Pithos (Amphora)

Greek, probably island, ca. 650-600 BC
Carlos Collection of Ancient Art

This monumental jar may have stored a liquid (drinking water, wine or olive oil): spirals, which predominate in the stamped geometric decoration, often signify liquid artistically. A frieze of repeated pairs of figures with long hair runs across the neck. One (at left) throws his head back and raises one arm while the other (at right) faces him with both arms upraised: the gestures of the former suggest dance, perhaps ritual, rather than mourning.

Vessels of coiled clay at this scale occur as early as Minoan Crete where comparable ones have been found in situ in palace store-rooms. Ancient repairs to some pithoi, and contextual finds sometimes five hundred years later than their manufacture, attest to the respect in which they were held. Secondary uses could include being a container for the deceased, a grave-marker, or, if broken, well-heads or chimney pots. Herodotus records that Kypselos, later tyrant of Corinth (and contemporary with this pithos), was hidden in one as a child to escape assassination.

The decoration of the amphora-like handles, with parts cut away window-like ("fenestration") and the elegance of the proportions reflect the growing sophistication of the society that created it. Architectural in scale and conception, it may be remembered that many elements of ancient buildings were made from fired clay.

The plain lower part of the vessel may have been sunk into the ground, while the back, also plain, would have been placed against a wall.