Terracotta aryballos (oil flask)

Signed by Nearchos as potter

Period: Archaic

Date: ca. 570 B.C.

Culture: Greek, Attic

Medium: Terracotta; black-figure

Dimensions: H. 3 1/16 in. (7.8 cm)

Classification: Vases

Credit Line: Purchase, The Cesnola Collection, by exchange, 1926

Accession Number: 26.49


This small, globular vessel is an aryballos, an oil container of the sort used by ancient Greek athletes. Its shape, a single, broad handle and disklike mouth, is particularly suited to its function–the athlete could shake the oil out onto the flared lip and then apply it to his body with his fingers. The exquisitely painted decoration complements the shape of the aryballos to the greatest advantage. Multicolored crescents envelop its body and shoulder, and tongues encircle the top of its mouth. A horizontal band around the lip shows a spirited battle of pygmies and cranes, an exotic subject set on the edges of the known world. As many as sixteen figures occupy a band only about five inches long and one-half inch high. The figures' facial features, profile legs, and frontal and profile bodies are rendered in true Archaic fashion. Other miniatures adorn the handle–Tritons on the top, Hermes and Perseus on the sides, and three satyrs, creatures of intoxication and arousal, on the back. Playful inscriptions, painted on the reserved ground in the usual black-figure manner enhance all of the figures. Surprisingly, much of the writing, although finely lettered, is nonsense rather than real words.
Under the handle is the signature of Nearchos, who made the vessel and probably also painted the decoration. His incised signature, the earliest preserved of its kind, marks the beginning of an Attic tradition. Nearchos not only isolated his potter-signature in a special location on the vase, but also distinguished it technically from ordinary glaze inscriptions associated with vase painting. Nearchos is also known as an early maker of lip cups, and his sons evidently entered the family business. His son Tleson was the major potter of Little Master cups in the succeeding generation. Nearchos himself must have attained considerable wealth, since in his later years he was able to dedicate a marble kore on the Athenian akropolis.