Understanding Ancient Pottery by Reading, Seeing, and Recreating

Dec. 14, 2023

Professor Nathan Arrington’s ART 412/CLA 412/HLS 407 “Ancient Greek Pottery” immersed students in the lives of the ancient Greeks through vessels — both in theory and practice. Students came away with a thorough understanding of the significant pottery shapes and styles produced in Greece, as well as how and why vases were made and used.

Lectures spanning the aesthetics, cultural meaning, humor, politics, mythology, utility, technology, and ingenuity behind this art-form were frequently complimented with visits to Princeton University Art Museum’s collection to examine the many ancient ceramic vessels up close. 

Set of ancient Greek ceramic vessels on a white table

Ceramic vessels from the Princeton University Art Museum collection (Photo courtesy of Nathan Arrington)

“When viewing pottery in a reading or slideshow, it can be straightforward to reduce it to a flat image, and with that, focus more on the decoration of the vase rather than the vase shape itself,” said Paige Walworth ’26. “However, by seeing the vases in person, walking around, and sometimes even holding them, it helped to emphasize that they would have been viewed on all sides and used as a functional piece.”

Nathan Arrington helps student Cathleen Weng trim her vessel
Professor Nathan Arrington helps Cathleen Weng ’24 trim a vessel (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

A&A graduate student Eirini Spyropoulou agreed that the opportunity to inspect ancient pottery in the Museum’s collections greatly impacted her experience of the course.

“It enabled us to work closely with and examine products of Greek pottery from the Geometric period until the 4th century B.C.E. and therefore to get acquainted and reflect on issues of technique, decoration as well as connoisseurship,” she said.

Nothing to it but to do it

Along with this visual saturation, Arrington gave students a visceral appreciation of the practice, dedicating two class sessions to making their own vessels.

“The only way to understand ancient pottery—or any pottery, for that matter—is to try to make it.” —Professor Nathan Arrington

Five students at pottery wheels and an instructor work on vessels

From left: Elizabeth Polubinski '25, Paige Walworth '26, Cathleen Weng ’24, Studio Manager Debbie Reichard, and Gabriel Chalick '24 (Photo/Nathan Arrington)

“Even with only two ceramic sessions, students develop a much deeper appreciation for the astonishing craft the Greeks created. After trying to throw a pot, students no longer look at vases with their eyes alone, but with their bodies, as they see and feel how the potters’ hands moved over a vase,” said Arrington, “They start to perceive the steps that were taken in the process of vase-making, the problems confronted, and the decisions made.”

The instructor attaches the base to the vessel

Studio Manager Debbie Reichard demonstrates attaching the base to the bowl of the vessel (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Students unanimously confirmed the effectiveness of this teaching tactic.

“I think all of us were very humbled by how difficult it is to work with clay, even with modern equipment." — Elizabeth Polubinski

“Our visits to the New College West ceramics studio were revealing how complicated and elaborate the process of pottery making is, let alone when one is involved with the mass production and must simultaneously deal with the failures of materials or firing,” said Spyropoulou.

Classic major Elizabeth Polubinksi ’25 agreed, “I think all of us were very humbled by how difficult it is to work with clay, even with modern equipment. For example, I could create something resembling a kylix, but I accidentally trimmed too much off it and it fell apart. That aspect I hadn’t assumed would be difficult, so I greatly appreciate that Professor Arrington worked this into the course.”

Three students select clay vessels for decorating

From left, Eirini Spyropoulou, Paige Walworth, and Elizabeth Polubinski select vessels to assemble and decorate (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Both Polubinski and Walworth participated in Arrington’s summer 2023 ART 304 course, which introduced students to hands-on archaeological methods as they worked on his excavation, the Molyvoti, Thrace, Archaeological Project (MTAP), in Greece. They each felt that ART 412 gave them a new perspective on their summer experience.

Student shows her finished vessel

Paige Walworth shows her vessel after trimming and glazing (Photo/Paige Walworth)  

“After excavating with MTAP through ART 304,” said Walworth, “I was inspired to take this course to learn more about the evolution of Greek pottery styles and the production methods of some of the objects that turned up at the site. A lot of what we excavated this summer was undecorated sherds, which, after digging up and sorting buckets into piles for six weeks, lost some of their initial excitement. However, after taking this course and learning about the production process, even the smallest sherd represents an immense amount of time and labor to create a vessel.”

“I think that Molyvoti made me enjoy this course much more,” agreed Polunbinski.

Pottery of the past, present... and future

While it intensified the students’ understanding and appreciation of the pottery of the past, the course also inspired students to continue the practice in their personal lives.

“It was the first time I was involved with clay and ceramics, and I will do it again!” said Spyropoulou. “Besides being creative and educational, making clay pots is relaxing and puts you in a meditative state.”

“Moving on from this course, I am inspired to incorporate more Greek vase shapes into my ceramic work (perhaps a kantharos-shaped coffee mug?), as well as draw on many of the decoration styles we learned,” said Walworth. “ART 412 has definitely been one of my favorite and most engaging courses while at Princeton, and I’d highly recommend anyone to take it, regardless of ceramic or archaeological experience.”