Bringing Back the (Ancient) Bodies: The Potters’ Sensory Experiences and the Firing of Red, Black and Purple Greek Vases
Because of its close ties to objects in the environment rather simply to a part of the spectrum, the ancient color experience could tap into smell, touch, taste and even sound. For Greeks and Romans, color was a basic unit of perception, a source of information and knowledge and a tool for accurately understanding the world around them … Using a single sense for all this was not always enough.
Ancient elite anxieties about the baseness of the senses, the corresponding baseness of those who relied on them and their proximity to animals who, by their nature were more attuned to such cues, likely contributed to the lack of (ancient) interest in the bodies of the banausoi (the artisan class).5 But this disdain and disinterest has had lasting implications for the scholarship on Greek vases, ignoring the intellectual and experiential knowledge of these ancient makers and reducing their bodily labor to only their hands.… the illiberal arts (banausikai), as they are called, are spoken against and are, naturally enough, held in utter disdain in our states. For they spoil the bodies of the workmen and the foremen, forcing them to sit still and live indoors and in some cases spend the day at the fire. The softening of the body involves serious weakening of the mind.(Xenophon, Oikonomikos 4.2–3)4
2. Chemically Bound Color: The Three-Phase Firing
3. Sensorially Guided Color: The Four-Phase Firing
3.1. Sensory Phase 1: The Touch and Sound of Dull Red Pots
Potters, if you pay me for my song,then I ask that you, Athena, hold your hand above the kiln.—“Kiln,” Life of Homer 14.1–14.31
3.2. The Second Sensory Phase: The Sound, Sight and Taste of Bright Red Pots
in the hearing of voice, prayer, thunder and speech, an entire dialogue is played out among mortals and the divine. Each sound or speech is animated by the motion of an underlying significance to sounds, whether these sounds are ostensibly verbal or meterological. The sounds act as omens, bearers of meaning in a system of fate and prophesy that is as great and unknowable as the music of the spheres. Sound can mark our place in the world (as both space and time) but it does not always guarantee our agency.
3.3. The Third Sensory Phase: The Smell and Taste of Black Pots
It is tempting to consider whether potters chose their reduction fuel for their olfactory signatures as well as their performance, availability and cost. Did certain fuels signal cues in the reduction phase better than others? And if so, how did ancient kiln attendants smell? Was there an equivalent ancient odor to “hot dogs”?The Greeks, noting that the olfactory and gustatory modalities were physiologically associated, made use of the same semantics. Aristotle indicated that there is an analogy between the types of flavors and smells, but, “the odors not being quite as fully evident as the flavors, it is from the latter that the former derive their names.
3.4. Sensory Phase 4: The Smell, Sound and Taste (?) of Red, Black and Purple Pots
Despite this deliberate exclusion, the potters’ objects, full of their makers’ embodied experiences, were present in these rarified spaces and essential to the sensory and intimate worlds of the purchasers of their wares. While the more traditional kinds of evidence—archaeological, literary and epigraphic—might not record the physical bodies of these artisans, the objects they made and the sensory experiences accessible in the surfaces of those objects offer other ways to know these ancient people. I would argue that we have not tried to know them on their own terms. The objects they made tell us about who they were in their own specialized visual—and sensory—language. We only need to be willing to look, touch, listen, smell and even taste.We could make the potters recline on couches from left to right before the fire drinking toasts and feasting with wheel alongside to potter with when they are so disposed … But urge us not to do this, since, if we yield [the potter] will not be … a potter.
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See the translation by Marjorie J. Milne, published in (Noble  1988, pp. 190–91).
While it would be physically possible to carry out a firing alone, it seems unlikely in an industry that had access to cheap labor, especially slave labor.
Cited in (Hedreen 2016, p. 4).
See Penteskouphia Pinax, Berlin Antikensammlung, inv. F891.
See black-figure Boeotian skyphos, Athens, National Museum, inv. No. 442., dated to 400–390 BCE.
Aloupi-Siotis (2008), Chaviara and Aloupi-Siotis (2016), Cianchetta et al. (2015a, 2015b), Gliozzo et al. (2004); Kingery (1991); Lühl et al. (2014); Maniatis et al. (1993); Schreiber (1999); Walton et al. (2013a, 2013b, 2015). It should be noted that there are some debates among these scholars regarding the chemical characterization and production technologies of ancient Greek ceramics.
See Hyleck et al. (2016). A description of the beehive shaped updraft kiln built for this project is available here: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/recreating-ancient-greek-ceramics/week-9-building-and-breaking/.
The initial firing was the focus of the 2015 course “Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics” co-taught by the author and potter Matthew Hyleck at Johns Hopkins University. A full account of the project is available at the website: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/recreating-ancient-greek-ceramics/. The short film, Mysteries of the Kylix (https://vimeo.com/140393971) also documents this course and the first firing.
