Because of the large numbers of surviving ancient Greek "vases", discovered and collected since at least the 15th century across an enormous geographical area (from across Europe, all around the Mediterranean and into Central Asia), the subject has been studied and written about by many scholars. It is therefore not surprising that there are many theories and a lot of specialized terminology and jargon, which we are unable to deal with in detail here.
Pottery has been described as "indestructable" - at least the baked clay substance - but most often only shards or smashed ancient ceramic objects have been found, and where possible fragments have been carefully restored. Still, it is surprising how many have remained intact, usually those buried as grave goods or as votive offerings to deities, or even deliberately hidden with other objects (coins, valuables, statues, etc) in stashes at times of crisis by owners who believed they may return to recover their possessions. Many pots have astoundingly retained their lustre, colours and painted details over thousands of years. In Sicilian archaeological museums such as Catania, Syracuse, Gela and Argigento, for example, the vast majority of exhibits are vases, many in excellent condition.
Pottery has been made and traded since Neolithic times, for basic daily use, special communal and religious functions, as jewellery and decoration, and for pleasure. From the basic shapes of early ceramics, makers experimented to produce particular forms for practical and aesthetic purposes. Apart from vessels for storage, eating and drinking, there were also ceramic plaques, tiles, bricks, beads, toys, statues, figurines and reliefs (see, for example, a painted Corinthian ceramic pinax, 630-610 BC, and a Campana plaque, 1st century AD). Decoration also evolved from simple indents and grooves made with fingers and thumbs and incisions scratched with sticks, to exquisitely drawn, painted and glazed works of art.
However, since the field of ceramic objects in general is so vast, many scholars of ancient Greek pottery confine themselves to the "vases", which include vessels such as amphorae and kraters (there are over 24 main basic shapes with numerous variations). The continuity of development in form and decoration of Greek pottery can now be charted, particularly from the Archaic period (8th - 5th centuries BC) onwards, and especially in the case "Attic" pottery from Athens, much of which was made for export around the Mediterranean.
Unlike sculptors, painters and architects, potters and vase painters were not named or praised by ancient authors. A small number of vases were signed by the potter, the painter or both, so that those responsible for unsigned pots can sometimes be identified by examining style, form, materials and finish in comparison to signed vessels. In the case where a painter's name is unknown, a name is often given by scholars based on personal idiosyncrasies evident in one or more pieces, the potter for whom they worked (e.g. the Sosias Painter, who worked for Sosias the potter), the current location of an exemplary work (in a collection or museum, for example the Berlin Painter) or a particular subject (e.g. Orpheus Painter). This system was devised by the Oxford-based scholar Sir John Davidson Beazley (1885-1970), who identified around 500 potters, vase painters, groups, and workshops. The key pottery vessel from which the name of the painter has been identified is known as the "name vase".
A name given by scholars to an unidentified artist in any medium is often referred to as the "Notname" (provisional name), from the German word Not, meaning emergency.
The identification of the date and place of manufacture of ceramics is based mainly on the types of clay and decorative materials (e.g. colours) used, the forms of the objects and the kinds of decoration. From the Archaic period vases were produced commercially in great numbers, especially in Corinth, Athens and Magna Graecia (southern Italy). Particular types of images and motifs were apparently popular among painters and customers in various areas at different periods.
Figural subjects included mythological and religious themes, as well as scenes of religious ritual, marriages, funerals, sport, war, theatrical performances and various aspects of daily life. Many images are detailed, graphic and sometimes dramatic, while others are more general and to the modern observer vague. A vast number of vase paintings appear to us more prosaic, mass-produced stock images of heads of humans or horses, standing or seated figures and similar isolated subjects. Although the significance of these is mostly lost on us today, they provide experts with valuable evidence concerning potters and painters, as well as trends in taste and production. Having studied thousands of such vases, the classical pottery expert Arthur Dale Trendall, paraphrasing Mary Tudor, complained, "when I die, they will find, engraved on my heart, 'two draped youths'." *
* D. Williams, Dale Trendall: The eye of an eagle
, BICS 41, 1996, page 16. Quoted by Michael Turner, The Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, in his review of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Deutschland
, Band 76, 1. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.08.30.