Pot of the Week #4: What Do You Call a Vessel with One Handle?

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

People who know me in real life know that I am not a huge fan of vase painting or iconographic studies of pottery, although I did get my start with ceramic studies by analyzing the depiction of the persuasion of Helen of Troy in my senior year of undergrad. It is for this reason that this week’s (long overdue) Pot of the Week is yet another shape study.

Is it a bowl or a cup? This question has plagued me and, it seems a good chunk of the archaeological ceramics community, for years. No one can seem to agree on a single function for the shape.

On the one hand, Flint Dibble (2010) has championed the one-handler’s use as a bowl, stating that

“The vessel…seems to be a likely candidate for soup and/or stew eating. The single handle would have made it more portable and easier to carry hot contents. In addition the handle suggests the vessel’s ability to self-serve by doubling as a ladle or scoop” (p. 128)

In his conception, Dibble imagines the one-handler as being akin to the modern oversized mugs which are better suited for consuming liquid-based foods (like soups and stews) rather than drinking a warm beverage (like coffee or tea).

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

Other scholars have emphasized the one-handler’s aptitude for use as a drinking vessel. Sparkes and Talcott (1970) point to certain morphological characteristics of the shape, such as the rim.

“The rim, which is one of the distinguishing features of the shape, is broad on top, often rounded and slightly overhanging on the inside. The overhang has a particular purpose: it checks and guides the flow of the liquid. Practical experiments have proved the one-handler an excellent bowl to drink from…” (124)

Compared to other contemporary drinking shapes, such as the kantharos and the skyphos, the one-handler is unusual in its capacity for being an effective drinking cup because it lacks the symmetry of having a handle on each side. Nevertheless, Sparkes and Talcott’s observations about other aspects of the shape, like its rim, in addition to their experiments show that such a function would have been possible.

You may be asking yourself at this point: but which function is the more likely one? I would answer: does it matter? (The answer is yes)

Indeed, Sparkes and Talcott, although the experiments they reference confirmed the possible use of the one-handler as a drinking cup, go on to acknowledge that it would have also probably held “solids, porridge or gruel” (1970, 124). Similary, Kathleen Lynch has noted that assignment of function to vessels is largely up to the discretion of the researcher.

“The researcher must decide how a shape is used, decide what functional category is meaningful, and then assign each shape to a category. Several shapes have more than one function and thus rightly could belong in two or more categories…Different scholars may also place the same vessel shape in different functional categories” (2016, 48)

And indeed, in the case of the one-handler, scholars have disagreed about the primary function of the vessel in the ancient world.

I agree that it may have had any number of functions, just as I think that we too quickly assume that more well-studied vessels like skyphoi and kraters had only one function and one context of use.

Sparkes and Talcott’s publication serves largely to identify and describe a range of black and plain ware forms – less important is pinpointing the functions of the different forms. This is up to secondary researchers like Dibble, Lynch, and even me, whose categorization of these vessels is meant to be more definitive and serve their specific analyses.

For Dibble, it seems clear that he chose to categorize one-handlers as eating vessels largely because his study revolved around changes in diet in ancient Athens. By comparison, Lynch lists one-handlers among her counts of drinking vessels, perhaps because she is more interested in differentiating between private and public drinking events.

In light of my own study of sympotic assemblages, I think that I follow more closely Lynch’s categorization, since it would serve my study better to include one-handlers among drinking vessels – due to morphological reasons akin to Sparkes and Talcott’s assessment as well as the probability that they were multifunctional – rather than to exclude them on the possibility that they were more often used for eating than drinking (which cannot be proved without extensive usewear and starch analyses).


Dibble, W.F. 2010. The Archaeology of Food in Athens: The Development of an Athenian Urban Lifestyle.

Sparkes, B.A. and L. Talcott. 1970. Black and Plain Pottery of the 6th, 5th and 4th Centuries B.C. The Athenian Agora XII. 2 parts.

