Mycenaean Pottery

We have already had occasion to deal to some extent with Mycenaean pottery in connection with Cyprus and Crete, but it is now necessary to review it as a whole in the light of the present state of our knowledge of this wonderful civilisation and its products. To enter here upon the wide and much-debated questions to which the discoveries of the last thirty years have given rise is of course beyond our province; but the pottery of the people to whom the name Mycenaean has been somewhat loosely given is of so homogeneous a character, although found in all parts of the Mediterranean, that it may be treated as a phase of Greek ceramics, independently of considerations of ethnography and chronology. First found in any quantity at Ialysos in the island of Rhodes, its exact position in the history of early art was not then recognised; but when the marvellous discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae became known to the world, including large numbers of similar vases, Sir Charles Newton readily recognised that the Ialysos vases in the British Museum belonged to the same class. It was not long before the whole number of vases of this type, now christened Mycenaean, was collected in a “Corpus” by two German scholars, with numerous illustrations; but since that time the excavations of “Mycenaean” sites in Cyprus and Crete must have doubled or even trebled the material available.

The pottery at Mycenae was found in four different positions, implying consecutive chronological stages, ranging roughly from the fifteenth to the tenth or even ninth century. On these grounds Furtwaengler and Loeschcke distinguished four main classes; but it will be seen that these are capable of even more subdivision. There are, in fact, two main classes, distinguished by the use of matt and lustrous colour respectively; and of the first of these two, of the second four, subdivisions are possible.

Class (1) is indeed comparatively rare, and only found at Thera and in the oldest tombs on the Mycenaean Acropolis; it represents the transition from the pottery of Troy and Thera to that of Mycenae. The subdivision is a purely technical one: (a ) vases of pale coarse clay, with patterns in a brown colour, some hand-made; (b ) wheel-made vases of a reddish and finer clay, the designs in black and pale red, occasionally white. The decoration generally resembles that of the Thera vases, and animals occasionally appear.

(2) The vases with lustrous painting may be classified as follows:

(a ) Badly levigated clay; floral motives in matt-white or red-brown on black ground. A fine example of this class was recently excavated at Maroni in Cyprus, a large krater with a figure of a bird outlined in white on either side (Plate XII.).

(b ) Similar clay, but coated with a white or yellow slip on which geometrical or floral patterns are painted in lustrous black.

(c ) Fine clay with polished yellow surface; designs in black turning to red or yellow, with occasional details in white; chiefly marine plants and animals, but occasionally (especially in Cyprus) human figures. This class is by far the most numerous of all, but is not found in Thera. It corresponds with the period 1400–1000 B.C.

(d ) Clay grey or reddish, less brilliant, as is also the black; large figures of quadrupeds and human figures. The vases are sometimes painted inside , which is a sign of late date.

The structure of these vases is very varied, and no less than 122 different forms may be distinguished in the illustrations to the Mykenische Vasen . Most characteristic and popular is the “false amphora,” as it is generally termed (German, Bügelkanne ), a vase with spheroidal body, of varying size, with the peculiarity that the ordinary neck and mouth on the top are closed by a flat handle arching over the vase, and the only aperture is a spout on one side (see Plate XV. and Fig. 82). These are very widely distributed, but their decoration is as a rule very simple; they appear depicted on the paintings of Egyptian tombs of the eighteenth dynasty, and this has often been used as an argument for the dating ofMycenaean vases. But they must have remained in favour for a considerable period. Other favourite shapes are: a funnel-shaped vase with handle at the top, doubtless a reminiscence of a Hissarlik type; a tall graceful two-handled goblet or kylix, almost invariably decorated with cuttle-fish (see Plate XV.), as the funnel-vases are with murex (purple dye) shells; a beaked jug (German Schnabelkanne ), derived from Thera; a squat jar or pyxis, with three small handles (cf. Fig. 82); and a tall pear-shaped vase with three handles on a high stem, which is perhaps the prototype of the hydria. The large kraters are, as we have seen, peculiar to Cyprus. Rarer forms are a sort of mug, and a combination of the false amphora and pyxis. Mention should also be made of the painted λάρνακες or ossuaria  found in Crete by Mr. J. H. Marshall and by Dr. Orsi.

The technique presents several entirely new features, such as the use of a slip as a basis for the colours; the polished, brilliant, and even surface; and above all the lustrous black varnish, which was the peculiar pride of Greek potters, and is now a lost art. The comparative monotony of the colouring is probably due to a purely technical reason, namely, the difficulty of resisting the action of fire; otherwise such an artistic people would doubtless have exhibited the same richness of colouring in their pottery that we find in their frescoes.

The Mycenaean pottery is deservedly held in high estimation for its picturesque and naturalistic style, which in its reproduction of animal and vegetable forms often rivals Japanese art. Although its scope is remarkably wide, yet there is a strong preference for marine subjects—the cuttle-fish, the murex shell, the nautilus, and various kinds of seaweed or such plants as the Vallisneria spiralis . In Fig. 82 two good examples in the British Museum are illustrated—one from Egypt, the other from Kalymnos. Altogether there is an originality and poetry of ideas such as never appears again in Greek art; but that is not a peculiar possession of the potters, as the metal-work, gem-engraving, and fresco-paintings testify—above all, such masterpieces as the Vaphio gold cups, or some of the wall-paintings recently discovered in Crete.


(British Museum ).

To face page 273.

