Examples of Greek Early Iron Age funerary art

May 15th, 2018

Disclaimer

The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2004, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article is based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic art historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present this essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography used for writing this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.

In a series of other articles, the author has already expressed his objections and complaints for the ways in which the publication industry abuses and exaggerates anything that has to do with intellectual property rights of photographed artefacts. For this online article, the author decided to play the game by the book and did not include any photographs that could attract negative attention. Still, the article is accompanied by some links from random websites that assist with the visual representation of the artefacts mentioned in this study.

The point the author is trying to make is simple: no matter how much effort authors and publishers put into restricting the circulation of photographs of archaeological artefacts, there will always be websites that will circulate such material for free and out of their reach. What they are trying to achieve is totally pointless!

Introduction

This short article presents two examples of funerary art, one from the Geometric period (900-700 BC) and another from the Archaic period (700-600 BC). In relation to both artefacts, the article discusses their historic context, the popular customs of the periods they were produced in, their actual use and the relationship between the artisans who produced them and the people who consumed them. Both artefacts come from the same area in Athens; therefore, they allow a short comparison, which shows the changes of monumental styles during the Geometric and Early Archaic transition.

Geometric funerary art

The first funerary monument discussed here is the so called ‘Dipylon Amphora’, or ‘Athens 804’. This vase is decorated with dense geometric motifs; hence, the name of the period and the style it belongs to. It was excavated at the modern area of Kerameikos, and more specifically, where the ancient Athenian Dipylon cemetery used to be. Today, the vase is exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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The amphora is 155cm tall and was used as a funerary ‘stela’ or monument, decorating the grave of a prominent Athenian circa 750 BC (Soueref 1999, 152). Its external decoration includes a narrative representation of contemporary funerary rites. According to Kokkorou-Aleura (1995, 37), the monument dates between circa 760 and 735 BC, during the Late Geometric I period (LGI).

The manufacture of such vessel would have required advanced potting knowledge and skills. The pot was produced in separate horizontal segments, which were then assembled together along the vertical axis (Honour & Fleming 1998, 99). Its decoration is divided in horizontal zones and the most dominant motif is the hatched Meander. The amphora carries three distinct representational scenes. At the top side of the vessel’s neck, there is a band with painted grazing antelopes. In a second decorative band, at the junction between the amphora’s neck and shoulder, there is a scene of sitting antelopes. In both decorative bands, the animals are represented in an abstract manner, while their resemblance suggests that they were painted with the use of some sort of repetition technique (e.g. with a stamp). The main figurative scene, which probably defined the use of the vessel, covers most of its central area and is located inside a wide panel levelled with the two handles (Honour & Fleming 1998, 99).

It is a mourning scene from a funerary ceremony. In the centre of the panel there is the representation of a dead male placed on top of a funerary bier. On his left, there is a group of seven males, and on his right, there is a group of six males and a boy. The figures of both groups are painted on the same level and there is no representation of depth. The problem of depth can be noted in the artist’s attempt to paint a small group of four people, probably two males and two females, who are mourning right in front of the bier. As there is no way for the painter to represent the different depth and position of these people at the front of the bier, the artist chooses to paint them in sitting or kneeling positions directly under the bier. In the scene, the act of mourning is expressed through the so-called ‘Egyptian’ posture of the bodies: the mourners are touching their heads with their hands while tilting slightly towards their centre. All figurative representations are painted in an abstract manner and the way they are placed shows a deliberate intention towards symmetry (Honour & Fleming 1998, 99).

The scene is interpreted as a prothesis. It is an ancient Greek funerary custom, where the dead is venerated before the burial from groups of mourning friends and family. The gestures of the people, the postures of their bodies and the way they have been placed around the funerary bier, all suggest that the artist intended to represent the event in a simple yet descriptive manner (Plantzos 1999, 217). Such representations are useful nowadays in providing information on the funerary rites of the Geometric period (1).

Next to such information on funerary rites, modern scholars can investigate the broader tendencies of Geometric art, especially those which are painted on this vessel. Firstly, painted decoration covers the entire surface of the vase and even between the figurative scenes, there are dense decorative zones of painted meanders. This way the vase has no empty spaces and projects to the viewer a feeling of completeness. The second tendency of the era is the appearance of representational scenes. The topics can be of heroic nature and also associated with popular funerary rites, such as the prothesis, the ekphora, parades and chariot races. The strict cannon of geometric motifs does not allow the use of multiple figurative scenes; however, the appearance of such images in ceramic decoration is likely to suggest the social character of similar events during the Geometric period. Finally, a distinct feature of this period is the transformation of large domestic use-related containers to funerary monuments. This is likely to suggest some connection between humans and use-related artefacts, which could have carried another symbolic or sacred meaning.