Lynch, K.M. 2016. “Can Pottery Help Distinguish a Brothel from a Tavern or House?”, in Houses of Ill Repute, eds. A. Glazebrook and B. Tsakirgis.

Pot of the Week #3: Race, Ethnicity, and Ancient Art in the Classroom

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek
Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek, ca. 480–470 B.C. Princeton University Art Museum.

Over the past few weeks, as my feeling of being overwhelmed by stress surrounding COVID-19 and the protests for racial justice mounted, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the state of the fields of Classics and Classical Archaeology in relation to current events.

In not wanting my newly minted pottery blog to fall to the wayside, I have tried to think of ways in which pottery and discussions of race and ethnicity might intersect, and the first thing that came to mind was this vase-type – the ancient Greek plastic vase depicting a “Greek” on one side and a decidedly “non-Greek” on the other. This made me start to wonder about how we talk about (or don’t talk about) race in the Classics classroom, particularly when it comes to images like this one.

The topic of “diversity” in the Graeco-Roman world is not a new one (see here, here, here, and here), and indeed it has been met with a mix of responses over the past few years. The debate needn’t be rehashed here, but I think that this particular moment in time is a good one in which to reflect on our relationship – as art historians, as classicists, as ceramicists – with diverse populations in the ancient world, and how that relationship is translated into the makeup of our departments, our institutions, and our field.

Some of this work is already being done – following what began as a discussion about whitewashing ancient statues in 2017, Rebecca Futo Kennedy addressed the importance of teaching about race and ethnicity in the Classics classroom and why she feels that we shouldn’t think of those classrooms as apolitical spaces:

Even the most casual reader of ancient texts will find discussion of what we today call race and ethnicity in a wide range of ancient authors — from Homer and Hesiod to Herodotus and Hippocrates, from Aeschylus to Ctesias, Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Pliny, Livy, Sallust, Horace, Ovid and more. Further, any trip to a museum yields ample images that further display the Greek and Roman interest in and engagement with human diversity. And yet, we still hear the refrain that wanting to study or teach race and ethnicity is a part of a “social justice” political agenda because the ancient Greeks and Romans had no words that are exactly equivalent to our modern concepts of race or ethnicity — which is not, in fact, true.

But where some scholars have made genuine efforts to diversify their lesson plans, departments, and institutions, others have done much less, merely scratching the surface of a problem with a long, racist history. In most cases, the efforts of Classics departments have been focused on how to make classes more diverse by introducing subject matter that might “appeal” to students of color.

But as a woman (and student) of color, I have never been drawn to Classics because of a course on “Slavery in Antiquity” or “Greeks and Barbarians,” two topics that I find more alienating that intriguing. Indeed, as Sarah Derbew has succinctly pointed out, such courses rarely challenge the “preconceived notions of Black people [and other PoC that] are seared into our country’s collective consciousness.”

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek

Potential solutions to this perpetual problem have been suggested in greater numbers over the past few weeks, with this Eidolon article by Pria Jackson gaining the most traction. In her article she advocates for systemic and ongoing change to the discipline, to how we teach and transform our departments. She also insists that we start the conversations about Classics’ long, white supremacist history early because:

It is these students who go out into the world and spread Classics culture. Their half-forgotten memories of lessons from that one Classics course they took back in college which they bring up over drinks with friends, or during a brainstorm session at work, or while watching the latest historical drama on Netflix will quite frankly do far more to change the Classics’ culture than a paywall blocked, 25-page JSTOR article on the reanalysis of Ethiopian motifs in Herodotus.

However, while her calls for mandatory collaborative interdisciplinary “discussions” seems well meaning, it isn’t enough. In recent weeks I have seen and attended too many  “conversations” and town halls centered around “discussions” about racial injustice and how to enact change. There hasn’t been enough meaningful work at the departmental or institutional level beyond putting heads together to think about how to lure students of color into their classes (newsflash: you can’t).

I think that the real solution is three-fold.

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek

First, we need to recognize and showcase the work that has been done by scholars of color in the field.