It is still unclear whether there was one preferred ancient Athenian clay source, though the specific preferred morphological and chemical characteristics of the clay used to make Athenian vases has been extensively studied by Aloupi-Siotis (2008), Chaviara and Aloupi-Siotis (2016), Cianchetta et al. (2015b), Lühl et al. (2014) and Walton et al. (2013b). The lack of a singular “identifiable” clay source suggests that potters may have mixed their clay to suit their personal preferences even if there were particular preferred clay deposits that were typically exploited. As all contemporary potters will attest, the choice of clay is the most fundamental and personal decision of any practitioner.
We used Cedar Heights Redart 103 earthenware clay from Pittsburgh, PA, as our base clay for both vessels and slip. Iron oxide pigments purchased from Kremer Pigments, NY, were utilized for painted inscriptions.
Nearly all vessels and tiles were made and assembled primarily by Matthew Hyleck with the assistance of potter Camila Ascher. Preparatory drawings on these surfaces were carried out by Karun Pandian, the author and Hyleck. The objects were slipped (i.e., painted) by the author and Hyleck. Firings typically involved at least four participants, with Hyleck as the kiln master, along with the author, potters Ascher and Anastassia Sovolieva, materials scientist Patricia McGuiggan and classicist Ross Brendle. An additional four plates prepared in the black figure technique were provided by Eleni Aloupi-Siotis (Thetis Authentics, Ltd, Athens, Greece) for test firing.
Thus far, there is little evidence of kiln wasters specific to multiple firings, suggesting that more complicated multiple firings may have been a specialized practice. However, the regular refiring of pots to correct firing mistakes is to be assumed and has been raised by Aloupi-Siotis (2008). Noble considered re-firing ancient pots to correct ancient flaws, though he admitted that “this does raise the ethical and moral question as to whether it is proper to correct an error made by an ancient potter in firing his kiln several thousand years ago” (Noble  1988, p. 181).
I am grateful to H. Alan Shapiro, David Saunders, Annette Giesecke, Jennifer Stager and Andrew Stewart (through Jennifer Stager) for their thoughts on whether the ancient Greeks themselves described or distinguished their own ceramics in this way. Shapiro suggested that these descriptive “categories” of objects perhaps developed in the 19th century scholarship and not in the ancient world.
See Cianchetta et al. (2015b), Gliozzo et al. (2004), Lühl et al. (2014) and Maniatis et al. (1993). Note that there are some disagreements in the scientific literature about the characterization of specific iron oxides, though there is consensus that black iron oxides are only formed during the reduction phase.
See Papadopoulos (2003). Some of the painted plaques from Penteskouphia show kilns with delineated spy-holes (small upside-down “u” shapes) which could have been opened to draw out test pieces. It is unclear from the extant archaeological evidence how typical this feature was. See Hasaki (2002) for kiln evidence. Our kiln did not include a spy-hole.
Matthew Hyleck, personal communication, 10/26/2018. Noble also notes this awareness on the part of potters (Noble  1988, p. 154).
Contemporary potters assume that one third of a kiln-load is likely to be lost or damaged beyond sale, even in a successful firing.
For recent scientific and technical studies, see Aloupi-Siotis (2008), Chaviara and Aloupi-Siotis (2016), Cianchetta et al. (2015a), Cianchetta et al. (2015b), Gliozzo et al. (2004), Kingery (1991), Lühl et al. (2014), Maniatis et al. (1993), Schreiber (1999), and Walton et al. (2013a, 2013b, 2015). It should be noted that none of our experimentally produced ceramics were subjected to scientific analyses to verify the different iron oxidation states mentioned in the published literature; however, this is an area of future research.
The optimal temperature to be reached depends on the clay being used. For the RedArt clay used in our firings, it was necessary to reach 1000 degrees Celsius to ensure reduction. This optimal temperature may have been somewhat different for Attic or Corinthian clays.
Our datalogger information ends soon after the temperature fell below 800 degrees Celsius because the recording equipment was disconnected after this time.
Translation by Milne, as published in (Noble  1988, pp. 190–91).
Milne in (Noble 1988, p. 190).
This assumes that reduction takes between twenty to forty minutes over the course of an eight hour firing, which was our general experience.
As with oxidation, the optimal reduction temperature is clay dependent. For RedArt clay, beginning reduction around 1000 degrees centigrade was most effective. However, lower temperatures were workable for the test pieces sent to us by Thetis Authentics, Ltd.
See the Penteskouphia plaque currently in the collection of the Louvre, accession number MNB 2856.
See Penteskouphia Pinax, MNB 2856, Louvre, dated 575–550 BCE.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Balachandran, S. Bringing Back the (Ancient) Bodies: The Potters’ Sensory Experiences and the Firing of Red, Black and Purple Greek Vases. Arts 2019, 8, 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020070
Balachandran S. Bringing Back the (Ancient) Bodies: The Potters’ Sensory Experiences and the Firing of Red, Black and Purple Greek Vases. Arts. 2019; 8(2):70. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020070Chicago/Turabian Style
Balachandran, Sanchita. 2019. "Bringing Back the (Ancient) Bodies: The Potters’ Sensory Experiences and the Firing of Red, Black and Purple Greek Vases" Arts 8, no. 2: 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020070