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The Life of a Potter in the Ancient World

David Smith

May 21, 2022

A Comparison of the Potter Between Ancient Greece and the Classical Maya

The Life of a Potter

Pottery, Life, and Culture of The Potter in Classical Maya and Ancient Greece Times

David Smith

Towson University Undergraduate Independent Study for Experimental Archaeology

4 December 2020


This paper is an exploration into the lives of potters during the time of Classical Maya and Ancient Greeks. I use experimental archaeology to create faux pottery from both cultures by placing myself in the environments, using the same tools to the best of my ability, and firing the pottery the same way. In this paper, I researched both cultures so I could understand the society the potter resided in and conditions which he or she was under. Each civilization had stark differences but also some similarities as well, e.g. constant wars. The experiments are documented from notes and pictures taken throughout the process. Finished work of the final firing is also pictured in this paper. My hope is the reader may have a better understanding of a potter’s life from our ancient past. Also, I stress the reader understands how experimental archaeology of the arts is important to anthropology and the arts because it can bring ancient art back to life with a story.


In Central Mesoamerica, “‘Ajaw’ or lord of the city was the center of the Classical Maya world” (Beukers 2013). The “Mother Cities”, Athens and Sparta, were the center of Archaic and Classical Greek World. The Maya saw the Ajaw as a God incarnate and obeyed all he said. In the Greek world, you dare not disobey Sparta or Athens or else you will be conquered and enslaved. The infamous saying of it was simpler times back then is a farce. Times were tough for both the Maya and Greeks. If you were not of the royal or noble class within the Maya world, you were subject to hard manual labor. Constructing palaces, canals, roads, temples, and pyramids were all built using only the strength of the man’s back. There was no beast of burden or the wheel in the Mesoamerica world, so carrying large limestones to the sites by a sling wrapped around the forehead was the method used. The smaller Greek city-states were under constant threat of being invaded by the mother cities and their entire population enslaved, artisans included. Athenians and Spartans were not always kind to their slaves either, so fear is what drove the Greek mainland. However, in Anatolia, the Greek speaking city-states were free from the tyranny of the west. The people were able to prosper allowing “Anatolia or the Eastern Mediterranean to be by far the most advanced Greece that ever is” (Shoykhedbrod 2020). There was more freedom allowing people to travel, see new and wonderful things, and inspiring them to create beautiful arts of work. The Maya overall did cherish their artisans and treat them of higher status then of the working class. “The most skillful painters were also the most highly educated people” (Beukers 2013) of the Mayan world since they knew the writing system. In some motifs on temples and stelas, Gods were depicted as artist giving a connection to the artist in the real world as being revered and worshipped. One can learn a substantiable amount of information from experimental archaeology. This field can also teach about the culture around its technology and the creator of it. Cultures differ from civilization to civilization in our ancient past. However, what has not changed is the environment and power structure that dictates how the artisans are treated in their respected societies.

Overview of the Modern Potter

“There’s something magical in the ability to interpret what I see through my hands” (Turner 2010) says Molly Hatch in the book Studio Ceramics. This is true for any artist who feels a connection with their art and can create something emotional for the viewer. The intent of art has changed over the millennia, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the connection with the artist and their craft. However, if a Greek potter from the Ancient Athens would see how we revere their amphora or other works, they would most certainly be shocked. The modern potter has many intents with their work. Whether it be for utilitarian, functional, display of pottery or clay sculpture, the potter means to wow the buyer or viewer with their work and feel a connection with it. Some potters will create sculptures that are intended to shock the viewer, maybe force them to see fallacies in the world.

All over the world, one main component of the modern potter is the glaze. As potters today, we crave for the moment when we open the kiln to see what magic the glaze has performed onto the surface of our ceramics. Kline says, “Glaze is an important and necessary part of ceramic art. It is the way we dynamically enhance the surfaces of our work” (Kline 2018). Most potters enjoy what tricks they can execute with glaze onto a normal clay vessel. One can take a basic cylinder and make a rust and copper look at parts and silky and cream parts to another by learning how to apply different glazes just right. One cannot just put two coats of glaze on a pot and expect magic, it takes time and practice to apply glazes properly, using certain glazes together to achieve specific color patterns, and learning how to apply thickness or thinness with coats to achieve results the potter desires.

