Artefact: Nolan Amphora
Museum: Fitzwilliam, Cambridge
Date: 480 BCE
Location of find: Southern Italian graveyard
Culture: Classical Athenian
Expert: Anastasia Christophilopoulou
This is a typical shaped vase from Ancient Greece. It was widely used to store and carry around liquids. It could also be used for display and so could serve a dual purpose. Nolan amphorae are distinctive because of the long neck, most others are shorter. Their name comes from the place they were found, Nola in Italy.
As it is nicely decorated, it is likely that this amphora would have been mostly used at home. It would have been used for the storage and serving of wine. The most likely setting for its use would have been at a symposium, or a male drinking party. Women were not allowed to take part in these gatherings, apart from special roles. The vase helps us to understand what these might be.
It is decorated with the red-figure motif which was used from the 6th to the late 4th century BCE. Before this a black-figure motif was used with the background the colour of the natural clay. This colour differs with area, for example, Corinth has distinctive yellow clay, but in Athens it is red. However, later the Ancient Greeks turned to red-figures where the detail is in the natural clay with a black wash for the background.
Why did they make this change? Well, the new technique allowed the potters to show detail much more clearly by the use of a very thin brush.. On this amphora you can clearly see the pupils of the eyes! With black-figure pottery you can only make features by scraping them out to bring out the colour below.
The black colour of the wash was made with clay loosened with water to make a glaze called slip. The reason it comes out a different colour is because of the firing technique.
1. The pot was put in a warm kiln and then the temperature was raised. It was important to keep the temperature stable, which was difficult as there were no thermometers. Air was allowed into the kiln and this is called the oxidising stage. The whole vase would turn red.
2. The air supply was then reduced and now the vase would turn completely black.
3. Air would then be reintroduced and the vase would turn back to red, apart from areas that had been covered in slip, because it blocks the porous surface of the vase and remains black bringing out the figures.
An amazing invention!
On one side of the vase there is a young good-looking boy. He has an aristocratic pose, is well dressed and carrying a stick
– the sign of a good family. An inscription saying, ‘hoi pais kalos’ meaning ‘the boy is beautiful’, runs down the side. Why? Well this inscription was not unusual in Ancient Greece and is considered to be an expression of love from older men to younger men.
On the other side there is a girl holding a distaff and weaving thread. Her hair is nicely arranged in a net which is typical of women at the time. It is called the sprang technique and protects the hair whilst working with wool. So she looks like a respectable lady, weaving at home where she was supposed to be. But why is she used on a vase for a symposium which is a party only for men? There are lots of hidden meanings in classical art. It is thought she is actually a prostitute who would be the only type of woman allowed at the symposium. She is disguised as the men would recognise the meaning without it being too blatant
Ancient Greeks liked to recreate stories through objects and this have been used like this. Mostly, the amphora would display myths and heroes and it would be unusual to have scenes of everyday life. These bigger stories would be better for exciting the imagination!