Style & Sequence

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The many styles of ancient ceramics make them one of the most useful types of evidence for the study of the classical world. Changes in size, shape, and decoration over time allow historians to form comparative sequences of style called typologies.

Greek ceramics are very distinctive. As a result, typologies of Greek vase styles are incredibly useful as tools for estimating the date of archaeological material. Although these dates may not be as precise as other methods of scientific dating, the sheer quantity of ceramic in the archaeological record has resulted in very thorough and detailed chronologies. In many cases, a trained ceramicist can estimate a date range for a vase to within a period of only ten years.

Despite its utility, the scientific study of ancient ceramics is a relatively recent development. Although ancient vases have been collected since at least the fifteenth century, until the mid-nineteenth century, interest in ceramics was purely aesthetic. Interesting shapes were sometimes catalogued, but on the whole, collectors were more interested in the figural and mythological scenes on the vases, than in the vases themselves.

Following a number of influential publications, particularly Johann Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art (1764) and Eduard Gerhard’s Exquisite Greek Vase-Paintings (1840-1858), Greek ceramics could finally be chronologically ordered based on artistic technique. Further advances by scholars such as John Beazley (1885-1970) allowed the attribution of individual vases to particular painters, laying the foundations for seminal works like the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum and the Beazley Archive.