The list of digital resources surrounding the works of scholars of color has been growing exponentially over the past few weeks, so this is a good place to start for anyone considering how to rethink courses that already exist, or how to create new ones. But these lists are only one part of this initiative.

We should also highlight ongoing work by scholars of color in the subfields of Classics, like archaeology and art history, so that students can “see themselves” in the work they want to do. This, I think, would be an important step in moving away from Classics’ white supremacist history and reputation.

Second, we need to provide students of color with real opportunities and resources to help them get involved.

In a recent tweet, a glaring issue in archaeological field schools was highlighted: they are inherently exclusionary because of the enormous financial burden it places on students wanting (or needing to) participate in field schools.

Believing that you can’t afford to do something like a field school is a surefire way to get students of color – or really anyone – to give up on continuing in the field. I know that I would not have been able to participate in the digs that I did in undergrad if I hadn’t been given scholarships to do so.

Finally, returning to the question of race and ethnicity in the ancient world, particularly in the case of the plastic vases (and other vase paintings) depicting glaringly non-Greek features, we need to think critically and carefully about what we want our students to get out of the experience.

We shouldn’t have students walk away thinking “Oh, the Greeks were racist,” because the choices made by potter and painter may have been influenced by any number of opinions and experiences that we might not be able to access today.

Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of an African Male Head (Getty Museum)
Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of the Head of an African, about 510 B.C., attributed to Class B bis: Class of Louvre H 62. Terracotta, 8 7/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AE.229. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Programetty Villa

Indeed, Sarah Derbew explains that:

Ancient Greece’s visual heritage included representations of black people that nimbly provoked and cut across hierarchies. Objects like the sixth-century BCE head-shaped pitcher and water jar…above were not part of any chromatic hierarchy because such categories had yet to be codified. Instead, they existed within their own historical and artistic context.

We should have students interrogate these factors, as well as think more broadly about the uniqueness of the object (Why don’t we see these vessels very often? What choices are made in descriptions for these vessels in museums? What assumptions are made about the identities of the faces and the intentions of the makers?) and what sorts of images are more often used in white supremacist propaganda and why.

The possibilities are endless, and I can appreciate that this may be part of the reason why scholars who have been set in their ways for decades are wary about changing along with the times. But this is important work, and it’s work that can’t just be done once and over with.

As Pria Jackson so importantly states,

The first step towards making a qualifiable difference in Classics…would be to yank the chair out from underneath Whiteness. Start teaching an anti-white supremacist, anti-racist Classics curriculum! Today! And tomorrow! And next week. And forever.

Selected Further Reading

Barrett, C.E. Egypt in Roman Visual and Material Culture. Oxford Handbooks Online. 2017.

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney. 2011. Black Feminist Archaeology. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press.

Bindman, D., H. Gates Jr, and K. Dalton, eds. 2010. The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the Pharoahs to the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vols. 1 and 2. Harvard University Press.

Gaither, Paula. 2019. Blacks in Context: An Analysis of Aethiopians in Roman Art. MPhil Thesis. https://www.academia.edu/43349980/Blacks_in_Context_An_Analysis_of_Aethiopians_in_Roman_Art

Rankine, Patrice D. “The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship.” American Journal of Philology 140, no. 2 (2019): 345-359. doi:10.1353/ajp.2019.0018.

Salmon, P. 1994 “L’Image du Noir dans l’Antiquité Gréco-Romaine.” In Emmigrazione e Immigrazione nel Mondo Antico, edited by M. Sordi, 283-302. Milano: Pubblicazioni  dell’ Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Contributi dell’Instituto di storia antica, vol.  20).

Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1970), Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Snowden, Jr. Frank M. (1983), Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pot of the Week #2: The Dinos

This week’s Pot of the Week is yet again not necessarily a single pot, but a collection. However, they all share one characteristic – they are all dinoi, a particular (and peculiar) shape of ancient Greek vase that was popular at symposia, or all-male drinking parties.

Dinos With The Symposium Of The Gods 69
Dinos depicting a symposium of the gods. Attributed to the Dinos Painter. 420-410 BCE. Archaeological Collection of Acharnes.