The wheel is a focal point with most potters. It is a staple in most ceramic studios today. The wheel was important to some cultures in our ancient past, e.g. Ancient Greece. However, most today are mechanized. Some potters today use kick wheels, turntables, or in a more traditional studio a wheel is spun by a short pole then immediately forming the clay. In today’s ceramic studio though, most generally do not use ancient methods from past civilizations. Some cultures are holding onto their past and will still make their pottery the same way they have done for generations, but modern potters generally do not embrace “Onggi” (Korean coil built large pots) or hand spun wheel as the Ancient Greeks did. In our modern times we tend to embrace our technology and do not sway from the mechanization. Even when making traditional forms of pottery, most tend to use technology. For instance, when Molly Hatch does “Mishima,” a Korean Slip inlay technique, she says “for all of my Mishima drawing I always refer to a pattern when I’m drawing on my pots and sometimes use a template to transfer detail of the pattern” (Turner 2010).

Experimental archaeology breaks from those patterns and rediscovers our ancient past. Working with ancient techniques to create faux versions of those works can teach the modern world a great deal about the past and present. Putting aside the electric pottery wheel and create a wooden turntable or grabbing a mat and situating yourself outside in the elements can teach you what our ancients dealt with. If you time warp 2,500 years to a potter’s studio in Ephesus, there would be a stone pottery wheel and a potter mastering his/ her art in the elements. The wheel would either be spun by hand or by an assistant. Experimental archaeology would recreate the situation and practice to make pottery that would resemble what would have been made in Ancient Anatolia. The reasoning behind it is to understand the potter, the work, the time period, and environment the potter faced to create such works of art.

Maya Ceramics

The Maya world, as we know it, evolved over 3,000 years. From small villages in the 2nd millennium B.C.E to the Classic period beginning around 100 C.E. The ceramic advancement was slow, from basic red earthenware pots then overtime to elaborate polychrome wares that could be social currency as gifts from one ruler to another as “it would boast the fine pottery produced in their city” (Beukers 2013). There were three different types of pottery in the Classic period: Service ware, vessels, bowls and plates. The ceramics could be used for food stuff, social currency or funerary ware. The best pottery was produced under the supervision of the master painters who decorated them and then were used for the palace or ceremonies. There were lesser wares produced, mostly mass-produced basic earthenware for the regular population. The ceramics for the palace or ritual ceremonies “were relatively simple compared to the extravagant painting displayed” (Beukers 2013) one would see. The clay used was generally a red terra cotta earthenware. From area to area, different temper was used “to decrease the plasticity of the clay and to prevent too much shrinkage” (Beukers 2013). The tempers varied from region to region. Calcite, quartz, pumice, and mica were all used as temper to not only add plasticity, but to help strengthen the walls of the ceramic to help prevent collapse and from it easily being broken. The polychrome used is was helped this basic red earthenware to make beautiful works of art.

“Polychrome painting became popular in early classic period using red and black painting on an orange or cream background” (Beukers 2013) Polychrome is a mixture of slip and a type of low-fire glaze called terra sigilatta. Through my own experiments, it is a very balanced recipe and can be easily ruined if a touch too much sigilatta is added or the key ingredient, lime. Limestone was a staple to everything Maya. Limestone was used to build the temples and pyramids, line canals to seal it, burned down to a powder to cover the pyramids white, also to be burned down to a fine powder and used as a pigment in the polychrome paints. Limestone contains specific carbonates, which “burning the carbonates produces an insoluble residue, which may react with the clay matrix paste to generate minerals from the pyroxene group” (Cabadas-Baez 2018), though he states the study is inconclusive from experimental archaeology. A study at the University of Missouri was performed on the mid to late Pre-classic pottery found at Holtun, Guatemala in order to find the chemical properties of the ceramics. The study show a presence of limestone from the area stating here, “The 720-second count yields gamma spectra containing peaks for nine short-lived elements aluminum (Al), barium (Ba), calcium (Ca), dysprosium (Dy), potassium (K), manganese (Mn), sodium (Na), titanium (Ti), and vanadium (V)” (Callaghan 2017). The Maya experimented with different limestone and they found certain limestone, once burned down, will create a color unique to that type of stone. The Maya monopolized over this and created a color of paints by experimenting with different variations of lime. The base colors of paints used on the ceramics were red, black, yellow, purple, orange. White was already available by white clay from specific clay in regions throughout the Maya world. The preparation of Maya ceramics was unique to their civilization over others in the ancient world.

The Classic Maya way of making the pottery was similar throughout the span of their civilization, from Proto to Post Classic. The method was coil built. There was no pottery wheel used, probably just a plane of wood to use a tabletop. Sitting on the ground, they would roll coils and build up the walls or expand out the sides for a plate. After each coil is placed on, it would be pinched to the lower layer and then smoothed with a wedge. “There is no evidence of what wooden tools they used” (Beukers 2013), but through experimentation one can ascertain what possibly could have been used. The pot would be left to dry to leather hard, burnished, then ready for the master painter.

