in the grave as offerings to the dead. Greek vases of every shape have been found in graves throughout the Mediterranean. Indeed most of the well-preserved vases shown in museums today have survived because they were buried.

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Further Reading

Brian Sparkes, Greek Pottery: An Introduction (Manchester, 1991).

John Boardman, The History of Greek Vases (London, 2001).