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

Throughout 2013, the Getty community participated in a rotation-curation experiment using the Getty Iris, Twitter, and Facebook. Each week a new staff member took the helm of our social media to chat with you directly and share a passion for a specific topic—from museum education to Renaissance art to web development. Getty Voices concluded in February 2014.—Ed.

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

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

This post is part of the series Getty Voices, a yearlong experiment in rotation curation using the Iris, Twitter, and Facebook.See all posts in this series »