The master painter would paint anything from royal ceremonies, gods communing with each other or the Ajaw, animals representing gods, or everyday scenes. He was highly trained, not only in the painting, but in science, ideology, cosmology, and the Maya glyph writing system. Only the royals and noble class were able to read the glyphs, so that would make the master painter one of the upper class. “The artist had titles of ajtz’ihb – scribe, yuxul – sculpture, itz’aat – ‘sage/ wiseman/ learned one” (Beukers 2013) thus making the painter revered in their society. The master painter also had a title of aj k’uh hun or he of the holy books. Sometimes pottery would have the creation myth of the Popol Vuh. “The Popol Vuh is the creation story of the Maya written down sometime between 1554 and 1558 C.E” (Beukers 2013). Gods in the Maya world were also depicted as Artist on pottery and stone carvings. “The Maize God – Itzamnaaj and Chahk are depicted as artists in codices” (Beukers 2013). Only a small amount of the pottery was signed by the painter, most likely to be used for social currency. When attempting to distinguish a ceramic that was signed you would see glyphs on the side on the pot at a slight angle. Once the pottery was painted and dried, it would be pit fired to around 1400*F for about 18 hours. Then the pottery would be ready for use, sometimes for social currency. The social currency of the most prestigious pottery was important for the rulers to impress rulers of other cities.

Social Currency was one of three types of ceramics made by the Maya. The most common was the utilitarian or service ware. This included bowls, vessels and plates for eating or ritual ceremonies. The best of the service ware was reserved for the high court of the ruler. Some poor quality with non-sense glyphs have been found, so these must have been made by poor trained potters and painters or were merely copying glyphs without knowing what they meant. Social currency ware was normally a plate or vessel which boasted the prestige of the city and the ruler. The social currency was always signed by the painter and the signatures could have represented painting style. “Different styles are shown to be in certain areas” (Beukers 2013) showing shared training in areas. The funerary ware was for food or other offering to give to the dead, mostly the past rulers. The Maya believed the dead had to continue to eat in the afterlife. The most prestigious of all the food given was offerings of Cacao. “Cacao was common as residue on funerary ware” (Beukers 2013) and it was highly prized, most likely reserved for the royals since they were believed to be one of the gods.

Some examples of Maya Pottery are as shown:

A ruler is communing with the Jaguar God

Ah K’hun (or Master Painter) delivers a vessel to the ruler

Life and Culture Around the Maya Potter

The gods encompassed everything in Maya society. One of the gods was “Pawahtun who was always portrayed as a painter or carver” (Beukers 2013). The aj sometimes used with the master painter’s name is also part of the title of a god. Sometimes a potter or master painter would add a whole god name to the beginning of their name. As said above the Maya painter was important to their society. The painter would be “represented by elaborate clothing and fine jewelry. Sometimes seen to be in close company with the elite and often portrayed sitting next to the throne” (Beukers 2013). From archaeological evidence, we can tell the living areas and pottery production was close to the city center. The more prestigious one is, the closer he or she lives to the city center. The painter was most likely counted among the nobles in religious ceremonies in the center square and not with the general population.

The center of the painter’s life was around making their wares and appeasing their lord. To recreate their wares, the ceramic painter must have had extensive education, most likely among the royal class and nobles. The writing glyph system was high complex and demanded years of study. The ceramic painter must know the writing system to catalog the myths of their religion on the wares, but also, they knew the star calendars, and knew the Maya’s education of science. The ceramic artist of the Maya world was highly educated and would make sense why people would revere them in their society. Unfortunately, we do not have any other evidence besides what is depicted on the stone carvings, pottery, and carbon residue of pit firing to tell what a Maya potter’s life was like. However, through experimental archaeology, we can explore in more detail and hypothesize what their life may have been like.

