Iconographic studies on Attic Early Iron Age pottery

July 4th, 2017

The following information comes from the authors PhD thesis on Attic Geometric and Orientalising pottery. This is an isolated article that discusses iconographic studies and the analysis of Attic Early Iron Age pottery decoration. Iconographic approaches have attempted to shed light on Early Iron Age society by noting the symbolic importance of ceramic decoration in pottery consumption. For this reason, it is considered important to present a brief overview of such studies, including their most relevant arguments on Attic Geometric society. As it will be explained further below, the majority of such studies have focused on the Late Geometric period due to the dominance of human figurative scenes in the ceramic repertoire of that time.

Iconographic studies on Attic Early Iron Age pottery
The study of Attic Early Iron Age iconography flourished immediately after World War II, during a period when previous studies on the development of styles had formulated the basis of a new archaeological discussion. Karl Kübler (1954, 19-23) was the first to suggest that the prothesis and ekphora representations on Late Geometric vessels related to scenes of contemporary life, an opinion that was also shared -on some occasions- by later scholars such as Schweitzer (1969) and Boardman (1983).

Despite Kübler’s views on the relationship between iconography and contemporary reality, Late Geometric representations in the 1950s were treated as evidence of Homeric inspiration in early Greek pictorial art. Hampe (1952), Webster (1955), Notopoulos (1957, 65-93) and Whitman (1958, 87-102) saw such representations as directly related to the battle scenes and funerary practices described in Homer’s Iliad. Their views supported the idea that Late Geometric iconography described events of mythical or heroic nature; however, Cook (1960; 1997, 21) argued that this was rather unlikely. Instead, he suggested that Late Geometric painters probably showed some intention to add a heroic flavour in their work. The sole focus of early iconographic approaches on the figurative representations of the Late Geometric period created a legacy that carries on until recent years. By exception, Himmelmann-Wildschütz (1962) was the only scholar who moved away from Late Geometric figurative scenes and attempted an aesthetic explanation of the Maeander, a motif that appeared for the first time during the Early Geometric.

Schweitzer (1969, 56-8) argued that the emergence of myth in Geometric Greek art was to construct a new ideology and a new mythological identity in the Greek society under the influence of the East. He agreed that images of battles on Late Geometric vases had literary parallels in Homer’s Iliad; however, the figural representations of hoplites related to the ideological concept of death in battle and the reputation of men as warriors (Schweitzer 1969, 36). The military character of some Early Geometric burials was already known after the discovery of a group of warrior graves at the area of Areopagus (Blegen 1952), where iron swords and spearheads were placed inside the burial shafts together with the cremation urn and other ceramic finewares (1). Schweitzer argued that the figurative scenes on Late Geometric vases represented the same ideological context that was described by Homer and saw similar connections between such representations and other mythological events. In his opinion, this proved the neighbouring of myth, epic poetry and figurative decoration (Schweitzer 1969, 43-6).

Snodgrass (1971, 431-2) supported the probability that during the Late Geometric era Homeric poems were in circulation to stimulate such an artistic interest, which would justify a mythological and/or heroic significance of a number of Late Geometric scenes. By contrast, Carter (1972, 27) saw that Geometric artistic motifs functioned as ideographs, meaning “stereotypes without individuality or context in time or place”; therefore, he suggested that Late Geometric iconography should be disengaged from specific heroic personae and mythological events. This view brought up a new perspective, in which Geometric iconography could have related to broader symbolisms that moved away from the construction of ideologies and mythical identities as these were put by scholars until that time. On this point, Boardman (1983, 20) suggested that motifs which were not combined with human figures in Argive Geometric iconography (e.g. water, fish, birds and horses) bore symbolic importance in the society they were used in (2). However, when it came to Attic Late Geometric representations, Boardman (1983, 25-7) accepted traditional approaches and suggested that by contrast to previous scholars who considered them heroic, these should be interpreted as mythical. Hurwit (1985, 120) argued against Boardman (1983) that the Geometric Greeks viewed themselves as the new Mycenaeans and this was clearly seen in their attempts to approach their past by creating a heroic age, and not just reviving it. According to Hurwit (1985, 120-4) Homer did not make Geometric Greeks reclaim and recover their past but he was part of the recovery, just as Geometric art; therefore, the context of both was heroic (Hurwit 1985, 120-4).