The size of the elaborately decorated amphora and its use as a “telephanes sema”, a mark seen from a long distance, aimed in decorating the grave in an impressive manner, and at the same time, in promoting the social status of the dead (Soueref 1999, 151-2). The producer of the Dipylon Amphora is only know to us as the Dipylon Master (2). Still, if one combines the funerary function of the vessel and the complexity of its decoration, it can be assumed that the consumer of the Dipylon Amphora was a prominent and wealthy Athenian aristocrat of the Late Geometric period. This patron probably wished to stress his/her family’s wealth and social status by decorating a relative’s grave with such a large and elaborate artefact.

Archaic funerary art

A widely used funerary monument in Archaic Greece was the relief stela. The example discussed in this article was produced by Aristocles circa 510 BC, and it was dedicated to the deceased warrior Aristion. Although the profession of the dead is not mention on the stela, it can be assumed due to the military gear worn by Aristion on the relief. The stela is nowadays exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Soueref 1999, 156).

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In the relief, the dead warrior is represented in a standing position. On his head, his is wearing a typical hoplite helmet and his hairstyle and beard are carefully treated. Although the warrior’s face is represented in profile, his eye has been sculptured as if almost seen from the front. His reclining head suggests that he is glancing at the earth. His facial expression transmits a feeling of peaceful melancholy. The torso is represented in section. He is wearing a protective armour, which covers his chest, shoulders and waist, but stops right above the groin. The folds of a thin robe are visible under the suit of armour.

On his left hand he is carrying a spear, the bottom end of which touches on the ground, giving the impression that the warrior is leaning against it. His right arm is represented with the elbow and wrist slightly bent and his fist is touching his right thigh. His left foot is moving slightly forward. The intensity of the warrior’s muscles on the thighs, shins and right forearm, has been executed in an elaborate manner. The warrior is wearing a set of greaves, which are represented as thin sheets of metal, through which one can see the toning of his shins’ muscles. His feet are naked and the representation of the right foot’s toes has been executed with great detail.

The monument displays a strong element of idealisation of the dead, particularly in relation to his military status, aiming in the preservation of the man’s memory in a specific way (Soueref 1999, 156). The person represented on the relief statue is Aristion, a bearded youth of possibly aristocratic descent, who probably lost his life in battle at a young age. His relatives probably ordered this stela to the artisan Aristocles in order to stress in an idealistic manner the social status and the beauty of the dead youth.

The artwork reflects the general tendencies in Archaic Greek relief sculpture and complies with the aesthetic rules of this period. As with other contemporary stelae, the representation combines a sense of religiousness mixed with the broader aesthetic perceptions of this period, which aimed in satisfying the aristocratic ideals of social status and natural beauty (Soueref 1999, 156). The sculpturing techniques follow the conventions established during the 7th century BC, which demanded the representation of the human body in natural or even enlarged form, and the representation of anatomical details in a naturalistic manner (Soueref 1999, 157). Furthermore, the relief follows the main norm in Archaic Greek monumental sculpture, where the deceased is represented in low relief with straight torso, and emphasis is placed on any characteristic social qualities of the person when still alive. In this specific case, emphasis is placed on the hoplite identity of the dead. Finally, it is common for such pieces of work to have both the client’s and the artisan’s names written on them, which is a feature established during the fourth quarter of the 6th century BC (Kokkorou-Aleura 1995, 97).

Notes

  1. This is partly true. The author’s PhD thesis examines different interpretations of Geometric pictorial scenes and presents a thorough discussion on this topic.
  2. There are various studies that attribute specific decorative patterns to distinct Geometric artisans; however, in his PhD thesis the author has suggested that the person who painted the Dipylon Amphora and the person/people who manufactured it were probably different artisans.

Bibliography

Honour, H. & Fleming, J., 1998, The History of Art, translated by Pappas, A., Athens: Ypodomi.
Kokkorou-Aleura, G., 1995, The Art of Ancient Greece. A Brief History (1050-50 BC), Athens, Kardamitsas.
Plantzos, D., 1999, ‘The art of ancient Greece from the fall of the Mycenaean world until the Roman conquest’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.) Arts 1: Greek Representational Arts. Review of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 1, Prehistoric and Classic Arts, Patra: Greek Open University.
Soueref, K., 1999, ‘Ideological elements of ancient Greek art’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.) Arts 1: Greek Representational Arts. Review of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 1, Prehistoric and Classic Arts, Patra: Greek Open University.