Pots of Silver? Michael Vickers Considers the Original Value of Greek Ceramics, and Why It Has Become Inflated in Recent Centuries

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THE WAY IN WHICH WE REGARD Greek and Roman artefacts -- especially pottery -- today, is different from the way in which they were regarded in antiquity. Until recently, some Greek pottery vessels were ranked among the most precious surviving relics, in the belief that the ancients held them in equally high esteem. The extant pottery undoubtedly provides a precious resource of iconographic material that can greatly enrich our understanding of ancient Greece; but its status in antiquity has been exaggerated.

I used to share the views I am about to criticise, but in thirty years of curating the Greek antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford I have come to revise my position. This change of heart (which others share) has provoked much discussion. My subject currently provides an excellent illustration of the `Kuhnian paradigm' in operation: venerable `truths' being challenged by some, but bitterly defended by others who recognise that vested interests are in danger.

The traditional attitude towards Greek vases is epitomised by the late Sir John Beazley (18851970) who, in discussing two pots found in Campania, claimed that they:

   ... must have been treasured for many years before they were placed in the
   grave. Treasured it may be by more than one owner ... Treasured as wonders
   ... of art pure and simple: not panchrysa [solid gold] ... but peak of
   possessions [nevertheless].

The allusions to `solid gold' and `peak of possessions' refer to the lyric poet Pindar's phrase, `solid gold bowl, the peak of possessions'. But no ancient Greek, particularly not Pindar (538-418 BC) who could command very high fees (he was given 10,000 drachmas, equivalent to 43 kilos of silver, by the Athenians for a few lines in the 470s), would have understood the point that Beazley was making in comparing a pottery vase to a gold one. Today, though, many still believe that Greek pottery vases were central to ancient economic, social and artistic life. In a recent essay the German scholar Gunter Grimm still has playboy artists decorating pots for aristocratic drinking parties and being entertained by their patrons.

This speculative position is only possible because pottery is hardly ever mentioned in ancient sources. The few references are rarely to the credit of the material or its producers. A typical ancient view can be found in the Old Testment, in Isaiah's `Thou shalt break them in pieces like a potter's vessel'; compare the Greek proverb `The wealth of a potter is something fragile and easily broken'. A potter had a lower status than a rent boy. Inscriptions hitherto interpreted as referring to so-and-so kerameus (`the potter') simply refer to membership of the deme of the Ceramicus; the equivalent of `Mr X from Potters Bar', rather than `Mr X the potter'. The sources show that gold -- and especially silver -- vessels were on the tables of the rich; hardly surprising when we recall that Athenian silver mines produced twenty tons of silver a year.

Witness the Mistrustful Man of the fourth-century philosopher Theophrastus. He is the sort of person who:

   ... whenever someone comes to him to borrow drinking cups he prefers not to
   give them at all, but if it is a relative or close friend he makes them a
   loan only after practically testing their composition, weighing them, and
   nearly asking for someone to guarantee replacement costs.

Purity and weight are characteristics of work in precious metal, not pottery. Whenever we hear of an Athenian aristocrat using a vessel, it is usually of gold or silver, not pottery. The symposium, or drinking party, would normally have been equipped with vessels of precious metal. Thus, when the tearaway Alcibiades wanted to play a joke on his host, `he looked into the dining room, and seeing the tables covered with gold and silver drinking cups, ordered his slaves to carry away half of them'. We hear of a house cleared of its plate by interlopers, and of a nurse murdered for having concealed a cup beneath her garment. …