My Own Experience Exploring Maya Ceramic Making

I started from the beginning and without knowing anything about the recipes or soil contents of the Maya world. The landscape has changed, atmosphere become more polluted, surface soil is also more polluted, and the limestone has weathered and composite changed overtime. Because of this, recreating an accurate faux version in next to impossible. However, a decent representation by putting myself in the environmental situation of the elements, tools, and ingredients to the best of my ability is possible. First after reading about the soil composite and readings on the clay used, I created a red terra cotta clay which could compare to the clay of the time period. Then to gather the temper, I mined local quartz and purchased pumice over the internet. Conch shells to hold the paint were easy to find on the web, but hard to find ones unique to central Mesoamerica. I did find them, but each was a hefty price. The key ingredient which makes all the difference was the limestone. Luckily, a seller on Amazon who sells powder limestone which produces different colors. Purchased the lime at a premium price and had it delivered. Finally, after having the core ingredients, I began by carving wooden tools to use with the clay (also being a ceramic artist, I had an idea to go on but had to study the wares, time period, and area to decide on the best tools.) I bought a wooden fiber mat to work on when I make the ceramic outside. While outside, the decision was made to put myself in the elements by only wearing shorts with no shoes or shirt. With the sun beating down on my back, I began to make my utility bowls for holding water, tools, and a mixing bowl to make my polychrome slip. This was the first week of September and it was hot. The sun was beating down on my back, sweat building up very quickly. The coil making is simple by rolling out a line of clay and then nipping it to a lower layer, then smoothing it with a wooden wedge. Smoothing the clay with a wet sponge will also help to keep the clay from drying out in the sun and helps with the surface bumps. After the pots were made, an experiment was made with the drying process for leather hard by covering the pots with leather. In modern times we cover our ceramics with plastic in slow down the drying process. Knowing the clay would still dry fast, however not as fast as uncovered. After taking off the leather the next day. It dried to a perfect even leather hard with no dryer spots as you would have without covering. Then I trimmed the pots and left them outside in the shade to dry. After a week they were ready to fire.

Here is an example of working in the elements:

The Maya pit fired their ceramics, and I have some experience with pit firing, so there was a baseline to begin from. First is to dig an area eight times larger than the area where the pots are going to lay, going down only about 18 inches or 45 cm. The purpose it to help contain the fire. To prepare the pit, first start a small fire with the surface area the pots will lay. This will dry the ground so no moisture will come up and cause the pots to burst. After the fire goes out, lay down the pots next to each other and cover with lime. The lime will cut out oxygen to the pots, because while the fire is starting, oxygen is still in contact with the pots and could cause the pots to burst. After the lime, cover with medium size wood and then create a large ring about 18 inches or 45 cm away from the pots. Set the ring on fire and keep feeding the fire, occasionally pushing the fire closer to the center. After about 3 hours, the fire is pushed completely to the center and then wood is fed on top. Continually feed the fire for the next 15 hours, fanning the flames constantly to increase the temperature. After about 15 hours, let the fire die out and then let it sit for 2 days. The pots should be ready by hearing a high ting when flicking the rim. If it is a dud, then there are cracks somewhere or the fire did not reach high enough. After the utility pots are ready, I was ready to make some faux pottery.

Here are a few pictures of the pit firing:

I still wasn’t quite ready to make the pottery because the polychrome paints had not been made. In the ceramic mixing bowl, I experimented mixing lime, pure clay (This is white clay that has been cleaned furtherer by a slag method), and water. After mixing like a home cook of here and there, keeping track of what was put in, I felt I had the right color and viscosity. After making each paint, it was then transferred to a conch shell to store. The advantage about this paint is it’s a watercolor. Once it is too dry to use, just add water to get the correct thickness again. It was then time to make a vessel, rolling coils, sealing the layers and scraping the sides with a wooden wedge. Then placed each pot on a small piece of leather and covered each with leather, placed in the shade and left alone for 24 hours. Came back the next day and trimmed the pots with a wooden knife and mica knife which I had made. The mica knife came in handy to trim off tiny spots and the wooden for leveling. Between each leveling, I swiped with a wet sponge to help smooth. After some work, they were evenly smooth and even. I decided not to burnish before painting the slip because I felt the outside texture would be too rough. After drying for another day under the leather, it was time to paint the pots with the polychrome paints. This is the only time I used modern technology. I do not have enough knowledge of the Maya scenes on ceramics, so I printed out a couple of examples to go from. Looking at the examples, I designed the pots and then covered with leather for another day. The next day the pots were then burnished, though I will need a lot of practice on this with judging the right time to burnish to prevent smearing, then let dry in the shade. I fired the pots, but as with experimental archaeology, they did not come out the way it should. The color was far too faint. So, I had to start all over.

Starting from the drawing board, I added more lime to the paints and adjusted slightly with water and clay, making sure to keep more amount of lime than before, and tried again. After firing for a second time, all three pots burst. Most likely because of not drying the pots enough. However, the color was deeper, so I felt I achieved the correct tone. Starting over for the third time. I made three again with the same patterns and they were fired. This time it was a success. However, I still need a lot of practice with the burnishing, through experimenting I feel the burnishing was done after painting and not before.