A major contribution by Hurwit (1985, 106-8) was his argument that the creation of the heroic past in Late Geometric iconography related to elites and was connected to aristocratic rituals. Snodgrass (1987, 150) added that Geometric art was commissioned and consumed during a period of social exclusiveness, by a small groups of people that were unrepresentative of Athenian contemporary society. Such people were buried in distinct plots and were probably relatives (Snodgrass 1987, 148-56). Furthermore, Whitley (1988) and Morris (1988) pointed out that the hero cult of the late 8th century BC was connected with aristocrats who aimed in asserting power through claiming connections with the Mycenaean past. All these studies carried the discussion on Geometric iconography to a new direction, pointing that its function could have related to the creation of a new social or political identity.

The same discussion expanded in the study of 7th century iconography. Osborne (1988; 1989) saw that the marked differences between Protoattic and Protocorinthian decoration were due to the different social and political structures of the two poleis (3). In his opinion, the surface chaos of Protoattic art depended on a strong sense of order deriving from the artistic language of the Late Geometric period (Osborne 1989, 320). In marked difference with the artistic manners of Corinthian Early Orientalising pottery (4), Protoattic decoration reflected a form of conservatism justifying the existence of a plethora of social groups (Osborne 1989, 321).

In the 1990s the discussion on the social role of Attic Geometric iconography expanded further. Whitley (1991, 52-3) argued that the elaborate decoration on Athenian Late Geometric burial vessels could have related to the symbolisms of elites that were competing for the acquisition of social status (5). Hurwit (1993, 63, 39) added that Geometric art was not only related to, but also socially enforced by the elites at the time of the rising polis. The connections between Geometric and Orientalising art, myth and social ideology were stressed further by Robin Osborne (1996; 1998), while Bohen (1997) discussed social status in relation to the iconography of large funerary kraters from elite burials at Kerameikos. By contrast to the above scholars, Boardman (1998, 25) argued that the demonstration of status by show in elite Athenian Geometric graves was more evident in the consumption of other materials instead of pottery, except when it came to large grave markers.

Despite the shift of interest of iconographic approaches during the 1990s towards elite ideology in Geometric pictorial art, the ideas of Hurwit (1985) on its Homeric and heroic associations had not been abandoned. More specifically, Hurwit (1985, 97) had noted that the Dipylon style and the Homeric style were parallel. In both, one could detect the formula as their basic compositional unit, either in a single brush stroke in pottery decoration, or in a single word in poetic composition. However, Hurwit (1985, 102) suggested that Homer might had never seen a Dipylon vase and the Dipylon Master might had never heard of Homer’s Iliad. The gap between iconographic approaches on elite ideology and approaches on Homeric associations was bridged by Himmelmann-Wildschütz (1998, 30), who accepted that Geometric pictorial art expressed an aristocratic worldview and was also connected to myths and heroic events. However, his interpretation suggested something entirely new: Geometric pictorial art aimed to present every-day events as heroic (Himmelmann-Wildschütz 1998, 30). This point was significantly different compared to the heroic flavour in Late Geometric art, which was previously suggested by Cook (1960; 1997, 21). By contrast to Himmelmann-Wildschütz, Boardman (1998, 26-7) insisted in the traditional interpretations by Kübler (1954, 19-23), which saw the prothesis and ekphora scenes -at least- as contemporary; however, he offered different explanations for a series of other Late Geometric scenes that were treated as mythical according to his older (Boardman 1983, 25-7) views. At the end of the 1990s, Snodgrass (1998) argued that Geometric pictorial art should not be paralleled with the written form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as they appeared during the Archaic period; however, it was possible that Geometric representations were inspired by popular folktales, which circulated during the Geometric era.

Even though iconographic approaches of the 20th century discussed issues of pictorial symbolism and elite ideology in Attic Geometric art, the traditional debate between its mythical versus heroic associations never stopped. In a later study, Langdon (2008, 19-20) used the example of an abduction scene drawn on a Late Geometric II louterion from the British Museum (1899.2-19.1), and pointed out that the same couple depicted on the vessel has already been identified as Ariadne and Theseus, Helen and Paris, Helen and Menelaus, Jason and Medea, and Hector and Andromache. This clearly showed that, by contrast to the views of Ahlberg (1971, 285-7), such scenes could not be identified as specific. Continuing from the above point, Langdon (2008, 19-25) rejected the heroic versus mythical debate and suggested a new approach, in which Late Geometric iconography should be interpreted through the ideological symbolisms it once projected on every-day events.

