These vases represent the long Archaic period of Greek history, three eventful centuries that saw intense creative development and a great deal of political, economic and social change. From the Geometric period in the 8th century to the Archaic period in the 6th century BCE, the development of figurative styles in ceramics and the subjects depicted reflect the emergence of the first Greek polis.
An Attic amphora depicting prothesis – laying out a body for viewing, part of the funeral rites - is a magnificent example of the geometric style of the 8th century, for which the Geometric period is named. Connected to the funeral rites, urns in the Geometric style were used to preserve the ashes of the deceased, mark their graves, or hold votive offerings of food, drink, or perfume oils. They were symbols of the prestige, ideology, and power of the ruling aristocratic class.
Starting in the 7th century BCE, colonisation and trade brought Greece into close contact with the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. This meant that products, techniques and styles, myths and religious ideas from the Ancient Near East were introduced to mainland Greece, where they were adopted and transformed by the dynamic Greek culture, and became the new dominant style in art. This style is known as Orientalising, and gives its name to the Orientalising period. The city of Corinth was the leading trade centre in 7th-century Greece, and developed a large pottery industry with its own innovative style of decoration.
The 6th and 7th centuries BCE were a period of massive economic, demographic and urban growth, and expanding trade. But this was also a time of social conflicts and political crises, ruled by tyrants and oligarchs, who were nevertheless drivers of art, industry and craft in their cities, especially the production of ceramics. The vase painters of Athens developed the black-figure style, with compositions which now showed no trace of the old Orientalising style, and in the second half of the century this work became even livelier and more complex. Around 530 BCE, the painters introduced a new technique: the red-figure style. The first experiments combined both techniques in what are called “bilingual vases”, where the scene is shown with black figures on one side and red figures on the other.