Animating Ancient Vases

Learning about ancient vases has just got more interesting.  For hundreds of years, people have been collecting and studying ancient vases, fascinated by the amazing and often beautiful images that decorate them.   Some people like the scenes of sport or combat, some people prefer the parties and musicians, there are those that like mythical scenes of gods and heroes, and some people like the everyday scenes of farming, weaving, or learning lessons.   Whatever the scene, people love these vase images, in which ancient Greeks look as if they are freeze-framed in the middle of what they’re doing.  

Now, thanks to modern technology and a little imagination, vase scenes are springing to life. Animator Steve K Simons has developed an animation style that brings movement to the scenes on vases.  Working closely with high resolution images, Steve breaks apart the vase scenes (not the vases!), and then reconstructs them in moving sequences. The result is an animation in which the figures in the vase scenes seem to move and think.  Runners can be shown running, chariots can race, eyes can blink, and spears can spear their targets. 

Steve and I love ancient Greek vases so much that we wanted to find a way to bring out their dynamic qualities, and that’s how the vase animation project developed.  Now we run a website,, which features the animations, and has information about the vases themselves, insights into the myths and history they show, and ideas for vase and animation-related activities.  A number of teachers have told us that they like to show the animations when they’re teaching ancient art or even when they’re teaching ancient literature such as tragedy or epic.  That’s really pleasing.  I’ve shown them myself when I’ve taught classes at the University of Roehampton, and it’s great to see that the students there really enjoy seeing ancient heroes and ancient images in this new way.
More than anything, the animations are a great way to make you think again about ancient vases.  One of the first vase animations Steve made was based on the famous Achilles and Ajax amphora by Exekias, now housed in the Vatican Museum.  The vase shows the two heroes playing a game.  The animation takes that scene and has the heroes throwing dice, moving pieces, and getting into an argument.  As well as bringing the scene to life, the animation encourages people to notice details such as the helmet Achilles is wearing and the impressive precision with which the warriors’ hands are depicted.  ‘Working on this vase made me realise just how complex the figures’ cloaks are,’ said Steve, in a break from working on a Medusa vase.  ‘The decoration is so detailed, and it still looks amazing when you zoom in really close.’  When the animation was being made, Steve and I also thought a lot about how the argument would go.  Would Achilles start it or would Ajax?  And what else in the scene could help express emotion?  ‘We decided to make Achilles the more aggressive, competitive player,’ Steve remembers, ‘Calling on the gods to influence Ajax’s turn of the dice outrages Ajax’s sense of fair play.  Everything we know about Ajax tells us that he just can’t stand that, and that’s why you see him lose the plot.’
Sometimes the animations can help viewers make sense of the vase scenes.  On a large krater vase housed in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology in Reading, a young man is shown standing next to a tall man who is sitting down wearing a helmet (see the picture below).  As the animation begins, the taller man takes off his helmet and puts on a wreath of leaves that is passed to him by the first man.  By watching the tall man change his head gear, we can see more clearly that the younger man was holding a wreath.  The ancient Greeks wore wreaths on special occasions and they were given to people who won competitions.  The fact that the young man was holding a wreath beside the taller man suggests that the scene shows the tall man about to be honoured for doing something special.  With some careful deduction, that much can be worked out from the vase scene itself, but seeing the head gear being swapped over in the animation makes the whole thing much clearer and more understandable.  This is one of the reasons the animations work so well for people learning about vases or visiting museum collections.
The animation of the wreath scene came from a story developed by pupils at Kendrick School in Reading.   Pupils from Kendrick and from a second local school, Maiden Erlegh, joined the Ure View project at the Ure Museum to develop stories based on vase scenes.  They learned about Greek vases, studied these particular vases in detail, and worked together to develop stories based on what the characters were doing and what they might do as a result.  The Kendrick School girls were also inspired by their recent reading of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus attends the Phaeacian Games, competes, tells the story of his travels, and is annoyed about an insult.  They reflected all these things in their story about the krater.  Once the school groups had their stories, they drew them up in storyboards, which show all the key scenes in a story and explain what’s happening.  Steve used these storyboards to make the animations, bringing action to the vase scenes and making the vases’ characters act out the teenagers’ ideas.

This year, the Ure Museum ran a new project called, Ure Discovery.  Maiden Erlegh, and Kendrick took part again, joined by Addington School.  This time, eight new animations were created, and they can now be seen right alongside the vases they’re made from.  The animations have been built into an iPad trail, through collaboration with the iMuse programme, led by local charity AACT (Access-Ability Communications Technology).  Museum visitors can take the iPad around the museum, bringing the animations up close to their original vases.  A four-horse chariot can be seen charging an enemy, Herakles can be seen wrestling, and a vase showing a classical Athenian woman has been reinterpreted to tell the myth of Pandora.  The trail also features information on each of the vases drawn from the museum catalogue, as well as extra pieces of artwork inspired by the collection.  If you live in the Berkshire area, why not visit the museum and try it out?  (see where it is at   The animations are also available on the Panoply website, along with details on the project, the vases, and the stories. 
The animations include ancient-style music as an accompaniment.  Steve draws on the work of specialist music archaeologists to provide an ancient Greek sound for the ancient Greek scenes.  Stefan Hagel, of the Institute for the Study of Ancient Culture in Vienna, Conrad Steinmann and Paul J. Reichlinn of Melpomen, and musicians from Lyravlos - The Centre of Greek Musical Tradition and from London-based Thiasos Theatre Company all specialise in creating and performing ancient music.  Many of these specialists reconstruct ancient musical instruments.  They base their reconstructions on ancient instruments that have survived over the centuries, and on vase scenes of instruments in use.  Surviving lyrics give indications of the rhythms used in ancient music, and these indications guide the musicians in their compositions for the ancient-style instruments.  The animations can be followed without the music, but the combination adds extra vibrancy.
For the future, we plan to expand the creation of vase animations to include vases taught for GCSE and A-Level.  That would mean that the animations would be especially useful to people at exactly the time they’re studying the vases.  We’re also creating more things to do in connection with the animations, which will make it easier for teachers to include them in lessons.
Perhaps you fancy developing an idea for an animation yourself.  You can try this by storyboarding your ideas.   Find a vase you like:
in an image in a book
in a museum
in a photo you’ve taken in a museum
or an image on a website like the British Museum catalogue ( )
or the Ure Museum catalogue (
Ask yourself what’s going on in the vase scene.  What can you find out about it?  Next, imagine what these figures might do if they could move.  What would you like them to do?  What do they look like they’d do?  Draw out a storyboard - a sheet divided into equal size boxes, with room for a caption under each box.  Then draw out your story in the storyboard, putting the most important scenes in the boxes with an explanation underneath (there are examples and downloadable blank storyboards on the Panoply website:  What part of the scene would you show?  Perhaps the whole vase all the way through, or maybe also close-ups shots on faces or particular actions.  It’s up to you!
Steve and I love ancient vases and we hope that these animations will encourage people continue to look at them afresh, think about them creatively, and enjoy them!