Furthermore, Langdon (2006; 2008, 3) argued against Whitley (1988; 1991, 13-23) and Snodgrass (1979; 1998, 1-11) that their approaches privileged textual sources over art and falsely projected the hierarchy of Homeric poetry in the Early Iron Age past. Langdon (2008, 4) pointed that Whitley’s (1991, 48, 196) approach presupposed that Geometric iconography was misguiding; therefore, he treated Geometric motifs as purely decorative symbols by neglecting their rich iconographic readings. By contrast to most studies that saw Geometric art as the assimilating agent of elites to a glorious, heroic and imaginary past, Langdon (2008, 3) suggested a clear cut with such approaches and argued that “seeing Geometric art as the visual counterpart of epic poetry is no longer supportable”.

Langdon (2008, 10) suggested that Late Geometric iconography implied a message and a social intent. It was connected to the creation of large urban formations, the synoikismoi, which depended on a new kind of political and religious authority, which emerged from the households of the local leaders into the public sphere. The role of Late Geometric visual representations was to construct gender hierarchy. Figural art was destined to play its own ceremonial role in maturation rituals, marriage, household foundation, and other important social occasions (Langdon 2008, 3-11). By contrast to Whitley’s (1991, 182-3) argument that the main social distinction in Athens during LGII related to age instead of sex, Langdon (2008, 63) argued that LGII iconography suggests that young maidens in Athens were probably gaining new symbolic status towards the end of the 8th century BC.

Following Langdon (2008), Philippa-Touchais (2011, 39) suggested that Geometric iconography expressed the “emerging ambiance of socio-political instability and ideological heterogeneity, where social relations and identities were under a new negotiation” (Philippa-Touchais 2011, 39). She (2011, 39) argued that figurative representations were probably linked with network construction strategies connected to complex political structures such as the polis (discussed by Blanton et al. 1996, 8). This contrasted with the absence of figurative art in simpler political structures such as group-oriented chiefdoms (discussed by Renfrew 1974, 79).

Despite Langdon’s contribution, the debate on the mythical versus heroic aspirations of Late Geometric iconography continues until recent years. In a latest publication, Jeffery Hurwit (2011, 1) argues that even though many of the Late Geometric figurative scenes have been banished from the ranks of early mythological narratives, several others need to be restored to the ranks of possible mythological or heroic images. In his opinion, pottery commissioned by the elites probably transmitted the idea of an elite status. This was projected to the viewers by incorporating notions of heroic or mythological connections in a time of reaction to the rising polis (Hurwit 2011, 8-11). This argument contrasts with Snodgrass (1998), who raises doubts whether such scenes could have reflected the written form of myths and epic poetry, which dated two centuries later. Still, Hurwit (2011, 12-16) agrees with Snodgrass (1998) on the range of interpretations that can be given to Late Geometric scenes. He argues that during the Late Geometric period some scenes might have been more common than we usually think today, and perhaps Late Geometric artists had the intention to describe events of both heroic and real nature at the same time. This could also explain the complexity, variety and originality of the Late Geometric imagery (Hurwit 2011, 12-16).

Having summarised previous iconographic approaches on Attic Geometric and Orientalising finewares, special mention needs to be made is two different discussions that emerged in the 1960s regarding narration and the birth of Western European pictorial arts. John Beazley (1951, 2) was the first to trace the origin of Western arts in ancient Greece, but apart from a small mention to Late Geometric figurative vase painting as being ancestral to this phenomenon, he showed no particular interest in engaging in a deeper discussion regarding Early Iron Age vases. It was E.H Gombrich (1962, 99) who detected the emergence of Western ‘illusionism’ in Greece between the 9th and 5th centuries BC, in a time when artists advanced from the aniconic decorative styles of the Early Geometric period towards the figurative and representational styles of the Late Geometric, Archaic and Classical eras. This process was named the ‘Greek revolution’ (Gombrich 1962, 99). In later years, his point was strengthened by Carter (1972, 26-7), who saw that the grave amphora Athens NM804 from the Dipylon cemetery (6) signified the beginning of a new era in Western pictorial arts.