The dinos itself was a peculiar shape in the Greek repertoire because it consisted of two parts: a large bowl and a tall moulded foot or stand.

It was particularly designed for use at elaborate banquets and drinking parties, and like the standalone krater, it was used for mixing and serving wine. Wine would be ladled out into individual cups, like the kylix from which the central figure is drinking while reclining on a cushion (above). The use of the dinos in this capacity can be traced as early as the late 6th century.

Dinos depicting reveling satyrs. Attributed to the Group of the Campana Dinoi, Ribbon Painter. Late 6th century BCE. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Sophilos Dinos. 580-570 BCE. The British Museum.

The dinos above, on which we have the words ‘Sophilos painted me’ inscribed, is significant because it is an excellent example of black-figure, Corinthian style vase painting, and it depicts the wedding procession of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of the hero Achilles.

Evidence for the use of a stand in combination with the large bowl can be seen in the fact that the rounded bottom likely would not have been able to stand on its own. Additionally, one can see that the painter was careful to leave a portion of the bottom of the bowl undecorated, so that it would not be obscured or damaged by the stand.

Few “footed dinoi” have been identified, but it seems like this was a much later innovation.

Attic Red-Figure Footed Dinos (Getty Museum)
Attic red-figure footed dinos. Attributed to the Syleus Painter. ca. 470 BCE. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

A further connection to the use of the dinos to serving wine at Greek drinking parties can be found in the choice of decoration, particularly on the inside of the vessel, as can be seen in this black-figure dinos from the Getty.

Attic Black-Figure Dinos and Stand (Getty Museum)
Attic black-figure dinos and stand. The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Attic Black-Figure Dinos and Stand (Getty Museum)
Attic black-figure dinos, with ships painted on interior of rim. Attributed to the Circle of the Antimenes Painter. 520-510 BCE. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

It has been suggested that the inclusion of the ships on the interior of the rim on this dinos was done with the intention of making the ships appear to be bobbing on a “sea” of wine when the vessel was full. While we may never know if this was the painter’s attempt at a joke or if the owner had it commissioned this way, such visual humor can be found in other media throughout the Greek world.

Perhaps the most obvious place to find a similar analogy is in Homer, where he makes reference to a “wine-dark sea” on more than one occasion.

Another relationship between wine and the sea has been identified by Hallie Franks in the space of the symposium itself – the andron or formal dining room, which was often decorated with painted walls and mosaics. The focus of Franks’ research is the mosaic floors of andrones, which she argues can tell us about how Greeks interacted with one another within the space of the symposium.

The Eretria Nereid, shown without the company of her sisters or the figure of Achilles, presents a “quotation” of the full narrative, introducing to those entering Room 9 the notion of travel over the sea—a theme underlined by the border of waves surrounding her. It is also worth noting that she is also a protector of sailors.

File:Eretria-House-of-Mosaic-andron-4th c bce.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic depicting a Nereid riding a hippocamp. House of the Mosaics, Room 9, Eretria. 4th century BCE.

Franks goes on to draw parallels between the experiences of seafarers and symposiasts:

Furthermore, in ancient Greek culture, sea journeys had a deep association with the symposium. Both activities, after all, depend on communal identity: like the crew of a ship, symposiasts are a company of men who are isolated within a contained space and who enter into solidarity with one another. Added to this is the popular appeal of their similar physical effects, which might include swaying, loss of balance, and nausea.

Like the physical effects experienced by seafarers and symposiasts alike, symposiasts who gathered around the dinos depicting the ships on the inside of the rim would likely be reminded of sea journeys by the “swaying” of the ships on the “sea” of wine. And if it wasn’t immediately obvious, it would certainly become more so after a few drinks.


Franks, H. 2014. “Traveling, in Theory: Movement as Metaphor in the Ancient Greek Andron,” The Art Bulletin 96:2.

Franks, H. 2018. The World Underfoot: Mosaics and Metaphor in the Greek Symposium. Oxford.