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Writing Was Performance Art on Archaic Greek Pottery

Alexandra Pappas of the University of Arkansas

Alexandra Pappas of the University of Arkansas

A “communication explosion” in the early days of the Greek alphabet brought both writing and figure scenes onto pottery in the eighth century B.C.E. Whatever the purpose of an inscription, when writing appeared on ancient Greek pottery, it became performance art.

Research by Alexandra Pappas of the University of Arkansas and Robin Osborne of Cambridge University revealed not only the great variety of writing on pottery from ancient Athens, Corinth and Boeotia but also its performative nature. They are co-authors of “Writing on Archaic Greek Pottery,” a chapter in Inscribing Images, Illustrating Texts: Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World, published by Cambridge University Press in 2007.

At times, writing provided an alternative form of geometric decoration to the lines and zigzags used on early Greek pottery. When figures were painted on a pot, inscriptions often played a complementary role in communicating a story.

For example, a Corinthian aryballos — a small, narrow-necked vase used as an oil bottle by athletes — shows horses with two figures, named “horse walker” and “horse turner.” The shape of the names on the pot “reflects and reinforces their meaning.” The name “horse walker” runs vertically behind the figure and leads to the ground, “planted there like the feet of the figure.” In contrast, the name “horse turner” curves down from the head to waist of the rider, suggesting the forward motion of the horse.

“What is important about all the names is that they do not bring the viewer additional information from ‘outside’ the picture, but draw at-tention to features of the picture itself,” Pappas and Osborne wrote.

Simply putting the words on a pot was more engaging than inscribing a stone tablet.

“Writing does things on a pot, it engages with the viewer as the viewer uses the pot,” the scholars wrote. “The appearance of the writing was always important, and the effect of the writing on the user of the pot calculated.”

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