The Athenian Pottery project seeks to understand, at a fundamental level, the materials and techniques employed by ancient artisans to create the iconic red and black figure pottery of ancient Athens. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists from the GCI, together with conservators and curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum, are partnering with The Aerospace Corporation and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) to conduct detailed studies on these important ancient artifacts. By analyzing examples of pottery produced by different artists and over a broad time period, the project team is seeking to better understand the relationships between ceramic technology, artistic expression and workshop practice.


The study of ceramics is an important part of understanding ancient culture, including the development and spread of technologies. Detailed studies of ceramic composition can help elucidate workshop fabrication methods, geological sources of the raw materials, and trade routes. Such studies also have the potential to uncover novel materials or behavior that may have relevance to modern ceramic technology. An understanding of the composition and material properties of ancient ceramics at the microstructural level may also help predict its response to proposed conservation treatment methods or storage/display environments.

pottery samples

Black and red figure pottery was produced in Athens from the 6th through the 4th centuries BCE. Iron-containing clay slips used to paint decorations on these vessels either were oxidized to a form that is red in color (hematite, Fe2O3), or reduced to forms that are black (hercynite FeAl2O4 or magnetite, Fe3O4) depending on the temperature and atmosphere (oxidizing versus reducing) of the kiln during firing. Synchrotron-based X-ray absorption spectroscopic studies can determine the oxidation states of the iron-containing minerals on a micro-scale, providing information about the atmosphere in the kiln during firing. High-resolution imaging by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and micro-X-ray tomography allow the morphology of individual mineral grains to be studied, providing insight into the firing temperatures. These studies, together with detailed measurements of the composition of the other components of the clay slips and macro-scale studies of the surface texture and appearance will refine our understanding of how these vessels were made and decorated.

Project Goals

The goals of the Attic Pottery project are:
1. To increase our understanding of Athenian ceramic technology and workshop practice through detailed scientific study.
2. To advance the use of emerging analytical technologies for the study of objects of artistic, historic and cultural heritage significance.
3. To encourage collaboration between cultural heritage, academic and industrial scientists to foster new ways of thinking and problem solving, and expand the number of scientists engaged in the study of cultural heritage.
4. To build on the GCI's work in the scientific study of collections to increase our understanding of artist’s materials and methods, the behavior of materials over time, and to develop appropriate conservation strategies.
5. To disseminate information on the project to a diverse audience, including conservators, art historians, archaeologists, chemists and material scientists through a variety of channels, including publication, presentations at conferences and symposia and public programming.

Last updated: November 2012