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Protogeometric and Geometric Greece


Protogeometric Pottery (1050-900 BCE)

    About 1050 B.C. a new style of pottery started in Athens and rapidly spread throughout Greece. The new style grew out of the Submycenaean and is called Protogeometric (a name that indicates its relation to the succeeding style). Some new shapes appear, and some old shapes (surviving from the Submycenaean), such as the amphora, are now often taller and more slender (perhaps the result of a faster wheel).

    Decoration: Decoration appears in zones or bands that skillfully articulate the shape of the pot. Traditional motifs (e.g. wavy lines, concentric semi-circles) are treated with a mathematical precision and firmness (using a compass and a multiple brush). Two types of decoration are used on Protogeometric pots:

    1. clay-ground technique - dark designs painted on a light clay body.
    2. dark-ground technique - vase covered with black glaze paint with painted designs in reserved bands.
    The second technique is more popular toward the end of the period.

    The Protogeometric is a sober style. It shows a close relationship between the painter and the potter; the painter always strives to emphasize the shape of the pot. The style is simple in form and content. It evolved easily and quickly into the somewhat harsher and stiffer Geometric style about 900 B.C.

Geometric Pottery (900-700 BCE)

    The years 900-700 do not really constitute a historical period except that during these centuries the Geometric style is predominant. The dates are chosen more or less for convenience. The Geometric style first appears in Athens at the beginning of the 9th century. It ends the experimentation of the Protogeometric by selecting and following consistently a system of rectilinear ornamentation (e.g. swastikas, meanders).

    The style develops with an increasingly frequent use of figures and a shift away from the shoulder of the vase as the place to concentrate the ornament to the neck and the body, to emphasize shape.

    Decoration: The decorative motifs of the Geometric style are almost exclusively linear (dots and lines formed into angles, squares, triangles, lozenges, oblique strokes, etc. Also battlements, zigzags, and meanders are common. The meander is used so often that it is almost the symbol of the Geometric style.

    After about 800, figures from nature begin to appear regularly, usually as bands of grazing deer or marsh birds repeated endlessly around the vase (see, for example, this Attic Geometric Amphora). Horses are popular from the beginning. Animals and birds are pressed into geometric shapes. Human figures soon appear in the handle zone.

    By the middle of the 8th century, a figure style had evolved and between 760 and 700 (Late Geometric) the Geometric style achieves full maturity in the elaborate pictorial style seen on DIPYLON VASES (amphoras and kraters).

    The principal scenes on Dipylon Vases include the layed out corpse of the deceased (prothesis), and a procession of mourners or warriors on foot or in chariots or carts following the body to the cemetary (ekphora). These scenes are bordered by bands of geometric ornament, which have begun to lose their former prominence. Figures are crowded by the filling ornament that takes up all available space in the figured panels.

    Style: Human figures are defined rather than pictured, with their most significant parts characteristically composed to form an almost solid silhouette. A man is defined as having a triangular frontal torso with a blob for a profile head and only slightly curving thighs and calves. Female figures are defined as having long hair - at first rendered by individual lines sticking out of the head and later by a mass of lines - and breasts, which appear first as strokes one above the other under the armpit. Female figures are also later given hatched skirts. The formula of the human figure remained consistently simple and schematic.

Historical Note

    Helladic (Mycenaean) Greece was ruled by kings. With the collapse of the Mycenaean culture began a process which placed less emphasis on kingship. By the 8th century, nobles had superseded the kings and and began to hold power in aristocracies based on families organized in tribes. As kingship weakened, society moved toward the establishment of the polis. Cities such as Sparta and Athens grew larger and slowly gained control over the villages in their immediate vicinity. The polis (imprecisely translated as "city-state") was an autonomous, indivisible political entity that focused on a town but included the surrounding agricultural land. Thus, the polis of Athens included much of Attica. By early 8th century Greek society was developing fast. There was an increase in population, the beginnings of industry, an increase in foreign contacts and in trade. There was also the beginning of a great colonizing movement (primarily to the West - the Greeks had already settled in the East [Ionia - Asia Minor] in the Dark Ages).

  • amphora = a two-handled jar for wine, oil, and other liquids; varieties include the belly-handled amphora, the neck-handled amphora, and the belly (or one-piece) amphora.

  • krater = a large, deep bowl for mixing wine and water; varieties are distinguished by the form of the handles or profile.

  • glaze = a glossy coating applied to a piece of ceramic work before firing in the kiln, as a protective seal and as decoration.

  • Dipylon Vase = a Greek funerary vase with holes in the bottom through which libations were poured to the dead. The often very large vessels were used as grave markers. The name Dipylon refers to part of the Kerameikos cemetery near Athens where they were first found.

  • prothesis = the lying in state and ritual mourning of a corpse.

  • ekphora = the ritual carrying out or transport of a corpse for burial, usually by wagon.


  • J. N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece.
  • Bernhard Schweitzer, Greek Geometric Art.

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe