How to Date a Greek Vase

Written by thomas colbyry
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How to Date a Greek Vase
Vases like this in black figure style typically date from the 7th to 5th centuries B.C. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Art historians generally divide ancient Greek art into three major periods: Geometric, Archaic and Classical. Most examples of Greek pottery date from the Geometric and Archaic periods, which span from the ninth to fifth centuries B.C. Because many thousands of Greek vases have remained intact, archaeologists are able to derive much of what is understood about Greek life from this time period from these pieces.

Skill level:
Moderate

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Determine what, if anything, the artist is representing on the vase. If you observe only abstract elements, whether simple black brush strokes or complex triangular figures, you are probably looking at a pre-Geometric or Geometric work, dating anywhere from the 11th to the eighth century B.C. If instead you find vaguely human images, you are looking at an example of either Archaic or Classical Greek pottery, from the seventh to the fourth centuries B.C.

  2. 2

    Look for animal motifs, checkered bands and other decorative elements on both the top and bottom of the vase. These examples of what scholars call "Orientalizing style" usually indicate that cultures from Asia Minor have influenced the artist, which means that the work probably dates from the eighth or seventh centuries B.C., when increased trade between Corinth, Syria and Phoenicia brought Greek artists into contact with these design principles.

  3. 3

    Note the colour of the figures. Silhouettes featured prominently in the Archaic pottery of the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Toward the end of the sixth century, red figures began to appear. Around the same time, artists began to experience with polychromy, the use of multiple colours, often setting figures against white surfaces.

Tips and warnings

  • Do not expect to find authentic examples of ancient Greek ceramics at yard sales or flee markets. You will instead find virtually all the over 100,000 extant pieces that historians have identified in museums or private collections.

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