A few years ago, I was really keen on buying an ancient piece of pottery. The specific piece I was looking at was a red figure krater from the Attic region, 2400 years old at a cost of around 4 USD for each year of age. Why pay so much for an artifact? The artistry and attention to detail on some of these works is amazing, both on the southern Italian and Greek works. Also, they aren’t making more of them?
Well as it turned out, ‘they’ were actually are making more of them. In the end, I didn’t want to spend so much on something breakable. So I bought a very convincing faked piece from a shop in Rome over by Piazza Popolo which still is unbroken despite my best efforts. Even though it is a fake, there are certain secrets to its production that I can appreciate.
The methods of producing a red and black piece of pottery in the same firing are scientifically interesting. The ancients had two paints, one red and one black. Oh wait… there is more to the process.
In order for the explanation about the process to make sense, I must first describe fire… In the image below the #4 fire (far right) is ‘oxidizing’ and the #1 fire (to the left) is reducing.
Figures were painted with what looked like two subtle shades of red in the daylight where they could distinguish the difference in the paints. Sometimes they scratched in guidelines for the figures to help them show which area was to be red and which black.
Then at night, after drinking the wine after a hard day of painting several pieces, they built a very hot bonfire. The oxidizing conditions of this extremely hot fire (as in #4 above) caused all of the areas of the pottery to fire red, so they probably thought, ‘Oh no, where did all my meticulous painting work go?!?’
After a while the bonfire died down a bit (as in #1 above) and the artists sobered up, the surface of the pottery turned all black as the hematite red changed to black magnetite and soot from the dying fire was absorbed. So then they were all like, ‘Oh no, my pottery turned all black and I’ve lost my meticulous painting work a second time, which is doubly bad.’
But, at this point a trick was at play. The paint which was supposed to result in black areas on the vase had additions of ash enriched clays which caused the black areas to form an impermeable crust while the fire was down. The red paint did not have this, so when the ancient craftsman then turned up the Bunsen burner or maybe threw a few more logs on the fire to get the fire super hot again (#4 again), the areas not covered by the crust turned back to the red color because of the re-oxidation of the iron. Finally, after all was cooled down, they were left with the genuine red and black figure butter dishes and Kleenex cover boxes. So then people watching were all like 'Whoa, magic!' Of course, back then, maybe ice melting seemed like magic?
Early on, this kind of pottery was used originally for fancy utilitarian purposes like wine parties, holding olive oil or other rare commodities. Some accounts describe their use as trophies for winning athletic competitions. Later, the red and black figure pottery was used increasingly for funerary or votive purposes.
Luckily, there are many examples of these pottery items in museums. The last estimate I read about was more than 20,000 genuine pieces. As with any other artwork, scholars have detected stylistic patterns in the painted figures and backgrounds. Different ‘schools’ or individual artists can be identified now. Almost every major museum with an antiquities department has at least one red and black figured ceramic item.
Some museums of course have more than others. The island of Thira (Santorini) in Greece has an odd little archaeological museum with more of this type of ancient pottery assembled in one place per square meter of gallery space than I’ve seen in other places. So get out there and take a closer look at those red and black pottery pieces that you might have skimmed past in the museum, and appreciate the clever firing techniques that some unknown potter 2600 years ago stumbled onto.
Here is one at the Dallas Museum of Art.