Below is what I accomplished:

Late Archaic Ceramics of the Greek World

The modern world tends to uphold Athenian pottery as the pinnacle of all that is Greek with ceramics in the ancient world. If one would look at what is displayed in museums in the western world, it could be assumed to be true. However, if you go east from Greece into Turkey, there would be beautiful works of ceramic art which would contend with any Athenian. In Ancient Greece, the Greek speaking people of Peloponnese and Attica did not see the Greek speaking people in Anatolia as Greek. However, Gennadiy Shoyhkedbrod would “argue that Anatolia or the Eastern Mediterranean is by far the most advanced Greece there is.” What would help Athenian pottery to be advanced over the rest of the Western Aegean Sea is because when Athens would go to war with colonies or smaller city-states, “they would enslave the local populations. A lot of these populations had their own jobs, where some where potters, artisans and poets” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020). Athens was one of the two mother cities in the Greek speaking world, with Sparta as the other. The Mother cities were known to enslave the local populations and use the slaves to do what their job was before, but under the harsh means of enslavement. Until recently, slavery of the artisans was not spoken about when mentioning Athens, because they are the birthplace of democracy. Government was important to Athenian men, but what is not recognized is all free male citizens job was government. “So, they didn’t have time to be artisans or potters. As a result, in all aspects of their lives, they had people who cooked for them, taught their children, and make their pottery. They were slaves” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020).

Athens used slave labor for most of their daily life, so they must have treated them well enough to prevent a revolt. Also, Athens did produce some beautiful pottery, so the potters must have been treated well enough to make this beautiful pottery and help their master to make a small fortune with the sales. Athenian black-face pottery, which is the style of the late archaic, was a highly traded item throughout the Mediterranean world. The Etruscans were known to trade for Athenian pottery and archaeological evidence shows they may have produced their own copycat versions. Athenian pottery “had been found in Campania but were also believed to be Etruscan in manufacture” (Sheramy 2019).

The manufacture of Athenian pottery is quite a little more complicated than it looks like when viewing a vase or amphora. The beginning is simple: first the clay is mined from a clay vein and then “the potter mixes the clay with water and lets all the impurities sink to the bottom to levigate it” (Oakley 2009). The clay is then wedge and formed to of many different styles. One of the most popular of the Greek speaking world was the pelike.

“The shape is often seen as a variation of the amphora, although the two vertical handles and torus-like rim show that the shape had a similar function, it also has been pointed out that the pelike was somewhat odd in the Athenian repertoire of the late sixth century BC. Compared to the other vases with high shoulders and articulated details – the pelike is an ugly duckling. With its sagging belly on a broad simple foot, it seems to contradict all aesthetic principles of the time” (Oakley 2014)

After forming the pottery and it becomes leather hard, the decoration is painted on with a slip that contains added iron oxide and urine. The painting is simple at first, because once the slip dries, details is etched out, enhancing the beauty of the painting. The pottery then undergoes a three-step firing process. First the kiln is roughly heated up to 1500*F with the vents and chimney open. Then a couple pieces of soaking wet wood are added to the fire and then all vents and chimney is closed, heating up the kiln to 1800*F. Once the potter feels the kiln has reached the right temperature, the vents are opened and the temperature is allowed to decrease some. The heat is held for a little while then the fire is let to be burned out. Keep in mind, Greek potters were not able to check the temperature, this was all from experience and able to judge accurately.

We tend to judge Ancient Greek pottery with a fine-tooth comb. Here is a paragraph taken from The American Connoisseur in 1949 about an attic black-figured amphora, about 525 B.C., seemingly of the antimenes group.

On both sides of the vases the painter has projected his seven divine or human figures on a large scale, over as much of the surface as he possibly could. Thus, heads push against the lower line of the tongue pattern and Athena’s crest, spear, and Herakles’ club reach right up to the amphoras’ neck. As a total impression, both compositions are formal, almost stiff, in their presentation of dramatic scenes, but this heaviness (if such be the term) is relieved by the activity of interior details” (Vermeule 1949)

Ancient Greek potters would laugh if they saw how we revere their pottery today. In the Greek speaking world, they were merely household items or funerary objects which told a story.

