So how is black figure pottery created, anyway?
We at Ancient History Encyclopedia are fierce about historical accuracy. This often leads to debate and discussion among the AHE team as we try to sort out what really happened in ancient history, when, and why. So when I read our definition on black figure pottery last week, I was extremely confused. In numerous art history classes, I’d learned that the exciting thing about black figure pottery, in addition to its sheer beauty, is the process by which it is made. The pots were made of clay then decorated with slip (clay plus water), then fired in a three part process: first with oxygen present in the kiln turning the pot red, then at a higher heat and no oxygen (called reductive firing) that made the whole pot turn black, and finally at a lower heat with oxygen present again, turning the un-slipped part of the pot back to red, leaving the decoration black. This seemed to me to be a complicated process, and I never really understood it. How is this possible? If the pot is all made of the same substance, why would part of it remain black while the rest turned red? Mysterious, almost magical. I never tried too hard to understand, quite honestly. The gist was good enough for my purposes. But when I read Mark Cartwright’s definition of black figure pottery, the topic reared its ugly head again.
Mark Cartwright, our lead editor and a very thorough, accomplished writer, wrote that the potters decorated their pots with black pigment, thickly applied before firing. I re-read this description several times. How was this possible? Could it be that the process that I had learned over and over again was not really the way the black figure effect was achieved? Or was it possible, horror of horrors, that Mark was wrong? I couldn’t imagine that was the case — Mark always uses the most well-respected, authoritative sources. It just couldn’t be. In either case, my world was turned upside down. So what was the going on here?
The quest for historical accuracy became a journey down two paths. I asked Mark if he had heard of the process I outlined above. He went back and checked, double checked, even triple checked his sources. The emails were flying — what was going on here? Mark’s sources corroborated what he had written. Black paint was applied to the pots. I read and re-read online sources — museum websites, university pages — that outlined the triple-step firing, with the decoration remaining black while the pot turned red again, but with no details. Again, how was this possible? Did the firing change the chemical composition of the slip? From clay and water to what? That stretched our belief too far. Was something added to the slip? I did learn that the clay the ancient Greeks used was high in iron, which is what made it so red. But that did not further our understanding of the firing process.
The other path that we took was asking modern-day potters about their experience and knowledge. One of them told me that she had actually tried this triple-firing process, with no additions of any kind to the slip, and that the decoration stayed black in the last step while the pot turned red again. She had the most success when she thickly applied the slip. But did she use the same clay as the ancient Greeks? And still, how was this possible?
Illumination finally broke through when I read about sintering. This was occasionally included in run-throughs of the process, but with no further explanation. Sintering happens when a metal is in powder form, heated until it almost becomes a liquid, then it hardens into solid form. Ok. But why would slip sinter? It was clay and water. I asked another potter friend about this, and she said that the slip is dry when you put it into the kiln. It’s basically a powder. A ha! So the slip really does sinter! When it sinters, it essentially becomes a metal and can’t absorb oxygen. So in that third step, when oxygen is added to the kiln again, the slipped decoration does not absorb it. It remains black. The rest of the pot, which has remained clay, absorbs oxygen and turns red again. By jove, we had it! It was possible!
This did not solve the problem that Mark’s sources did not outline the process in this way. They spoke of black paint or black slip. And black paint is visible on many black figure vases. So being historically accurate was not as simple as discovering that this process was possible. The actual method seemed to be more complicated. Black decoration was achieved in the firing process. Black paint and possibly black slip was applied. In some cases, both black sintered decoration and black paint were used.
The fact that this three part firing process was actually possible also led to utter amazement. We can do this now with technology, monitoring the temperature of the kiln, the make-up of the clay. But the ancient Greeks must have had to rely only on their senses and the expertise that comes with experience. Timing. Color. Who knows — maybe they even used smell and sound to reach the desired result!
In the end, our quest for understanding black figure pottery did not lead us to a nice, pat conclusion. It led us to a nuanced conclusion full of possibility. It gave us a deeper understanding of black figure pottery, a renewed appreciation for all of the sophisticated achievements of the ancient Greeks, and it reinforced the difficulties of research about the ancient world. Although new discoveries are being made all of the time, so much is lost, and our information is at best incomplete. We have what we have, and we often must make educated guesses based on the evidence that we have. In any case, in the end I realized that the lively pursuit of understanding among the Ancient History Encyclopedia team about black figure pottery is representative of what we hope to bring to our readers: as accurate a picture as possible, while accepting that all of the facts are sometimes outside our reach, and that’s ok. The more we learn, the clearer the picture becomes. Thank you for taking this journey with us!
1. Black figure plate with warriors playing a board game Antikensammlung Berlin 1, 520 BCE, from Olympia. Photo by Marcus Cyron under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
2. A man and a youth, each leading a horse, Advertising catch phrase: “buy me and you’ll get a good bargain.” Attic black-figured lekythos, c. 500 BCE, now in the Louvre. Photo by Wikimedia user Jastrow, released into the Public Domain.
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