Gombrich (1962, 99-125) also began a thorough discussion on narration. Before him, Friis Johansen (1961) and Himmelmann-Wildschütz (1961) had noted that Geometric figurative scenes were not static and not taking place at one specific moment in time; instead, they were drawn to produce a feeling of continuous narration. Combrich noted that by contrast to the narratives of the Near East and Egypt (7), the Greeks connected their artistic representations to the Homeric and other epic narratives to produce a new form of art. In the same way that poets employed dramatic narrative techniques to describe their events, artists rejected previous schemata and introduced narration in pictorial arts, which served the purposes of early naturalism (Gombrich 1962, 99-125).
Gombrich’s (1962) views were introduced and established in the analysis of Geometric art by Benson (1970), who saw Late Geometric iconography as a conflict between representations of contemporary life and scenes of mythical consciousness. Following Himmelmann-Wildschütz (1961), Ahlberg (1971, 285-7) explained that the Geometric narrative was a depiction of complex scenes which involved a temporal succession of episodes occurring in a time sequence. These scenes formed a successive narrative that related to the same event. Furthermore, Ahlberg (1971, 285-7) suggested that particular figures on such representations showed features of individuality; therefore, they could be connected to specific heroic personae (8).

By contrast to Johansen’s (1961) continuous narrative, Gombrich’s (1962) dramatic narrative, and Ahlberg’s (1971) successive narrative, Snodgrass (1982, 5; 2006, 395) redefined Early Iron Age figurative representations as a synoptic narrative. This view was later strengthened by Hurwit (1985, 102-3), who also suggested that the idea of parataxis was fundamental to both Homeric epic and Late Geometric representations.

Following the discussion on narration, Whitley (1991, 46-7) introduced Bryson’s (1983) theoretical approach for the study of art, which proposed the distinction between denotation and connotation: connotative representations contained additional information and details that could be irrelevant to the recognition of the scene. By contrast, denotative representations were set with characteristic economy, which provided a clearer interpretation of the scene and created a persuasive illusion of the real event (Bryson 1983, 59-62). Following this distinction, Whitley (1991, 46-7) classified Late Geometric narrative as denotative.

By contrast to previous studies, Mark Stansbury-O᾽Donnell (2006, 1) saw narrative as a discourse, analysed through the circumstances of artistic production, viewer response, viewing context and visual language. In a comparative study of Athenian and Cretan iconography, he saw that both narratives operated as independent phenomena, which met local needs in distinct ways. In addition to this point, Langdon (2008, 19) stressed that the interpretations of Late Geometric narratives were in most cases ambivalent. As a final remark, it is perhaps important for future studies to consider the role of artistic agency in narration (sensu Gell 1998), and also in relation to context specific interpretations.


  1. D'Onofrio (2011) argues that Athenian burials with weapons should be reconsidered. Instead of being viewed as warrior graves with distinct reference to gender, one needs to bear in mind the symbolic character of weapons in burials. This is archaeologically visible in the burial customs of different cultural groups, regardless of gender affiliations (D'Onofrio 2011).
  2. By contrast, Pappi (2006, 229) argued that Argive Geometric images “were introduced under a powerful stimulus of myth and epic, as the experimentalising products of inspired and innovative artists and as an expression of new interest groups in the rising polis, and that they had an important social function in the changing world of the Iron Age”.
  3. Before Osborne (1988; 1989), Coldstream (1977; 2003a, 187) stressed the political role of the Bacchiad tyranny towards the beginning of the 7th century BC in relation to the emergence of Corinthian trade and the popularity of Corinthian exports as opposed to Athenian.
  4. The discussion on Corinthian Orientalising pottery continued by Shanks (1999) and Osborne (2007), who examined social agency (sensu Gell 1998) in the production of Corinthian 7th century BC aryballoi.
  5. In addition, Dougherty (1993, 61-76) saw symbolic connections between Geometric iconography and early Greek colonisation, although not in relation to Athens.
  6. Coldstream 1968, pl.6; Schweitzer 1969, pl.30; Richter 1970, pl.29; Ahlberg 1971, fig.2; Beazley 1986, pl.1.
  7. For the relationship between ‘abstract’ Egyptian and Near Easter pictorial representations and ‘specific’ Late Geometric figurative scenes see Himmelmann- Wildschütz 1967; Schweitzer 1969; Benson 1970; Honor & Fleming 1984; Hiller 2006.
  8. The same point was briefly made two years earlier, by Schweitzer (1969).