Life and Culture Around the Archaic Greek Potter

Greek potters in Athens were known to slander other potters by writing insults on the bottom of their pots so to convince people to buy their wares instead. Saying’s like, “‘as never Euphronios’ as a boast against the painter of that name, in the sense of ‘Euphronios can never do this’” (Bundrick 2019) This was to help boast their wares and bring sales to their master’s pockets. However, the potters of the Greek speaking city-states in Anatolia did not use such slander on their ware. Most of the potters were free men and free from the wars of the west. They were though oversaw by Persia, but “the Persian overlords allowed the local Greek speaking population to go about their business” and the “Greek speaking people that were living within the empire had much more freedom than living under the Peloponnesian rule or Athenian rule” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020). The area was culturally diffused thus making the pottery diffused. The pots produced may have had some attic influences into it but had eastern as well. Traditions of the east helped to bring a different culture and life to the freemen of the Greek speaking people there.

The Greek speaking people of the Peloponnese were constantly fighting each other, and while fighting each other, enslaving conquered people. The slaves took on their lives of before in Athens or Sparta, but under slavery. However, their skill and ability to capture scenes of past battles of myths has been held to high regard. These potters of Athens were the best of the Greek mainland had to offer. Most potters were literate and skilled in music and math as well as art. “The status of potters and vase-painters in Athenian society and start by noting the painters love for writing in general” (Oakley 2009). Kleophrades is one such potter who was a slave of the Alkmaionidai family at the end of the archaic period. He used his skill of writing and painting to convey emotion. The black face style of mid to late archaic was the first of such painting to capture the audience. However, from archaeological evidence shows “that lions in early attic black-figure ‘are descended from Protocorinthian lions; the neat filling-ornaments, too, and thoroughly ornamentalized plants are derived from Corinthian originals” (Oakley 2009). This shows the beginning Athens warring with other cities and enslaving their populations. Oakley points out that there is a population of Corinthian people in Archaic Athens by archaeological evidence found at the potter’s kilns.

The potters would name their kilns, usually as a dedication to one of the gods. Some “kilns with names like ‘Smasher’, ‘Crasher’, and ‘Shaker to Pieces’” (Oakley 2009) This could be in reference to the demons that Poseidon destroys since a name he has is shaker of the earth. A couple dozen of pots in fragments found show scenes of the potter’s studio. Kneading the clay, forming the vases, and painting the pottery show how the potters made their wares. These wares are possibly shown to be made not in a potter’s studio, but in a metalsmith workshop or “the vessels being worked on and the furniture of the workshop, perhaps in honor of Athena’s presence” (Oakley 2009). Most of the potter’s studios and kilns were found in the Agora, or city square of Athens. Archaeological evidence shows “about 500 to 1000 people were making pottery with figural decoration in ancient Athens” (Oakley 2014). In Oakley’s book Athenian Potters and Painters III, Cook points out after years of research, he found “a surprising consistency in the attribution rate of about 8 vases per year of activity” (Oakley 2014) by average of potters/ painters he studied.

My Own Experience Making Black Figure Pottery

Unlike Maya pottery, many potters and experimental archaeologist have experimented with Black Face pottery. Reading about making and process gave me a heads up, but in no way an advantage to success immediately. The main component of Attica pottery is the attic clay, which has a slight red tint to it due to the high iron content in the estuaries around Athens. Since I could not gather the attic clay, I made a low-fire white stoneware-based clay and added red iron oxide to it. The slip used to paint the vessels is the same clay, however extra iron is added to it and urine is incorporated. The urine helps to cause the chemical reaction to turn the slip to black in the kiln. Finally, the Athenian’s and others potters throughout the Greek speaking world used a type of terra sigilatta glaze called Miltos. The Miltos uses wood ash to cause the separation of the impure clay body from the water and sink to the bottom, creating a milky glaze like terra sigilatta. After making the components it was time to make the vessels.

I have never made a large vessel on a wheel before so there was a learning curve. Now since the Greeks used a large stone wheel or wooden wheel, I did not use my electric wheel. I made a large wooden turntable like wheel and handspun the vessels. The amphora is the style I decided to focus on for my study. Placing myself in the environment was different than the Maya experience. The back deck with a wooden table was the best option for this experiment in the time frame allotment. Throwing the clay and hand spinning the wheel took some time to master. As one would expect, you must spin the wheel to a fast speed, then immediately start to form your vessel. Repeating this over and over, the vessel will start to build up and out. After days of practicing, I began to create large vessels which reached up to 16 inches or 40 cm. Then I threw the foot and lids. I decided to cover all the pieces with leather just as with the Maya pottery. After 24 hours, I placed the vessel back on the wheel and used small globs of clay to help secure it. Trimming was a little easier than the Maya, because holding the wooden knife (I used the same one from the Maya experiment) still, you can trim off excess at an even rate. The Greeks sponge dived so it was of no issue to use a sponge to help smooth the vessel. After it was trimmed, I covered it with the leather for four hours roughly to firm the vessel back. Then I attached the foot to the vessel and trimmed off the excess so the foot flows evenly into the vessel. Then sealed the lid on top and trimmed off the extra clay. The handles can be tricky, so from experience I use a large handful of clay and constantly dip my hand in water and gently slide my hand down the clay, pulling it into a log. After I had the proper length, cut off the roll at the correct spot and then attach it to the pot. Repeating this again for the other handle the pot, then the construction is complete.

