Notebook, 1993-


[From: Doumas, Christos, Prof. of Archaeology at the Univ. of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri. Santorini, A Guide to the Island and Its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995.]

Introduction - Geography and Geology - Historical Outline - Archaeological Research - Archaeological Sites - Pottery - Wall Paintings


More than fifty different shapes have been distinguished among the thousands of vases which the excavation has produced to date. These vases can be distinguished into two basic categories: local ones and vases brought from elsewhere. As one may imagine, the vases of foreign provenance are of better quality than the local ones. They are of reddish clay, quite pure, and rather well-fired. Their most probable place of origin seems to be Crete although for at least some of them regions of Mainland Greece cannot be precluded. For reasons probably connected with their transportation, these vases tend to be small in size. Very few pithoi have been imported to Akrotiri and these do not exceed 70 cm. in height. Sometimes such pithoi were used as boxes inside which other smaller vases had been packed for transportation, such as small feeding cups, askoi, or "Vaphio" cups. There seems to have been one such instance in room 16 where eighteen small askoi of foreign provenance were found stored inside a small pithos itself imported. Small pithoid amphorae, ewers, cups, conical rhytons and rhytons in the form of a bull, bull's head or lion's head, are included among the vases which most probably came from Crete. From Mainland Greece the cups with narrow base and almost conical body were probably imported. But vases from even further afield reached Akrotiri. In these instances, however, they were brought as containers in which imported merchandise was conveyed. The Syrian amphora found in room 9,1 must be such a case.

The decoration on the imported vases varies according to their provenance. Thus, only one face of the Helladic cups is decorated, that which one sees when raising the vessel to drink. Spirals, wavy lines, meshed hatching painted in a dark grey, is usually arranged in zones on the light coloured surface of the vase. In one case the entire visible face of the cup is embellished with lilies and crocuses.

The Cretan vases exhibit a wider variety of decoration. All of them have the basic characteristics of Minoan pottery, the most fundamental of which is the zonal arrangement of subjects. Another is the preferential decoration of the upper part of the vase. The motifs, painted in shiny black on the reddish surface of the vase, fall into two categories: abstract linear and floral themes. The marked preference for the former is also a Minoan feature. Spirals, bands, "tortoise shell" [curved parallel striations] and rosettes are among the commonest linear themes. In one instance, so far unique, there [end of p. 26] is the Minoan double axe. Quite often these motifs are emphasized by spots of white pigment. From the plant kingdom, the so-called "foliate band" has special place; it probably imitates a branch of myrtle. The crocus comes second in frequency, followed by ivy and caper. Another feature of the Minoan pottery, the torsion of the motifs, is not absent from the Akrotiri vases either. It is, however, characteristic that themes from the animal kingdom are entirely lacking.

The local vases can be counted in their thousands. They present an endless series of shapes and decorative motifs. There was no problem of transportation connected with these vases and so they exceed the imported ones in size also. They may be classified into two major categories; everyday vessels and "luxury" vases. From the small cups, barely 5 cm. high, to the tall pithoi which frequently exceed one metre, there exist whole contingents of vases intended to serve the needs of day-to-day life. Such vases include the thousands of conical cups, hundreds of tripod cooking pots, amphorae, pithoi, stirrup jars, bath tubs, various ewers, strainers, plant pots, flower vases, et al. Almost the same shapes recur in the better-quality, non-domestic vessels. Of course, these are small and more careful both in manufacture and decoration. Even though many of the shapes are Minoan these are easily recognizable as local imitations and there are also shapes which are entirely Cycladic. Such shapes are the nippled jug, cylindrical plant pot, strainers. The diagnostic trait of all the local vases is the buff-coloured clay and imperfect firing. They are matt-painted. Most frequent are the dark [black or dark brown] motifs painted on the light surface of the vase. Much rarer are white designs on a dark painted ground. The main difference between the local and imported Minoan vases in relation to the decoration is that on the former the abstract and pictorial designs are in almost equal proportions and, furthermore, the latter are not solely confined to the plant kingdom. Amongst these, subjects from the animal kingdom are also encountered. Another equally important difference is the fact that the decoration on the local vases is not restricted only to zones but often covers the whole surface of the vase quite freely. Concerning the abstract motifs, one can add nothing further than what is found on the pottery from Crete though there are certain motifs which are especially interesting, not only because they are typical of the Akrotiri pottery, but also because they are confined to a specific type of vase. Such a motif is the large circle inside which two large contiguous medallions are drawn in such a way that the unpainted areas give the impression of a double axe in an upright position. This motif is found exclusively on elliptical-mouthed amphorae, and rarely on bridge-spouted ewers. Here, however, it is rendered in degenerated form. A similar case is the motif like a triple hook which is depicted as if hanging from the base of the handle on a series of nippled jugs. [end of p. 27]

There is a great variety of pictorial subjects. From the floral repertoire ears of barley, myrtle, crocus, lilies, palm fronds and others are quite common. It is worth noting that specific decoration was reserved for certain shapes of vases; e.g. cylindrical plant pots, when decorated, always have myrtle. A rare but interesting plant theme is the bunch of grapes. Birds as a decorative motif on vases have been noticed from very early on as specifically characteristic of Cycladic pottery. The excavation of Akrotiri, with its rich repertoire, confirms this observation. For birds hold first place among the faunal themes on the pottery. As a rule they embellish ewers but we find them on other vases too such as Kymbai, strainers, etc. Among the birds of the repertoire at Akrotiri, the swallows hold an esteemed position while often are rarer. The chamois [agrimiI] is the second animal subject in popularity. It is, however, confined to Kymbe, this oblong vessel which looks like Lilliputian bath tub. From sherds only we know that other animals were also depicted on the vases for on one such pottery fragment there is a series of animal heads which very much resemble donkeys. It would be strange if there were no marine motifs on the pottery of Akrotiri. The best-loved subject is the dolphin and the vase-painters use it on various vases [ewers, kymbai, pithoi].

In the repertoire of pictorial ornamentation we should also mention one instance which belongs neither to the plant nor the animal kingdom. This is a small number of vases which are decorated with the outline of a nippled jug, such vases include assorted ewers and a small three-legged pithoid amphora. The nippled jug motif painted on these vases appears either alone or amidst plant motifs. The nippled jugs have frequently been interpreted as ritual vessels. Even though, to date, no evidence has emerged in support of such an interpretation, it should be noted that the portrayal of the vessel on another vase may have some significance.

Perhaps one should not conclude this chapter on pottery without making special mention of a unique instance where the human figure has been drawn on a vase. Unfortunately only a sherd has survived and of the human figure only the head is preserved. [Plate 13. One of the loveliest local vases from Akrotiri is this ewer. The decoration extends over the entire surface of the vase, painted in brownish-black and red on a buff ground with details rendered in white. The birds depicted occupy first place among the subjects of the faunal repertoire of the pottery at Akrotiri. (Athens, National Archaeological Museum)] [end of p. 28]

[Doumas, Christos, Prof. of Archaeology at the Univ. of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri. Santorini, A Guide to the Island and Its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995.]

[Featured above is a Minoan Krater with plastic decoration. Kamares style. 1800 BC. Copyright Dr. Rozmeri Basic, University of Oklahoma]



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