Antiquities, Behind the Scenes, Conservation, Getty Conservation Institute, J. Paul Getty Museum, Research, Voices

Getty Voices: Attic Pots and Atomic Particles

Experts in art, science, conservation, and history have joined forces to answer a seemingly simple but remarkably challenging question: how did the ancient Greeks make their characteristic red-and-black pottery?

Attic pottery sherds from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum selected for study.

Hollywood loves to show archeologists digging up gold and jeweled treasures, but here at the Getty, we know that those bits and pieces of ancient pottery that Indiana Jones tossed aside to get at his golden idol are no less valuable. For they contain their own sort of wealth: a wealth of information about technical knowledge, its practical applications, and the secrets of successful industry. And, learning how people made things can reveal who they were, how they lived, and what they valued.

For this reason, a few years ago the Getty Conservation Institute began a research project with conservators and curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum to better understand the materials and techniques employed in the manufacture of Athenian pottery (often also referred to as Attic, since Athens was situated in the region known as Attica) in the peak period of its production, between 600 and 400 B.C. The Getty Museum has an extensive collection of these black- and red-figure vessels, including many examples attributed to well-known painters, and these have provided a rich body of material for our investigations.

Although much has been written about how Athenian vases were made, modern science now allows us to test many long-established theories and to pursue new avenues of inquiry. A series of chance meetings—serendipity does play a role in science—led to the addition of two new partners, the Stanford University/Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, which produces extremely bright X-rays to study the world at the atomic and molecular level, and The Aerospace Corporation, a provider of services to national security space programs, which brings expertise and capabilities in atomic level structural characterization by electron microscopy. The National Science Foundation, seeing the potential of looking at ancient pottery to potentially contribute to modern ceramic technology, provided the funding.

Line on a pottery sherd being examined by optical microscopy

Line on a pottery sherd being examined by optical microscopy.

The different perspectives and technical expertise of this group of collaborators complement one another, enabling the team to examine ancient ceramics in new ways and at multiple scales—from the macro, to the micro, to the nano. Through careful observation and measurement, we are beginning to better understand how ancient painters may have created the intricate designs that adorned their vessels. At the same time, cutting-edge technologies have allowed us to see down to sub-micron length scales (1/100th the width of a human hair), where we can examine individual particles of clay to try and determine the kiln conditions that led to the formation of the rich, glossy black surface that is the hallmark of Athenian pottery.

This close study can have wide-ranging benefits. If we know the composition and material properties of ancient ceramics at the microstructural level, we may be better able to predict its response to the methods used to conserve it, preserve it, and display it. If we know the types of clays that were used—and how they were processed, formed into vessels, painted, and fired—we may be able to obtain a clearer understanding of ancient workshop practices, which will assist art historians and archaeologists write the next pages of ancient Greek history.

Black gloss sample removed from a vase fragment in the collection of the Getty Museum attributed to the Triptolemos painter, showing the multiple-length scales used in the investigation of Athenian pottery. Photos: Marc Walton and Brendan Foran

We invite you to join the Athenian Pottery Project team this week as we explore Attic pottery through the eyes of art historians, conservators, conservation scientists, and even rocket scientists. Join us on Facebook and Twitter and see what everyone on this multidisciplinary team brings to the examination of seemingly humble but beautiful black- and red-figure pottery produced in ancient Greece.

For further perspectives on this project, visit the Athenian Pottery Project website and read our previous blog post, Ancient Greek Pottery Lends Its Secrets to Future Space Travel.

To hear from us in person, join us on May 2 at the Getty Villa for the lively discussion Attic Pots and Atomic Particles.

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      …”the clarity of the cold carnation of old skin, the creases of the smile, the folds made by the passage of time; the powerful pleating of the forehead…”

      The detail of his wrinkles, blood vessels, and moles is a realistic rendering uncommon in formal portraiture of the time. This was made by a friend.

      Portrait of Louis de Silvestre, about 1753, Maurice-Quentin de la Tour. J. Paul Getty Museum.

      08/31/14

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