Once I completed making the amphora, it was time to paint of the slip. I chose random designs e.g. battle of troy, tree of life, medusa. Painting is not one of my strong points, but through practice, I should develop it further. I began to paint on the designs, being careful not to smear, on all three amphorae. Then covered the pots with leather for one day to dry the slip evenly and then began to etch out the detail. I had made an iron needle from a rot iron pole to do the etching. It is much harder than it appears to etch the fine details. Constantly I scraped too far or had a slip of the wrist, so hopefully through further practice I will develop the skills needed to achieve higher quality results. After etching out the details, the pots were let to dry enough until I felt they were ready to burnish. There was a decent amount of smearing because I feel I did not let them dry enough. After that I let them dry to bone dry.

Once they were bone dry, I took them to a kiln I had built on a friend property. I did not have the time to be completely authentic with the kiln, so parts are modern supplies.

Here is a picture of the kiln:

The pottery was placed in the kiln, then I started a small fire outside of the fire pit, but close to the opening. For the next 6 hours, I would feed the fire and slowly push it closer to the opening until it was inside the kiln. Finally, I would feed the fire in the kiln with sections of logs that I had chopped into medium size pieces and about a foot long. I decided on this size because if the wood is too thick, the fire will stay cooler due to working harder to burn the wood. If it was smaller, it would burn up almost immediately. Judging the color of the core of the fire, I waited until it seemed to be hot enough. Then I placed 3 soaked pieces of wood on the flames and sealed up the kiln except for the opening where I feed the fire. I fed the fire and waited about an hour and a half, reopened the chimney and vent, and fed the fire for about another hour. After an hour I stopped feeding the fire and let the fire to go out. I came back two days later, and the pots had all exploded. After judging what I had done, I felt I had put too much wet wood on the fire. So, I repeated all the steps but only put one soaked piece of wood on the fire. This time, two of the three pots survived, but the color was not dark enough. The color was more purple than black. Possibly the slip did not have enough iron oxide in it. More iron oxide was added, double the amount, and all the steps were repeated. This time the color was a little better, but not dark enough. More iron was added, then all steps again. Finally, a partial success. One pot exploded, one pot had the foot crack off into a few pieces, the lid popped off, and the handles broke off, but the vessel was intact. The third held together perfectly and the color was great. Now there was almost no red to orange tint to the clay, but through further attempts, I will try to work on that.

Here are images of my partial and full success:

The Frankenstein Effect

The cultural differences between the Classical Maya and Ancient Greece could not be any more different when it comes to their artisans. The “Mother Cities” enslaved thousands and used them for their daily labor, including their art. The Maya revered their artists and “Mayan Gods were also depicted as artists in both pottery and motifs” (Beukers 2013). However, when looking at other cultural aspects, they were very similar. War was a constant theme to both the Ancient Greeks and the Classical Maya. War was a constant in Greek society. “The Athenians were fighting each other. A – they were fighting each other, B – they were fighting with Sparta” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020). The Maya were also at constant war. Before 1960 when the Gylphs were not deciphered, it was thought the city-states were peaceful and traded among each other. On the contrary, they had “well-recognized boundaries that were vigorously defended, resulting in armed clashes” (Moyes and Prufer 2013). With war as a constant theme, populations will slowly become depleted. After the Peloponnesian war, the Greek speaking world was tired and exhausted, because of this, they were an easy target.

The Greek speaking world’s target was angled directly at Phillip the 2nd of Macedonia. As a child, he was taken hostage by Thebes and raised by the Greeks. Phillip became enamored with the Greek world as a child. Once he returned to Macedonia and became king “He returned to Greece and conquered most of the mainland except he left Sparta alone” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020). Phillip did not force the Greeks to assimilate to the Macedonia way, rather the Macedonians assimilated into the Greek speaking world. However, “the Macedonians were much more by far a military culture, but in other words with people like Alexander the Great, there was this entire thinking that people should be self-reliant on themselves and not on other people” (Shoyhkedbrod 2020). The Macedonians had forced Athens to free most of their slaves and because of this, their arts began to decline.