Religious ideas, on the other hand, are strangely conspicuous by their absence. Mycenaean mythology is so far almost nonexistent in the art; and although attempts have at times been made to detect traces of early cults, as in the figures of men dressed as animals, or the representations of the double axe,they have not as yet met with universal acceptance. More improbable is the curious idea recently mooted, that the subjects of the vase-paintings indicate an acquaintance with such theories as those of biological evolution.


Mycenaean pottery has been found on a very large number of sites throughout the Mediterranean. The most productive have been Mycenae, Crete, and Cyprus, especially the cemetery at Enkomi in the latter island. Other Cypriote centres are Curium, Agia Paraskevi near Nicosia, Maroni, and the neighbourhood of Dali and Larnaka. In Attica the Acropolis of Athens and the beehive tombs of Spata and Menidi have been most fruitful, and finds have been made at Haliki and elsewhere. In the Peloponnese the chief site is Tiryns, and many fragments have also been found at Nauplia; in Central Greece several sites in Boeotia, such as Orchomenos, may be mentioned. Of the Aegean islands, Rhodes and Melos are most conspicuous, especially the sites of Ialysos in the former island, Phylakopi in the latter. In Asia Minor, Mycenaean remains are rare, except at Troy, but in Egypt there is ample evidence of a close commercial relation, as in the finds at Tell-el-Amarna, in the Fayûm, and elsewhere. In the Western Mediterranean, Syracuse has yielded numerous fragments, and occasional finds have been made in Italy.

Having reviewed the extent of Mycenaean influence, the next question we must consider is which, if any, was the centre whence this pottery was exported. It had been for some time observed that the early varieties of Thera, and those of Crete and Cyprus (v. supra ), showed strong indications of local origin; but on the whole the Mycenaean pottery proper is remarkably uniform and homogeneous. It is perhaps possible to detect technical differences between the pottery, e.g., of Athens and Rhodes, but they may be only differences of date rather than fabric. Furtwaengler and Loeschcke regarded Argolis as the centre of manufacture, at least for the later lustrous varieties; Pottier, on the other hand, writing before the recent discoveries, thought that Crete was, after Thera, the original centre, and Argolis only subsequently, the pottery of Rhodes lying midway between. In the light of the Cretan discoveries it is now possible largely to disregard previous theories. We have seen that Mycenaean pottery found in Crete has a pedigree which no other region can claim, and that it can only have a local origin. We have also seen that the Cretan supremacy came to an end about 1500 B.C., and that, though the pottery may have continued to be made in the island, it ceased to be an exclusive centre, and for the remainder of the Mycenaean Age the art, learned in Crete, spread to other Aegean centres—Mycenae, Rhodes, and Cyprus.

A far more difficult question to decide is the ethnographical one, together with the consideration of the relation of the Mycenaean civilisation to others in which the same decoration appears (as in the case of the spiral). One point seems to be abundantly clear, viz. that Mycenaean decoration owes nothing to Oriental influences. That there was a close relation with the East has already been indicated, and is much more apparent in other forms of Mycenaean art; but no student of this art in general can doubt that it is, as has been pointed out, purely spontaneous and unique, the art of a people of genuine artistic genius. Among the art of ancient races it stands alone in this respect, that of Egypt and Assyria, its only prominent rivals, being always essentially conventional; and herein lies its special distinction.

That the Mycenaeans were a maritime people admits of no doubt. It is shown by the position of their chief centres, by the evidence of their extensive commercial relations, and, as far as concerns their pottery, pre-eminently by the subjects which form the staple decoration. Hence of late years an attempt has been made to substitute for “Mycenaean” the more comprehensive term “Aegean,” and there is much to be said in its favour. As regards the actual ethnographical position of the race, Quot homines, tot sententiae , may almost be said. They have been identified with the Achaeans, the Pelasgians, the Phoenicians, the Carians, and as combinations of Phrygians with Cretans, of Phoenicians with Greeks of Asia Minor. But few of these terms have real historical value, and such identifications do not really advance the solution of the question.

A more real ground of battle is that afforded by the question of date, though on this point scholars now show a greater tendency to fall into line, and a period culminating in the years 1400 to 1100 or 1000 now very generally accepted. The question necessarily turns largely on the evidence afforded by Crete and Egypt, and so far as this is trustworthy it all points in the same direction. But it would be beyond the scope of a work of this kind to do more than briefly summarise the general results of archaeological criticism.

An interesting study of Mycenaean ornamentation has been made by Dr. Riegl, who deals generally with the principles underlying its vegetable motives, and points out that here we first meet with scrolls or continuous bands of foliage applied to a decorative purpose. These motives are peculiar to Greek art, and in Mycenaean design their origin is to be sought. In this way we may regard it as the immediate forerunner of Hellenic art, although its development was temporarily arrested by the Dorian invasion, just as the people who produced it formed the basis of the Hellenic race. The naturalism of Mycenaean ornament, which is seen both in continuous and in isolated patterns, is in marked contrast to the convention of Egypt, where the same motives may be in use. It is not, in short, the motive, but its treatment, which shows the independence of Mycenaean art. There are, again, other patterns, such as the spiral, which cannot be traced in Oriental art, and seem to be purely original, at least as far as concerns the Eastern Mediterranean.

Another recent writer, Dr. S. Wide, has noticed that where Mycenaean influence was originally strongest, as in Crete and Rhodes, there its characteristics were most strongly impressed upon the art of the succeeding period, and he is inclined to place the centre of the fabric in these islands or on the coast of the adjoining continent of Asia. At all events the Mycenaean influence shows itself more in the pottery of the islands than it does in Attica; and, in Crete and Rhodes in particular, instances have been found of undoubted survivals of typical Mycenaean ornaments in later pottery.