Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
What do you see? It’s a trick question, as you see an image, but also part of an object. Let’s stay with the image for now.
Yes, it’s a ship, shown in a somewhat basic, nearly cartoonish, sideways view. You see the outline of the hull, a mast, sail and rigging, a frontal spur shaped like an animal’s face and snout, a vertical post rising above a rectangular construction near the prow, and an extended stern-post curving upwards high above the water in the rear. Further, the image indicates nine oars, the stylised heads of eighteen oarsmen, two rudders and a captain or helmsman.
The depiction is very sparing in its detail, striking in its simplicity. It is also very economic in its range of colours: only five can be distinguished: a pale orange for the background, a shiny black for the sea and most of the ship and crew, a deep white for the sail, a smudgy orange for some detail on the hull in the front half, and very sharp white lines for the oars and various other details. If you look very closely, you can work out that only the middle three of these colours are actually painted. The pale orange background is the natural surface of the material the ship has been painted on, and the white lines are painstakingly scraped into the painted image.
Now, we should consider the object that this image is part of. It is a clay vase, essentially a bucket on a foot. The shape of this vessel is a standard one in ancient Greece, called a krater (or crater), and it served a specific purpose, namely the mixing of wine and water at a symposion, or symposium in Latin or English. The symposion was a key aspect of male and civic life in Ancient Greek city states, a more or less formal party involving male peers reclining on couches, drinking wine mixed with water in a krater and served in various types of cup, discussing issues like politics, philosophy, life and so on. The event was a central element of social integration, it is what men did in their peer group, like going hunting or clubbing or to the pub in more familiar contexts today. The most famous symposion is the one Plato describes, involving Socrates, Alcibiades and other prominent Classical Athenians, and although that event is probably part-fictional, it underlines the immense importance such gatherings had in Greek civic and intellectual life.
Plato wrote his text in the early 400s BC, long after this vessel was made, traded, used and buried. Our krater was found in a grave outside the ancient city of Thera on the island that used to bear that name and is now better known as Santorini, and it dates to between 550 and 525 BC. At that time, the city of Thera was a self-governing city-state and a reasonably important political and cultural centre in the islands of the Central Aegean we know as the Cyclades – and its important citizens were buried with fine grave offerings, as were their peers all over the Greek World.
Our vase bears a fairly rough inscription on its rim, scratched into the paint. It is very basic, saying “to Themosthenes”, evidently the name of the deceased, in the local Theran alphabet. We don’t know who this Themosthenes was, but he must have been an important, wealthy and honoured citizen of his polis, or city-state, and probably the object was one he used during his lifetime. Perhaps the man had something to do with ships? The vase is not a local product, but an import from Athens. By the mid-sixth century BC, Athens had become a rising sea-power in the Aegean on the one hand, and a key producer and exporter of high-quality pottery on the other. The state-of-the-art technique of pottery decoration then was what we call black-figure, with black motifs painted on the orange background that the fine Attic clay provided (the technique is called three-phase-firing and it’s too difficult to explain here, but the Wikipedia article is fine, and I can vouch for it because I translated it to English). Our krater is a fine example of that highly specialised art, or craft.
Such vases were decorated with various images. In our case, there is very limited decoration on the outside. The vessel is mostly covered in the shiny black glaze that was then an Athenian trademark. On its neck, just below the rim, there is a band of imagery depicting land battles, involving warriors and chariots. Maybe they depict mythological events. What makes our krater unusual are the images of ships, placed on the inside of the neck and rim. When the krater was filled with wine and water, these ships would seem to float upon the liquid.
The images, while stylised and simplified, are realistic: they show essentially what Athenian (war-)ships looked like, as far as we know. They used sails for travelling across distances and oars for faster manoeuvres and they had bronze rams, made to look like the snouts of whales or dolphins and serving to pierce the hulls of enemy ships. The top of the curved stern-post was usually carved to depict the head of an animal, most probably a bird. The Classical trireme, the main warship of Athens during the 5th century BC, was probably invented around the time the vase was made, but smaller vessels, like the bireme or the smaller pentekonteros, were more common then. Certainly, all the images on the krater show ships with a single row of oars on each side. Alternatively, perhaps the vase painter decided that a fully realistic image of a larger ship with several rows of oars one above the other would have been impractical, too complex to render within the limitations of the black-figure technique, or too elaborate to fit within the available space.
Our krater shows four ships on the inside of the rim, all of them drawn to float on the water/wine mixture. It must have been a charming effect at the symposion, perfectly fitting as a conversation piece in an island town, while also demonstrating the owners’ wealth and sophistication, perhaps also his connections with wealthy Athens. Certainly, Themosthenes appears to have liked the motif: it is also present on another prominent vessel found in his grave, namely a huge drinking cup, presumably to be used at the same symposia as our krater. Apart from the ships under the rim, it similarly shows battle scenes on the outside, but unlike the krater, it bears a central image on the cup interior, showing Poseidon, god of the sea, slaying a giant. Like the krater, it has the name of Themosthenes scratched into its surface. Both krater and cup are of similar date and of similarly high-quality Athenian workmanship and quite likely from the same workshop, even by the same hand. It is tempting to think that our mysterious Themosthenes might have commissioned both vessels as a pair, but we cannot prove that.
Imagine the scene of the symposion: wine being ladled from the krater into that large cup, and then passed around among the drinkers. They would sip the wine and see the ships, seemingly afloat on the surface of the wine, in the flickering light of torches or oil lamps. The very act of drinking would cause the ships to rock up and down, conjuring up memories of the drinkers’ own travels and inspiring them to tell their tales, and to praise their host for entertaining them so cleverly. We will almost certainly never know more about Themosthenes, but his name will forever be associated with discussions about ancient Greek ships, and we have him and an unknown Athenian painter to thank for the wonderful imagery they left us.
Both vessels are in the Old Archaeological Museum of Fira on Santorini (as opposed to the new one, which is devoted to the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri and has been mentioned here before) and we usually drop by to see them on our Cruising to the Cyclades tour. The old museum is slated for a major renovation, so maybe we will have a far better display and more to show before long…