The survival of the city within the Maya civilization relied on the ruler. The ruler was believed to be semi-divine who could control the flow of water, prosperity of the crops, and power of the city. When the ruler cannot hold onto these, e.g. crops failing and droughts, the people lose faith in the ruler, starting uprisings. Archaeological evidence shows in cities throughout most of the Maya world around 750-800 C.E of “termination rituals”. These rituals “include intensive burning, structural damage, pot smashing and scattering, rapid deposition of material, dense concentrations of large sherds with sharp, angular breaks, and large quantities of ‘elite’ artifacts” (Gyles 2016). Gyles also mentions of “sacrificed elite inhabitants of the Maya community.” With the artist being revered and part of the royal court, plus pots smashed and scattered, one would assume the artists are part of those who are sacrificed among the elites. The Maya were masters of their trade, but did not understand what can happen when you slash the surrounding forest for miles on end around the city, using lime paste to cover the canals that held their drinking water, and the constant warfare with other cities. Their crops could not grow without a proper flow of water and the water soon became poisoned by the lime used to line the canals. The population also could not take the warfare any longer. However, the Maya did not cease to exist. “During the Terminal Classic and Post Classic periods, in contrast, the Yucatan saw an emergence of energetic city-states in the Puuc Hills of southwest Yucatan and the rise of a cosmopolitan imperial power at Chichen Itza” (Hofsetter 2009).


It was an interesting journey placing myself in the elements and make pottery. I suggest to everyone who makes art to put themselves out in the elements when they do not normally do so. Experimental archaeology can teach us a great deal of information about our ancient past and help to create a faux of the works which an ancient civilization had created. Whether it is a ballista from the Romans or a Hittite chariot, studying the ancient records and having a little know how can help to bring history back to life. Through creating the work in the same environment which our ancients worked in, you can understand more about their culture which they worked in.

As I crouched down on the rough fiber mat and worked on the Maya faux pottery, it gave me a new perspective on ceramic art and what books, or journals teach us about the Maya. The preparation of the ceramic vessel for painting is vast, but it also takes a highly skilled painter to paint with such detail using a brush made from deer tail hair. Also, the brush needed to make the finest of detail would only be a couple of bristles because the hair holds the paint well. The pottery also did not just have pictures of the gods or animals which represent them, but their writing system, cosmology, and mathematics. The Maya glyph system alone is very complicated and only the elite and royals could read it. Studying up on the glyph system I found academics still have trouble with some of the writing after 60 years of it first being translated. This gives me great reverence for the potters since they were scholars about their culture and were highly trained in the ceramic arts as well.

Black face was only one of the stages which ceramics evolved through in the Ancient Greek world. It took roughly 300 years for the Greek potter to develop the black face and fine tune their method of firing. The operation of the kiln is still something that will take me a long time to master. Judging the fire and adding the correct amount of moisture takes skill and a good eye. Today we use a pyrometer or cones to gauge a temperature of a kiln. The Ancient Greeks had experience and understanding of the right glow of the core. After a few rounds of making the pottery, I felt the burnishing should be done before the detail is etched out. The slip will smear no matter how dry it is to the point to where burnishing cannot happen. However, through practice, I should become better at etching out the details of the designs (I do want to make a high-quality amphora of the Medusa which I kept attempting).

What is interesting is the myth of Medusa. Medusa was a gorgon and shunned from society. However, she was turned into a gorgon by Athena because Poseidon rapped her in the temple of Athena. The slaves of Athens were shunned by the society. Before they were conquered by Athens, they were freemen who were able to live as they chose. Then came Athens who wanted their land and slaves. The people were brought to Athens, forced to work, but shunned by the society. They were not treated as human beings. The artists of Athens were slaves who were forced to produce wares for sale to line the pockets of their master. From writings we are led to believe that they live a decent life under the hand of their master, and does the master letting the slave have a decent life justify slavery? However, from experimenting with the pottery, it is extremely hard and a highly skilled occupation to have. When I am to understand the potters were slaves but treated well, I feel they would only be treated well if they are producing top notch pottery and no flaws. If a pot explodes in the kiln and he or she is forced to start from scratch, the master would not be happy, and the artist would feel his wrath. Today we make art as an expression from many different avenues. Art could be used to describe pain a community is experiencing, the oppression of a government, hypocrisy, or inner pain. In Athens, it was what would sell and make money for the master.

In today’s world, people constantly fight against the hegemony of a master. The master could represent a government, an abusive husband, or modern-day slave labor masters. Artist will use their art to describe the oppression or as part of the movement. Creating this art in the experiment taught me how art can describe a culture, not by looking at the work, but by making the work.


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